That is a beloved phrase of Luther. The explanation of the 2nd article of the creed goes, “I believe the Jesus Christ …has redeemed me, a lost and condemned person, purchased and won me from all sins, from death and from the power of the devil.”
There is a woodcut from the Book of Concord – Power and Primacy of Pope with the same phrase nearby showing Christ’s victory over hell as an active bursting of the gates.
There are three things running in my head as I start this. The first is the emotional heft. Our church organist and choir director has been sick and remains so. Two other items are the intellectual fodder. Here is Richard Beck working on a series he is calling the slavery of death. And here is Scot McKnight talking about his book and what he sees as a poor shortening of the gospel.
Most protestants probably operate with what Scot McKnight is calling the soterian gospel. The soterian gospel is all about being “saved”. A more theological way of saying that in Lutheran terms would be saying that ‘the church stands or falls on Article 4 (of the Augsburg Confession on justification)’ or what I would label as using only legal metaphors for what God does. It is not that the statement “God declares you righteous through the atoning sacrifice of Christ” is wrong, but that it is not the whole story. The legal metaphors apply greatly to sin. We feel in absolution that God has moved our sin away from us as far as the east is from the west (Psalm 103:12). We see Jesus having the power to forgive sin with his word. (Luke 5:20) This is very legal and very in the moment.
But the legal metaphors feel like a sham in the face of death. We still experience something that in our personal experience can’t be undone. If being saved, if being declared righteous, still ends up here – tell me why this is important?
Read for a second 1 Cor 15:54-57.
“When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written: “Death is swallowed up in victory.” 55 “O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?” 56 The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. 57 But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. (1Co 15:54 ESV)”
While sin might be a legal metaphor, when the Bible talks about death or the devil it talks victory…it talks freedom. The gates of brass are burst. The iron fetters yield. If the gospel is just about clearing my conscience and making me feel better about myself – well rubbish. I can go to a shrink and say my daily affirmation. And there is no need to think about supernatural things. But the gospel is bigger. The gospel is about who is Lord.
This one who was crucified. Who was placed in the ground for three days. This Jesus Christ has been raised. He has defeated death. And those who are baptized into Christ are baptized into his death so that they might also rise like him. (Rom 6:3-4) This risen one is Lord. Satan doesn’t want us to know that, or he wants us to despair of that.
Brothers and sisters, we do not want you to be uninformed about those who sleep in death, so that you do not grieve like the rest of mankind, who have no hope. 14 For we believe that Jesus died and rose again, and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him. (1Th 4:13-14 NIV)
What I hope to do in this series is unpack that a little and see how we make more real in our lives not just the forgiveness of sin but the victory over death and the devil.