Preaching the Penitential Psalms for Lent: Sermon Notes

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John Pless offers thoughts on preaching for your midweek Lent sermons.

Psalm 51/Ash Wednesday

Luther came to understand that the knowledge of self without the knowledge of God leads to despair and that knowledge of God without the knowledge of sin leads to presumption.[1] Psalm 51 gives us both. The preacher may wish to set the psalm in the context of II Samuel 11:1-12:15, unfolding the dynamic of Nathan’s proclamation of God’s law to David which brings about the knowledge of self. See Ps. 51:3, “For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me.” Here the preacher could explore the connection what is entailed in this self-knowledge. Ash Wednesday is a day for self-examination. Recall the words of the Exhortation in Corporate Confession and Absolution (LSB, p. 290): “…it is proper that we diligently examine ourselves, as St. Paul urges us to do, for this holy Sacrament has been instituted for the special comfort of those who are troubled because of their sin and who humbly confess their sins, fear God’s wrath, and hunger and thirst for righteousness. But when we examine our hearts and consciences, we find nothing in us but sin and death, from which we are incapable of delivering ourselves.”[2]

The somber words of the Ash Wednesday liturgy announce to us what deep down we already know, that we are dust and to dust we must return. But the problem is not merely mortality. It is not just that we die but that we die as sinners under God’s judgment. It is a judgment that is not misplaced; it is justified (Ps. 51:4). It is a verdict of condemnation that falls not simply on miscalculated choices and perverse deeds; it falls on me, my person. It falls on the one who was a sinner before he first cursed, lusted, lied, hated, or killed. It falls on the one who was brought forth in iniquity and conceived in sin (Ps. 51:4).[3]

To confess your sin is to agree with God’s evaluation of your life. To confess your sin is to cease the futile attempt to self-justify. Rather it is to join with David in saying to God: “Against you, you only have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight, so that you might be justified in your words and blameless in your judgment” (Ps. 51:4). In confession, the sinner acknowledges that God is right. It is to agree with God’s verdict: Guilty.[4]

But to speak of guilt requires some clarification today for another word has come to attach itself to guilt. So we speak of guilt feelings. Guilt is seen as the subjective reaction of the doer to the deed, i.e., how I feel about what I have done[5]. But this is not the case with the Scriptures use of the word guilt. In the Bible guilt has not so much to do with emotions as it does with what happens in a courtroom when a judge declares the defendant, “guilty.” The criminal may or may not have reactions of remorse, regret or shame. It doesn’t matter. The verdict of the judge establishes the reality. God’s word of law unerring establishes His judgment. There is no appeal.

To deny the verdict means that the truth is not in us says the Apostle John. But denial can never bring release. Only God’s absolution can release from the accusation of the law and unlock the sinner from his sins. Lutheran theology is nothing if it is not realistic![6] Like the Scriptures, Lutheran theology does not start with notions about human freedom and the potential (great or small) that human beings have. Theologies that start with assumptions about human freedom end up in bondage[7]. Lutheran theology begins with man’s bondage in sin and ends up with the glorious liberty of the Gospel. The bondage to sin is not a slight defect that can be corrected by appropriate self-discipline. Neither is it a sickness that can be cured by the appropriation of the medication of regular doses of God’s grace. Sin is enmity with the Creator that carries with it God’s verdict of guilt and a divinely-imposed death sentence. To be a sinner is to be held captive in death and condemnation. The distance between God and humanity is not the gap between infinity and the finite but between a Holy God who is judge and man who is the guilty defendant.

Confession is the acknowledgment of this reality. The sin is named not in an effort to “get it off my chest” but to acknowledge it before the Lord to whom no secrets are hid. Where sin is not confessed, it remains festering and corrosive, addicting the sinner to yet another attempt at self-justification. Confession admits defeat and so leaves the penitent open for a word that declares righteousness, a verdict which justifies. That word is called absolution. It is absolution alone, says Gerhard Forde that is the answer to absolute claim of God who is inescapably present to the sinner.[8]

It is the absolution, the word by which God declares sinners righteous for Christ’s sake, that the bones which God has broken with the hammer of His law are brought to rejoice. The Gospel alone puts joy and gladness into the ears of sinners (Ps. 51:8). For it is this verdict that the Judge of heaven and earth is hiding His face from our sins and scrubbing us clean from all iniquity (Ps. 51:9). The flipside of God’s hiding His face from our sins, is His causing His face to shine on us (Numbers 6:24-26).[9]

This salvation is completely the work of the triune God. In forgiving sins, the God who created the heavens and the earth is bringing forth a new creation. Just as by His Word God called all things into existence at the beginning, so now by His Word He is creating a clean heart and renewing a right spirit (Ps. 51:10; also see II Corinthians 4:6[10]). Hans-Joachim Kraus observes “The petitioner knows that he is entirely dependent on the merciful activity of God. From God’s mercy alone he expects the blotting out of the guilt which is looked on as corruption (v.5) that totally permeates the human being. Only God can eliminate the threatening, dark wall of separation, sin, that separates God and human beings and blot out what is intolerable. Only by God’s creative, renewing power can the heart be cleansed and led to a new obedience. Also the future is in the hands of God alone. If God sends the spirit of willingness and constancy, then the psalmist is saved from fickleness and unfaithfulness. Even the witness of thanksgiving (v.15) is exclusively left in the hands of powers furnished by Yahweh. Everything is God’s act. The sola gratia shines forth from every verse. No gift, no condition comes between God and man. No sacrifice has an effect on Yahweh. Only the pleading and trusting human being is the sacrifice, he who with body and life surrenders himself to God, who has nothing to offer but a heart that is bruised and broken (v.17). The human being presents himself to God for what he is. For him nothing remains except to plead for forgiveness and confess his guilt. In its extreme of knowledge and wisdom (v.6) which has been won from the prophetic word of the OT, Psalm 51 stands out in the Psalter. Its peak statements are unique. And its fullness of insights is incomprehensible”.”[11]

Only where there is the forgiveness of sins can God be rightly honored and praised. Apart from God’s forgiveness, we open our own mouths and we know what spews forth. It is not the confession of Christ’s righteousness, but blasphemous assertions of our own righteousness. The sin of the heart defiles the lips. Here the preacher may wish to draw out connections with the Second Commandment and its explanation in the Small Catechism.[12] Christ’s absolution is the key which unlocks lips to praise His name by confession of His righteous deeds.

In Psalm 51, David links this praise of God with sacrifice (also see Hebrews 13:15-16). Sacrifice is not a means that we use to placate a wrathful God. On account of Christ’s once and for all sacrifice for sin on the cross, the category of sacrifice gets re-located as we see in Romans 12:1-2. Now by the mercies of God, the redeemed offer their bodies as living sacrifices not in order to achieve God’s favor or to merit reconciliation with Him but for the sake of the neighbor. This is nicely put by Steven Paulson: “God is keeping his Christians and their churches in this old world as a sacrifice of the body for the neighbor. He does this along with the appeal that they endure suffering, not for their salvation, but for the sake of the old world, that it might be sustained for now, and that the preacher arrives in time to those who have not heard.”[13] Here the preacher could draw out the implications of the Christian life as one of sacrifice as the answer or response of the one who is justified by faith. Good works are completely withdrawn from the equation of justification before God. They are relocated in the world for the well-being of the neighbor. God doesn’t need or want your sacrifice (Ps. 51:16), but the neighbor needs it and so freed from the burden of self-justification we are liberated to live for the sake of the world.

Psalm 6/Midweek in Lent I

Psalm 6 narrates the psalmist own experiences of life under the wrath of God, languishing which permeates his very being. “What the psalmist wants restored is a life of continual praise of Yahweh, not simply a continued existence. The experienced ‘realities’ move from Yahweh’s wrath, via sickness, to death. The prayer is for grace and steadfast love to a life of praise and hope in Yahweh’s steadfast love and will to fellowship.”[14]

Frederick Gaiser observes that “Psalm 6 is the prayer of one ‘shaking in terror,’ a person in great distress who turns to God for healing.’[15]Psalm 6 is a lament[16]. Luther sees lament as an element of repentance in this psalm as the psalmist discloses his own desperate need for God’s consolation and deliverance from turmoil, distress and affliction: “In all trials and afflictions man should first of all run to God; he should realize and accept the fact that everything is sent by God; whether it comes from the devil or from man. This is what the prophet does here. In this psalm he mentions his trials, but first he hurries to God and accepts these trials from Him; for this is the way to learn patience and the fear of God. But he who looks to man and does not accept these things from God becomes impatient and a despiser of God” (AE 14:140).

The preacher might address the “why question” on the basis of Psalm 6[17]. In doing so, we do not engage in speculation but in the proclamation of repentance and faith. Speculation, it seems, is more comfortable than repentance and lest risky we imagine rather than faith in a God who kills and makes alive. But speculation cannot penetrate God in His absolute hiddenness; it will finally yield no answers. In providing pastoral care to folk vexed by questions concerning predestination, Luther directs us away from God in His hiddenness. This is precisely where the “why” questions lead. Instead Luther points to God’s mercy revealed in the manger and the cross, coming at God from below. The table talk recorded by Caspar Heydenreich on February 18, 1542 sets forth Luther's response to those who use the doctrine of election for speculation rather than faith. Luther warns against an "epicurean" approach that is nothing more than fatalism. Such a fatalistic approach casts aside the Passion of Christ and the Sacraments. It is the work of the devil to make us unbelieving and doubtful. It would be foolish of God to give us His Son and the Scriptures if he wished us to be uncertain or doubtful of salvation.

God is truthful and His truth gives us certainty. A distinction must be made, Luther asserts, between the knowledge of God and the despair of God. We know nothing of the unrevealed God, the hidden God. God blocks the path here. "We must confess that what is beyond our comprehension is nothing for us to bother about."[18] We are to stick with the revealed God. "He who inquires into the majesty of God shall be crushed by it."[19] God gives us His Son so that we may know that we are saved. Hence we are "to begin at the bottom with the incarnate Son and with your terrible original sin."[20] We are to stick with Baptism and the preaching of God's Word.

Turning to his own experience, Luther recalls the consolation he received from Staupitz when vexed by the question of election. Staupitz directed him to the wounds of Christ wherein we have the mercy of God revealed; God is surely there for us. The example of Adam and Eve is warning against every attempt to find God apart from His Word for such an endeavor is more than spiritually frustrated; it ends in unbelief for God wraps Himself in His promises of mercy and grace and He will not let sinners access Himself in place other than His Gospel: “Without the Word, there is neither faith nor understanding. This is the invisible God. The path is blocked here. Such was the answer which the apostles received when they asked Christ when he would restore the kingdom to Israel, for Christ said, ‘It is not for you to know.’ Here God desires to be inscrutable and to remain incomprehensible.”[21] Apart from the baby of Bethlehem who goes on to suffer and die as the man of Calvary, God remains an evasive presence whose ways are inexplicable and whose power is condemnation.

No comfort is to be found in the "hidden God" (deus absonditus) but only in the "revealed God" (deus revelatus) that is in Christ[22]. Hence preaching begins below at manger and cross and not above in the majesty that terrifies. "Paul…desires to teach Christian theology, which does not begin above in the utmost heights, but below in the profoundest depths…If you are concerned with your salvation, forget all ideas of law, all philosophical doctrines, and hasten to the crib and his mother's bosom and see him, an infant, a growing child, a dying man. Then you will be able to escape all fear and errors. This vision will keep you on the right way. He (Luther) says the same in the briefest possible formula: 'To seek God outside of Jesus is the Devil. "[23] We are given only to hear the “preached God,” the Deus revelatus as Luther puts it it in The Bondage of the Will: “The God who is preached and revealed to us, who gives himself to us and is worshipped by us, differs from the unpreached, unrevealed, not given, not worshipped God...The preached God purifies us from sin and death, so that we become holy. He sends his son to heal us. The God hidden in his majesty, however, does not weep bitterly over death and does not abolish it, rather this hidden God effects life, death, and everything in between. As such he has not become restrained in his Word; rather he has reserved for himself freedom above everything else.”[24]

Luther notes that “when God seizes man, man is by nature weak and disheartened, because he does not know whether God is taking him in hand out of anger or in grace.” (AE 14:140). Hence Luther argues that we must distinguish between God’s wrath revealed against sin and the chastisements that He sends to His children as a kind Father who disciplines those that He loves. This is the tension (or the Anfechtung[25]) which Luther sees expressed in this psalm. Psalm 6 is an example of God’s twofold work, that is His alien work of condemning sin and His proper work of forgiving sin. God does His alien work for the sake of His proper work. He terrifies so that finally He might console. He kills in order to make alive. In short, Psalm 6 reflects what Luther had earlier called the theologia crucis as the Christian life is lived sub contratio, under contrary appearances so that life is found in death, victory in defeat.

Lament is not simply a cry of undirected despair. It is directed to God even in those times when God seems distant and unresponsive. As Bayer puts it “Lament directed to God is always related to past and future praise.”[26] This is surely the case with Psalm 6 as is evidenced by the psalmist’s affirmation in verses 9-10 that the Lord has accepted his plea and his enemies will be put to shame. Lament is recognition of human neediness as one is under attack and has no place you to turn but Christ alone. We recognize our powerlessness over sin, death and the devil but such recognition does not end in despair but the Lord whose promises are sure. Thus Luther writes “Blessed are they who experience this in life, for every man must finally meet his end. When man thus declines and becomes as nothing in all his power, words and being, until there is nothing but a lost and condemned and forsaken sinner, then divine help and strength appear as in Job 11:11-17: ‘When you think you are devoured, then you shall shine forth as the morning star.’ (AE 14:141). In this weakness, we are made strong (see II Cor. 12:10).

Psalm 38/Midweek in Lent II

Psalm 38 reveals “a truly penitent heart” (AE 14:156) says Luther. In this psalm, we hear the voice of one who recognizes the enormity of sin under God’s wrath. Luther’s commentary on Psalm 38 captures something of the weightiness of divine condemnation as he writes of how the arrows of the law have penetrated the heart: “Because of the consciousness of my sin. For the arrows of God and His angry words make real the sin within the heart. That causes restlessness and terror in the conscience and in all the powers of the soul, and it makes the body sick throughout” (AE 14:157). But then, immediately Luther adds “Where this is the case, things are right with man, for the same thing happened to Christ” (AE 14:157).

Luther sees Psalm 38 as descriptive of the condition of man in sin. While also of Christ who was made sin for us and bore the curse of the law in His own body (see Galatians 3:10-13; II Corinthians 5:21).

The language of Psalm 38 is intense and rapidly paced. Gaiser notes “On quick reading, Psalm 38 may give the impression of being a stream-of-consciousness outburst by someone in distress. The words seem to tumble forth, moving from God to self to others, from petition to lament to trust, with little direction or order. It is true that all those elements are present, even true that the themes recur in intermittent mixture, but a more careful reading will demonstrate a literary and rhetorical order that is hardly haphazard – an order that will prove to be therapeutic.”[27] Luther also sees a particular movement and structure in this psalm.

Luther’s reading of this psalm focuses on the potency of the law, that is, God’s “arrows” (v. 2) which have embedded themselves in the conscience terrified by sin. God Himself is the archer who aims His arrows at the heart. The Reformer is of the opinion that the poet (David) is not a hardened sinner for if that were the case, “the arrows would glance off as from a hard stone” (AE 14:157) as they do when they hit the smug and secure. Rather it is David, the believer, who is under attack. He feels the heaviness of sin and gives a visceral description of its effects not only on his soul but also in his body and his social relationships.

The secure sinner does not recognize his sin. David, on the other hand, recognizes his sin, he claims the consequences as own. As we have observed earlier, Luther speaks of the need for a knowledge of self and he recognized that the Psalter in particular provides this knowledge. In his exposition of verse 5, Luther returns to this theme: “But it is foolishness when a man does not know himself but imagines that he is altogether well. The arrows, however, reveal this foolishness when a man does not know himself but imagines that he is altogether well. The arrows, however, reveal this foolishness that man may see how blind he has been in knowing himself. Hence this is the meaning: When I recognized my own foolishness and lack of self-understanding, I also recognized ow very foul and stinking my wounds really are” (AE 14:158).

Those who say they have no sin deceive themselves says the Apostle in I John. Decorated tombs conceal the sight of rotting bodies. Those who are blind but claim to see demonstrate how blind they are indeed. The law is preached that the lie might be broken and the truth of human sin revealed. Only then can sin be confessed for what it is.

The confession of sin is not a work which merits forgiveness. Confession is the recognition of our neediness before God; our acknowledgment in words of verse 4 that our sins are “too heavy for me.”. Without the knowledge of sin in all of its ugliness, there will be no need for the redemption provided by Christ alone.

Luther does not leave this psalm before confessing the gracious work of God in Christ Jesus: “It is God’s nature to make something out of nothing, hence one who is not yet nothing, out of him God cannot make anything. Man, however makes something else out of that which exists; but this has no value whatever. Therefore God accepts only the forsaken, cures only the sick, gives sight only to the blind, restores life only to the dead, sanctifies only the sinners, gives wisdom only to the unwise. In short, He has mercy only on those who are not in grace. Therefore no proud saint, no wise or righteous person, can become God’s material, and God’s purpose cannot be fulfilled in him. He remains in his own work and makes a fictitious, pretended, false, painted saint of himself, that is, a hypocrite” (AE 14:163). For Luther there is no continuum from nature to grace, from vice to virtue; the movement is from death to life.

Psalm 32/Midweek in Lent III

Psalm 32 is a beatitude[28]. It speaks of blessedness for the one who stands righteous before God in the forgiveness of sins. Blessedness consist not in being without sin for all have sinned and fall short of God’s glory (see Romans 3:23) but of the forgiveness of sins which we have freely on account of Christ. “No one is without unrighteousness; before God all are unrighteous, even those who practice works of righteousness and imagine that thus they can escape from unrighteousness; for no one can rescue himself. Therefore blessed are they- not those who have no sin or work their own way out but only those whom God forgives by grace” (AE 14:148).

Pop spirituality asserts that you must learn to forgive yourself. Such advice is both blasphemous and cruel for only God can forgive sin. When we attempt to forgive ourselves we are deifying the self which is idolatry.[29] Thus Luther comments on verse 2: “…not blessed but unblessed is he who does not impute sins to himself, is well pleased with his himself pious, has no qualms of conscience, considers himself innocent, and takes this for his comfort and hope. The apostle says (I Cor. 4:4): ‘I am not aware of anything against myself, but I am not thereby acquitted.’ This is the same as saying: ‘Blessed is he to whom God does not impute sin, of whose sin God is not mindful.’ They are those who constantly impute manifold sins and transgressions to themselves” (AE 14:148). Neither the Psalmist nor the Reformer could ever be accused of promoting a gospel of self-esteem! Blessedness is found not in self-rendered declarations of righteousness but in Christ’s verdict: “Your sins are forgiven.”

Luther sets the truthfulness of God in both the law and the gospel in contrast to the deceitfulness of the human heart. Hermann Sasse once observed that where people cannot recognize the truth they cannot live without the lie. Luther writes on the depth and potency of this lie, the deceit which the psalmist speaks of in v. 2: “Therefore he calls it deceit of the spirit, not a deception which a person commits or deliberately devises against himself or against another, but one which he bears and with which he is born” (AE 14:148-149). This lie is suppressed (see Romans 1:18). This lie, Luther says “can be covered and adorned with a good life, so that man begins to think he is pure and free, while beneath lies the wicked filth which theologians call ‘self-love.’” (AE 14:149). It is the task of preaching the law to unmask this pious lie. In fact, Luther asserts that is impossible to recognize of overcome the lie except through the grace of the Holy Spirit.

Where sin is not recognized and confessed, the conscience is afflicted and this affliction has bodily consequences (vs. 3-4). The heavy hand of God’s judgment will not let up. Luther says “This is due to an evil conscience, which envisions only God’s wrath, as if He were standing over me with a club; hence there can be no peace of heart” (AE 14:4).

In contrast, to the futile attempts to cover one’s own sin with a façade of self-righteousness, to know the truth is not to hide one’s sin (v. 5). Failure to live by faith in the God who justifies the ungodly leads only to the dead-end of self-justification. Luther writes “This is in contrast to those in whom deceit of spirit produces such false confidence that they can unabashedly justify and excuse themselves. Because of this they get into quarrels with other people and lapse into pride, anger, hatred, impatience, condemning, and slander. Their innocence makes them guilty, and yet they claim to have done justly and rightly and to have acted fairly. They conceal deeply their own iniquity, for they look at their own righteousness and do not want to confess their sins to God sincerely and without deceit of the inner spirit. Righteous people, however do not hide their iniquity, do not become angry, do not grow impatient even when they are wronged; for they do not feel that they can be wronged; for they find no righteousness in themselves. These are the blessed to whom God remits iniquity and cancels it because they confess it. Since they do not hide and cover their sin, God covers and hides it” (AE 14:150).

Trials and afflictions will come. Luther sees these as the “rush of great waters” in v.7. The one who does not attempt to survive the onslaught of this attack by appealing to his own righteousness will stand secure. “…that person is holy who stands not on his own holiness but on the Rock of Thy righteousness which is Christ. Everyone who is his own accuser, punisher, and judge is founded on Him when many blows and cruel tribulations come over him like a great flood of water, or when he is persecuted on account of his humble life” (AE 14:151). Paradoxically, the old Adam seeks to rescue himself from condemnation through self-justification; the believer accuses himself: “By my own fault, by my own most grievous fault!”

The psalmist’s confession of sin leads to a confession of the Lord’s mercy as the God who forgives sin and is Himself a hiding place for sinners (v.7). God’s grace delivers and brings salvation. Standing in this salvation we do not trust in our own wisdom but rely on God’s Word just as Abraham, Luther says went out from his homeland (Gen. 12:1ff) with only God’s promise.

Luther takes the reference to the horse and mule who are without understanding and, therefore, can be controlled only with a bit and bridle (v.9) as a picture of those who are without Christ. “I do not like those who must be forced by law, like animals with a bridle, but those who serve Me freely and willingly without the pressure of the Law, in spirit and in love” (AE 14:153).

In preaching Psalm 32, Luther invites the preacher to proclaim genuine confession as an accusation of self-based on the truth of God’s law. Such confession is no recital of self-pity in which we rehearse how we have other have made us victims. Confession is never rationalization. Confession is agreement with God’s verdict of guilt. It opens the way for another verdict; an absolution: “Your sins are forgiven you.” The one who hears and trust in this verdict is blessed for the sake of the suffering and death of God’s Son.

Psalm 130/Midweek in Lent IV

The significance of Psalm 130 for Luther is evident in his hymn, “From Depths of Woe I Cry to Thee” (607 LSB).[30] This hymn, says Claus Westermann, “shows that in this psalm particularly the Reformers found again their own understanding of fear and grace. When Luther renders vv.4 and 7b: ‘Though great our sins and sore our wounds…His helping mercy hath no bounds,’ he gives the same weight to the praise of God’s grace that the psalm does.”[31]

“We are all in deep and great misery, but we do not all feel our condition” (AE 14:189). But Psalm 130 is the prayer, Luther argues, of one who feels the misery brought about by sin: “These are the noble, passionate, and very profound words of a truly penitent heart that is most deeply moved in its distress. In fact, this cannot be understood except by those who have felt and experienced it” (AE 14:189). The psalm speaks not simply to the need for rescue from challenging circumstances of life but for the ultimate need for deliverance from sin.

External afflictions such as sickness, financial woes, family difficulties, impending death and the like may indeed accentuate the power of the law’s internal accusation of the conscience, magnifying the reality of sin in one’s life. Luther sees Psalm 130 as a prayer for deliverance from this distress. It is the voice from the depths where sin presses one to despair. Bayer observes “…the lament does not become silent in light of the promise of an answer, rather, it becomes louder and more sharp. The distress articulated in the lament gains painful depth.”[32]

In Thesis 18 of the Heidelberg Thesis, Luther argues, “It is certain that man must despair of his own ability before he is prepared to receive the grace of Christ” (AE 31:51). Here the preacher should keep in mind the distinction between “utter” and “ultimate” despair[33]. Utter despair is to despair of self. Ultimate despair is to despair of God. In utter despair, we recognize our inability to save ourselves; we are brought to the recognition that the only place to look to for rescue is the Lord whose steadfast love and plenteous redemption are sufficient (v. 7).

Luther brings out the evangelical thrust of this psalm. If God were to act as an accountant and keep record of sin, no one would stand (v.3). No creature can forgive sins. “What good would it do if all creatures were gracious to me and disregarded and forgave my sins, but God marked and retained them?” (AE 14:190). Likewise Luther says “what does it matter if all creatures heap sins upon me and hold them against me as long as God forgives and pays no attention to them?” (AE 14:190). Citing Romans 8:31, Luther asserts that it is God alone who is for us.

Preaching on Psalm 130, the preacher has the opportunity to clarify the “fear of God.” Luther does not see the fear of God merely as a reverential awe of God but a recognition of God’s power over life and death. Recall Luther’s language in the Conclusion to the Ten Commandments in the Small Catechism: “Therefore, we should fear His wrath and not do anything against them [His Commandments].” It is only in the fear of God that faith in His forgiveness is possible. Luther treats the fear of God in vv.4-5 in relationship to the ongoing battle between the “old man” and the “new man” which continues in this life. The old man always stands under the judgment of God so “As long as the old man lives, the fear, that is the crucifixion and execution of the old man, must not cease; nor dare the judgment of God be forgotten. And whoever would live without this crucifying and fear of the judgment of God, does not live aright” (AE 14:190). [34]

Then Luther goes on to speak of the life of the new man constituted in faith now living in opposition to the old man: “Now he describes the hope, the life of the new man, and how one should walk in it. These two things are taught in all the psalms, indeed, in all of Holy Writ. For God deals strangely with His children. He blesses them with contradictory and disharmonious things, for hope and despair are opposites. Yet His children must hope in despair, and perish; for fearing is nothing else than the beginning of despair, and hope is the beginning of recovery. And these two things, direct opposites by nature, must be in us, because the two natures are opposed to each other, the old man and the new man. The old man must fear, despair, and perish; the new man must hope, be raised up, and stand. Both of these are in one person and even in one handiwork at the same time. Just as a wood carver, by chiseling and taking away the wood that does not belong to the carving, enhances the form of his work, so hope, which forms the new man, grows in the midst of fear that cuts down the old Adam” (AE 14:191). Here Luther is speaking of the simul, the fact that the Christian is at the same time both “saint and sinner” as can be seen from Romans 7:7-25.[35]

Another theme that invites the preacher’s attention in this psalm is that of waiting in hope.[36] Living under the cross, the believer does not retreat in despair or turn to his own merits but looks to Christ alone. Hope is grounded in God’s sure word of promise (v.5) This hope, Luther says “is nothing else than relying on God and letting His will stand in every respect” (AE 14:193). God’s promises of redemption are sure for the sake of Christ’s death and resurrection. In Him there is “plenteous redemption” (v. 7). The outcome of Romans 7:25, the victory we have in Christ Jesus is the hope for which Psalm 130 bids us wait. This waiting “is not a sign of capitulation and weakness” for “According to the Old Testament faith, hope is legitimate only where God remains the sole Lord, in activity, in gift and promise, and where man anticipates the future in no other way than as the free gift of God.” [37]

Psalm 143/Midweek Service in Lent V

Weiser says that Psalm 143 portrays is the song of lament of one who prays to God to preserve his endangered life in the face of “outward and inward helplessness.”[38] Luther accents the helplessness of the one who makes supplication to God. To stand before God is always to be in need and utterly dependent of Him: “The life of a saint is more a taking from God than a giving; more a desiring than a having; more a becoming pious than a being pious” (AE 14:196).

The psalmist’s appeal to God is made not on the basis of fragmented and polluted human righteousness but on the sure foundation of God’s reliable righteousness. Human righteousness is untrustworthy. Luther says human righteousness is not the “real thing,” it is not genuine: “So the life, work, and righteousness of the conceited saints is, in comparison with the righteousness and the work of the grace of God, only a semblance and a deadly, harmful fraud if it is held to be the real thing. This is not the truth, but the real truth is that of God, who gives the genuine and fundamental righteousness, namely faith in Christ. If the servant of God, who is without doubt in the state of grace, cannot stand before God’s throne but takes refuge in mercy, where will the proud stay; who, in the blind arrogance of their works and good life, feel they can merit, reward, favor, and God’s righteousness? They also do not fear God’s judgment on the good works, but only on the evil ones, just as though they knew what God’s judgment will pronounce to be good or evil in their case.” (AE 14:197).

The preacher might spend some time drawing out the contrast between human righteousness and the righteousness of Christ.[39] It is natural to think of repentance as sorry for and regret over evil deeds. Here Luther says that the Psalm is teaching us to repent also of our “good” works that become the object of our trust rather than God’s righteousness in Christ. Luther’s point is, of course, that good works- even those done by the Christian energized by God’s grace- are not sufficient for salvation. Even when we claim that these deeds are done with a pure motive we are left on slippery ground.

Psalm 143 conflates the supplication for God’s mercy with an appeal for God’s deliverance from the enemies. Luther sees these enemies as those who oppose Christ and His Gospel (see Philippians 3:18-19): “That is, my enemies, who always oppose me with their wisdom and righteousness. Every Abel has his Cain, every Isaac, his Ishmael; every Jacob, his Esau; and Christ, His Judas, who wars against his soul, especially in those things which pertain to the soul, namely, faith and righteousness. The proud in heart will not stand for it that their work and righteousness is regarded as nothing. Therefore they persecute the truly pious, who live only in the faith and righteousness of God” (AE 14:197). The tentatio of persecution from enemies, isolation and rejection face the psalmist to the point that he sits in darkness like one long dead (v.4).

Yet here we see that Luther’s oratio, meditatio, tentatio works in reverse. Now the tentatio leads to the meditatio, which in turn issues in oratio. This meditation is on the works of the Lord (see Psalm 1). Rather than pondering his own works, the believer recalls and dwells on what God has done: “I have taken no notice of man’s works and words, no matter how brilliant and dear they are to the world, for I know that they can save no one and are of no use except to contribute toward false and vain glory. All comfort, help, and blessedness are due to Thy work alone” (AE 14:199). Luther’s reflections on this kind of meditation echoes Paul in I Corinthians 2:2 where he asserts: “For I have decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.”

Meditation on the works and words of God lead to prayer as the psalmist stretches his hands out to God, thirsting for Him (v.6) and makes supplication for mercy, deliverance, and comfort in Christ.

Luther anticipates the charge that he is so exclusively focused on Christ that he has nothing else to say: “Now someone might say to me: ‘Can’t you ever do anything but speak about the righteousness, wisdom, and strength of God rather than of man, always expounding Scripture from the standpoint of God’s righteous and grace, always harping on the same string and singing the same old song? To this I answer: Let each one look to himself. As for me, I confess: Wherever I found less in Scriptures than Christ, I was never satisfied; but whenever I found more than Christ, I never became poorer. Therefore it seems to me to be true that God the Holy Spirit does not know anything besides Jesus Christ, as He says of Him (John 16:13-14): ‘He will not speak of Himself, but He will take of Mine and declare it to you.’” (AE 14:204). For Luther it is all about Christ. For in Him “God establishes the righteousness of faith in opposition to works” (AE 14:203).[40]

Psalm 102/Good Friday

Psalm 102 shows some parallels to Psalm 22 and Isaiah 52:13-53:11 making it appropriate as a text for Good Friday. The psalm itself is a prayer of one who is afflicted. Not only is there bodily disease and impending death there is loneliness and rejection. Luther sees this psalm as descriptive of the person who shares in Christ’s suffering and His resurrection victory. While classified as a penitential psalm, this psalm has all the characteristics of a lament. It clearly falls within the description provided by Bayer: “Although the full, uninterrupted praise of God’s goodness, which we praise God without affliction and temptation, will happen only at the end, the praise of God is nevertheless assumed in some way in every lament. If God could not be praised at all – even in tears- then humanity would not be able to lament. At least there would be no address for the cry of lament. The lament would be without direction or orientation; it would be aimless and only-self-related lamenting and sooner or later fall silent. Lament directed to God is always related to past and future praise.”[41]

The lament is directed to God in v. 1: “Hear my prayer, O Lord; let my cry come to you.” Luther says that the petitioner’s prayer “is his desire for grace” and his cry is “his story of misery” (AE 14:178).[42] Because life is transitory (v.3), the psalmist invokes God to act swiftly (v.2).

As he often does in his reading of the penitential psalms, Luther sees the suffering as both inward and outward: “For this psalm, like the others, first describes the inner suffering which the saints bear because of their sins in a penitent spirit, then also the persecution by others on account of this same crucified life” (AE 14:179). Here the preacher may wish to elucidate the connection with the suffering of Christ. He did not suffer for His own sin. He is the sinless Son of God who takes our sin into His own body and suffers vicarious (see Galatians 3:13-14; I Peter 2:22-24) and so He suffers under the wrath of God for us, crying out as one forsaken by God. The cry of dereliction is not pretend; it is real (see Matthew 27:46 and note connection with Hebrews 5:7).

Luther notes the contrast drawn by the psalm between the quickly passing life of the sinner under God’s wrath (vs. 3-11) and God’s own everlastingness (v. 12) and the mercy of this God whose name endures forever (v. 13). This God gives a future in a kingdom that is without end. Oppressed temporarily in this short life, Christ’s people “comfort themselves with the thought that they are oppressed with Christ temporarily here on earth, but not on the Last Day” (AE 14:186).

[1] On this point, see Dennis Ngien, Fruit for the Soul: Luther on the Lament Psalms (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2015), 29.

[2] Note Hans-Joachim Iwand: “Our knowledge of God will only be true insofar as the essence of sin is taken into account and is understood. Likewise, our knowledge of sin will only be genuine if it is at the same time understood and recognized in connection with God’s Being, for the one includes the other.” – The Righteousness of Faith According to Luther, trans. Randi H. Lundell (Eugene, Oregon: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2008), 26-27.

[3] “Misleading are the statements of H. Gunkel that the OT does not recognize the total depravity of human nature but only affirms weakness vis-á-vis what is good, and that thus the OT statements are ‘a preparation for the church’s doctrine of original sin.’ On the contrary, the OT emphasizes the total depravity, the degeneracy of guilt of human existence with an altogether different force than the church’s doctrine of original sin”-Hans-Joachim Kraus Psalms 1-59, trans. Hilton C. Oswald (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1993), 503.

[4] Here see Hans-Joachim Kraus: “In a confession of guilt over against God himself, the petitioner submits to the righteous judgment of Yahweh”- Kraus, Psalms 1-59, 503.

[5] On this point see the discussion of Werner Elert, The Christian Ethos, trans. Carl Schindler (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1957), 163-173. Elert traces the subjective understanding of guilt to F. Schleiermacher.

[6] Here note the German New Testament exegete, Udo Schnelle’s comment on Pauline anthropology: “his view of human beings is not merely pessimistic, but realistic” in Theology of the New Testament translated by M. Eugene Boring (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic Press, 2009), 319.

[7] On this point see Gerhard Forde, The Captivation of the Will (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2005), 21.

[8] Gerhard Forde, “Absolution: Systematic Considerations” in The Preached God: Proclamation in Word and Sacrament, edited by Mark C. Mattes and Steven Paulson (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2007), 153.

[9] For more on this point, see Claus Westermann, The Living Psalms, trans. J.R. Porter (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1989), 98.

[10] Here see Mark Seifrid on II Corinthians 4:16, “Paul simultaneously defines salvation as an act of creation and presents creation as an act of salvation. They are bound together not only in their like action but also in their form: just as the creation of light is the work of the word of God, so the Gospel is God’s effective word that creates light in the darkness the human heart. In this effective word, that performs what it says, God’s person and work are revealed. Salvation is coming to know and confess God as the creator of our life.’- The Second Letter to the Corinthians (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2014), 200.

[11] Hans-Joachim Kraus, Psalms 1-59, 507.

[12] For more on this, see John T. Pless, Praying Luther’s Small Catechism (Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2016), 19-21. Also see Albrecht Peters, Commentary on Luther’s Catechisms: Ten Commandments, trans. Holger Sonntag (Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2009), 149-165.

[13] Steven Paulson, “The Simul and the Two Kingdoms: The End of Time Twice” Logia (Reformation 2016), 20. The whole of Chapter 11, “The Fruit of Faith” based on Romans 12:1-2 in Paulson’s book, Lutheran Theology (New York: T & T Clark, 2011), 228-243 is especially helpful in preaching the “new obedience” of which David speaks in Psalm 51:16-19.

[14] Ingvar Fløysvik, When God Becomes My Enemy: The Theology of the Complaint Psalms (Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1997), 42.

[15] Frederick Gaiser, Healing in the Bible: Theological Insights for Christian Ministry (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2010), 8.

[16] Here the preacher is advised to study Oswald Bayer, “Toward a Theology of Lament” in Caritas et Reformatio: Essays on Church and Society in Honor of Carter Lindberg, ed. David Whitford (Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2002), 211-220. On the place of lament in the Psalms, see Claus Westermann, Praise and Lament in the Psalms, trans. K. Crim and R. Soulen (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1981), 165-280.

[17] Here see, John T. Pless, “Answering the ‘Why’ Question: Martin Luther on Human Suffering and God’s Mercy” in Mercy in Action: Essays on Mercy, Human Care and Disaster Response, ed. Ross Johnson (Saint Louis: The Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, 2015), 45-55.

[18] TheodoreTappert(editor), Luther: Letters of Spiritual Counsel (Vancouver: Regent College Publishing, nd), 132.

[19] Tappert, 132.

[20] Tappert, 133.

[21] Tappert, 132.

[22] On God’s hiddenness, see the excellent treatments by Steven Paulson, “Luther’s Doctrine of God” in The Oxford Handbook of Martin Luther’s Theology, ed. Robert Kolb, Irene Dingel, L’ubomir Batka (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014), 187-200 and Oswald Bayer, “God’s Hiddenness” Lutheran Quarterly XXXVIII (Autumn 2014), 266-279. Bayer writes “The dreadful deus absconditus does not let himself be tamed to an open horizon of meaning; he attacks and leads into affliction [Anfechtung]. His hiddenness besieges us in the experience of blind and furious natural catastrophes, irredeemable injustices, innocent suffering, starvation and murder, in each and every war, and the experience of incurable disease. ‘God’ remains in these things, mostly anonymous and almost always veiled in the ‘divine passive’ (passivum divinum ), no lover of life but the accuser and denier- easily confused with the devil –in contrast to his revealed will and the gospel” (273). Also see, Joshua Miller, Hanging by a Promise: The Hidden God in the Theology of Oswald Bayer (Eugene: Pickwick Publications, 2015).

[23] Gerhard Ebeling, Luther: An Introduction to his Thought, trans. R.A. Wilson (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1972), 235.

[24] Cited from LW 33:319 by Notger Slenczka, “God and Evil: Martin Luther’s Teaching on Temporal Authority and the Two Realms” Lutheran Quarterly XXVI (Spring 2012), 19-20. Commenting on this Luther text, Slenczka says “The way God works in the rubble of history might as well be called fate; either way, no person will ever understand the motives and intentions of the force which drives history” (20). In history the works of God remain “opaque” (21) as they are hidden to human beings. Compare with Werner Elert’s discussion of “fate” in An Outline of Christian Doctrine, trans. Charles M. Jacobs (Philadelphia: The United Lutheran Publication House, 1927), 33-36.

[25] Here see Athina Lexutt, “In Praise of Anfechtung” Lutheran Quarterly (Winter 2013), 439-442. Also note Dennis Janz, “To Hell (and Back) with Luther: The Dialectic of Anfechtung and Faith” in Encounters with Luther: New Directions for Critical Studies ed. K. Stjerna and B. Schramm (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 2016), 17-29.

[26] Bayer, “Toward a Theology of Lament,” 218.

[27] Gaiser, Healing in the Bible, 75.

[28] Here see A. Weiser: “The poet wrote two ‘Beatitudes’ with which the psalm opens his heart’s blood”-The Psalms, trans. Herbert Hartwell (Piladelphia: Westminster Press, 1962), 283.

[29] For more on Luther’s understanding of the idolatry of self, see Michael Lockwood, The Unholy Trinity: Martin Luther Against the Idol of Me, Myself, and I (Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2016).

[30] See Robin Leaver, Luther’s Liturgical Music: Principles and Implications (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007), 142-152. Leaver notes “It is this hymn, one of the first Lutheran hymns to have been written that expounds the essence of Reformation faith and theology, that the response to the Law and the Gospel is not ‘do acts of penance’ but ‘repent and believe.’” (152).

[31] Westermann, The Living Psalms, 121.

[32] Bayer, “Toward a Theology of Lament,” 212.

[33] See Gerhard Forde, On Being a Theologian of the Cross (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997), 65-67. Also note Iwand: “The despair of one’s own actions before God is therefore exactly the opposite of the despair that drives men to destruction and to despair of the forgiveness of sins. For this ‘hellish journey of self-recognition’ in which I really know how things stand with myself brings home the truth to me. The bitter truth about myself is the price I pay for being rewarded with the blessed truth about God”- Iwand, The Righteousness of Faith According to Luther, 57-58.

[34] For a good example of how to preach the fear of God, see Mark Mattes, “From Fear to Love or Fear and Love of God” Lutheran Forum (Easter, 2003), 49-51.

[35] For an instructive defense of the Lutheran reading of Romans 7, see Mark Seifrid, “The Voice of the Law, the Cry of Lament, and the Shout of Thanksgiving” in Perspectives on our Struggle with Sin: 3 Views of Romans 7 ed. Terry Wilder (Nashville: B & H Academic, 2011), 111-171. The simul is not an excuse for continuation in sin but rather a lament that one utters with confidence in the promise of deliverance in Christ. So Bayer speaks of Romans 7:24-25a as an “anthropology of answered lament”- “Toward a Theology of Lament,” 212

[36] Here also see Bayer on the tension between patience and urgency. The Christian is strained to the breaking point as he holds on to God’s promise even as he hopes while recognizing “the painful difference between need and promise….In this tension of waiting and hoping on the grounds of promise, the lament’s seriousness and urgency (its sighing and waiting, cf. Rom. 8:18ff) exists: ‘We await you, O Son of God.’ “-“Toward a Theology of Lament,” 212.

[37] Hans Joachim Kraus, Theology of the Psalms, trans. Keith Crim (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992), 158

[38] Weiser, The Psalms, 818.

[39] Here also see theses 8, 11 and 16 in Luther’s Heidelberg Theses (AE 31:40). Also Forde, On Being a Theologian of the Cross,43- 48, 59-63.

[40] The preacher will do well to carefully study “Faith and Works” in Iwand, The Righteousness of Faith According to Luther, 57-68.

[41] Bayer, “Toward a Theology of Lament,” 218.

[42]Also note Luther’s sermon on II Corinthians 15:23 from October 20, 1532: “Therefore, every Christian must learn that this sighing and lamenting will be heard and makes a noise in heaven, that the Lord will come and help” – cited by Bayer, “Toward a Theology of Lament,’ 217.