October 23, 2017

Reformation 500: How the Lutheran Tradition Answers Many Post-Evangelical Concerns (2)

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.

• • •

Reformation 500
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.

THE USE OF THE MEANS OF GRACE
A Statement on the Practice of Word and Sacrament, ELCA 1997

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.

Comments

  1. cheesehed says:

    Chaplain Mike,

    I’m enjoying your series on why you’re part of the Lutheran tradition. I went through a somewhat similar trek, after participating in evangelicalism for 25+ years.

    A question: Do you have any thoughts or observations on how Lutherans are perceived/seen in Indiana, by members of other denominations?

    I’ve talked to a few Lutheran pastors from the South who’ve told me that other Christians lump them together with Catholics. Pretty interchangeable. Not very surprising, I guess. Just wondering if it’s at all similar in your milieu.

    • From what I’ve seen, I don’t think a lot of people understand much about Lutherans around here. They probably just think of them as “traditional .”

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

        I think of them as one of the three Western Rite Liturgical churches, along with the Catholic and Anglican.

    • Burro [Mule] says:

      See my note yesterday about Christianity 1.0 and 2.0. In everything that marks Christian groups as practicing Christianity 1.0 or 2.0 Lutherans are indistinguishable from Catholics.

      The irony of this is that now you have to do an upgrade every thirty years or so. In my RCA/CRC-dominated home town, the Baptists and the Restorationists in the 50s and 60s decrying the Constantinian Dutch as apostates, not “real” Christians. Their turn came in the 70s when the Pentecostals came for them using the same rhetoric. Now it’s Mars Hill, then non-denoms, and the ’emergents’.

      It’s a powerful argument, but it goes nowhere.

      Reform your hearts, ye double-minded, not the Church! – St. Theophan the Recluse.

  2. Steve Newell says:

    “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.” is correct. However, the irony is that one will hear more bible passages in a traditional liturgy than want is spoken in most American “evangelical” churches. In the traditional liturgy, there are three readings (Old Testament, Epistle, Gospel) and a Psalm. In addition, many of the words in the liturgy that the pastor and congregants speak are taken directly from the Bible.

  3. senecagriggs says:

    C.M. Very seriously, how does the Lutheran tradition handle this passage from the Apostle Paul

    God’s Wrath Against Sinful Humanity

    18 The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people, who suppress the truth by their wickedness, 19 since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. 20 For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.

    21 For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. 22 Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools 23 and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like a mortal human being and birds and animals and reptiles.

    24 Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another. 25 They exchanged the truth about God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator—who is forever praised. Amen.

    26 Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural sexual relations for unnatural ones. 27 In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed shameful acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their error.

    28 Furthermore, just as they did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God, so God gave them over to a depraved mind, so that they do what ought not to be done. 29 They have become filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice. They are gossips, 30 slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful; they invent ways of doing evil; they disobey their parents; 31 they have no understanding, no fidelity, no love, no mercy. 32 Although they know God’s righteous decree that those who do such things deserve death, they not only continue to do these very things but also approve of those who practice them.

    • Seneca, I would guess there are many different interpretations, just as in other traditions. If you are asking about the ELCA’s position on homosexual relations, I have posted about this before: http://www.internetmonk.com/archive/how-the-elca-dealt-with-the-issue-of-homosexuality

    • Probably in the proper context.

      • I realize this won’t change your mind one bit. But:

        In Romans 1:18-32, therefore, Paul is laying a trap. He’s elaborating at length the awfulness of gentile idolatry, ungodliness and perversion with a strategic aim. He does this in order to goad the judging group into a self-satisfied sense of moral outrage against the group among the Roman Christians that will not convert to Judaism.

        Paul names same-gender erotic relations as degraded human behavior in order to bait a group of Christians in Rome into having an aroused sense of satisfaction in God’s judgment on others (Rom 1:18-32);
        he does this so that he might then round on this group and expose the problem of passing judgment (Rom 2-3).
        This group sees itself as more committed to Scripture than are other Christians (Rom 2-3).

        Paul identifies God in Romans as behaving in a way that scandalizes Christians who think they are more committed to Scripture than are others, and are therefore worthy of judging other Christians (Rom 4:5).
        Paul indicates that when Christians pass judgment on other Christians they turn Scripture into a weapon in the hands of the cosmic powers of Sin and Death that aim to destroy the church (Rom 7:7-25).

        When Christians stop passing judgment on one another, Scripture is no longer a weapon of Sin and Death to destroy the church and becomes the means whereby the Spirit transforms the church (Rom 8:1-2).

        Paul commands the factions in the Roman church to resist passing judgment on one another’s opinions (Rom 14:1-15:8).

        The climactic command of Romans is for Christians of differing opinions about lifestyle practices to offer hospitality to one another, just as Christ has embraced both groups (Rom 15:7-8).

        But you have your interpretation and want to use it for a gotcha moment. And any other interpretation is ‘wrong’.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

      From my time in-country, I automatically distrust anyone whose entire position/argument is reciting Bible Verse after Bible Verse.

    • My response is based upon what I know of the nature of God’s character as revealed though Jesus Christ. Wrath might be an element of His nature, but LOVE is first and foremost, and I’m pretty sure His love trumps any wrath. If not, we’d all be in deep doo-doo.

    • As usual… stopped in mid-quote. Why is it that NOBODY goes on to the next verses?

      2:1 “You, therefore, have no excuse, you who pass judgment on someone else, for at whatever point you judge another, you are condemning yourself, because you who pass judgment do the same things.”

      Oh… Wait…

  4. Translation: Why doesn’t the ECLA condemn homosexuals, who Paul describes as murderers, slanderers, disobedient to parents, without love or mercy, and God-hating people in general?

    The bigger question is why any fair minded person could possibly take Paul seriously at all here.

    • In Romans 1:18-32, therefore, Paul is laying a trap. He’s elaborating at length the awfulness of gentile idolatry, ungodliness and perversion with a strategic aim. He does this in order to goad the judging group into a self-satisfied sense of moral outrage against the group among the Roman Christians that will not convert to Judaism.

      And people keep tripping over this trap.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

        It’s a decline narrative that would be expected to end with “For these are the things which the Goyim do.”

        Then (like the ending of The Prodigal Son), the ending flips one-eighty.

    • Burro [Mule] says:

      Uh, isn’t St. Paul taking about Gentiles here?

      My life experience with homosexuals is that they aren’t somehow more damaged than the rest of mankind (including Lutherans), but that the same virtues and vices common to us all seem to be equitably distributed among them. They also don’t appear to be more given to idolatry (in the classic sense of burning ghee on an altar to Sri Ganesh) than anyone else in my acquaintance.

      If my experience fails to align with someone’s particular interpretation of Romans 1, then my first instinct is to reject that person’s interpretation and dig a little deeper.

      I can’t speak for the ECLA, but the Orthodox Church will not marry people of the same sex any time before the Eschaton, but we don’t condemn people for being so attracted. What kind of church-like body do you attend that condemns people?

      • senecagriggs says:

        I don’t attend a church that condemns people. I do attend a church that thinks Scripture actually is “spirit-breathed” and

        [II Tim. 3:16
        New International Version]

        All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness,

        Historic, orthodox Christianity.

        BTW Burro/mule, I have visited a local Armenian Orthodox Church in the past and have positive thoughts about them.

        • Except that a lot of the things you advocate based on this view of scripture are NOT “historic orthodox Christianity” – or at least were considered only one alternate interpretation of many.

          “God-breathed” =/= “literalist inerrancy”

      • “…given to idolatry (in the classic sense of burning ghee on an altar to Sri Ganesh)…”

        Except of course Hindus are smart enough to realize that the statue itself is not Ganesh and that Ganesh himself is an image meant to assist the devotee in moving his awareness past form to contemplate an ultimate reality that transcends form. I’m told that Orthodox worshipers do this when they reverence Icons. Or is that “idol worship ” too like my Southern Baptist family always told me?

        • Burro [Mule] says:

          I knew as soon as I posted this this someone here would defend the Hindus.

          Icon veneration proceeds, I think, from the same impulse in the human soul as idolatry, but in the case of Christianity/Orthodoxy, we are not contemplating a symbol of ultimate reality that “transcends form”, but this particular Man who is Ultimate Reality who deigned to take this form. What the Bible says about idolatry covers both the crude idolatry that I am certain still exists wherever men make depictions of the Divine, as well as the more philosophical form you describe. I mean, just who is Sri Ganesh anyway?

          Muslims believe both Hindus and Orthodox to be idolators, The Orthodox believe Hindus to be idolators and Muslims to be iconoclasts. My only experience with Muslim worship was even creepier than the watered-down Hinduism I flirted with as a hippie. Hinduism is like some strains of “progressive” Christianity. It is so amorphous it’s difficult to determine if anybody anywhere is actually wrong.

          • Who is Ganesh? A face for that which has no face. For an orthodox Hindu (who honors the authority of the Vedas) ultimate reality is impersonal. As a result many of them would regard Christian Theism as idolatry because it identifies ultimate reality with a person, the very condition their religion teaches them to transcend. So you see the disrespect works both ways!

      • Adam Tauno Williams says:

        > What kind of church-like body do you attend that condemns people?

        Agree.

        And it is a very perilous place, IMNSHO, if the defining go-to property of a group is who they do or do not condemn?

        If condemning the ‘correct people’ is a guiding principle they just aren’t anyone I want to be around.

    • That’s taking Paul’s statements and spinning them into something I’m not sure he intended for theologies to be built around. The main point of ALL of his writings are: it’s all about Jesus, don’t go back to religious ways!

  5. senecagriggs says:

    Stuart, I read your interpretation carefully. Are you then utlimately saying the Scripture actually does not speak against homosexual behaviors? That homosexual marriage/relationships are okay in Scripture?

    • Depends. You can find verses in the OT law that would support your view – right next door to verses about not working on the Sabbath, and the same capital punishment decreed for both. So, why single out “homosexuality” as a heinous sin and not eating bacon on Sunday?

      • seneca griggs says:

        O.T.

        Civil laws
        Worship laws
        Moral Laws.

        The civil and worship laws changed; the moral laws have never changed.

        • Disagree utterly.

        • “Civil laws
          Worship laws
          Moral Laws….”

          That’s exactly what I was taught in theology class, too. The problem is, nobody made that distinction in the OT itself – all the Laws were God-given to God’s people, therefore they were *all* moral, civil, and worship simultaneously. As for the NT use of the OT Law, it also treats it as a unified whole – and states that NT believers are not beholden to it. The Book of Hebrews states emphatically that the OT Law is abrogated, and Paul in Romans 6 makes the case for morality apart from the OT Law.

          • senecagriggs says:

            So you’d like to say the 10 Commandments no longer apply? Is that your stance?

            • Horseman Bree says:

              Since Jesus (remember Him?) said that there are Two Commandments: “Love God, and Love Your Neighbour”, and that “on these hang all the Law and the Prophets”, I’m not sure what you think you are saying. If I/you/we observe the Two Great Commandments, we will definitely be living out the Decalogue. In fact, we won’t even be thinking about doing things which contravene any of the 630-some Mitzvot. What is your problem?

          • I choose to not abide by the rules and laws of some tent dwelling nomad bronze age tribal deity’s holy men. Where the laws coincide with standard human decency and order, that’s fine, but you’d be a fool to believe those laws started with some stone tablets or codified tribal house rules.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

        Ever notice it always comes down to “Teh Fag Card”?

  6. Christiane says:

    Chaplain MIKE, this is so well-written:

    “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.”

    Chaplain Mike, I have often wondered about the ‘transition’ between an evangelical-fundamentalist view of ‘sacraments’ and an acceptance of the sacramental as nurturing from God, and your way of describing this helps me understand better through your one experience of that transition. Thank you for sharing this. I have for some time mourned over a story I heard about a young evangelical preacher who, in his sermon, bragged about having purchased day-old bread cheaply, and announced that the loaves were on the back table and on their way out of the sanctuary, people were invited to grab a chunk of that stale bread. I thought then that this was something ‘worse’ than ignoring the meaning of Eucharist and was more in line with contemptuous treatment.

    I do realize that many evangelical people do participate reverently in some form of ‘The Lord’s Supper’, but that preacher’s example seemed an extension of the attitude that, since the communion ritual is so time-consuming and troublesome, why bother except a few times a year or once a year.

    • It’s not just that it’s “time consuming”, but also that with some folk, it’s too “holy” to be engaged in too regularly. They take an overly literal (by which i mean acontextual) rrading of I Corinthians 11 and say, “Well, if folks take Communion too flippantly God will punish them, so let’s make sure we take it *seriously* – only once a month (or less), lots of law-preaching to properly fence the table” – ad infinitum ad nauseam. My exposure to this in a Reformed Baptist church almost wrecked my assurance.

      And the irony is, this hyper-sacralistic view tends to hold strongest in traditions that are explicitly ANTI-sacredotal. Make of that what you will.

  7. Burro [Mule] says:

    this very Word of God, which is Jesus Christ, …eaten and drunk in the Holy Communion

    Preaching the Gospel at the cellular level.

  8. Ben Carmack says:

    “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.”

    The Law/Gospel hermeneutic popular with modern Lutherans sounds attractive, and Law and Gospel are distinct things in Scripture, so you do need a hermeneutic to sort them out. Problem is, Scripture sometimes has different definitions of Law and Gospel than theologians do.

    If someone is not a Christian, brow-beating them with Law isn’t going to help them much, especially since they don’t have the ability nor the inclination to do God’s commands. This is what Luther himself taught. Yet even here, as my Lutheran pastor taught us in catechism class, the law has a “civil use” which can apply to all people and is administered by the civil magistrate.

    Once someone becomes a Christian (however that happens; there’s disagreement on that between Reformation era traditions), they do have an ability to obey God’s Law, overcome sin, and progress in holiness, however haltingly, however weakly. As the historic Church has taught, transformation is not merely individual, but also social. As individuals begin to obey God, their families also obey God. They are baptized and also their children. Then as families begin to obey God, whole societies begin to obey God.

    Given that transformation is not meant to be merely spiritual (between me and God, or in my heart, etc) but also concrete, physical, sacramental, there’s certainly a place for “principles for living,” “precepts,” even, dare I say, “using the Bible as an instruction manual.” The Christians who worked to end the Gladiatorial games believed that the Bible instructed them to do so. A Christian society would not allow such games. Aren’t we all glad they applied the Bible to everyday life?

    I find it hard to square Chaplain Mike’s purely spiritual vision for religion here, and the vision of somebody like, say, N.T. Wright, or even Scot McKnight. How Chaplain Mike defines the Christian religion here sounds remarkably “soterian.”

    Just one of the many contradictions that defines the life of the I Monastery.

    • “The Law/Gospel hermeneutic popular with modern Lutherans sounds attractive, and Law and Gospel are distinct things in Scripture, so you do need a hermeneutic to sort them out. Problem is, Scripture sometimes has different definitions of Law and Gospel than theologians do.”

      I actually agree in principle. But in fairness, I would also argue that the Lutheran Law/Gospel hermeneutic is a lot closer to the truth than the “string whatever verses you want from anywhere together with no context” hermeneutic. 😉

      And the Lutherans’ Theology of the Cross… sheer genius.

    • Ben, please explain how I have expressed a “purely spiritual vision for religion.” One does not need to view the Bible as an “instruction manual” to understand that faith works through love. Plus, this is only one post in a series. Just yesterday I spoke about another Lutheran distinctive, the doctrine of Vocation, which is as opposite of “purely spiritual” as anything I can think of.

      Given a great deal of what I write on Internet Monk, I find your understanding of what I’m saying extremely curious.

      • Ben Carmack says:

        Faith working through love needs instruction to know what love is, what it should be directed toward. We aren’t born knowing how to do this. Right?

        Telling people it doesn’t matter how you live, doesn’t matter how much progress you make against sin, just as long as you come to church and take the sacraments and everything will be great–that is spiritualizing religion. Yes, you’re doing physical actions in a church, but those actions are just salves for your conscience. It doesn’t actually change your life.

        Hitler is great as long as comes to church and takes the sacraments. And we aren’t allowed to tell him to change because that’s “judgmental” and “using the Bible as an instruction manual.”

        Best of luck with your pseudo spiritual mumbo jumbo that has nothing whatsoever to do with the historic Christian faith.

  9. R.I.P, Tom Petty.

  10. Thanks for the posts. You make a great case for practicing within the Lutheran tradition, CM.

  11. A further observation, which Scot McKnight makes in his book The King Jesus Gospel, is that when evangelicalism talks about Jesus, it tends to be more “salvation-centered” than “Gospel-centered.”

    Rather than accepting McKnight’s dichotomy, what if the problem isn’t being too “salvation-centered” (as if Christianity isn’t thoroughly soteriocentric) with the solution being to deemphasize “salvation” and be more “Gospel-centered” but that what is commonly intended by the word “salvation” has become too narrow, individualistic, forensic, and abstract and inevitably leads to a dichotomy?

    Semantics maybe, but it seems preferable to say that the Gospel is entirely about “salvation” and to broaden or refine what that means. I’ve been reading some Robert Jenson stuff lately, and his idea of the Gospel as “unconditional promise” would seem to give Lutheran practice a good foundation for that – particularly within the liturgical sacramental practice that’s laid out here.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

      …but that what is commonly intended by the word “salvation” has become too narrow, individualistic, forensic, and abstract and inevitably leads to a dichotomy?

      As in Individual Fire Insurance Policy?

      A Gospel of Personal Salvation and ONLY Personal Salvation?