The Hammer of God was written more than half a century ago by Bo Giertz, a Swedish bishop, and is set in rural Sweden. It contains three linked stories of young pastors serving the same parish at different times – in the early 1800s, later 1800s, and the 1940s. The stories are far away in time and space, but they are gripping and relevant. They show the kind of wonky thinking that can pop up anywhere where faith latches onto anything other than Jesus. The stories also show the dangers of taking pride in being the keeper of a more “authentic” Christianity than those around you.
The first pastor repents of the shallow and flippant way he has lived his life, only to fall into a legalistic thinking that demands that repentance be accompanied by plain clothing and temperance. He comes to hate the judgmental eye he casts over his congregation- how can they sing so joyously in church when the next day they will fall back into wretchedness, cursing and quarreling! Why couldn’t he see a resounding victory over sin, in the lives of others, in his own life? It is a relief when this pastor realises that one can receive forgiveness without making atonement for sins through sorrow or self-betterment. Grace, unmerited!
The stories are thoughtful reflections on the nature of the relationship between a pastor and his flock. In some situations a pastor is humbled by the godly example of a parishioner. At other times, a pastor is subjected to public humiliation, and painful division in his congregation. The second pastor is disheartened when the fervour of a “revival” starts to taper off, and starts to torture himself with the thought that the lag in revival might be his fault or failure. His epiphany comes when he realises that he has lost sight of Jesus, and has been flogging himself along a way of obedience that has no end:
“The conscience, our own anxiety, and all the slaves to the law bid us go the way of obedience to the very end in order to find peace with God. But the way of obedience has no end. It lies endlessly before you, bringing continually severer demands and constantly growing indebtedness. If you seek peace on that road, you will not find peace, but the debt of ten thousand talents instead. But now Christ is the end of the law; the road ends at his feet, and here his righteousness is offered to everyone who believes. It is to that place, to Jesus only, that God has wanted to drive you with all your unrest and anguish of soul.”
This novel was a great reminder that there is nothing we can do to be saved: we have nothing to offer God at the foot of the cross, because he has already offered everything on our behalf! We are privileged to believe all, and be saved, and in amongst our everyday realities the Holy Spirit helps us in the battles against sin- gently, little by little.