Wednesday, December 28, 2016

"The evidence of things unseen"

The Reformers said that faith consisted of 1) knowledge; 2) assent, and 3) trust. The first two aren't usually the problem for people with OCD. The problem is with trust.

OCD is called "the doubting disease" for a reason. Typically we don't tolerate uncertainty, even the unavoidable uncertainty which springs from the nature of humanity and our own inability to control everything.  There is nothing we know for absolutely certain.  I don't know that the building I live in won't collapse tonight; buildings have collapsed before. Of course, I have no reason to think that it will, or that the chances of it happening are more than microscopic.  But I don't know for absolutely certain that it won't.

But I trust the Building Code. I trust that this building would not have been opened for occupancy if it hadn't been examined and found to be sound, and if proper procedures hadn't been followed by the builders and supervised by the city. So while I don't know that the building won't collapse, I do know that the chances of it happening are remote. The risk is small enough that it's not worth worrying about.

But the stakes are so high when it comes to our salvation and our relationship with God that it's hard to settle for that kind of certainty for those of us whose basal ganglia are askew and who have problems processing serotonin. OCD, after all, always attacks us at the point where we're most vulnerable. It always threatens what we hold most dear. We have trouble seeing that the very fact that we hold our salvation and our relationship with God so dear means that we probably don't have anything to worry about. We have the knowledge. We have the assent. But the trust can be hard to come by if our brains don't cooperate!

Yet faith, as Hebrews 11 tells us, is "the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things unseen." In Morris West's book The Clowns of God, Jesus tells a strange group of flawed and broken believers gathered together on what might be the last night before a nuclear holocaust that there is one thing they can do that He cannot. They can believe. "I can't believe," He tells them, "because I know."

The knowledge, the certainty, we hunger for doesn't simply make faith unnecessary. It makes faith impossible. Faith, by its very nature, requires uncertainty. To believe is to trust God with our relationship with Him, and with our very salvation. To have faith is to commit into God's hands what we cannot control.

But here's the good part: if we could control it, we could also mess it up. There is no certainty in control. The only certainty is to yield control to the One Who can't and won't drop the ball. The only security is in not being in control, but knowing that God is.

That's why it's so important to keep our eyes off of ourselves and how we're doing and keep them on Jesus. As Pastor Fisk pointed out in the video I posted the other day, we can lose our salvation. But Jesus can't lose it. It's much, much safer in His hands than in our own. So why not leave it there?

Finally to keep one's eyes trustingly on Jesus instead of fearing that we might mess up- to leave what we treasure most in His hands rather than hold onto them for dear life- is the safest thing we can do. As Martin Luther once observed, "All the things I've held onto myself, I've lost. All the things I've let God hold onto, I still have."

Here, Dr. Ian Osborn, one of the formost experts on the treatment of religious OCD, discusses the kind of faith that we have trouble with,, the kind that not only keeps what we treasure safe but helps us to overcome our obsessions. In it lies the safety we crave, because God can neither lie nor fail. In it also lies the very peace we so crave, but find so elusive everywhere else.

You can lose your salvation. But Jesus can't- and won't. In trusting Him and keeping our eyes on His promises rather than our own fears lies not only our peace but our only certainty.

Sunday, December 25, 2016

Sanctification as self-improvement

A concept foreign to American Christianity: The Gospel

Pr. Fisk once more sets us straight on the way- contrary to the heresies of contemporary American "Evangelicalism-" God deals with us.

This time, he explains why the Gospel is Gospel, not Law. In other words, why there are never any "if's" in the authentic Gospel, and why it calls upon you do do absolutely nothing.

The Gospel is always a proclamation of what God has done. It is never a call for action on our part. Not even a tiny, teensy-weensy bit of action.

Saturday, December 24, 2016

Merry Christmas. Here's a present.

The present is named Jesus.

The guy in the video isn't him. He's Pastor Jonathan Fisk. But Pastor Fisk explains in the video what the gift of Jesus means for people with scrupulosity.

He helps you unwrap the present, if you will.

So let's get that package open, eh?

Monday, October 31, 2016

Hammer blows of freedom

Today is Reformation Day, the anniversary of the day Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses on indulgences to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Saxony. The incident is generally regarded as the beginning of the Protestant Reformation.

Within the Church we remain threatened by the idea that salvation can be bought- not with money, as a rule (though there are TV evangelists who still seem mired in Tetzel's heresy)  but by the very kind of human merit whose rejection was the entire basis of Paul's letters to the Romans and Galatians. American Protestantism, in particular, is fond of the "pull yourselves up by your bootstraps" approach to life which confuses justification (God's declaration that we are righteous before Him by His unmerited love alone, received by trust in that love) with sanctification (the growth in holiness and holy living which is the result of justification). Even salvation by grace through faith, which biblically is God's doing from beginning to end, is turned into a "decision" or a "commitment" on our part.

But as Luther pointed out in his Theses, God cannot be bought. We owe him everything we have and everything we are- and more. As Paul points out in Romans 3:24-25, "...all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith." Jesus has paid the full price of our sin and made a gift of His righteousness to us, who can never measure up by our own efforts or merits.

By faith in the promise of forgiveness, rebirth, and eternal life He makes to each of us individually in baptism, we receive the benefit of His all-sufficient payment on our behalf of all the debt we will ever owe to God. There is no more debt to be paid. There are no more works to be done And it's from the gratitude that wells up in our heart as we live by that reality that we begin to literally overflow with the very good works we could never produce on our own, flowing not from guilt or fear-induced striving but from a heart changed by love and gratitude wrought by the indwelling Holy Spirit. As we live our lives in the new identity Christ bought for us with His blood, Christ Himself is formed in us, and we are conformed to Hia image.

All of this is ruined and short-circuited when we try to buy our own salvation, whether by money (as Tetzel effectively taught- a heresy even by the standards of the Roman church of his day) or by our own striving.  As Jesus says in John 5, it is the branch that abides in the vine that bears fruit; if it tries to bear its own fruit apart from the branch, it withers and dies.

Reformation Day is a celebration of our dependence on God- and a rejection of the self-willed independence that is so beloved of our increasingly pagan society and of our own fallen natures. At the same time, it is a celebration of the infinite value God places on each and every one of us, who in the last analysis must derive our value and our dignity- as we have our very being- from God's gracious Hand, and from His hand alone. Jesus is your righteousness.

He is the only righteousness you will ever need. He does not grant permission to sin, as another contemporary heresy implies, but freedom from it- freedom not from the struggle against it, but from any possibility of losing that struggle as long as it continues. It is a celebration of our dependence on God, but also of our independence from everything we eve need to fear, including our own selfishness and weakness.
For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them. --Ephesians 2:8-10, ESV

"Salvation unto Us has Come"
by Paul Speratus, 1484-1551

1. Salvation unto us has come
By God's free grace and favor;
Good works cannot avert our doom,
They help and save us never.
Faith looks to Jesus Christ alone,
Who did for all the world atone;
He is our one Redeemer.

2. What God did in His Law demand
And none to Him could render
Caused wrath and woe on every hand
For man, the vile offender.
Our flesh has not those pure desires
The spirit of the Law requires,
And lost is our condition.

3. It was a false, misleading dream
That God His Law had given
That sinners should themselves redeem
And by their works gain heaven.
The Law is but a mirror bright
To bring the inbred sin to light
That lurks within our nature.

4. From sin our flesh could not abstain,
Sin held its sway unceasing;
The task was useless and in vain,
Our gilt was e'er increasing.
None can remove sin's poisoned dart
Or purify our guileful heart,-
So deep is our corruption.

5. Yet as the Law must be fulfilled
Or we must die despairing,
Christ came and hath God's anger stilled,
Our human nature sharing.
He hath for us the Law obeyed
And thus the Father's vengeance stayed
Which over us impended.

6. Since Christ hath full atonement made
And brought to us salvation,
Each Christian therefore may be glad
And build on this foundation.
Thy grace alone, dear Lord, I plead,
Thy death is now my life indeed,
For Thou hast paid my ransom.

7. Let me not doubt, but trust in Thee,
Thy Word cannot be broken;
Thy call rings out, "Come unto Me!"
No falsehood hast Thou spoken.
Baptized into Thy precious name,
My faith cannot be put to shame,
And I shall never perish.

8. The Law reveals the guilt of sin
And makes men conscience-stricken;
The Gospel then doth enter in
The sinful soul to quicken.
Come to the cross, trust Christ, and live;
The Law no peace can ever give,
No comfort and no blessing.

9. Faith clings to Jesus' cross alone
And rests in Him unceasing;
And by its fruits true faith is known,
With love and hope increasing.
Yet faith alone doth justify,
Works serve thy neighbor and supply
The proof that faith is living.

10. All blessing, honor, thanks, and praise
To Father, Son, and Spirit,
The God that saved us by His grace,-
All glory to His merit!
O Triune God in heaven above,
Who hast revealed Thy saving love,
Thy blessed name be hallowed.

Hymn 377
The Lutheran Hymnal
Text: Rom. 3: 5
Author: Paul Speratus, 1523, cento
Translated by: composite
Titled: "Es ist das Heil uns kommen her"
Tune: "Es ist das Heil"
German melody, c. 1400

Monday, August 8, 2016


Christians who are constantly measuring and testing their spiritual state are Christians in an unhealthy theology. The focus is in the wrong place - on themselves, their works, their thoughts, their obedience, their nearness or distance from God. This, sadly, is the condition of American Christianity.

--Has American Christianity Failed?, Bryan Wolfmueller

It ought to be where God intends it to be and where it has to be if we are going to make progress against the sin and unbelief in our lives: on Jesus and what He has accomplished and promised and declares us in Him to be: perfect as He is perfect. When we believe that, Christ is formed in us.

But for that to happen we have to keep our eyes on Him and on His grace, and not on ourselves. Only the proudest and most depraved of human beings will be pleased and will not be discouraged at what they see when they look at themselves. But no one who keeps His eyes on Jesus and what He has done and promises can fail to grow and thrive and live spiritually. It can't be otherwise because it is by keeping our eyes on Jesus rather than on ourselves and living by His grace rather than by our performance, that Christ is formed in us and His obedience becomes our own before the world as by grace it already is before God's throne of justice.

Friday, March 25, 2016

Ecce homo!: A sermon for Good Friday

John 19:5

Good Friday

Anybody who’s seen the movie "Fat Man and Little Boy" will remember the incident.

Dr. Michael Merriman and the other scientists of the Manhattan Project were excited. A critical experiment was about to be performed which, if successful, would prove that the atomic bomb was a practical idea. A plutonium sphere was being surrounded by neutron-reflecting tungsten carbide blocks, which reduce the mass necessary for the plutonium to go critical. That’s just a fancy way of saying that they were putting that chunk of plutonium on a hair trigger, to facilitate a small-scale experiment it ordinarily would have taken a much larger and more dangerous chunk of the stuff to perform.

As the last brick was being lowered into place, everybody leaned forward in expectation. One of the scientists had been drinking a cup of tea. He set it down next to him- not realizing that he was putting it on the very edge of a chair. The cup fell- and shattered. The man lowering that last tungsten-carbide brick into place was startled- and dropped the brick directly onto the plutonium core.

Immediately the entire room was filled with lethal radiation. Everyone froze- except for Michael Merriman. He reached down into the core and pulled the block out with his bare hands. Then he glanced at his watch and had everyone in the room draw an “X” on the floor where he or she had been standing when the accident happened. He did some calculations on the blackboard. And then, with a remarkably calm voice, he announced, “All of you should be all right. As for me- I haven’t got a chance.” He died a slow and horrible death of radiation sickness three weeks later.

And on a hill outside Jerusalem two thousand years ago, the eternal Son of God did something remarkably similar. What He took into his hands, though was something far more lethal even than plutonium. It was the concentrated retribution of the ages. It was the guilt of the Holocaust, and of every war crime ever committed. It was the moral weight of every murder, every rape, every act of wanton cruelty in human history. Those nail-pierced hands seized hold of the curse that is born by every lie, every blasphemy, every wrong.

There is no evil either too big or too small to have been included. The slightest peccadillo of the most virtuous of all the other human beings who had ever lived- or ever would live- was included. So was the horror of every genocide ever committed. The guilt of the seventy-six million people murdered by the most bloodthirsty regime in history- Communist China- was included. So was the guilt of the fifty million abortions performed in this country since 1973.

There is no sin you have ever committed- or ever will commit- that was not included. There is no sin that any human being, anywhere, has ever committed, or ever will commit- that is not included. And just like Michael Merriman in the story, Jesus Christ took the full brunt of all that guilt- its full weight; its full gravity; its full lethality; its full horror- onto Himself so that it might not fall upon us.

Ecce homo. Behold the Man! Take a good, long hard look at that bleeding carcass, hanging there on the cross. It is surely a pity that so many Christians have a prejudice against the crucifix. There is no other sight imaginable that can so completely sum up the full horror of human sin- or, more specifically (and more to the point) of your sin and my sin than the sight of that bleeding, dying carcass on the Cross- and the knowledge that He Who hangs there is the one whose Word called the universe into being.

Ecce homo! Behold the Man! Behold Him and see the thoughtless words, the petty cruelties, the “harmless” lies that we dismiss so easily in their true light. Behold the Man- and see the horror of what we let ourselves do and think so easily, and dismiss so lightly.

But whatever you do, don’t stop there. To stop there would be to miss the whole point. Just as there is nothing that sums up the sheer horror of sin- the sheer horror of your sin, and mine– as the sight of that Man on the Cross, so there is nothing that expresses the unspeakable depths of the love of God so much as that very sight. A chorale for Good Friday our choir in high school sang- one written, as it happens, by a former member of the Concordia, River Forest faculty- expressed it well:

O love of God! O sin of man! In this dread act, your strength is tried! The victory remains with Love: Jesus, our Lord, is crucified.

One might well believe that every time a person who was in that room at Los Alamos thought of Michael Merriman, the thought would go through his or her head, “He died so that I might live.” Well, the same is true of that Man on the Cross. Every man and woman and child who has ever lived, and who ever will, can say as much about Him.

Do not seek out God, as He is in Himself, Luther warns us. Do not wish to encounter Him in his glory, and least of all in His holiness. You and He are natural enemies. Like Moses, who once presumptuously asked to see His face, you cannot look at His face and live. And if you should be so unfortunate as to meet Him, run. Run for your life! Nothing less holy than He can survive His presence.

And how casually- how presumptuously– we speak of Him as a buddy, a pal, a casual companion! But where can we run from the One Who fills the universe? Or where- which is finally the same thing- can we flee from what and who we are, as revealed in all its horror on the Cross?

The answer: to that very place. To the Cross. Seek him clothed in His promises and Our humanity. Seek Him in the Crucified- the horror of whose suffering is the only true measure of the horror of our sin, it’s true, but also of the eternal and infinite depths of the love of the One Who bore it all, that we might live.

As it happens, Michael Merriman is a fictional character. It was, after all, a movie. Merriman was actually a composite of two real Los Alamos scientists- Harry K. Daghlian, whose death was a solitary accident, and Louis Slotin, a Canadian scientist who whose death was just as heroic as- Merriman’s death in the movie, if not quite as melodramatic.

But your sinfulness is as real as your every breath, and so is the condemnation due your sin. But rejoice- because so is the forgiving love and the cleansing grace that was so broad, so deep, and so inexhaustible as to send the Creator of all things, seen and unseen, to a hill outside Jerusalem long ago, to bear the guilt of it all, and die that we might live. What is there to say in the face of such love? As little as it is- as much more as is demanded- what, finally, can one say but “Thank you?”

Thursday, March 3, 2016

A prayer by Martin Luther

Dear Lord Jesus Christ, I feel my sins. They bite and gnaw and terrify me. Where shall I go? I look to You, Lord Jesus, and believe in You. Although my faith is weak, I cling to You and am made sure, for You have promised, "He who believes in Me shall have everlasting life." Even if my conscience is burdened and my sins frighten me and make me tremble, You still have said, "My son, be of good cheer; your sins are forgiven you. I will raise You up on the Last Day, and you will have eternal life." I cannot help myself by my own strength. I come to You for help. Amen. (Martin Luther)

Thursday, February 18, 2016

Keeping the main thing the main thing

The promise should always be in sight. Because of His promise. God wishes to be gracious and to justify for Christ's sake, not because of the Law or our works. In this promise timid consciences should seek reconciliation and justification. By this promise they should sustain themselves and be confident that they have a gracious God for Christ's sake, because of His promise. So works can never make a conscience peaceful. Only the promise can.
~Phillip Melanchthon, "Defense of the Augsburg Confession," V (III), 59

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Medicine for your sickness

Those who feel their weakness, who are anxious to be rid of it and desire help, should regard and use the sacrament as a precious antidote against the poison in their systems. For here in the sacrament, you receive from Christ's lips the forgiveness of sins, which contains and conveys God's grace and Spirit with all His gifts, protection, defense, and power against death and the devil and all evils.

--Martin Luther, the Large Catechism, The Sacrament of the Altar

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Grace, from R.J. Grune

Next time you are anxious about your salvation, about whether you are good enough or believe enough or pray enough or have the right feeling or have earned your acceptance by God in some other way, I recommend that you go to this page and just read. And read again. And read again,

What you will find there is the distilled Gospel, and it's the antidote for common American religiosity.

I thought about copying them out, but I didn't want to do it without permission. But trust me. You want to read these- and maybe copy them down.

They're at

When you're done, ask yourself the question at the bottom of the page: What quotes about the scandalous message of grace has messed with you? 

Thursday, January 7, 2016

How do you tell a legitimate fear from OCD?

Telling the difference is easy. Using it is not. One of the “slogans” that has become standard in OCD circles comes from Dr. Jeffrey Schwartz’s Brain Lock: “If it feels like OCD, it is.”

Think of the last time you realized that something real and healthy in your life needed your attention and should be acted on. Think of how that felt. Think even if a reasonable, rational fear that you had. Compare your emotional reaction to that reasonable fear with what OCD feels like. See what I mean? They’re not even remotely alike.

If it’s vague and creepy, it’s OCD. If it’s reasonably specific and prompts you to reasonable action, it’s healthy. “I’d better not date that married man because adultery and even coveting my neighbor’s husband violates the Ten Commandments” will produce an entirely different emotion from “If I eat a half-ripe banana I’ll go to hell.” Check it out. Reasonable and healthy fear of displeasing God leads you to behavior that will avoid doing so, or, at least, pushes you in that direction. OCD simply produces fear. If there is any impetus toward action, it’s vague and nebulous and irrational.

The problem is training oneself to recognize the difference without too much dithering (aka “obsessing”) about something.

One thing I’ve found useful and highly recommend is mindfulness. I have ADHD as well as OCD and my thoughts are always flying wildly around bouncing off walls. This feeds into my OCD because sometimes I get distracted and can’t remember what thought produced the fear reaction! So what I do is concentrate on what’s going on around me at the moment rather than on my thoughts. If the problem is real it will return to my mind in a way that enables me to address it calmly and rationally. If it’s not, it won’t.

If you cultivate that habit of observing the external world around you rather than living inside your head you’ll discover that God has designed us in such a way that if we simply relax and let the human mind He designed work, it will do what it needs to when it needs to without our messing with it. You may have noticed that if you obsess even about a real problem the solution will elude you. Or if you can’t remember somebody’s name (something that happens to me more and more often as I get older), the worst thing you can do is to ransack your memory. That will only drive the answer away. But if you relax and think of something else, sooner or later the answer will simply pop into your mind.

Repentance works that way too. If you try to make yourself repent for something, you can relax, because you already have. All that’s lacking is to accept God’s forgiveness. But if we torture ourselves and try to make ourselves feel bad (it’s amazing how many people think that repentance is an emotion!) we stop ourselves from accepting God’s forgiveness and short-circuit the whole process.

God knew what He was doing when He designed your brain. It’s designed to respond to what’s going on around you, in the world- not to what’s going on inside your mind. When you need to address a thought or a deed or an emotion, you won’t have to make yourself do it. The Holy Spirit will bring it to your attention if it’s a spiritual matter. Or if it’s not, the mind will do the job on its own if you just don’t get in the way.

So the impulse to ransack your brain is almost certainly OCD. A response to something in the outside world which results in a reasonable and appropriate thought or emotion is healthy fear. If you make a mistake somehow (which is unlikely), so what? You’re a sinner. You sin every day. But you’re also a believer, covered with the mantle of forgiveness purchased by Christ’s blood.

Another thing that might help is to bear in mind that in itself- apart from Christ- even our most selfless and charitable thoughts fall short of God’s minimum standards of holiness. Considered in ourselves, we cannot not sin in our every thought, word and deed. It’s only in Christ that even our good works are good! So why not take Paul’s “advice,” and rely on His having “gotten it right” instead of panicking at the thought that you haven’t, or aren’t?

Again, I strongly recommend Dr. Osborn’s book. In it, he’ll show you how Martin Luther, St. Thérèse of Lisieux, John Bunyan, and other Christians who had OCD dealt with it. And despite the different theological traditions they represent, you’ll be amazed to discover that the answer they hit upon was pretty much the same!

Sunday, January 3, 2016

This is how God does things

Rod Rosenbladt, a Lutheran theologian, tells the true story of wrecking his father's Buick 8 when he was sixteen years old. Rod was drunk, as were all his friends who were in the car. The first thing Rod's dad asked him over the phone was whether he was all right. Rod said yes. He also told his father he was drunk. Later that night, Rod wept and wept in his father's study. At the end of the ordeal, his father said one thing: "How about tomorrow we go get you a new car." Rod says now that he became a theist in that moment. God's grace became real.

When Rod tells that story, there are always a few people in the audience who get mad. They say, "Your dad let you get away with that?! He didn't punish you at all?" And Rod says, "No," adding the following: "Do you think I didn't know what I had done? Do you think it was not the most painful moment of my whole life up to that point? Do you think the law wasn't cutting me down to nothing?" Rod's father spoke the word of grace in that moment. In that eternal encounter, for it reflected the mechanism of God's grace, there was no law. The law's dominion came to an end. Grace superseded it.
--"Grace in Practice" by Paul Zahl