Sunday, January 9, 2011

Handbook of Consolations for the Fears and Trials That Oppress Us in the Struggle with Death by Johann Gerhard

Wipf and Stock sent me a review copy of Handbook of Consolations for the Fears and Trials That Oppress Us in the Struggle with Death by Johann Gerhard.

A few years ago my wife gave birth to still-born twins and we were visited by four pastors. Two of the pastors were Lutheran and two were not.

One of the non-Lutheran pastors had already met with us earlier on in the pregnancy when my wife was having complications and read a Scriptural passage that made it sound as if he thought the twins were having problems because we were making an idol of them. After the twins died he read a Scriptural passage that didn't seem to apply to the situation and never bothered to try to apply it to our situation. 

When the other non-Lutheran pastor heard we were having complications with the pregnancy he called my wife up and told her to get her tubes tied. When the twins died he came to the hospital and told my wife to be careful about what she did or how she acted because there were unbelieving nurses there (since it was a Roman Catholic hospital he assumed they must all be unbelievers). He did not read the Scriptures to us at all.

The two Lutheran pastors who visited us acted much differently. They had different personalities. But they both read the Scriptures to us and applied the Gospel to us in our own unique situation and they did it in a very personal way. One of the pastors especially showed a great deal of honor to our sons' bodies. For these pastors, the Scriptures were not a collection of stories about a sovereign God in the sky but an icon of Christ. The Gospel was applied to my wife and me personally.

That is what you will find in the Handbook of Consolations--a very personal application of the Gospel to the different fears that people have while they are dying. It's not a collection of nice things to say, a book that takes the promises of Jesus seriously and applies them to the individual's concerns. There are forty-six sections and they cover just about every fear that someone might have when he is dying.

I do take issue with a few passages in the book. There are a number of times where the author seems to be applying the Law when the Gospel is called for and there are few times where it seems like the author is directing the person inwards to see if they have "true" faith rather than directing the person to Christ. There is a section (pp.63-64) where Gerhard makes the claim that the believer is spared the pains of death. Gerhard does not provide much support for this position and could fill the believer with absolute horror who starts feeling excruciating pain as he is dying. In a section on page 70, Gerhard is trying to comfort those who are worried about the physical concerns of family members that are being left behind but Gerhard claims that "He will not allow those who believe in Him to die from hunger." He doesn't provide any Biblical support for this claim and I wonder what terror it could provide to the believer who starves to death. There are a couple of passages where it sounds as if Gerhard simply believes that our physical bodies are useless and something we need to be delivered from but in other passages he does speak of the bodily resurrection.

All in all, this is an excellent book and would be extraordinarily helpful for pastors and others who minister to the dying.

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