Tacking to Glory
How might Christians who embrace Luther’s Theology of the Cross depict the progress of the Christian translating from Cross to Glory? What helpful metaphors might be employed to illustrate the nature of the journey, the means of transportation, and what it means to make progress? The people of God in the Church Militant have often been depicted as travelers in this world on their way to Glory. Augustine described Christians as citizens of the Kingdom of God; sojourners just passing through the lands of this world to their Heavenly Home. Others have employed the metaphor of crossing water to the other side of a river, or in the case of the poetry of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, on a voyage traveling to a distant shore. In “The Celestial Pilot” from Voices of the Night (1839), Longfellow presented Dante’s picture of the wings of an Angel of the Lord piloting the believer straightaway to the distant shore of Heavenly bliss.
In my recent work, Christian Life: Cross or Glory? I observed that the baptismal life of the Christian involves a lifelong journey to Glory that takes place entirely in the cross of Christ. You cannot fudge Glory in this life. You get there only on the Better Day that is coming and not one day before. The cross is not simply the end of the journey in our quest for righteousness – not simply the destination of a happy outcome of life with God for us dead sinners; it is also the means by which the journey is made, and the experience of the journey itself. (15)
In other words, paradoxically, the only way you get to Glory is to be on a journey that never leaves the cross of Christ. And, since this journey in all its phases is shaped by your Baptism; imagery involving water… works!
In the waters of Baptism, we unite with Christ the crucified, dying to sin and emerging forth with a New Life lived in His righteousness. However, Christian Baptism is not a one-and-done, we-move-on-from-here deal. The cross life of the Christian involves a present-tense of Baptism that continually shapes the life of faith. Dying to sin and rising in Christ is intended to be a daily regimen that produces the death of the old sinful self and the renewal of the New Creation. For this reason, Luther observed that progress toward glory involves a watery journey in the cross that always involves starting over again. The Christian’s baptismal life of dying and rising, repentance and faith are to be daily accomplished by the killing of the Law and the rising unto newness of life by the Gospel.
With this understanding, we might imagine our baptismal journey to Glory as something like taking a voyage to a distant shore in a sail boat. We would be the passengers on a sailing vessel bound for Glory and piloted by our Lord Jesus. The course He takes, however, can be very puzzling to many who are not familiar with Divine sailing.
From visions of the distant shore of Glory supplied by the Scriptures, it could be said that from the deck of the boat, you can see it from here. However, what may appear confusing to some is that the bow of the boat never seems to be heading toward our intended destination. We see Glory straight ahead, but Jesus is intent just to sail back and forth to the left and then to the right, as if He were always changing his mind about where He wants us to go.
In sailing lingo, He insists on tacking back and forth from the port side of glory to the starboard. Tacking or coming about is a sailing maneuver by which a sailing vessel (which is sailing approximately into the wind) turns its bow into the wind through the no-go zone so that the direction from which the wind blows changes from one side to the other. To sail directly into the wind is to invite getting capsized – dead in the water. For this reason, Jesus being a savvy sailor never aims the bow of the boat straight-away at the distant shore. For some of the ignorant Christians onboard, this is confusing and they doubt that this kind of navigation is making any progress at all.
Extending this imagery, we can envision the Lord sailing us through the waters of our Baptism tacking back and forth, sending us to the Law and then the Gospel. He sails us first into full-strength Law, crucifying us and producing a repentant death to sin. But then tacking back the other way, we are raised up again unto new life in Christ and His righteousness by full-strength Gospel. Port to starboard, repentance to faith, dying and rising, back and forth, always starting over again—Jesus our pilot sails us in the waters of our Baptism tacking to Glory.
The voyage, however, is not without its dangers. The Devil is a stowaway and he is continually seeking to persuade whomever he can to mutiny. One devastating approach has been to entice Christians to leave the waters of their baptism behind and travel overland toward the bliss of Glory with the promise that you can get bits of bliss as you go if you take the right route. However, if you insist on sailing, the Devil tries to convince you that tacking back and forth will never get anyone to Glory. When sailing into the dark waters of the Law, he would have sensitive Christians refuse to tack so they might crash on the rocks of the Island of Despair. Or, when sailing into the refreshing waters of the Gospel, the Devil loves to entice especially Lutherans not to tack back to the Law – let’s not get negative! Just keep sailing onward until they are dead in the water, caught in the doldrums of complacency and ingratitude. Either way, Glory becomes just a story and no one ever gets there.
Soooo, let the Glory story and our vision of that distant shore renew our confidence that we are on course; and with the Lord at the helm, we’re gonna get there! This heavenly Port O’ Call we shall surely make so long as we trust in our Baptism where our Lord is continually tacking us back and forth from the Law to the Gospel. It is sin and grace, repentance and faith, dying and rising, and déjà vu all over again. Here in the ever present-tense of our Baptism, our life in Christ is truly making progress, as our Pilot knows just how to sail us where we need to go, tacking to glory.