The Gospel of ‘Blessed Assurance’ According to Johann Sebastian Bach

By Jules Gomes Published on April 25, 2024

“If Bach is not in Heaven, I am not going,” William F. Buckley, the iconic conservative writer, political commentator, and host of the talk show Firing Line once said.

Is there a more quintessentially Buckleian paradox than this? William Frank Buckley, a devout Catholic, beatifying Johann Sebastian Bach, a dyed-in-the-wool Lutheran?

“It may be that when the angels go about their task praising God, they play only Bach. I am sure, however, that when they are together en famille they play Mozart,” Swiss theologian Karl Barth wrote in his fictional A Letter of Thanks to Mozart.

My imagination explodes with the thought of Bach the Lutheran and Mozart the Catholic (after consulting Heaven’s Liturgist-in-Chief) sipping Bavarian beer, smoking a bowl of Latakia, and composing Masses, cantatas, motets, anthems, toccatas, and fugues for Heaven’s choirs!

I can’t wait to get to Heaven to meet Bach the Bible-beaver! As a biblical scholar, I’m dying to ask him about the extensive notations he made in his personal three-volume study Bible.

I’d also like to tell Bach how he inspired me to take “everything to God in prayer.” Bach began each composition with the initials JJ (Jesu juva — “Jesus, help me”) and ended them with SDG (Soli Deo gloria — “to the glory of God alone”).

Knocking on Heaven’s Door

But I don’t have to wait until after I die to do that. Bach flings open to me the portals of Heaven here, and now in his interpretation of Romans 8 — what many lovers of sacred Scripture consider to be the greatest passage within the greatest book in the Bible.

Biblical commentators outdo one another in choosing the most sublime of metaphors to extol Romans 8: it is the inner sanctuary within the cathedral of Christian faith; the tree of life amid the Garden of Eden; the highest peak in a range of mountains.

But how dare we sinners, condemned to death and banished to Hell, audaciously enter God’s throne room and catch a glimpse of Heaven’s glory?

Paul begins Romans 8 by presenting us with a thumping, resounding, grandiose affirmation in the very first verse that “there is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1).

And, just in case we forget, Paul concludes the chapter by reminding us that “nothing in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:39).

Blessed Assurance

“If we were to sum up these blessings is a single word, that word would be assurance. From ‘no condemnation’ at the beginning (v. 1) to ‘no separation’ at the end (v. 39),” writes Prof. Douglas J. Moo in his magisterial commentary on the epistle to the Romans.

Indeed, we can approach the throne of God with “full assurance of faith” as the letter to the Hebrews (10:22) promises us, because as Paul has already assured us in Romans 5:1, “since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.”

My relationship with Romans 8 began almost 42 years ago when I first sang Bach’s greatest motet Jesu, meine Freude (“Jesus, my joy”) while I was a member of the Paranjoti Academy Chorus. I was sixteen going on seventeen (like Maria in The Sound of Music). Our conductor, Coomi Wadia, was a not a Christian but a Zoroastrian (like the great Indian-Zoroastrian conductor Zubin Mehta).

Wadia had studied under Helmuth Rilling — one of the world’s greatest exponents of Bach. More than half the choristers were Christians — mostly Catholics and a few Protestants. The other half were Parsees — Zoroastrians who had migrated centuries ago from Persia to India.

If we sang in a lackluster manner during rehearsals, Maestro Wadia would tap her baton on the podium and berate us, saying: “Half of you here are Christians. Don’t you understand what you are singing? Read the words: ‘Jesu, meine freude, Meines herzens weide, Jesu, meine zier’ (‘Jesus, my joy, My heart’s delight, Jesus, my treasure’).”

No Condemnation

She would go on: “You know why Jesus is your joy? Because He died for you on the cross. And because He died for you, and because you put your trust in His atoning death, ‘there is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus!’” (Es ist nun nichts Verdammliches an denen, die in Christo Jesu sind).

“Can’t you see how Bach is yelling out ‘nichts’ by repeating it three times? Nichts, Nichts, Nichts — no, no, no, condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus? And you are singing like you don’t believe any of this stuff?” Wadia would rant at us.

We loved it, of course!

She would then pick up her baton, and suddenly the understanding of Bach’s motet transformed our singing! I found it ironic that even though we had a couple of Catholic priests singing in the choir, a Parsee conductor had to explain one of the Bible’s most important texts to us!

Singing “Jesu, meine Freude” gave me tremendous assurance. To this day, if you wake me up at 3 a.m. I can still sing the entire motet by heart in German. And similarly, reading and praying through Romans 8 gives me assurance beyond human understanding.

The Gospel According to Paul

Paul’s letters are normally divided into two sections: The first part contains the doctrinal indicatives (what God has done for us in Christ), and the second part contains the ethical imperatives (what we must therefore do now). We can only do our part because of what God has done. That is why it is vital to spot connecting words like “therefore” in Paul’s letters.

In the first part of Romans, Paul describes how both Jew and Gentile are under God’s death sentence because “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). Because we cannot save ourselves, “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:5).

As a result, “we have now been justified by his blood” and “how much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God” (Romans 5:9). That is why “since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (Romans 5:1). Paul declares that salvation is a “free gift” — an astonishing tautology that he repeats the word five times in Romans 5.

Three Chapters Later …

Paul begins Romans 8 with that great connecting word: “Therefore, there is now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus.”

I’ve been reading St. Hilary of Poitiers’s commentary on Matthew’s gospel — the first full Latin commentary on the gospel to be preserved in its entirety from around 350 AD.

I’ve been impressed by how Pauline his commentary is: Hilary uses the term fides iustificat (or fidei iustificatio) almost 20 times in it. He writes: “Because faith alone justifies … publicans and prostitutes will be first in the Kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 21:15).

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Naturally, Paul and Bach both anticipate the perverse caricatures of those who twist grace into antinomianism. Paul argues: “What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it?” (Romans 6:1–2).

Bach warns that the “no condemnation” of Romans 8 is not a license for anarchy. In pregnant Pauline categories, he appends a conditional clause: “There is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.”

Climactic Crescendo

Romans 8 climaxes with one of the best-known and most-loved texts in the Bible: “We know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28).

Then, in a crescendo of unsurpassable rhetoric, Paul thunders: “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.”

Jesu, meine freude climaxes with the chorale: “Misery, want, torture, shame, and death shall, although I must suffer much, never part me from Jesus” (Elend, Not, Kreuz, Schmach, und Tod soll mich, ob ich viel muß leiden, nicht von Jesu scheiden).

Masaaki Suzuki, founder-conductor of the Bach Collegium Japan, tells of how a “Bach boom” is currently evangelizing Japan — one of the most atheistic countries on Earth.

“What people need in this situation is hope in the Christian sense of the word, but hope is an alien idea here,” Suzuki laments. “Our language does not even have an appropriate word for hope.

“I am spreading Bach’s message, which is a biblical one.”

During rehearsals Suzuki teaches his choristers and musicians Scripture. “It is impossible to say how many of my performers and listeners will ultimately become Christians,” Suzuki said. He believes Bach has already converted tens of thousands of Japanese to Christianity.

Heck, I believe him! After all, I first heard the gospel of hope and blessed assurance not from a priest but from a Parsee conductor expounding Bach in Bombay!

 

Dr. Jules Gomes, (BA, BD, MTh, PhD), has a doctorate in biblical studies from the University of Cambridge. Currently a Vatican-accredited journalist based in Rome, he is the author of five books and several academic articles. Gomes lectured at Catholic and Protestant seminaries and universities and was canon theologian and artistic director at Liverpool Cathedral.

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