Meat Loaf, Luther & the Great Hallabaloo of Law, Sin & Death

Meat Loaf, Luther & the Great Hallabaloo of Law, Sin & Death

“I would do anything for love, but I won’t do that.”

For those who don’t know, or are under 45 years of age, or were raised in a Christian home not allowing secular music, the above lyric is taken from Meat Loaf’s intensely melodramatic rock ballad (circa 1993) I Would Do Anything for Love. The song, which won Meat Loaf a Grammy for best rock song, contains a now legendary mystery that has been puzzling fans since its release. Namely, what’s the that? What will he not do? What’s the thing that Meat Loaf is unwilling to do for love? The song never spells it out. As a result, this is all you think about as you listen to the song. “What is that?” is always in the back of your mind. It’s an epic sort of “earworm.” I think it’s also a rather ingenious bit of marketing. After all, it won a guy named Meat Loaf a Grammy.

Regardless, the cryptic antecedent has puzzled rockers for years. Michael Lee Aday, the artist known as Meat Loaf, has argued rather vehemently that the answer is obvious – contained in the song itself. Apparently, there’s footage of Aday somewhere explaining the self-contained answer via a diagram and laser pointer. Regardless of the author’s explanation, fans still question the meaning of the lyrics. It’s now an urban legend. Attempts to answer the question on the World Wide Web abound. For many, the answer to that will forever remain a rock mystery.

There’s a similar mystery within Christian hymnology. There’s a riddle within what is arguably the most famous of all reformation era hymns, A Mighty Fortress. A hymn penned by Luther himself. It’s staring back at us in the third stanza every time we sing it. Luther does a Meat Loaf. Or, perhaps it would be more accurate to say, Meat Loaf does a Luther.

 And though this world, with devils filled, Should threaten to undo us, We will not fear, for God hath willed, His truth to triumph through us. The Prince of Darkness grim, We tremble not for him, His rage we can endure, For lo, his doom is sure; One little word shall fell him.

Right there in the last line. What’s the “one little word?” You’ve been singing this hymn for years. Certainly you know by now. Luther never spells it out in the hymn. No one really knows what the one little word is. As long as I’ve been singing it, I, along with everyone else, assumed I knew what the one little word was. Or, what it represented. But, come to think of it, I don’t actually know. In some general way always I assumed it was some future moment when Satan was vanquished to a fiery hell. Something like “Go!” or, “Jesus!” was the one little word. That would make sense. I think. That’s what I thought anyway. But, I was wrong. While interacting with Luther’s commentary on Galatian, I fell upon (pun intended) the answer to the question we never took the time to ask of the hymn we so often sing – “What’s the one little word?” While commenting on Galatians 4:6 the great Reformer wrote the following:

This is but a little word, and yet not withstanding it comprehendeth all things. The mouth speaketh not, but the affections of the heart speaketh after this manner. Although I be oppressed with anguish and terror on every side, and seem to be forsaken and utterly cast away from thy presence, yet I am thy child, and thou art my Father for Christ’s sake: I am beloved because of the beloved. Wherefore, this little word, Father, conceived affectionately in the heart, passeth all the eloquence of Demosthenes, Cicero and of the most eloquent rhetoriticians that were ever in this world. –  Luther, Galatians

And there it is. When I encountered it – I sat straight up in my chair, “That’s the same ‘little word’ in the hymn.” It seemed obvious to me that they had the same reference. It also seemed likely that the hymn was derived from Luther’s thoughts surrounding Galatians. How cool would it be if at some moment in his study of Galatians Luther was so struck by Paul’s meaning, he turned and penned his most famous of all hymns? “One little word,” he thought. One little word indeed. From that we get one of the most famous hymns in Christian history.

But, the question remains – what’s the little word? The answer is in Galatians 4:6 – the passage from which Luther’s comments were taken.

And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!” (4:6)

How stunning. All these years without knowing (at least for me) and the “one little word” which puts Satan on his keaster is actually little – “Abba.” Or, to put it in our own language, “daddy.” How strange. How anti-climactic. How powerful. How obvious. The one little word able to route the enemy’s assaults against the believer’s heart and conscience is a simple “dad” uttered from a heart of dependence. Here’s what Luther was getting at:

We are born in sin. To doubt the good will of God is an inborn suspicion of God with all of us. Besides, the devil, our adversary, goeth about seeking to devour us by roaring: “God is angry at you and is going to destroy you forever.” In all these difficulties we have only one support, the Gospel of Christ. To hold on to it, that is the trick. Christ cannot be perceived with the senses. We cannot see Him. The heart does not feel His helpful presence. Especially in times of trials a Christian feels the power of sin, the infirmity of his flesh, the goading darts of the devil, the agues of death, the scowl and judgment of God. All these things cry out against us. The Law scolds us, sin screams at us, death thunders at us, the devil roars at us. In the midst of the clamor the Spirit of Christ cries in our hearts: “Abba, Father.” And this little cry of the Spirit transcends the hullabaloo of the Law, sin, death, and the devil, and finds a hearing with God. – Luther Galatians

There it is again – “a little cry.” Paul made this same point in Romans 8.

For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. – Romans 8:38-39

This “little word” is the exact place I departed from my heritage of fundamentalism and pietism. This “one little word” marks the spot where I was absorbed into Confessional and Reformed theology. Where I started pointing out and not in. This “one little word” is the essential difference with me now and then. It’s the before and after moment in my ministry. I moved over to stand with Luther. So, the change in me has nothing to do with the role of sanctification, or the pursuit of holiness in this life, or the place of obedience, or repentance, but with the motivation for all. It is on the level of motivation that I parted company. Genuine obedience is derived from love and not terror. As is life transformation. I never heard this. I certainly did not hear it celebrated. Assurance was more a distant family member that my theological family was ashamed to acknowledge. He is mentioned almost apologetically. The love of God toward the justified sinner (Romans 4:5) found in the doctrine of adoption as driven home by the Spirit is intended to help the fainting heart of the Christian who struggles against their corrupt flesh in this world by reminding them they are loved and held by the Father’s grace.

Ironically. those preachers and pastors who utilize doubt (or labor, or reward in the future) as the chief motivator for obedience in the present are working against the grain of the Holy Spirit’s effect in the believers life and not with it. (Galatians 4:1-7; Romans 8:12-17) More ironically, and sadly, the Holy Spirit too often must come to the aid of the redeemed who sit under sermons where every assurance seems to be routed from the heart of the broken. I’m ashamed that this was once my own methodology. I’m now like the “ex-smoker.” It astounds me that we preachers of Christ’s Gospel would erode assurance in effort to draw obedience from the believer’s life. Subjecting them to despair, rather than assuring them of God’s love (as Paul did). It is the later that creates holiness, not the former. The former only produces hypocrisy.

Through this transition in my thinking from pietistic neo-nomism (assurance derived from law and law as means to sanctification) and to sanctification derived from union with Christ – I now see love and not dread as the ultimate motivator for all that I do. He delights in His children and, therefore, His children delight in Him. The kind of Father who had been preached to me before (and therefore I preached) was angry and distant and transactional. In the past, obedience was likened to a slave who did what he was told for fear of being beaten. This was the same medieval theology that Luther emerged from. And, this was the impression given to me of Christ. Now I see God running out in love to me. As He does, I hear me saying, “I am not worthy to be your son. Let me be as your slave.” But, I see Him reaching past my shame (which I carry in my corruption) and putting a robe of righteousness over my life. As a result, I would do anything for love.

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