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.
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.