Fri 8 Apr 2011
I say the following at the risk of sounding offensive: Lutheran churches today are, generally speaking, terrible at encouraging Christians to live lives of faith. Utterly and incontrovertibly terrible. There’s no doubt about it in my mind. How else do we explain the baptisms in our churches which are not eventually followed by confirmations? For those who make it to confirmation, how we account for the subsequent and seemingly inevitable evaporation immediately following? How too do we justify the biblical illiteracy of so many of our members, and the lives they lead which seem visibly no different from those of the world around us? We have failed to do the things Christ has entrusted to his church: “to go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.” We may have baptized them; but we definitely have not taught them to observe all the commandments of Christ.
The Lutheran church has a great tradition in its focus on justification: how God has saved us from our sin, freely and through no virtue of our own; how He sent His Son Jesus Christ to die for us, to take our sin upon Himself and to bear the punishment we deserved; how His resurrection promises life and forgiveness to any who believe in Him; and how that faith itself comes as a a gift from God, not by works, so that none should boast. As Luther writes in The Heidelberg Disputation, “The cross alone is our theology.” This is the center, the very substance of what we believe, teach and confess.
But – and it is a tragedy that I should even have to say this – justification is not the only part of the Christian faith. It is the focal point, the thing that informs everything else, to be sure, but it is not the only thing. There is such a thing as sanctification – though, regrettably, too many Lutherans seem to have forgotten it. It has been quipped (by whom, I am unsure) that “if you have not been accused of antinomianism, you are not preaching the Gospel.” No doubt there is some truth to that: teaching justification by grace apart from works can offend those who want to make salvation into a work. But on the other hand, “Antinomian” is not a term a Lutheran minister should willingly embrace either. We would do well to remember it was Luther himself who first named the heresy and rightly condemned it. The Christian is truly freed from the “curse of the Law”, but not from the need to follow it. Indeed, because we have been justified, we earnestly desire to follow the Law – not out of compulsion or fear, but out of thanksgiving. Those who believe “should daily exercise themselves in the Law of the Lord,” our confessions write (SD 6:4). Learning to live according to God’s will is what sanctification is all about.
Now obviously the process of sanctification is itself a work of the Holy Spirit, not the result of human efforts or endeavors. We do not make ourselves holy; God makes us holy. But while a Christian’s growth is accomplished by God, that does not mean our actions are somehow inconsequential. We can resist the transforming work of the Holy Spirit; Paul knew that well when he spoke of the “wretched man” syndrome we all experience. But alternately, when we follow Paul’s advice – keeping our focus on Christ and his sacrifice rather than on our own sins and failures – when we, in effect, stop resisting, God does indeed change us. We begin to be transformed, broken out of the mold of this world, as we begin to understand and live out the good, acceptable, perfect work of God.
The ways in which we resist sanctification are many and varied, but they are hardly worth listing; we all know how we defy God and his transformative work in us. The more difficult question, I think, is this: what does it look like when we stop resisting? In other words, what does a Christian do to more fully allow the Spirit to reign in his or her life?
I can hear the protests already. After all, any Lutheran who suggests that there are specific disciplines Christians ought to undertake runs the risk of being labeled a pietist. “How dare you,” the cry rises up, “suggest that Christians accomplish their own sanctification? How dare you turn the grace of God into a work?” Clearly this is not what I mean. The work of sanctification is God’s. But what I am suggesting is that sanctification is a transitive verb – God sanctifies something. If God is truly at work in us, then the evidence of that work will be made manifest – as he gives us the ability and desire to “do God’s will from a free spirit” (SD 6:2). But we nevertheless remain sinful beings in this world so that we can also resist the Spirit’s work in us. So, from our limited human perspective, we face every moment as a choice: shall we do God’s will freely, or shall we resist?
If that strikes you as verging on works-righteousness, consider this: why do Christians attend worship? “Ah ha!” the critics exclaim gleefully, “He has condemned himself! We attend worship not so much to serve God but rather to to be served by Him – to receive grace from Him in word and sacrament.” Quite. So do I. But I must ask how these critics got to church. I strongly suspect that they enacted a number of choices before they received that grace in word and sacrament: they chose to set the alarm clock; they chose to actually get out of bed when the alarm rang; they chose to dress; to drive to church; to go up for communion; to lift the bread and wine to their lips. Someone who truly believed their own actions had no part in their spiritual growth would have just stayed at home; God could infuse holiness into him there just as well as He could at church.
Of course, the reason why Christians want to go hear the Word proclaimed and receive the Sacrament of the Altar is because God has first incited them to do His will. “They act not by coercion of the Law, but by the renewing of the Holy Spirit, voluntarily and spontaneously from their hearts” (SD 6:23). Because they have been justified, the Spirit lives in them and gives them the desire to adopt those practices which will help them to grow spiritually. That’s why they go to church: God sends them.
But because “they still have a constant struggle against the Old Adam” (SD 6:23), these things forever appear as choices: shall I go to church or shall I sleep in? We must daily learn to willingly and cheerfully follow the Spirit’s leading. For as He leads us into all good things, he uses the good things themselves to further His work of sanctificationin us. The sanctification of God is both realized in human actions and developed through human actions. If we in the Lutheran church truly believed this, we would more vocally and more earnestly call upon our congregants to embrace spiritual disciplines. We would emphasize prayer and Scripture reading as essential to the Christian’s daily life, of attending bible studies and theological instruction regularly, of the importance of good works and personal evangelism, because through these things God works in us to accomplish our sanctification.
We ought to teach these things, but the decay in our church suggests we have not – namely, because we are afraid. When so many in the church have downplayed the role of sanctification in the believer’s life, anyone who reminds them of it lays himself open to the charge of pietism. And we fear that. Or rather, I hope our inaction has been because we are afraid of being labeled pietists. The other alternative is far too dreadful: that we simply do not care about the day-to-day spiritual growth of our congregants, so long as our Sunday morning services continue to run smoothly. And if that is the case, we have even bigger problems to worry about.