Note from CM: It is October 2017, and many of our posts this month will be about the Reformation. This year marks 500 years since Luther’s 95 Theses, and we will do our best to look at the subsequent world-changing events and movements from as many perspectives as possible.
We begin with my own personal journey. This week, I am re-posting about why I am now a Christian who practices my faith in the Lutheran tradition.
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How the Lutheran Tradition Answers Many Post-Evangelical Concerns (2)
I continue this overview of how emphases in the historic tradition of Lutheranism have helped me with many concerns I’ve expressed about American evangelicalism.
Thus far, I have introduced the following elements…
- How I came to peace with finding a tradition,
- How I appreciate the priority of Word and Table liturgical worship in the Lutheran tradition,
- How I affirm their emphasis on pastoral ministry,
- How I love their healthy view of Christian vocation in the world.
Today, let me begin to say a few words about some other theological distinctives upon which Lutherans focus.
First, the centrality of Christ. In some ways, Lutherans share this in common with all historic traditions. Now I’ll admit that this was a hard fact for me to get through my head, but what I have found is that church groups that I would have formerly labeled as “liberal” or “non-Bible-believing” are often more Christ-centered in practice than their evangelical or fundamentalist counterparts. This includes the Lutherans.
First of all, Lutherans (at least the Lutherans I’m with) observe the Christian Year, which is as Jesus-shaped and salutary a practice for getting to know Christ and learning to live in his story as any I know.
Second, throughout the year this involves preaching from the lectionary, which shows week in and week out how the Bible relentlessly points to Christ and God’s kingdom. As I’ve attended the Lutheran church, I have heard sermons from the Gospel reading almost every Sunday, which means it is Jesus’ story and Jesus’ voice that is constantly highlighted.
Third, traditional liturgical worship itself is by nature Christocentric, as Robert Webber has explained so well in his writings on worship. The liturgy is designed to reenact the drama of the Gospel, with Christ at the center through proclamation of the Gospel and invitation to the Lord’s Table.
In my experience in evangelical churches and in my own ministry as an evangelical pastor, I would say that the ethos of evangelicalism is more Bible-centered than Christ-centered. My own approach was to preach and teach books of the Bible in expository fashion. Though I still think that is a viable method, one can easily lose track of the “big picture” of the Bible’s story and get wrapped up in details rather than keeping the focus on Jesus and God’s Kingdom. Sermons can become discussions about any number of “Christian topics” instead of Gospel proclamation.
A further observation, which Scot McKnight makes in his book The King Jesus Gospel (reviewed two weeks ago on IM), is that when evangelicalism does talk about Jesus, it tends to be more “salvation-centered” than “Gospel-centered.” Their emphasis on Christ extends primarily to Jesus dying for our sins to bring us personal salvation. As Scot writes, it’s almost as though our faith is exclusively about Good Friday, and nearly everything else in the Gospels is disregarded or downplayed.
I can testify that, even after more than 25 years of ministry in evangelical churches, I have never gotten to know Jesus as well as I have in the past few years as a member of Lutheran congregation.
Second, distinguishing Law and Gospel. This is a huge topic, and one which lies at the heart of what Internet Monk is about, so I won’t write a tome on it today. Suffice it to say that the moralistic approach to the faith is a huge problem in evangelicalism.
As in the days of the Pharisees, churches tend to designate certain religious and moral behaviors as “boundary markers” that identify who is “in” and who is “out.” Practices of hospitality, grace, love, gentleness, forbearance, patience, and trust in the ministry of the Holy Spirit get neglected and then forgotten, replaced by a system of expectations and rules (stated and unstated) that place heavy burdens on people. And those who run the system and the ones who buy into it wholeheartedly are ever in danger of the most spiritually damaging condition of all: pride and self-righteousness.
Now this is not evangelicalism’s problem alone, nor is it a menace only to those who are conservative or involved in the “Christian Right.” Moralism infects religious communities of all kinds. One can be just as moralistic about justice issues and environmental concerns, the inclusion of gays, and advocacy for any number of “liberal” or “progressive” causes as those on the other end of the spectrum. When any group starts elevating issues to the level of the Gospel, it is a short step to constructing boundary markers and installing a rules-based system in which only those who look and talk and think the right way are accepted. Churches, period, are notorious for this.
The Lutheran tradition has a solid theological answer for this. It lies in keeping a proper distinction between Law and Gospel.
Law is the expression of God’s righteous character. It tells the truth about how things should be in this world that God created. It reveals what is “holy and just and good” (Romans 7:12).
The Law comes to us in imperatives: “Thou shalt…” and “Thou shalt not…”
It draws the line and therefore defines crossing the line as “transgression.” It paints a picture of perfect health and defines the corruption of our nature as “iniquity.” It issues commandments, requirements, laws, exhortations, and instructions, and defines disregard of those standards as “lawlessness.” As a revelation of God’s character, it declares that our lack of conformity to him is “ungodliness.” It sets forth a clear path, a “straight way” on which humans should walk, and then points out that we have “gone astray” and become “lost.”
The problem is that many churches are, in essence, preaching the Law and calling it good news. Viewing the Bible as a detailed instruction manual for human living, week after week preachers are giving “precepts” and “principles” designed to help people experience “transformation” (which may mean little more, practically speaking, than conformity) so that they will enjoy healthy, happy, and holy lives, families, and careers. All this, and heaven too, because Jesus died for us.
This fits our quintessentially American way of looking at life. We honor self-made people who walk to a different drummer and pull themselves up by their bootstraps, underdogs who overcome all odds by sheer force of will. Give people the right instruction and a little encouragement — why shouldn’t we, with all the resources we have at hand, be able to construct our best life now, with heaven the icing on the cake?
The Gospel, on the other hand, is the announcement of God’s grace in Christ for a rebel creation. In his fine book, Grace in Practice: A Theology of Everyday Life, Paul Zahl defines grace as “one-way love,” love that has everything to do with the lover’s heart and generosity and nothing at all to do with the worthiness of the beloved. Grace, according to Zahl, is “an invasive and strongly new intervention, through which trust in God rather than in human performance is at the heart of the human relationship to God.”
Each Sunday, when we confess our sins in my Lutheran church, we pray, “For the sake of your Son, Jesus Christ, have mercy on us. Forgive us, renew us, and lead us, that we may delight in your will and walk in your ways, for the sake of your holy Name. Amen.” This prayer describes the work of grace in our lives. Through the grace of the Gospel, which comes to us in the person of Jesus and because of his finished work, our sins are forgiven. But that is not all.
God’s grace also renews us and God’s grace leads us. Through grace we delight in God’s will. Through grace we are strengthened to walk in his ways. The formation of virtue in our lives does not come through simply hearing God’s commands and “following the instructions.” It comes instead as we focus on Christ and feed on Christ, digesting his grace toward us. We learn with amazement that we are accepted by him solely because of his “one-way love” and not because we are in any way attractive or deserving. Our relationship with God has been initiated and is sustained wholly from outside ourselves.
This is one reason I appreciate the more “objective” worship offered through the liturgy each Sunday. It allows me to take my place as a pure recipient of God’s grace in Christ. I receive the word of absolution. I hear the Gospel of grace proclaimed. I hold out my hands and receive Christ in the bread and wine. I respond with words of thanksgiving and praise.
None of it is about learning how to participate in the “sin-management” project. It is not about improving my life. I don’t sit and take notes any more to fill my head or make sure I get God’s instructions or “marching orders” for the week to come.
Having received the grace of God in Christ with my brothers and sisters, I am free to go forth and live as a forgiven, renewed, and led human being. A recipient of grace, I am at liberty to extend grace to others.
Third, sacramental theology and worship. When push comes to shove, this is probably the primary difference between revivalistic evangelicals and churches in the historic traditions. This perspective is the one thing evangelicals have the hardest time accepting, and yet what I have found is that the sacramental view magnifies God’s grace and promotes childlike faith much more than anything I experienced under non-sacramental teaching.
Jesus Christ is the living and abiding Word of God. By the power of the Spirit, this very Word of God, which is Jesus Christ, is read in the Scriptures , proclaimed in preaching, announced in the forgiveness of sins, eaten and drunk in the Holy Communion, and encountered in the bodily presence o f the Christian community. By the power of the Spirit active in Holy Baptism, this Word washes a people to be Christ’s own Body in the world. We have called this gift of Word and Sacrament by the name “the means of grace.” The living heart of all these means is the presence of Jesus Christ through the power of the Spirit as the gift of the Father.
Lutherans accept two Sacraments as the means by which God penetrates the lives of people with his grace. Those who take a sacramental view of these practices believe they are God’s works toward people, not the works of people pointing to God.
- In baptism, God makes us his people, by “the water of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit”(Titus 3:5).
- At the Lord’s Table, we experience the real presence of Jesus Christ, and his body and blood nourish us with God’s mercy and forgiveness in our union with him and one another. Our risen Lord is “made known to us” when we gather at his Table together (Luke 24:35).
The sacramental perspective takes God’s presence and action in the midst of his creation seriously. Some expressions of faith are essentially world-denying and more akin to forms of Platonism, docetism, or gnosticism that make radical distinctions between the material and spiritual worlds. From this perspective, God works and we grow “spiritually,” and this world is one we are “passing through” on our way to an ethereal heaven. The Lutheran tradition, on the other hand, rejoices that God is present and working throughout his creation, and that he especially works in and through simple elements like water, bread, wine, paper and ink to communicate his truth and love to his people. He meets us here, and he is leading us to a renewed creation.
Sacramental theology takes the Incarnation seriously. Jesus the Eternal Word, “became flesh and lived among us” (John 1:14). Sharing fully in our humanity and the experiences of life in this world, God visited his creation personally, spoke, broke bread with us, wept, touched broken bodies, and even died himself to identify with and redeem all who are in bondage to sin, evil, and death. The Spirit he sent now works through the Word and the Sacraments in the midst of his gathered people to apply the benefits of his saving work.
There is much to learn about the Sacraments, but the primary shift for me, coming from the evangelical world, was simple. It involved coming to understand them as God’s works, not mine.
I no longer see baptism as something I do to profess my faith in Christ. I see it as something done to me through which God acts savingly. I no longer see Communion merely as something I do to remember Jesus. I see it as his Table, to which he invites me and at which he feeds me.
These practices are the means by which God’s grace in Christ is communicated to me, for in them his promises are made real in my life.