When God Rolls up His Sleeves: Paul Gerhardt on the Cross of Christ

Rev. Gaven M. Mize

The thing about the world is that it gets pretty messy. Since the Fall into sin, we have been trying to claim God's throne for our own. With each sin we are attempting to dethrone the One True God, creating for ourselves the idols that we prefer to worship. From the shut gates of Eden we carried ourselves out into the fallen world to wander and die.

Uplifting, no? Had God left us to the wiles of the evil one and to our own sin, then perhaps it would be rather discouraging. But, He didn't. He sent His Son, born of a virgin. But why would Jesus come to earth in the first place? With that question the road forks rather abruptly. To the left you may choose the Theology of Glory or to your right you see the Theology of the Cross. And while the path of the Theology of Glory may appear clean, and without thorns, its endpoint is utterly without majesty, for it leads straight to self-righteousness. This path is incompatible with the truth, which is found in the Theology of the Cross. Gerhardt Forde called these two paths, "two different religions." And they are two different religions, for while the left path will take you to works-righteousness the path to the right explains the present reality of righteousness worked in us by Christ. And this leads us to Paul Gerhardt and to his hymns, which consistently proclaim the Theology of the Cross.

In the parish that I serve, I often use the term "God rolled up His sleeves" to point to two absolute truths: the incarnation (and following that to its completion, the crucifixion) and the resurrection. I use it in the sense that when God took on flesh in Christ He was not standing far off, but He had come to take on the sorrows, pains, and sins of humanity. When we read the Gospel accounts of Christ taking these onto Himself, it becomes a resounding truth that beats in our hearts and trumpets out of our mouths in songs of praise and devotion. Gerhardt knew this well. He was a student and teacher who understood that orthodoxy and orthopraxy (correct belief and practice) were two sides of the same coin. That which we believe, teach, and confess is laid in front of us as we enter into prayer, devotion, and in worship. Gerhardt couldn't separate piety from the mysteries of Christ, and what Christ has done for us on the cross and from the empty tomb. Gerhardt's hymns are often paraphrases of what the Word of God stated and, because of this, the proclamation of the Gospel set to music shaped and taught meditation and devotion to the inerrant Word.

Gerhardt also promoted liturgical piety through his hymns. In his hymn, "O Lord, How Shall I Meet You" Gerhardt points to pious preparation of each Advent of Christ (incarnational, sacramental, and eschatological) as well as the overwhelming need for sinners to receive the Savior who has "rolled up His sleeves" to save us. How we would prepare and meet the Savior is a devotional concentration on the holy things of God, which emerges from worship, and permeates into everyday life and the personal exercise of the faith. Gerhardt taught sacramental piety in a way that hit at the heart of what it means to have the old Adam in us drowned, to be reborn, and to be fed with the life-giving Body and Blood of Christ. For Gerhardt, the reality of God's own absolution in the sacraments was a mystical communication between Christ Himself and the receiver of these means of grace. This union between God and man is directly connected to the blood that was poured out for us on the cross of Calvary. In the second stanza of Gerhardt's hymn, "A Lamb Goes Uncomplaining Forth" he shows that through Christ's death we are given to fruits of the cross, namely His Body and Blood to eat and drink. The stanza ends with these words: "The wrath and stripes are hard to bear, But by Thy Passion men shall share The fruit of Thy salvation." That fruit that we sing about is the fruit from the tree of the Second Adam. And so the offering of the Sacrificed Lamb connects us to the Divine and grants us, "...joy beyond all measure."

When studying Gerhardt's devotional understanding of scripture it's not too difficult to see that he was never far from the cross. Gerhardt understood the consolation of the brethren extremely well. He also understood the heart of anthropology as it pertains to the fallen world and the havoc sin has created in our lives, families, and world. For Gerhardt there was one balm for all these ills: that in God taking on flesh in the incarnation, His steps were guided to the cross for our salvation. Gerhardt fleshes this out often in his hymnody. And one stanza that has always struck a chord with me, and with those to whom I have preached this topic, is from "If God Himself Be For Me."

Who clings with resolution, To Him whom Satan hates,
Must look for persecution; For him the burden waits,
Of mockery, shame, and losses, Heaped on his blameless head;
A thousand plagues and crosses, Will be his daily bread.

This stanza brings to the forefront of our mind the devotion that God has toward us, and since He is for us and has taken on the pain of all pains and suffered all suffering, then surely through His victory on the cross He knows our woes and grants us salvation.

Suffering, illness, persecution, and death are not abstract concepts to our God. He knows them intimately. He knows them because He rolled up His sleeves and went to work earning our salvation. Paul Gerhardt knew this, taught this, and had the amazing ability to communicate in his hymns the human condition, the damnation of sin, the incarnation as compassion, and the crucifixion as atonement. He had his finger on the pulse of the Theology of the Cross. He also knew that from the path of Christ, all merits flowed from His wounds into the font and chalice. And so the hymnist of great compassion would find all consolation in the wounds of Jesus. And he would faithfully proclaim from the reconciliation found in the Means of Grace, that all mankind is comforted and no woe can harm us since God Himself be for us. To put it another way, Gerhardt reminds all forgiven sinners, "Hear! The Conqueror has spoken: "Now the foe, Sin and woe, Death and hell are broken!" God is man, man to deliver, And the Son, Now is one, With our blood forever."

Rev. Gaven M. Mize serves as pastor at Augustana Lutheran Church, Hickory, North Carolina.

Created: May 4th, 2016