Stamping on C-4

C-4 is a plastic explosive I was trained to use.  You could take a piece of this white doughy substance and safely heat your C-Rations.  But if you tried to put that fire out by stamping on it, the resulting explosion could blow your foot off.  Stamping on C-4 is what I might be doing in this review of the Rev. Dr. John Kleinig’s Grace Upon Grace.

This book came to my attention when a brother pastor referred to an illustration from it that he, and I too, thought quite striking.  I began reading the book, and I found some things unsettling.  I pursued them with the editors at Concordia Publishing House, and they assured me it was nothing.  When one of my members told me he had received it as a public television- like “gift” for supporting Issues, Etc., I was bothered.  It was like giving someone C-4 and telling them they could use it to safely heat their food but not telling them “Don’t stamp on it when it’s lit.”

Now that I’ve read the entire book I’m thinking that perhaps the book is beyond the limits of my intelligence rather than beyond the limits of Confessional Lutheran theology.  Perhaps if I just let it burn and bask in the warmth of the profound spiritual truth that is there, there wouldn’t be any problem.  You’ll have to decide.  At least this review will point out where not to stamp.

Here are some problem passages for me:

“By prayer we receive the Holy Spirit, so that we can live and work by the power of the Spirit” (45).  I stamp on this with Smalcald Articles, III, VIII, 10 and I get an explosion.  That reads: “God does not want to deal with us in any other way than through the spoken Word and the Sacraments.  Whatever is praised as from the Spirit – without the Word and Sacraments is the devil himself.”

“By sensitizing us to how others judge us, our conscience helps us to assess ourselves in a reasonable honest, balanced way” (50).  I stamp on this with I John 3: 20 and I get an explosion.  “If our hearts condemn us, we know that God is greater than our hearts.” Kleinig goes on to say the Word of God must enlighten our conscience, but the explosion already happened in my head.

He says Dr. Hermann Sasse gave him “the best spiritual counsel” he ever received.  Kleinig went to him troubled by distractions he experienced during the Divine Service.  Keinig complained to him that the devil always seemed to distract him.  Sasse answered, “Who says that it is the devil?  Perhaps it is the Holy Spirit?”  This didn’t cause an explosion.  It’s a Sasse paradox.  Kleinig’s application did spark and explosion and I don’t think I stamped on it this time.

“I note the distractions that interrupt my worship and devotions and take each of them, if possible, as an instruction from the Holy Spirit – an instruction about something that I need to repent of or to pray for; an instruction about who to pray for and how; an instruction about what to enjoy as a good gift from God or to receive with thanksgiving; an instruction about my work or what God wants me to do for Him; an instruction about what I need to learn from God or to say to others.  And so on!  In this way I let God set His agenda for me week by week in church.  If I am at all in doubt about any distraction, my default position is that it is a summons to prayer” (84, 85).  Then later on (120) he says, “The moment of meditation usually comes to us as an apparent distraction, a random train of thought, a shift of attention, and a drift in focus.  In most cases this is the work of the Holy Spirit.”  Still later (215) he writes, “I take any subjective and objective distractions during the service as directives to pray for the people involved.”  Can this be meshed, gelled, aligned with Luther’s statement that he had covenanted with the Lord not to speak with him in visions or in dreams because they are uncertain but only to speak with him in the Word?  Are distractions more certain than visions and dreams?

With this next one, I may be stamping, but I’ve never went off on the Orthodox’s “Jesus Prayer,” but I have always been afraid of it.  I am also afraid of this: “I employ another method of deep physical and mental relaxation.  I make a short confession of faith, like ‘Lord Jesus Christ’ and ‘My Lord and my God,’ or say a short prayer, like ‘Lord, have mercy’ and ‘Come, Lord Jesus come,’ and I repeat it to myself, like a mantra, synchronizing the words by breathing deeply in and out with the beat of my pulse.  This helps me to settle down so that I become alert and mindful and receptive to Christ” (148).  This sounds like Eastern religious meditative techniques.

In the following I am stamping partly because Kleinig is quoting Kierkegaard and I regard his theology as seductive rather than instructive.  “’A man prayed, and at first he thought that prayer was talking.  But he became more and more quiet until in the end he realized that prayer is listening’” (178-9).  Go to your local Christian bookstore and you will find this sentiment on every shelf.  Prayer is a sacrificial act not a sacramental.  No, I speak in prayer; I listen to Word and Sacraments.

Here I don’t think I’m stamping, but if I think he is off in prayer, then I will probably find him off in regard to fasting.  “Fasting, therefore, is a kind of spiritual house cleaning.  It’s ‘reward’ is greater freedom from oppression by Satan and deeper intimacy with God” (244)  Does this jibe with the Augsburg Confession Article XXVI: “Therefore, we do not condemn fasting in itself, but the traditions which prescribe certain days and certain meats, with peril of conscience, as though such works were a necessary service.”

On this next one, I’m afraid to get near much less stamp.  “The Holy Spirit may even wake us up during the so-called witching hours to pray for someone in danger.  We will, most likely, be kept awake on a vigil for them until our prayer is answered and the attack has passed” (263).  How many beleaguered, besieged souls I’ve come across wondering if God was warning them by a feeling, by not being able to sleep, by a hunch, a thought,  by a “I don’t know what.”  The witching hour is when demons, ghosts, and spirits are thought to be about.  It’s 3-6 A.M.  What I find interesting is that if you look at a Uniform Crime Report for any year, any place, crime decreases during these hours.

I do believe there is danger in some of the things Kleinig says, but there is Grace upon Grace too.

“This encouragement for engagement in regular prayer is misunderstood if it implies that we sin against God if we fail to pray every day.  That’s what Satan would have us believe in order to load us up with guilt and discourage us in our devotional life” (179).

“The best approach [for Satan] to sustain guilt is to promote neurotic guilt that makes people feel badly about something trivial or to arouse a general pervasive sense of guilt so that people feel guilty without knowing quite why or what to do about it” (246).

“We resist the devil through our faithful attendance at the Divine Service.  That’s where Christ fights for us and equips us for the battle.  Divine Service is His main base and our safe place of refuge” (266).

And then there were some points like the following that struck me as “O if only this were true”:

“Once we have memorized a verse from the Bible, it becomes so much a part of us that it works on us and provides protection for us even when we are not aware of it, such as when we are fast asleep” (149).

“This method of intercession consists in using my faith to bring a person to Jesus.  In this way I introduce someone to Him in my mind and let Him take over from there” (217).

Overall what bothered me the most was that Grace Upon Grace took me away, perhaps through my own most grievous fault, from the pious life described in the Apology of the Augsburg Confession, XXVII, 38, “It is written that when Anthony asked God to show him what progress he was making in this kind of life, he was shown in a dream a certain shoemaker in the city of Alexandria for comparison. The next day Anthony came into the city and went to the shoemaker to determine his exercises and gifts, and he spoke with the man.  He heard nothing except that early in the morning the shoemaker prayed a few words for the entire state, and then worked his trade. Here Anthony learned that justification is not to be ascribed to the kind of life which he had entered.”

However, I’m willing to consider these boots might have stomped where they ought not to.  I’m willing to blame the editing.  When Dr. Scaer agreed to right the preface to my devotion books he sent me pages with a note saying, “It will need major editing.”  I was surprised.  Perhaps this is the spirit in which Dr. Kleinig sent his manuscript in.  And there are two spots which show close editing was lacking.  Page 144 has this sentence which lacks a “he”: “Where we meditate, we concentrate on Christ and listen to Him as ___ speaks to us through His Word.”  And unless Concordia Publishing House has a Swedish edition of this book this quote of John 16:22 on page 150 is wrong: “your hearts will rgvejoice.”

Should you read the book?  If you do, read it like you eat fish with bones.  Eat the meat and don’t choke on the bones.  And whatever you do don’t stamp.

About Paul Harris

Pastor Harris retired from congregational ministry after 40 years in office on 31 December 2023. He is now devoting himself to being a husband, father, and grandfather. He still thinks cenobitic monasticism is overrated and cave dwelling under.
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