20 June 2007


One of the most neglected sections of the Lutheran Symbols is the Apology's treatment of afflictions. It was the section assigned for today's read through. A few choice bits:

"We grant that revenge or punishment is necessary in repentance. Yet it is not necessary as merit or price, as the adversaries imagine that satisfactions are necessary. But revenge is in repentance formally, that is, because rebirth itself happens by a continuous putting to death of the oldness of life." (XII:51)

"Although these afflictions are for the most part the punishment of sin, yet in the godly they have a better end, namely, to exercise them, that they may learn amid trials to seek God's aid, to acknowledge the distrust of their own hearts, and so forth." (XII:54)

"Afflictions are a discipline by which God exercises the saints. Likewise, afflictions are inflicted because of present sin, since in the saints they put to death and extinguish lustful desires, so that they may be renewed by the Spirit." (XII:55)

"It has been said before that saints suffer punishments, which are God's works. They suffer contrition or terrors; they also suffer other common troubles." (XII:59)

"Therefore, troubles are not always punishments or signs of wrath. Indeed, terrified consciences should be taught that there are more important purposes for afflictions, so that they do not think God is rejected them when they see nothing but God's punishment and anger in troubles. The other important purposes are to be considered, that is, that God is doing His strange work so that He may be albe to do His own work, as Isaiah 28 teaches in a long speech." (XII:61)

"[Troubles] are God's works, intended for our benefit, that God's power might be made more apparent in our weakness." (XII:63)

Sound words of great importance for those who deal constantly with people suffering under various trials!


Rev. Paul T. McCain said...

The struggle I have is offering comfort to people actually going through afflictions. I can tell them all this, but I'm always struck at how "flat" it sounds.

For instance, my father is now experiencing whole-body trembling and tremors which have been exaggerated by his chemo he is receiving for terminal lung/liver cancer.

I wish there was something I could say to "make him feel better" but that is foolishness, in a way.

It is a very hard and depressing thing for me.

William Weedon said...


Wow, I am so sorry to hear that about your father. He's daily in my prayers.

I think what is so important in afflictions is to get across to the person: "Do not believe the lie that Satan is trying to sell you in this; do not believe that this means God has abandoned you, hates you, is angry with you. God does his strange work always and only in the service of real, proper and loving work. Here's the truth about how God is toward you - the gift of His body and blood in the Supper. He forgives you and loves you. He will not leave you. He will see you through and bring you home."

That's the unique comfort that the Sacrament gives in afflictions. It reminds us that such rough treatment comes at the hands of Him who "puts to death in order to bring to life."

Much love in Him!

Rev. Paul T. McCain said...

My dad said something very moving last time I spoke to him. He said, "I just keep telling myself that Jesus suffered far more than this, for me."


But my human flesh "wants to make it all better" and "do something" and all I can do is talk and listen and pray.

Thanks for your prayers.

Rev. Paul T. McCain said...

Just found this in Luther:

Nearly all people are tempted by despair, and the godlier they are, [Vol. 4, Page 95] the more frequently they are attacked with this weapon of Satan. What else should you do in this situation than say: “I know that I am baptized and that God, for the sake of His Son, has promised me grace. This promise will not lie, even if I should be cast into utter darkness. Therefore what Satan suggests to me is not God’s will; but God is tempting me in this manner, that it may become manifest what is hidden in my heart. It is not that God does not know this, but that I do not know it. He Himself wants to make use of this occasion to crush the head of the serpent in me (Gen. 3:15). For the heart of man is unsearchable; and φρόνημα, or the mind of the flesh, is enmity against God” (Rom. 8:7). Nor does man perceive this except through the word of the Law, through which the head of the serpent is killed, in order that we may be made alive, as Scripture says (1 Sam. 2:6): “God brings down to Sheol and raises up.”
Martin Luther, vol. 4, Luther's Works, Vol. 4 : Lectures on Genesis: Chapters 21-25, ed. Jaroslav Jan Pelikan, Hilton C. Oswald and Helmut T. Lehmann, Luther's Works, 4:94 (Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1999, c1964).

Rev. Paul T. McCain said...

And more from Luther:

The fathers were men just like other men, and they will perform works similar to the works of other men, works which are also done by ungodly men, so that there is practically no difference between Jacob and any other shepherd. But there is this difference which is not evident to any carnal viewpoint, that Jacob has the promise; he is God’s son and under the care and protection of Him in whom he trusts. Therefore all that he does in generating children and milking goats is pleasing to God and acceptable to Him. Why? Because the promise rules here; he is under the heaven of the promise, and he believes.
But when trials assail them, then the true virtues of the saints come into evidence, just as here, for example, no goat is milked but the father and son are killed, and the whole house is thrown into confusion, and the church is disturbed. What happens then? Cries and wailing arise! “Alas! We are nothing; we are done for!” But faith, on the contrary, says: “You have not perished; remember that you still have the promise which has been spread out over you just like a very broad heaven. God is taking care of you even if you do not see it or feel it. Only a little cloud has been drawn up, which seems to have swallowed God.” These matters in the stories of the fathers should be mentioned and emphasized often that we may learn to stand boldly in faith and to think highly of our promises. Do not underestimate yourself, since you have been baptized and since you have God’s Word, have been absolved, and called! Think that the kingdom of heaven has been spread out over you and that not only God but all the angels have their eyes fixed on you. Therefore, even if all things are in confusion, heaven and earth are merged, all the gates of hell (cf. Matt. 16:18) are moved, and the pope, the emperor, and the Turk rage in most cruel fashion, all you have to say is: “I am baptized.” Then all is well with you; in this confidence you will conquer, for God is taking care of you; He will not forsake you, nor will any disadvantage happen without regard to your salvation.

Martin Luther, vol. 6, Luther's Works, Vol. 6 : Lectures on Genesis: Chapters 31-37, ed. Jaroslav Jan Pelikan, Hilton C. Oswald and Helmut T. Lehmann, Luther's Works, 6:364 (Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1999, c1970).

Anonymous said...

Pastor Mc Cain, please accept my heartfelt sympathy on account of your father's condition. My father's is similar, without the cancer but still terminal and still with the tremors. Plus dementia. So I know how it feels when your heart breaks one piece at a time. You and he will be in my prayers.

"We grant that revenge or punishment is necessary in repentance. Yet it is not necessary as merit or price, as the adversaries imagine that satisfactions are necessary. But revenge is in repentance formally, that is, because rebirth itself happens by a continuous putting to death of the oldness of life."

What in the world does this mean? I just read it aloud to a roomful of people, including one Lutheran, and nobody could say what it means.

Why is revenge necessary? to what purpose? and if what we're really talking ab out putting to death the old ways, what has that to do with revenge?

And how is it even possible to imagine God tempting or afflicting people,and what is satan thought to be doing meanwhile, when God is doing the devil's work for him? Is God's enemy cheering Him on or opposing Him in this?

William Weedon said...


The "revenge" comment - which is certainly strikingly odd - is an attempt to explicate a saying attributed to St. Augustine: "repentance is revenge punishing." (It's actually pseudo-Augustine, *True and False Penitence* 19:35). The Romanists had used this passage to explain why there must be satisfactions as part of repentance. The Lutherans accepted the statement with the understanding that it referred to the attack upon the old life - which is not so much a *part* of repentance as its very content: the putting to death of the old life and the living out of the new.

About God being the one who afflicts, I'd invite you to consider these words from Fr. Hopko, which simply express the same thing the Apology was getting at (from his address this year to the graduates of St. Vlad's):

And I can also tell you, alas, that such loving is always a violent, brutal and bloody affair.
The God who is merciful and gracious, longsuffering, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, who gives us his divine life and peace and joy forever, is first of all the Divine Lover who wounds His beloved, and then hides from her, hoping to be sought and found. He is the Father who chastens and disciplines His children. He is the Vinekeeper who cuts and prunes His vines so that they bear much fruit. He is the Jeweler who burns His gold in His divine fire so that it would be purged of all impurities. And He is the Potter who continually smashes and refashions and re-bakes His muddy clay so that it can be the earthen vessel that He wants it to be, capable of bearing His own transcendent grace and power and glory and peace.

I learned that all of these terrible teachings of the Holy Scriptures and the saints are real and true.

End Hopko. That's what the Apology gets at with God's strange work in service to His real work. Which is also what Job, righteous in what he said, confessed: Shall we receive TOV from the Lord's hand and not also RA? Good and not also evil?

Anonymous said...

When the Orthos speak of God afflicting, we have two clear understandings.

(1) that it is chastisement of which we are speaking, not revenge, never revenge.

(2) that in fact it is satan doing the evil things and that God permits this when He intends to defeat satan by the devil's own doing.

Is THAT what the Lutherans are trying to say here??


William Weedon said...

The "avenger" who attacks the old life is the new self created in Baptism.

Certainly God overrules Satan's maliciousness for the purposes of bringing His blessings to His own. Who can doubt that the maliciousness of Satan was poured out on our blessed Lord in His passion, and yet God used this terror of terrors to overthrow Satan's reign in the hearts of men.

It is because we receive the afflictions from the hand of God no matter what Satan is up to that is the very victory of our faith. The self-same affliction in which Satan attempts to lure us into unbelief, doubt, despair, is used by the Father to strengthen our faith, hope, and love.

Thus, Satan whispered to Joseph sitting in prison: The butler forgot you just as surely as God has forgetten you and left you here to rot. But of course it would be a lie! God hadn't forgotten Joseph, but through all his afflictions God was working out His plan of blessing for His people. "You intended it against me for evil; but God intended it for good, for the saving of many lives alive as it is this day!"

Past Elder said...

Pastor McCain et al --

I have been through the deaths of my father, mother, father in law, one miscarriage and two pets in adulthood. And my wife.

There are commenters on this blog far better than I am at selecting passages that relate to afflictions, but I will offer a couple of things that I saw in my experience of them for whatever they may be worth.

My wife Nancy was not at all like me -- not given to a lot of thought, reading, theology etc. I remember her saying as her time came that she wished she had all my background and understanding about all this stuff but about all she knew was that Jesus paid the price for her. I was able to say to her that you know what, after all the background, study, religious tumult and three acacdemic degrees, knowing that Jesus paid the price for us is about all there is worth knowing and the rest just supports that or is worthless.

I also got an enduring image of what you pastors do. I remember during one of her stays in the hospital, our pastor, who was a visiting pastor as our old one was removed by the synod and a new one had not been called, came by to see her. I was in the lobby getting something when he showed up. Now, Nancy didn't really care for him as a worship leader and preacher, thought he was rather wooden and formal and academic, and had said she hoped the new regular guy would be better. So I thought great, here's a guy she doesn't really like or relate to about to try to minister to her. But I greeted him nonetheless, we spoke briefly, and he went off to her room, the last pastor in the world I would have thought would be of help to her in her final weeks.

Shortly before the end, to my complete amazement, she expressed how helpful his visits were and she was ready for what was to come!

That image is forever in my mind -- the pastor going up the elevator with nothing going for him at all, to a person who thought he was just too distant and wooden that she didn't relate too, and with no props either it being the usual custom of WELS clergy not to wear collars, a vacancy pastor who didn't know us all that well, etc. Yet it was exactly what she needed. And it taught me that he had all that is really needed -- faithfulness to what he was called to do, and faith in the message he was entrusted to bring. God took care of the rest. Man, did he.

I'm not a pastor and not even an elder any more. (I now serve on our Stewardship Committee, but Present Steward just doesn't have the ring of Past Elder.) I'm not even in that pastor's synod any more. But that image remains with me -- nothing in human terms that seems equal to the task, but being true to what one has been called to do with faith in what it is -- as a help against that feeling that there is something else I should be doing or be able to do. I think I learned more about vocation in those few minutes than from anything else.