A treasure hidden in a field

by Mark Safstrom

Nearly a century and a half ago, in the June 1872 issue of Pietisten, Pastor Waldenström wrote a sermon ostensibly on the parable from Matthew’s gospel about a treasure hidden in a field. A man finds the treasure, covers it up, and sells all that he has in order to buy that field. In applying the parable, Waldenström embarked on a multi-faceted explanation of the nature of God’s kingdom. “This kingdom is called the Kingdom of God because it has its origin, not in human ingenuity, strategy, or power, but in the grace and power of God’s eternal purpose to save man’s fallen race.”

Yet, after ten paragraphs, in an amusing example of form mirroring content, the reader discovers that Waldenström himself has hidden a treasure in the middle of his sermon—a five-point reappraisal of the Lutheran doctrine of the atonement! This was no mere sermon about a parable, but a direct critique of the prevailing explanation of the atonement, as reinforced by the Augsburg Confession. The historic debate that ensued from this sermon within Swedish Christianity would come to shape the course of the revival movement as it emerged from the state church and into several independent free churches over the next decades.

Waldenström had certain pastoral purposes in writing the sermon, as well. One was to emphasize that the Bible, not the confessional documents, are the highest authority for determining Christian doctrine. This sermon was the outcome of a two-year study, in which he searched in vain, as he explains, for any scriptural support for the confession’s formulation that “God was reconciled” to humanity by the crucifixion. God does not change, asserted Waldenström, instead it is only wayward humanity who needs to be reconciled to God by the work of Christ.

Another purpose was to present a loving, grace-filled image of God as a corrective to the preponderance of penal substitutionary motifs used by careless preachers, who depicted God the Father as being in opposition to Christ, who in turn must shield humanity from God’s wrath. No such thing, claimed Waldenström; the persons of the Trinity are not in internal conflict. Rather the good news of the gospel is that the heart of Christ is the same as God’s heart. As Waldenström would explain, quoting Carl Olof Rosenius, “God loved, because he loved, and therefore he gave his Son.” Discussion of these ideas kept Swedish Pietists busy in the late 19th century, and served to inform the Christology of the Covenant Church in particular. And the rest, as they say, is history.

Yet, what can be gained from returning to this conversation today? What does the atonement have to do with the kingdom of God? Was the parable simply a pretext, to switch subjects to a simple, albeit more loving, salvation message?

Though the sermon may seem to switch directions halfway through, the discussion of the kingdom of God is not mere preamble. Reading the earlier sections in light of the later ones makes it clear that, for Waldenström, the atonement shapes all aspects of the Christian life, and that the kingdom of God is a dramatic inversion of the way that humankind has ordered the world. “The kingdoms of this world are by their nature characterized by law and order—by the freedom and security of the life and property of their subjects—while the kingdom of God is righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Ghost for them who belong to it. The kingdoms of this world commend themselves to people, take root, and are established through various external laws and institutions, whereas the Kingdom of God comes to men only through the Gospel, which, because it proclaims the righteousness of Christ, appropriated through faith without the works of the law, addresses peace to the conscience, imparting the Holy Spirit, and filling the heart with joy and a glad confidence in God.”

External rule of law and, at times, its violent enforcement are needed in order to hold the kingdoms of this world together. God does not operate this way, but instead reconciles humanity not by vengeful punishment, but by a holistic transformation. Believers are reconciled to God and to one another, through participation in the atonement of Christ, which brings righteousness, peace, and joy. No purchase is necessary on the part of the believer to have a vested interest in this treasure. While the inverted order of God’s kingdom perplexes the human mind, Waldenström assures his readers that “The thoughts of God are higher than our thoughts, as heaven is higher than the earth.”

On April 8, 2022, North Park Theological Seminary and the Commission on Covenant History will sponsor a symposium to mark the sesquicentennial of Waldenström’s sermon. Several scholars will explore themes of atonement and reconciliation, including Al Tizon (missiology), Dominique Gilliard (incarceration reform), and Michelle Clifton-Soderstrom (restorative justice), in a conversation introduced and moderated by historians Mark Safstrom and Hauna Ondrey. The recording of the program will also be made available afterward. Stay tuned for registration information and details!


On the subject of treasures hidden in fields, it was with great excitement and gratitude that we at Pietisten received a challenge grant this past summer from a loyal supporter of the journal. The donor, who wishes to remain anonymous, has generously given Pietisten $25,000 to support our ongoing publication projects, and as a challenge to invite other readers to match this gift. We have therefore launched a fundraising campaign to raise an additional $25,000 over the coming year. The money raised is being invested with Covenant Trust Company, and the annual draw will support the publication ventures of Pietisten. Here are some of the things that this fund will allow us to accomplish:

This fundraising campaign will continue through the end of January 2023. Giving may be spread out over that period. We hope you will consider supporting this effort as we continue to invest in the community of readers who have gathered around this journal for the past 36 years!

As Professor Klyne Snodgrass explains the parable of the treasure in the field in his book Stories with Intent, “The parable presupposes that the kingdom is hidden and available to be found. Put another way, the kingdom is present and awaiting recognition of its value and the radical action it deserves. It is not about reward in heaven or the age to come. Jesus told this story to announce the presence of the kingdom and to elicit the joy of discovery and the radical action of following him.”

As we look ahead to new and exciting ventures, we can take to heart Waldenström’s reminder that the kingdom of God is not brought about by human ingenuity, strategy, or power, but is accomplished by God’s grace and power. Seeking a pathway forward through the challenges ahead will require humility and an ability to see and embrace the inverted set of values modeled in the parables of Christ.

Guds frid - God’s peace