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Do We Know Jesus?

In his final work, provocatively titled Kennen wir Jesus?, Adolf Schlatter challenged his readers one final time with the greatest pursuit of all—knowing Jesus, that is, pursuing an ever-closer spiritual relationship with our Lord based on a growing and increasingly thorough understanding of who he is and what he came to do, and how each of us fits into his divine plan. This is contrary to our natural, sinful bent of fitting God into our plans; what God wants the regenerate believer to do instead is reorient our lives so we increasingly fit into his plan, which, in any case, is far superior to the plan we have for our lives. The following selection from Schlatter’s devotional/mini-theology is from the English translation of this work, Do We Know Jesus? (Kregel, 2005; translation by Robert Yarbrough and myself). It is my hope that many of you upon reading the selection below will take up the volume and read it through as part of your quest to know Jesus, and know him more intimately.

Away with the Old Thoughts

January 5

Jesus began to proclaim and to say: “Repent! For the rule of heaven is near” (Matthew 4:17).

New ideas, new goals, new desires, new actions—clearly this demand resulted from Jesus’ coming to men. His existence testified to the fact that God’s rule was near and that God’s work was done by which he brought people to their divinely desired goal. This, however, revolutionizes our entire outlook. Not a single thought is left untouched. To be sure, the message transmitted to our senses by nature remains intact. Man is not removed from nature. The sun still shines for him, for he is not transformed into a bodiless spirit. Over this portion of our mental state we have no control. We cannot obtain it when our senses fail, nor can we reject what nature shows us through them. But through this experience and knowledge we are given material which we process internally. We transform our perceptions into a whole, evaluate what happens to us, and create images by which we stimulate our desires and set aims for it. It is this aspect of our outlook that Jesus’ command addresses when it says, “Do away with your thoughts!” We use different words for it: world view, philosophy, theology, morality, politics. These terms convey the different ways in which our mental faculties operate.

But these differences never invalidate Jesus’ command which demands from us new thoughts and a new will. Yet our thoughts and wills become new solely by the renunciation of old thoughts and by a shedding of our old desires. What is new does not merely supplement the old. Rather, it replaces it. This lends profound seriousness to the demand “renew your thoughts,” and this is what ecclesial language had in view when it called what Jesus desires “repentance.” But this word does not express the essential element in what Jesus is after, namely the transformation of our conduct.

We express thereby that we strongly experience the battle in which Jesus’ call places us, because he calls our thoughts and desires reprehensible. This battle affects our innermost lives and has at the same time far-reaching consequences for our dealings with one another. In this battle, it is even thoughts that are dear to us that come under divine condemnation, and we must judge aspirations reprehensible to which we have devoted our entire lives up to that point. This is not a matter of a gradual process, such as changes in general culture where a first discovery leads to a second one. To the contrary, Jesus demands a decision and thus brings about division. This is inevitable because God’s kingdom is not a supplement or continuation of our natural existence. Our relationship with God is now ordered by God’s gracious will, and this revolutionizes our condition.

The disciples provide a graphic example of the nature of such repentance. When they considered their participation in God’s plan, they thought of God’s Law, and when they looked at the outcome of their lives, they assumed that their end would be death. As long as they sought God’s gift to them in the Law, they looked for righteousness in themselves. But now they long for God’s kingdom and righteousness and know that his kingdom is not characterized by the demanding God who calls people to work but that it takes place through the revelation of his grace. Thus they live on account of what God produces from them, and they know that God’s kingdom brings about God’s eternal fellowship with them, granting them eternal life. Everything became new in the disciples. They were elevated to the liberty of faith which is given forgiveness of sins, and they were liberated from resigning themselves to death. This was a total “turnaround.”

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