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White Horse Inn: Conversational Theology

What is the Essence of Christianity?

In the Lutheran tradition, three names stand out above all others: Martin Luther (1483-1546), Martin Chemnitz (1522-1586), and Johann Gerhard (1582-1637). As the father of the Reformation, Luther needs no introduction, even among non-Lutherans.

Chemnitz is also well-known, primarily for his role in the production and propagation of the Formula of Concord (1577) and his masterful Examination of the Council of Trent (1566). But largely unknown to modern-day English-speaking Christians—including many Lutherans—is the work of Johann Gerhard.

Gerhard was both a churchman and a theologian. From 1606 to 1616 he served as superintendent (that is, bishop) in the Duchy of Coburg. During this time, Gerhard produced a number of devotional works directed at edifying clergy and laity alike. The majority of his ministry (1616-1637), however, was spent serving as professor of theology at the University of Jena, where his work earned him such titles as arch-theologian and morning star of the Lutheran Church, the primary teacher of Lutheran theologians, and the master of Lutheran theology. (1) His abilities were such that a common proverb among Lutherans said that Gerhard was “the third in that series of Lutheran theologians (Luther, Chemnitz, Gerhard) in which there is no fourth.” (2)

While Gerhard wrote on numerous topics, few occupied his attention like the death of the Son of God. He penned prayers and meditations on Jesus’ passion, (3) offered pastoral guidelines grounded in the Savior’s suffering, (4) and dedicated entire treatises to exploring Christ’s death. (5) Indeed, for Gerhard, “the death of Christ and His suffering is the essence of Christianity.” (6) Here, when elaborating upon the cross of Christ perhaps more than any other place, Gerhard the shepherd and Gerhard the scholar meet, as he reveals both his pastoral concern for Christ’s sheep and the penetrating depth of his theological insight.

Sin Revealed by the Death of Christ

Lutherans have long affirmed that both law and gospel are revealed in the death of Christ. (7) While the latter is not surprising, given that the Apostle Paul affirms that the life, death, and resurrection of Christ for the forgiveness of sins is the gospel (1 Cor. 15:1-4), some heirs of the Reformation balk at the idea that law is disclosed in the death of the Son of God, believing instead that Christ’s death is pure gospel. Gerhard, however, argues:

From the greatness of the price paid, judge of the greatness of thy peril; and from the cost of the remedy, judge the dreadfulness of thy disease. Great indeed were thy wounds of sin, which could be healed only by the wounds of the living and life-giving flesh of the Son of God; desperate indeed was the disease which could be cured only by the death of the Physician Himself. (8)

Having studied medicine, Gerhard frequently draws upon medical analogies to explain theological concepts. Above, he explains that the magnitude of treatment corresponds directly to the severity of the disease. Likewise, Gerhard maintains that the precious balm of Christ’s blood reveals the lethality of sin: “The infinite good was injured, and therefore, an infinite price is required.” (9) No payment rendered by a mere human being could ever atone for the transgressions committed against a holy God (Ps. 49:7). Instead, it took the suffering and death of an infinite person, the incarnate Great Physician, to render satisfaction for offenses committed against an infinite God. It took the shed blood of God himself (Acts 20:28), the crucifixion of the Lord of Glory (1 Cor. 2:8), to cure the terminal disease of sin. Hence, from Christ’s death we observe the severity of our sin.

Atonement Accomplished in the Death of Christ

Just as Jesus’ death exposes the magnitude of our sin, so too the cross reveals the grace and mercy of our Savior:

But You, out of unspeakable love, descended to the prison of this world. You clothed Yourself with my servile dwelling and entirely willingly took upon Yourself what I justly deserved. I was to be assigned, on account of my sins, to the unceasing, scorching, flames of hell. But You boiled with the fire of love on the altar of the cross, setting me free from these flames. I was to be cast away from the face of the Heavenly Father because of my sins. But for my sake You chose to be abandoned by Your Heavenly Father. I was to be tormented forever by the devil and his angels. But You, out of immeasurable love, gave Yourself for me, to be harassed and crucified by the servants of Satan. (10)

Here, Gerhard draws upon the biblical theme of the substitutionary work of Christ. Everything Jesus does, he does for lost and fallen sinners: his birth under the law (Gal. 4:4-5), his perfect life of willing obedience (John 17:9), and his innocent suffering and death (Matt. 20:28). Accordingly, moved by holy love and pure compassion (Eph. 5:2), Jesus enters the world as a human being in order to endure, in our place, the wages of sin: hell and divine retribution. All of this was done, not for his own sake, but for ours (2 Cor. 5:21), in order that we may become partakers of what does not rightly belong to us: the kingdom of heaven, blessed fellowship with God, and life everlasting.

He Himself made a complete and perfect satisfaction for our sins. From the moment of His crucifixion and for all eternity the force of divine justice and the severe judgment against our sins falls not on us because Christ covers our sins with His cloak of mercy, obtained and paid by the price of His redemption. Therefore, let this be firmly fixed in your mind: Christ has purged, abolished, and extinguished whatever sins the principalities and powers might justly hold against us for punishment. (11)

By his death, Jesus has forever extinguished the pitiless flame of sin. Now, the pure spring of divine forgiveness flows from the death of Christ.

Assurance Grounded in the Death of Christ

In Christ’s death, Gerhard not only finds the revelation of sin and the source of forgiveness, but also the certainty of salvation:

All the glory of the godly is in the shame of our Lord’s passion. All their rest is in the wounds of the crucified Saviour. His death is our life….Behold, O holy God, the sacred mystery of Thy flesh, and remit the guilt of my flesh. Graciously regard what Thy blessed Son hath patiently suffered, and overlook what Thy sinful servant hath done. My flesh hath provoked Thee to anger; let the flesh of Thy Son, I pray Thee, incline Thee to mercy. (12)

Gerhard places Christ, as the true mediator of the new covenant (Heb. 9:15), between himself and God’s righteous judgment. Our sins merited God’s wrath (Rom. 1:18), but Jesus bore it in our place (1 Pet. 2:24). He turned away God’s wrath and won God’s favor, and consequently, our salvation is secure because it relies upon his perfect work and not upon our own uncertain disposition, sinful works, or halting obedience. When sin terrifies the conscience, a Christian ought to hide in the wounds of Christ, like Moses in the cleft in the rock (Exod. 33:22), and thereby remain safe and secure.

Christ: The Alpha and Omega of Christian Theology

It has been rightly said, “If in Luther we hear the voice of the prophet and in Chemnitz the voice of the scholar, then Gerhard’s is the voice of the evangelical pastor, the shepherd of souls and man of wisdom.” (13) In all of Gerhard’s writings, devotional and academic, he constantly placards Jesus before the eyes of his readers: “As Christ is the Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end (Rev. 1:8), so also He must be the beginning and end in our meditations and studies. Whatever you think, whatever you say, whatever you write, it has no taste unless Jesus be in it.” (14)

This constant proclamation of Christ is not done in some abstract sense. Nor does Gerhard present Jesus as a mere lawgiver or moral example. Rather, Gerhard urges Christ as the suffering, crucified, bleeding Savior who, by his death, rescued lost and fallen human beings from the just consequences of sin. For Gerhard, sin, salvation, and solace meet in the death of Christ. This is the sum and substance of the Christian faith. Truly, therefore, the death of Christ is the essence of Christianity.

Steven R.J. Parks is assistant professor of theology at Concordia University (Irvine, California) and a PhD candidate at the University of Bristol (England).


1 [ Back ] Erdmann Rudolph Fischer, The Life of John Gerhard, trans. Richard Dinda and Elmer Hohle (Malone, TX: Repristination Press, 1999), 295-300.
2 [ Back ] Heinrich Schmid, The Doctrinal Theology of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, trans. Charles Hay and Henry Jacobs (Philadelphia, PA: Lutheran Publication Society, 1889), 668.
3 [ Back ] Johann Gerhard, Sacred Meditations, trans. C. W. Heisler (Malone, TX: Repristination Press, 1998).
4 [ Back ] Johann Gerhard, Handbook of Consolations for the Fears and Trials That Oppress Us in the Struggle with Death, trans. Carl L. Beckwith (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2009).
5 [ Back ] Johann Gerhard, An Explanation of the History of the Suffering and Death of Our Lord Jesus Christ, ed. David O. Berger, trans. Elmer M. Hohle (Malone, TX: Repristination Press, 1999).
6 [ Back ] Gerhard, Handbook of Consolations, 3.
7 [ Back ] Formula of Concord, Epitome, V.7.
8 [ Back ] Gerhard, Sacred Meditations, 17.
9 [ Back ] Johann Gerhard, Loci Theologici (Tubingen: Cotta, 1764), III, XV, CCCXXV, 579.
10 [ Back ] Johann Gerhard, The Daily Exercise of Piety, trans. Matthew C. Harrison (Malone, TX: Repristination Press, 1992), 36-37.
11 [ Back ] Gerhard, Handbook of Consolations, 13.
12 [ Back ] Gerhard, Sacred Meditations, 35.
13 [ Back ] Herman Preus and Edmund Smits, eds., The Doctrine of Man in the Writings of Martin Chemnitz and Johann Gerhard, trans. Mario Colacci, Lowell Satre, J. A. O. Preus Jr., Otto Stahlke, and Bert Narveson (St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House, 2005), 222.
14 [ Back ] Johann Gerhard, Theological Commonplaces: On Christ, ed. Benjamin T. G. Mayes, trans. Richard J. Dinda (St. Louis, MO: Concordia, 2010), 5.