1 Peter 3:15
May 29, 2011
Sisters and brothers in Christ, grace and peace to you, in the name of God the Father, Son (X) and Holy Spirit. Amen.
1 Peter 3:15 tongue-ties us with fear because it tells us to be ever ready to defend the hope that is within us – which is Christ Jesus our Lord (1 Peter 1:13). This scares us because we don’t think we can do a good enough job of it, against the barbs slung at us by smart, critical people. So we cower before this command.
Don’t Be Defensive
And when we’re backed into a corner like this, it’s likely we’ll behave badly, and snarl like a wolf with his leg caught in a trap (Acts 20:29). But that would be as wrong as quitting because we’re afraid to fail. No, we are to defend Christ – but with gentleness, as 1 Peter 3:15 also says. That means we can’t rush in and clobber whoever disagrees with us. No, we instead are to sympathize with our foes – even though they might lash out at us. This is what Martin Luther (1483-1546), our most eminent teacher, says we should do [The Book of Concord (1580), ed. T. Tappert (1959) p. 576]. He says, when attacked, we should let them “walk all over” us, and “gladly give way” to them (Luther’s Works 23:330)! That’s because it’s tough to follow Christ since it includes dying to ourselves (Acts 26:28; Romans 6:4; 2 Corinthians 5:14-15). For no one (LW 30:86), mind you, can readily say that we can’t “by our own reason or strength,” obey the Lord Jesus (BC, p. 345)!
How Arguments Work
But Luther, by his own admission, was
also a rude lumberjack (R. F. Marshall, “Luther the Lumberjack,”
Lutheran Quarterly, Spring
1996), arguing tenaciously in the manner of
when Christ is concerned, I stand my ground…. [Then] we must pass for unrepentant, stubborn, and impetuous hotheads. Yes, in matters involving Christ, …. I am stiff-necked, for my person is not concerned…. [Therefore we should] gladly let you [then] call us… headstrong asses (LW 23:330).
That’s because we’re also taught that when we are defending Christ with gentleness we’re still expected “to destroy…. arguments and every proud obstacle to the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ” (2 Corinthians 10:5). And in order to do that, we’ll at least have to know how arguments work.
The best book on that is The Uses of Argument (1958, 2003) by Stephen Toulmin. In this classic study he shows in diagram form (Toulmin, p. 104) that an argument is a straight-ahead move, like an arrow, from some data, fact or material (D), to a conclusion (C). But this straight line is complicated in ways that can either weaken or bolster the argument – by noting what firms it up (W) and what supports that strengthening (B), as well as by qualifications (Q) to the conclusion based on possible critiques of it (R):
Of Surpassing Worth
But what is it about Christ that we want to defend with our arguments and counter-arguments? We have come to believe that he is the holy One of surpassing worth (Philippians 3:8) – but in what ways precisely? Luther explains what’s best about Christ Jesus:
When we were created,… the devil… led us into disobedience…. [So] we lay under God’s wrath,… doomed to eternal damnation, as we had deserved…. until [the] eternal Son of God… had mercy on our misery…. He… snatched us poor lost creatures from the jaws of hell… and restored us to the Father’s favor…. [To do this] he suffered, died, and was buried that he might make satisfaction for me and pay what I owed… with his own precious blood (BC, p. 414).
Just about every word in this declaration can be disputed and has been argued about over the years. Take for instance the blood sacrifice of Christ, which satisfies God’s holiness so that believers in Christ won’t have to suffer the everlasting fires of hell. This message is at the beating heart of Christianity. The best and most thorough current defense of it is in the over 300 page book entitled, Pierced for Our Transgressions (2007). It helps defend our doctrinal conviction that Christ alone, our sole mediator, can be “pitted against God’s wrath” (BC, p. 136; LW 26:120). Critics (2 Peter 2:1) within the church are now opposed to this, insisting “bluntly” that such a view rends asunder the Holy Trinity [Paul Sponheim, Speaking of God (2006) pp. 25, 166]. But this critique misses the vigorous interaction within God himself – including glorifying, loving, and punishing, in ways that clearly capture “the mutual involvement of the [divine] persons without implying symmetrical involvement” (Pierced, pp. 281-285). And so, on Toulmin’s model diagram, the argument against our Lutheran view of Christ’s sacrifice fails because the warrants (W) and backing (B) for its conclusions don’t sufficiently take into account the rebuttals (R).
Does this then mean that what we’ve argued for concerning the blood sacrifice of Christ restoring us to God’s favor has been established beyond question? No, not at all. Does that then mean we’ve been wasting our time arguing over it? No. All it means is that our arguments are necessary but not sufficient. And that’s because our rejection of Christian teachings can be rooted in cultural boredom and adolescent rebellion as well as in the more intellectual pursuits of factual adequacy and logical coherence [Herbert W. Richardson, Toward an American Theology (1967) pp. 7-8].
So we’re rightly told that Christianity cannot be grasped by the “wise and understanding” (Matthew 11:25), and furthermore, if we’re going to understand Christianity, we must first believe in it (Hebrews 11:3; 5:11; John 7:17). And so Luther taught that when it comes to understanding the biblical faith, there’s “no room… for a smart intellectual,…. there’s no room for disputation and argument” [Luther’s House Postils, ed. E. Klug (1996) 2:31]. And his great admirer, Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855), goes on to say, all the more pointedly, that Christianity “needs no defense,” and that “those who defend it most often betray it” (Kierkegaard’s Writings, 17:162; 22:80). So Kierkegaard thought that prayer was the better way to go – and his short, little prayer on this problem is pure religious dynamite. And so he invites us to pray:
Lord, give us weak eyes for things of little worth, and eyes clear-sighted in all of your truth (KW 19:3)!
Kierkegaard probably based this prayer on John 9:39, where Jesus is saying in effect that he has come to poke out the eyes of the proud, and give sight to the humble (Luke 18:14; James 4:6).
The Shed Blood of Jesus
So pray Kierkegaard’s powerful little prayer – and give thanks to God when faith is granted (Ephesians 2:8) and then understanding comes along after it (2 Timothy 2:7). And rejoice in Christ Jesus who comes to you by way of this gift of faith. For, as Luther explained, “there are not several ways to reconcile God, but [only] one way. [For] his majesty is much too high to be reconciled by the blood of all the men on earth… Christ’s blood [is] poured out… that he may avert from us the wrath of God…. And if the wrath is gone then the sins are forgiven…. Here we clearly see that only faith in… the shed blood reconciles [for it alone] obtains the reconciliation which Christ has performs for us” (LW 36:177).
So trust in him – and come to the Altar today and receive the Lord’s Supper, noting that just as “Baptism leads us into a new life on earth; [so] the bread guides us through death into eternal life…. and [is] instituted for a strengthening against death” (LW 35:67)!
Study the Arguments
And finally, be sure to live by James 2:26 which says that “faith apart from works is dead.” Thus Luther vigorously admonishes us:
If before you believed in Christ you were an adulterer, a miser, a coveter, a maligner, you ought now to regard all these sins as dead, throttled through Christ; the benefit is yours through faith in his sacrifice, and your sins should henceforth cease to reign in you [Sermons of Martin Luther, ed. J. Lenker (1988) 7:267].
So let us fight against the sins of theological ignorance and cowardice (Ephesians 4:14), and become students of the arguments for and against Christianity. Two books worth studying, which stand against our faith, are Michael Martin’s The Case Against Christianity (1991) and The Christian Delusion (2010) by John Lofthus. And on our side are Lee Strobel’s The Case for Christ (1998) and Richard Purtill’s Reason to Believe (1974, 2009). Read, study, and ponder what these books, among others, have to say, but do so remembering that only children enter God’s kingdom (Matthew 18:3). But do so recalling as well that we’re also to be mature (1 Corinthians 2:6) – which then will lead us to defend Christ. Amen.