For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them. — Ephesians 2:10
Over at the Gospel Coalition site, David Snyder, whose work I am otherwise unfamiliar with, has a review of the Reverend Jonathan Fisk’s new book, Broken. Snyder is a Baptist who lays his doctrinal cards on the table as he details what he considers both the strengths and weaknesses of the book. All told, it is a respectful assessment of Fisk’s work and a model for cross-confessional polemics.
I enjoy Rev. Fisk’s Worldview Everlasting webcasts and have even been asked to review Broken (work loads, alas, have prevented my doing so as of yet). So I am approaching this as someone who has not yet read the book, only snippets.
Fisk, for those unfamiliar with his video oeuvre, is a Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod (LCMS) pastor, and with that in mind, something Snyder wrote rocked me back on my heels: “Broken does a great job of exposing false gospels, but also tends to underestimate the power of the true one.”
What I gleaned from Snyder’s review is that Broken is aimed primarily at young people coming to terms with their identity and on the fringes of the church — perhaps one foot in and one foot out. Or in the “I’m spiritual but not religious” or “I’m rational and not superstitious” camp. Apparently, one of Fisk’s tasks is to keep these up-and-coming apostates focused on the only place they can find Ultimate Truth: the Word of God. While the world tells them they can find God or the “divine” in themselves or in their work or even in some putative “perfect” church, Fisk points them back to the Gospel.
Snyder has no problem with this, as far as it goes. It’s when the young folk either enter or return to the fold that something appears to be missing. While Snyder does not use the word, allow me: discipleship.
If you’ve been reading my stuff for any length of time, you know I was baptized and confirmed in the LCMS and spent 12 years in LCMS parochial schools. I was deeply immersed in that world. My mother, a Sunday school teacher, taught me Luther’s Small Catechism at our kitchen table (and I remember the gold stars awarded in my “Memory Book”!). I was an acolyte. I had the importance of weekly church attendance drummed into me until I wanted to punch a mailman of above-average height and comportment. And high school meant religion classes and, of course, Wednesday-morning chapel.
Given that history, it was a given that by age 15 I was telling family members I was an agnostic; by 17, I was a full-blown atheist writing blasphemous lyrics to traditional Lutheran hymns. By college, I was a reader of American Atheist magazine and something of a Randian.
If you ask me now how that curious devolution occurred, I would say (a) I was a self-centered and overly ambitious smart aleck who found “religion” to be an encumbrance to free thinking and free living (although I lived anything but a raucous life); and (b) no one ever bothered to tell me what it meant actually to be a Christian, other than just showing up for church, confessing your miserable (and expected sins), receiving the Sacrament . . . repeat. It was a drill, not a revolution. And most teens are looking to rebel.
Here is what filtered down to many of us young Lutherans: we are both sinners and justified, yes? So it’s Jesus’s job to justify, and our job to . . . sin. If we say we have no sin, then we are liars! If we say there is anything we can do about our sin, well, then we’re really lost. Don’t get me wrong: there were standards of “conduct,” which amounted to growing into a middle-of-the-road middle-class respectable and productive tax-paying citizen who kept his (or her) head down and, above all, respected authority. But that really wasn’t about our life in Christ. That was more about our life in the world. Christ dealt with the next life. Old-fashioned patriotic American “values” dealt with this one.
See where I’m going here?
A little more background music: having tired of the evangelical wilderness and having dropped out of RCIA not once but twice, and after re-reading Dietrich Bonhoeffer, specifically his Creation and Fall and Cost of Discipleship, I decided to return “home.” I started visiting LCMS churches in NYC and began self-identifying as a Lutheran again. This was about eight years ago. I found, however, that much had changed, except that which most needed to.
I learned quickly that there was a lot of silliness in contemporary LCMS churches, many of which were employing either church-growth techniques that sat uneasily with the Lutheran sensibility or evangelical conversion rhetoric that made a mockery of what Lutherans believed happened in baptism. Online I began encountering a lot of theological language I had missed as a teen (“objective justification,” for example, and the errors of unionism and syncretism). I soon learned about the “confessional movement,” which was keen on elevating that language, that “Lutheran-speak,” in such a way that prevented a drift into neo-evangelicalism, “pietism,” or “indifferentism.” I discovered that even in churches that were more soberly and conservatively Lutheran, the liturgy I grew up with had been replaced with something I did not recognize and could not stand, and was dragged out only on special occasions, like Grandma’s china.
I also learned that any notion of what Jesus might expect us to do in light of our justification, any talk of growing in our sanctification, “holiness,” was a confusion of law and gospel and a regrettable “tick” left over from my days as a Presbyterian and low-church Anglican. It seemed that virtually any attempt to locate an “I” in relation to Jesus was a confusion of law and gospel, unless that I was simply the “sinner,” dead in trespasses in sins, who was worked upon. The Gospel as autopsy.
But where was the new life after the killing was done and autopsy report was in? That life Paul speaks of in the great paeon to Christian freedom, Galatians:
16 So I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. 17 For the flesh desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the flesh. They are in conflict with each other, so that you are not to do whatever you want. 18 But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law.
19 The acts of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; 20 idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions 21 and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God.
22 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law. 24 Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. 25 Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit. 26 Let us not become conceited, provoking and envying each other.
I slowly came to grasp the importance Lutherans’ placed on the external call vs. the internal witness, which was the hallmark of evangelical and Reformed Christianity. Believing the promise explicit in the preaching of the Gospel vs. the seeking out of a “second grace,” an inner, personal experience of conversion, of the Holy Spirit, of God’s peace, assuring us that we were truly converted or of the Elect.
Classical Lutheran theology rejects this idea of a second outpouring of the Spirit, or of a second grace. This is why baptism is of such extreme importance—there we are given everything Christ has to give. Now—do you believe?
But what about those who already believe? What about young Christians wrestling with a farrago of different feelings, desires, wants, needs, aspirations, lusts, ambitions? Is all that internal stuff of the devil? Or relevant only to life in the world?
Should a Christian’s life look different from a non-Christian’s? If so, how?
So when Snyder called out Broken‘s deficiencies regarding post-conversion spiritual growth and an unwillingness to confront all those Scripture verses that make demands of Christians, bells started going off. It brought back that sense of emptiness, even dreariness, I had experienced as a teen sitting in a church pew looking at my watch.
In light of our salvation in Christ, are we freed from the law, any law, all law? Or are we freed from the law’s condemnation, but now free to exceed the demands of the law? Asked to go one mile? Go two. Asked for your coat? Give your shirt too. Difficult? Yes. Scary, definitely. But impossible? Wrongheaded?
I don’t know how many times I have heard or read that these examples of Christian service are in Scripture only to point out how often we fail. In short, Jesus’s ethical commands are there to drive us to despair — and ultimately to the Gospel. But they are not to be taken literally by believers. That’s works righteousness. That’s a confusion of law and gospel. Beware the “you do.” Focus on the “He did.”
But what if we’ve already embraced the Gospel and know we cannot save or justify ourselves, that all our works are tainted by self-serving motives, and that only the perfect sacrifice for sin can clothe us in the righteousness that God recognizes as acceptable for salvation?
According to what I was hearing from confessional Lutheranism, the answer is: Do it again! Believe! Show up! Confess! Partake of the Sacrament — repeat!
I’m telling you from experience, and as someone who has been around the ecclesiological block a few times, young people, especially young men, will internalize this as “I’m really all right just as I am. Yeah, I’m a sinner — but who isn’t? And being a Christian is just about admitting I’m a sinner and that Jesus is the Savior. So, as long as I maintain my ‘membership’ in a church (even if that translates as Christmas and Easter attendance), continue to believe that ‘Jesus saves’ stuff, and don’t go all ‘atheist,’ I’m on a bullet train to heaven.”
And what confusion is wrought by de-emphasizing discipleship! Take the very idea of confession. We reject the Roman Catholic tendency to quantify sin, to reduce sin to merely breaking the rules X number of times on Tuesday, for which a countervailing penance is X number of Hail Marys or Our Fathers. And so we should. But we then ask young Lutherans to confess to a pastor specific sins.
“Why?” they no doubt ask. “To receive absolution? Aren’t we absolved in Christ? Aren’t we absolved in the course of the Divine Service? Aren’t we just going to continue to sin? Isn’t that the deal? Jesus takes my sin and I get Jesus’s goodness? Repeat!”
The apparent contradiction is not lost on them (emphasis on apparent). Which is why I bet very few Lutherans avail themselves of auricular confession to a pastor. (By the way, is it a sacrament? Or just a suggestion?)
I’m afraid that, despite the robust efforts of young pastors like Jonathan Fisk, too many recently confirmed Lutherans will leave the church. And some will go all atheist. This because the power of the Gospel not only to save but also to change lives and make them agents of change in the lives of others will have completely eluded them. They’ve been told never to trust their feelings, their experiences, their works, and so a Christian life starts to look and feel a lot like a non-Christian life. Six of one, half a dozen of the other.
Pietists, Wesleyans, Arminians, Catholics, Orthodox may all be quasi-utopians by Lutheran lights, strangely convinced that even the redeemed believer can grow in Christ, in holiness, and achieve some special status as saintlier-than-thou. Lutherans, on the other hand, are realists for whom such efforts make no theological sense.
Consider: if we are clothed in the righteousness of Christ, if his merits, his holiness, is imputed to us, where is there room for growth, for sacrifice? You are either in this relationship to him, by faith, or not. You either believe he has both justified and sanctified you, or you do not. This is a state we’re talking about, not an opportunity.
And so there appears to be nothing for the Lutheran to do but — show up, confess, partake, repeat…show up, confess, partake, repeat…
This all-too-familiar (and I would add dumbed-down) interpretation of the Lutheran faith is but a hair’s breath from the kind of magical Christianity propounded by Zane Hodges in his daft Absolutely Free!
A Baptist, especially of he Reformed persuasion, like Snyder can only shake his head and assert, as he does in his review, that
Christians grow, not just instantly—when they pass from this life to the next—but here and now. Fisk is right to call attention to indwelling sin and to emphasize believers will never be free of its presence in their mortal bodies. But he’s wrong to ignore the fact Christians grow in the grace and knowledge of Jesus Christ in this life. God’s grace gives power over sin. The pursuit of holiness is a real pursuit. Christians will always struggle with sin in this life, but they’re also miraculously free to not sin. And exercising this freedom brings glory to God. This is an important component of God’s grace. . . .
The Bible tells Christians to do things. There are moral imperatives that come with being a Christian. If you doubt this obligation, read the second half of each of Paul’s epistles. Telling Christians to do things isn’t the gospel stepping into moralism’s shadow. On the contrary, when the apostle calls believers to certain behaviors, it’s always after reminding them of who they are in Christ. When a child of God hears a moral imperative from the Scriptures, then, he doesn’t hear “Do this to be a Christian”; he hears “You’re a Christian, so do this.” Obedience to Christ is the mark of a Christian; Fisk, however, never makes this point.
I wrote about my frustrations in the regard before. It led to some interesting discussions and revealed the continuing tensions in the confessional movement. In Lutheranism itself.
Since that time, one book I managed to read was Steven D. Paulson’s Lutheran Theology, part of T&T Clark’s Doing Theology series. I wouldn’t exactly call this a beginner’s guide. It’s too sophisticated for that. And maddeningly opaque at times. It expounds the paradoxes that Lutheranism excels at like a virtuoso knuckling through the Rach.3. I found myself throwing (mentally) the book against a wall, crying, WHAT THE HELL IS HE TALKING ABOUT?? The faith should not be this difficult, this full of quasi-koanic “not this not that” dichotomies, antinomies, and mysteries!
I felt like Joaquin Phoenix in The Master: “JUST TELL ME SOMETHING THAT’S TRUE!” Stop with the qualifications and jargon!
Is there another book in the Bible besides Romans?!
Then came chapter 11.
I quote from the opening paragraphs:
Once a sinner has been made purely passive, then the active life begins in earnest. Justification by faith is a new creature clinging only to Christ instead of the law, and from this new tree the Holy Spirit produces fruit in the form of love that pours out its life in the body for the neighbor: “A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit” (Matthew 7:18 NRS). For the first time good works and love are not a goal and mere potentiality but actual and present, emerging organically, freely and spontaneously (albeit hiddenly). Paul says “For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision accomplishes anything, but faith!—active through love” (Galatians 5:6, translation altered).
Luther composed a classical statement on good works in his Preface to the Romans which later became ensconced as the heart of the Lutheran teaching in the settlement of the “Majoristic” controversy (Formula of Concord IV, 1580) that sought to make good works a legal requirement for salvation: “Faith is a divine work in us which changes us and makes us to be born anew in God. It kills the old ‘Adam’ and makes us altogether different people, in heart and spirit and mind and all powers; and it brings with it the Holy Spirit.” …
In order for good works to flow a person must die to the law, since a relation to the law interposes itself between a lover and the beloved, between creatures and their Creator, and between a person and her neighbor. Love is always relational, it is between people, not a quality that resides in an individual soul, and that relation will either be immediate or it will be a relation to the law first—and only secondarily to the person. This is the meaning of Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10. Two men representing obedience to the law, a Levite and a priest, pass by a wounded man specifically because of their higher calling to remain clean according to the law. The Samaritan, without a proper relationship to the law, simply “looked at him and loved him” (Luke 10:33). The Samaritan was not good because he loved; he was good—and so loved, apart from the relationship to the law. Once the law is removed as the relation between sinner and God the law is also removed from the relation to the neighbor, and love flows freely, organically producing fruit from a good tree.
There we have a beautifully wrought picture of a Lutheran understanding of good works as the fruit of faith, strictly for one’s neighbor, without regard to merit or any notion of a double justification (the second being based on works). Lutherans can still contend with those in the holiness movement about the perils of legalism. And Lutherans will, must, quarrel with their Reformed brethren regarding an introspection that can easily make the source of my peace with God my peace with myself. (Although we are most definitely called to examine ourselves, especially in relation to receiving the Sacrament.) But they cannot, must not, forsake sound preaching on the Christian life lived and offering encouragement along the lines of Galatians 5.
I have had the privilege of knowing several good and godly pastors (and Catholic priests, for that matter). I do not underestimate the burdens their office carries. A man in the pulpit is not only preacher and teacher but also father and brother and best friend and psychiatrist and life coach and shoulder to cry on and scapegoat and punching bag and model of Christian perfection and inevitable disappointment — all for a salary just south of what a regional sales manager at Best Buy probably makes.
So I say this with all due deference: if you think it is enough to tell young Christians about faith, and that faith is only about what Christ did and has nothing whatsoever to do with what we now are and, following upon that, how we must live, don’t blink. Because if you do, many of your new confirmands will be gone, never to darken your narthex again. They will either give up on “religion” altogether as a dead and superstitious ritual or find the power of the Gospel for their lives later and elsewhere.
There’s a reason Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York, my former church, can’t break off satellite churches fast enough, while the LCMS congregations in its vicinity barely draw 25 people a Sunday. And it has nothing to do with church-growth movements or praise bands or health-and-wealth scams. The Reformed evangelicals are asking young Christians not only to throw themselves at the foot of the cross but also to stand up and carry it into the world. To grow into Christ. To be Christ in the world. It is a noble and hard work. And hundreds, thousands, are rising to that challenge, reveling in it. Yes, they fail. Yes, they fall. Then then pick themselves up, implore God for the grace to persevere, ask their friends for support and prayer — and continue on.
In other words, their lives come to mean more than just I’M A BIG FAT SINNER BUT NOW IT DOESN’T MATTER. Grounded in something other than themselves, yes — the rock that is Christ — but for a purpose greater than just showing up, repeat.
And damn if they’re not reading the very same Bibles we are, and confessing the same five solae.
Dismiss it as a confusion of law and gospel all you like. But you won’t have Luther’s blessing.
O it is a living, busy, active, mighty thing, this faith. It is impossible for it not to be doing good works incessantly. It does not ask whether good works are to be done, but before the question is asked, it has already done them, and is constantly doing them. . . . Faith is a living, daring confidence in God’s grace, so sure and certain that the believer would stake life itself on it a thousand times. . . . And this is the work which the Holy Spirit performs in faith. Because of it, without compulsion, a person is ready and glad to do it good to everyone, to serve everyone, to suffer everything, out of love and praise to God, who has shown this grace. Thus, it is impossible to separate works from faith, quite as impossible as to separate heat and light from fire.
By all means, continue to make the Lutheran distinction between the good works that are the fruit of the Spirit and fruitless attempts at obedience to a law that has been upended by a new High Priest. Lutherans need not parrot Reformed preaching and cannot mirror its construal of the faith. It is enough, Pastor, to preach as Luther did. Or are young Christians expected simply to know that this is what the Lutheran faith entails, intuit it, as some kind of involuntary response to their election? Catechesis is not enough—necessary, but insufficient. And let’s be honest, a lot of the LCMS churches I have encountered on the East Coast don’t have enough young people in them to justify leaving such counseling to youth groups. Because there aren’t any youth groups. They must hear it from the pulpits and see it in the lives of their spiritual mentors.
The resources are all there in the Lutheran treasury. How I wish someone would find the courage to break that now rusty lock and share some of it. And who better to lead the way than the Jonathan Fisks of the world?
But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To him be the glory both now and to the day of eternity. Amen.
—2 Peter 3:18
NOTA BENE: Based on one comment already, let me reiterate: this is not a proper review of Broken. Snyder should not be the last word on the book, and neither should I. I was using something Snyder gleaned from his reading as a jumping off point to discuss an abiding issue in Lutheranism — not only as a non-Lutheran saw it, but as I see it too. Others may have very different experiences and think I’m overstating something that is completely alien to their experience. Excellent! Certainly, Rev. Fisk’s ministry, and what he has to say to young Lutherans, extends far beyond the bounds of what is his very first book. And so this should also be in no way construed as a commentary on Jonathan Fisk or his ministry. He is doing wonderful work on the Web and I’m sure is a blessing to his congregation. I’m sorry I missed him when he was still a pastor in Philadelphia.
In light of this criticism, however, I have downloaded the Kindle version and am working my way through Broken to see if I am selling Rev. Fisk’s book short based on David Snyder’s review. Stay tuned.