Today I’d like to introduce you to one of the greatest theologians of the Lutheran Church, named Johann Gerhard (not to be confused with the hymnwriter by a similar name, Paul Gerhardt, although the two were contemporaries). Gerhard is often referred to “the third in that series of Lutheran theologians (Martin Luther, Martin Chemnitz, Johann Gerhard) in which there is no fourth.”
Gerhard was born in 1582 in Quedlinburg, a city in the northern third of Germany. At the age of fourteen he was introduced to Johann Arndt (1555-1621), an influential Lutheran Pastor, who influenced Gerhard to study for the Holy Ministry. In 1599 Gerhard began his studies at the University of Wittenberg, where he studied philosophy and theology. However, a relative convinced him that he would be a better fit with medicine, so for two years he studied that. However, by 1603 he knew that he should be studying theology, so he resumed his study of it at the University of Jena. He graduated from that school in 1605 and began to serve there as a lecturer. In 1606 he became superintendent (an office similar to that of Bishop or District President) of Heldburg. He served there until 1616 when he became senior professor of theology at the University of Jena, where he spent the remainder of his life. That doesn’t mean he wasn’t sought out! He received teaching offers from every university in Germany as well as the University of Upsala in Sweden, but declined all of them. He died in Jena in 1637.
He is best known for his monumental Loci Theologici, a 23-volume theology textbook, currently being translated into English by Concordia Publishing House as Gerhard’s Theological Commonplaces. While he was a dominating figure for academic theology, he was pastoral at heart. His second best known work is “Sacred Meditations,” a devotional work. It is a series of 51 devotional writings on every aspect of Christian theology, from repentance and forgiveness to “practical” topics such as peace, humility, charity, and patience. Even though Gerhard wrote it in Latin, it was quickly translated into German and then nearly every other European language (including Greek). It was even translated into Arabic! Though it is not a large book, it is a true treasure.
In our current pandemic, one of the biggest words (besides “flatten the curve”) is patience. Gerhard’s forty-first meditation is called “The Principles of Christian Patience.” In this meditation, he shows how patience shaped Christ’s life and that it is what shapes the Christian life. Crosses are given to us by God for our good, to teach us to patiently rely on Him instead of relying on ourselves and the things of this world. Our current situation is no different. We are being reformed by God, being taught by Him to forsake all those things that previously gave us comfort and stability.
Early in the meditation, Gerhard reminds us that our discomfort is temporary, while the peace of God is eternal:
Think of the inconveivable reward held out to thee. “For I reckon that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us” (Romans 8:18). Whatever our suffering may be here, it is only for a time—nay, it is sometimes but for a day—but the glory that awaits us is forever and ever. God knows perfectly all our adversities and some day He will bring them all into judgment (Ecclesiastes 12:14). (236-37)
When we suffer, though it seems like the worst thing ever, we are reminded to look to the example of the saints. The Christians of all times have suffered. We are reminded of people like Job, John the Baptist, Peter, James, Mary, and all the other unnamed saints who have endured times of hardship and testing. All of them endured and we know that they are enjoying their heavenly reward. They are an encouragement to us. They lived by the grace of God and teach us to do the same. However, Gerhard does rebuke us a bit for trying to avoid suffering:
If we are indeed sons of God, let us not refuse to share the portion of the rest of His children. If we truly desire to be heirs of God, let us joyfully accept all that heirship involves. But let us remember that as sons of God we are heirs not only of the joy and the glory of the future life, but also of the sorrow and of the suffering of this present life, for “God scourgeth every son whom He receiveth” (Hebrews 12:6). (238)
St. Paul encourages us in his Epistle to the Colossians to “set your mind on things above, not on things on the earth” (Colossians 3:2). As Gerhard teaches us, being formed by the suffering and trials of this world teaches us patience and teaches us to do exactly what St. Paul bids us do:
But consider the blessed advantages of the cross. It destroys the roots of worldly love in us, and implants the love of God in our heart. The cross begets within us a hatred of the world, and lifts up our minds to the contemplation of things heavenly and divine. If we mortify the deeds of the flesh, the Holy Spirit lives within us; and as the world becomes bitter to our souls, Christ becomes sweeter and sweeter.” (239)
It is good for us to learn patience, to be shaped by the cross, because this drives us more and more to the Lord:
If the love of the world fills our hearts, then the love of God can find no entrance therein. A vessel already full cannot be filled with some new liquid unless it first be emptied. Let us therefore empty our hearts to the love of the world, that we may fill them with the love of God. So God, in sending the cross, seeks to destroy the love of the world in us, that the divine love may find place in our heart. The cross, moreover, leads us to prayer, and becomes the occasion for the exercise in us of Christian virtues. When the north wind blows upon the garden, its spices flow out (Song of Solomon 4:16), and when persecutions sweep over the Church then are developed those peculiar graces and virtues which are so pleasing to God. (240)
Christ alone takes the hardest of afflictions and the most bitter of cups and turns them into the softest pillow and the sweetest wine. He teaches us that His love abounds, that His mercy endures forever, and that in Him we are heirs of eternal glory. “Lord Jesus, lead us on and on, and to its blissful enjoyment finally bring us! Amen.” (241)
All quotations from
Gerhard, Johann. Sacred Meditations. C.W. Heisler, trans. Philadelphia: Lutheran Publication Society, 1896. 235-241.
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This is the question we all ask when we see something different, especially in church. Why are we using white instead of red? Why does this day have a name? Why did the Pastor do what he just did?