Preaching Predestination with Jim Nestingen
Predestination, Jim knew, is no longer a frightening doctrine of mystery when you understand that God makes his choice about you in the simple word of God, given from one sinner to another.
Not long ago, a friend and mentor of mine died and went into his (very much unearned) reward with Jesus Christ. James A. Nestingen was known to many – in the Lutheran world and outside of it – for his bold testimony to Christ and the salvation he bestows. Jim was many things, above all, a family man. But his public vocation was that of preacher and teacher of the church. His scholarship on the Reformation has shaped our understanding of the sixteenth century, and his personality was larger than life, leaving an impression on all he encountered.
There are many contributions of Jim's career that we should remember. But one worth noticing is Jim's understanding of preaching – what it is, what it does, and how we should do it. He was famous for telling his seminary students that if you stand in the pulpit, you must "hand over the goods." This inspired the title of a series of essays published in his honor. Jim's turn of phrase might seem folksy, but it reveals a significant insight about preaching. I want to say a bit about Jim's view of preaching as delivery of the comfort of God's predestination.
As Jim taught so well, preaching isn't just information about Christ, and as much as Jim loved telling stories, preaching isn't just a rehearsal of the story about Jesus. To preach is to deliver the gift of Christ – the story of his life serves this final move in a sermon to deliver predestination in the word preached. It's not enough to talk about Jesus and what he did. Preachers must give Christ to those in front of them.
The words exchanged from one believer to another count as preaching, as long as Christ for you is the punchline.
By "sermon" and "preaching" I mean the formal, Sunday morning kind of sermon delivered in a pulpit and heard by churchgoers. But a sermon and a preacher aren't just that; they include the ordinary encounters of one Christian with another. The words exchanged from one believer to another count as preaching, as long as Christ for you is the punchline.
For Jim, God's predestination doesn't mean he just makes a decision about us high above in eternity and then waits for us to figure out what it is. On the other hand, salvation isn't a matter of me deciding how I'm going to live my life or where I'm going to place my trust. Faith isn't something I can decide to do if I try hard enough. It's something that comes from the outside. And it's that thing on the outside – God's decision about my life – that creates faith. This decision is a word – a sermon – one sinner speaks to another. And the word in its shortest form is the promise of the gospel: "I forgive you in the name of Jesus Christ."
A promise like this doesn't point sinners toward the mysterious decision of God hidden in his eternal glory. The promise of the gospel is God's decision about you. God's decision is the word of forgiveness itself: "I baptize you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit," that's God's decision; "This is my body, given for you" and "This is my blood, shed for you" – also God's decision. You can't get outside it. Because we are unwilling preachers, theology is designed to make us say just these words. Like in the first creation, the words Christ gives make something new: a new creation, for now hidden from sight.
Lutherans didn't always recognize the power of God's word and didn't always recognize that the word of forgiveness is God's decision about sinners. After the Reformation, many Lutherans feared that Luther's strong language about predestination, especially in The Bondage of the Will (1525), would make it difficult to refute the Reformed and Calvinist teaching of double predestination – that God determines two groups of human beings: those destined for salvation and those destined for damnation.
Many Lutherans, after the Reformation, grounded Christian assurance in the act of believing instead of the word of forgiveness given in the gospel and the sacraments.
In reaction, after the Formula of Concord (1577), virtually all the theologians of later Lutheran scholasticism abandoned Luther's teaching on predestination. Because they misunderstood Luther's teaching, they invented a doctrine of "foreseen faith" (intuitu fidei), by which God "elects" people based on his knowledge that they will hear and believe the gospel. Luther taught that God makes known his decision about us through the message of the gospel, but the doctrine that developed in later Lutheranism emphasized faith as a free act of human beings that God only "foreknows." Despite their attempts to explain this in a comforting way, many Lutherans, after the Reformation, grounded Christian assurance in the act of believing instead of the word of forgiveness given in the gospel and the sacraments.
The original teaching of Luther on predestination didn't reemerge until European immigrants boarded ships to go to America in the 1800s. The questions and concerns of a new cultural environment led these Lutherans to reconsider predestination, and they found the explanation of the Lutheran scholastics useless.
And so a controversy arose in the Missouri Synod and its close associate, the Norwegian Synod, about predestination. C. F. W. Walther of the Missouri Synod and theologians of the Norwegian Synod, like U. V. Koren, sought to recover the original Lutheran view of predestination. By rereading Luther and the Formula of Concord, they came to understand that predestination isn't about God's secret will, nor is it about human freedom to choose grace over sin. Predestination is about God's decision for you in the here and now. And so they learned that predestination is about God's Word – otherwise, how else would we know what God is doing?
It's from this brand of Lutheranism – the Norwegian Synod and the allies of Walther – that we receive Jim Nestingen's teaching on preaching and predestination. He didn't just make it up but learned it from his teachers at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota, like Gerhard Forde and Herman Preus. In his own ministry as a pastor and professor, he put it into practice by handing over the goods, as he liked to say. Jim and his teachers understood that predestination isn't an abstraction – as if we have to go hunting for the answer to whether I'm saved or not.
Instead, predestination is a revelation of God's choice for you in the promise preached. Predestination, Jim knew, is no longer a frightening doctrine of mystery when you understand that God makes his choice about you in the simple word of God, given from one sinner to another. If you want to know if you're elect – if you're among the chosen of God – just find another Christian to speak this simple message to you once again. You belong to Christ, and nothing can change that.Jim taught so well by using stories. I have a war chest of them that I draw on all the time as I preach and teach the gospel in my own ministry. And his personality was attractive to many, but it was the clarity with which he proclaimed God's decision that kept people coming back for more. Predestination is God's decision about you, and it can't be changed. Neither feeling nor faithfulness overpowers God's promise. And having this word of forgiveness means you have everything. Nothing hides behind it. God's word of forgiveness is his decision about your life. It's your predestination and election – no terms and conditions! And now that you have it, there's nothing left to do. Now, you're free.