While all of the teachings of the Reformation might be filed under the categories of “polemical,” “problematic” or even “radical” in both the 16th and 21st centuries, it is perhaps most challenging to hear that, when all is said and done, we are “lost in wonder, love and praise” to a God who alone makes all things new for us in Jesus Christ.
Written in 1747 by Charles Wesley, “lost in wonder, love and praise” are the closing words of the hymn, “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling.” More than a mere throw-away line, these words frame both the difficulty and hope introduced when it is revealed to us that it is God alone to whom belongs all glory, honor and praise.
One of the chief difficulties posed by knowing that it is to God alone that all glory belongs, so that in the end we are “lost in wonder, love and praise,” comes into sharp focus when compared with the closing lines from the poem “Invictus,” written in 1875 by William Ernest Henley. Meaning “unconquered,” or “unconquerable,” the poem ends in this way: “ I am the master of my own fate./I am the captain of my own soul.”
Dependence on God
This, then, is the difficulty at its core: In the end, are we completely dependent upon God who makes all things new for us in Jesus Christ, or are we, in the final account, the ones who are “unconquered,” and thus are the ones who are responsible to make things new for ourselves. Or, is it a little bit of both God and us who make things new?
Wrapped up in all of this is the question of human freedom. The question is an old one. The debate rages on, both inside the church and out, as to the answer. To whom shall we (finally) go? To whom shall we turn? Where is our hope to be (finally) found?
While people may not want to identify the issues as I’ve presented them here, they are revealed as clear as day when reading and interpreting texts.
When reading and teaching the Genesis 3 story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, I often like to ask students to identify where exactly Adam (and Eve) are guilty of original sin.
The question of free will
Inevitably, students point to the taking and eating of the fruit. When pushed further, the students will say that Adam and Eve were given free will, but Adam and Eve made a poor choice in how they exercised the free will they had been given.
When I ask where exactly in the text they see that God gave Adam and Eve free will, the power to be “the master of (their) own fate, the captain of (their) own soul(s),” the students are left stymied. They can’t see it, but they know it must be there, because, as they often tell me, “everyone has free will.”
In those instances, I point out that the original sin is that Adam and Eve tried to become their own gods. I further suggest that original sin and free will are synonymous, and that things may not, in fact, be finally up to us but rather up to God. At this, students become confused and then outraged, whether they have attended worship and been confirmed or not their whole lives long.
The outrage has to do with how much they think of themselves and how very little they think of God.
No wonder they respond as they do. They are more given to believe the narrative written by Henley than the good news unearthed by the Reformers. And, really, how could they do otherwise?
They are products of a culture that is built on the bedrock of (post-) Enlightenment understandings of the human being, such as the poem written by Henley.
In the face of such an understanding, songs like that of Charles Wesley, not to mention popular slogans by the likes of Martin Luther that point to God alone as the source of “forgiveness, life, and salvation” in Jesus Christ, are more than challenging and difficult.
They are also deadly.
For in the understanding that it is to God alone to whom belongs all glory, honor and praise, the sinful self, made manifest in (post-) modern narratives of self-sufficiency and self-salvation, are exposed for what they are and put to death.
All through Jesus
When Wesley writes that in the final account, we are “lost in wonder, love and praise,” it is wholly and finally because of the kind of God we have. Far more gracious than capricious, this God comes all the way down to us — right down to where we are — and gets to work making all things new for us in Jesus Christ.
Sitting down smack-dab in the middle of our lives, Jesus Christ gets to hauling on his back the weight of our sin and death, our brokenness and emptiness, our failures and our faults, Jesus Christ gives to us and works in us what is his to give. Martin Luther describes it this way in the Small Catechism: “forgiveness of sins, life and salvation.”
In the midst of (post-) Enlightenment narratives about ourselves that still run amok in different clothing, it is interesting to note that, in the explanation to the second article of the Apostles’ Creed, Luther quells any notion that we need to do our part so that God can do his own, when he writes, “All this he does, so that I can be his own … .” (Emphasis mine)
It is no wonder, then, that in the end, we are “lost in wonder, love and praise.” After all, in Jesus Christ, God makes all things new for us. And as a result, it is to God alone — and not ourselves — that all glory belongs.