The Quest for the Evangelical Lutheran Church

David Ben Gurion is said to have coined the expression “for every two Jews, three opinions.” I’ll coin another: For every two Lutherans, one opinion—”We agree, and you’re wrong.”

I’ve been working on this post for more than two weeks now, wondering if it was worth a battery charge to finish. Or publish. But I may as well finish what I started, and to the extent this “discussion” has proved edifying to even a few of you (and recognizing it has proved infuriating to a few of you too), here goes. (It’s long, but take heart—this is the last on this subject from me. At least in this forum.)

My two “Broken” posts (found here and here) ushered in responses that surprised me in two ways: (1) the number of people who thought I was on to something; and (2) that discussions about this very topic (or something like it) were happening simultaneously on other blogs (although, they didn’t seem to be having as much fun as we were, because we’re the funnest).

Actually, there was a THIRD way in which I was surprised: very few of my interlocutors bothered to address the actual issue I was concerned with, and that was discipleship of young Lutherans.

Is the word discipleship even in the Lutheran vocabulary? I never hear (or heard) it used in confessional circles. I’m not going to pile on proof text after proof text to build an argument here. For that you can visit other blogs and read their collections of citations, and then read the demurrals in the comboxes, as well as the dime-store psychology employed by some commenters who fear that we’re really talking about them. To begin, see Jordan Cooper’s post here, Nathan Rinne’s here, and Pastor Mark Surburg’s here.

Subsequent to these discussions, Steadfast Brethren picked up the thread, and offered this and this.

Now, for the sake of accurate record keeping, here’s what my posts were NEVER about:

This has NEVER been about (look at what big letters I type) the supposedly “bad” behavior of Lutherans proving an embarrassment, and so don’t we have to get these folks into shape. PLEASE link to a post of mine that has ever played scold in that way. First of all, who am I to judge anyone? And second, if some think Lutherans are so badly behaved, my first question is, Compared to whom? Catholics? Fundamentalist in the buckle of the Bible Belt, that Edenic pasture of pre-Fallen humanity? Muslims, Buddhists, atheist Netherlanders? As a matter of fact, I have found Lutherans, generally speaking, to be a pretty upstanding bunch. So  this is not now, nor has it ever been, about Lutherans who smoke or drink or curse or covet thy neighbor’s ass. (Although I’d watch that last one, just, you know, ’cause…)

This is what I really wanted to discuss in light of Broken‘s debut: Why do so many young Lutherans leave the church shortly after Confirmation, as I once did? Are they looking for something they are not finding in their church? Are they not being challenged? Is discipleship coming across as little more than middle-class morality with a dollop of Jesus thrown in for fire insurance?

Or are they all just curiosity and hormones aching to break out of the pew, and so it really isn’t about “Lutheranism” at all, but rather about “church” and “authority” and simply being bored?

Granted, these are not mutually exclusive phenomena.

Now, the sanctification issue is at least tangentially related to the question of discipleship, and since it keeps rearing its holy head any which way the conversation turns, let’s stop there and sit a spell.

Since our little discussion was sparked by my response to a review of Broken on the Gospel Coalition website, and then my review of the book itself, I think it’s only fair to get Pastor Jonathan Fisk, the author of Broken, in here. Linked here are three Worldview Everlasting videos that were produced within the past month or so. If you haven’t seen them already, watch. Even if you have watched them, watch them again. They can be found here, here, and here.


Before we go any further, the next time you have access to the Lutheran Service Book, flip open the cover. You will see in front of you a list of prayers: one for when entering the church, one for just before worship—stop! Read that one. The second from the top. Read it carefully. Read it slowly.

One of the more vehement responses to my posts, by Dr. Veith, advocated the doctrine of vocation as the Lutheran answer to discipleship. (He even took a playful little shot at me in a post on Anthony Bradley’s decidedly negative reaction to some of the “radical,” “missional” types among the Reformed.) As most of you know, Luther’s “doctrine” of vocation was rooted in the liberation of the Christian conscience. Regnant in Roman Catholicism is this idea that there are higher and lower callings. The evangelical counsels (that “going the extra mile and turning the other cheek” stuff) are intended for saints in the making, while the mere commandments (don’t steal, don’t kill, don’t lie) are for hoi polloi.

Put more pictorially: pick up a copy of the old Baltimore Catechism. You will find there an illustration of a bride and groom at the altar. The caption reads “Good.” Juxtaposed to that is another illustration: a priest and a nun kneeling at an altar. The caption for that one reads “Better.”

Get the picture? In Luther’s day, if you wanted a surer road to heaven, you became a priest or a monk or a nun. You became really really religious. You went all “missional,” to use modern parlance.

But Luther had gone that route. He had given up life in the world and the good pleasure of his earthly father to become a monk, and found even a loving heavenly God slowly receding into the background of a canon lawyer’s study. Luther realized that, by faith, a bishop was no closer to God than a shoemaker. In fact, given the bishops of the Reformer’s day, the shoemaker was probably of infinitely greater utility.

Vocations, of course, overlap (student/daughter; cab driver/father; pastor/citizen) and change throughout life. And they certainly can be vehicles for discipleship, the masks God wears to meet the needs of his people. And yes, they impose a certain discipline on us—demanding perseverance through trials and submission to God’s will, even in the quotidian.

Now, I knew all this. In fact, I’m the one who asked Dr. Veith to write on the subject for the Intercollegiate Review website for goodness gracious Agnes.

But I don’t believe discipleship can be reduced to vocation. I see much more than that both in Scripture and the prescriptions of great Lutheran thinkers. This is a fraught and complex business. If you don’t think so, turn back now.

Is it possible, just possible, that many young Lutherans over time become convinced that the choices they make in their lives have less to do with faith in Christ and more about the worldly wisdom and expert advice that everyone else has access to? Sure, a godly doctor dispenses an antibiotic to an ailing Christian, and when that Christian recovers, he or she says, “God healed me,” in a nod to God’s sovereignty and use of (human) means. But doesn’t an atheist physician also bring healing to Christians? And non-Christians? Is the only thing that really distinguishes Christians in their vocations from their non-Christian friends and colleagues an eagerness to be diligent when others slack off, or to be honest when others cheat around the edges, or that they bear up under false accusation or take it on the chin when they’re passed over for promotion, owing to a “Christ-like” humility? Come Monday, are the true dos and don’ts to be gleaned mainly from the natural law and the civil law and the spirit of the age, such that, eventually, even going to church doesn’t make much practical sense anymore? After all, they’re already “good” people, and that’s not really what Christianity is about, anyway, being “good.” And yes they read that book on vocation, but that’s a very simple thing, and they don’t need church for that, because they’re working out their vocation at the post office just fine such that they know it’s not a road to heaven, and never really feared going to hell anyway (that’s for Hitler), and it’s not like they don’t still believe in God and Jesus and all that, and sure they throw Jesus a high-five when they’ve had a good day, and ask for a little patience when they’re enduring a bad one, and they’re good children and good parents and good workers and good citizens and good Germans so what is the point of all the ritual, when all I need to get through Monday is a little more sleep on Sunday? 

A book that several commenters recommended I read was The Quest for Holiness by Adolf Köberle.

Well, I read it. And now you will pay for it.

Allow me to quote extensively from Köberle, as he discusses the various ways in which sanctification, and even discipleship, is manifested in the life of the Christian. (All boldface emphases are mine.)

A third decisive sphere for the activity of Christian asceticism is the training of our thoughts to purity, to chastity in the wider sense of the word, by cleansing the whole mental life from wrath, envy, malice and immorality.

Here particularly our previous statement, that uncleanness is best overcome by the believing and prayerful contemplation of divine holiness, becomes very evident, and yet, because of our twofold posture in sanctification we still need the negative attitude of avoidance.

To bring the matter immediately into the practical life of our day we can say that the avoidance of the modern dance and questionable films, of the excessive frequenting of theaters and the intemperate reading of fiction (particularly during the years of adolescence, and for that matter during all the later times of special temptation of or lowered powers of resistance) is as important as the attendance at divine service and the practice of prayer.

Because sin has such a mysterious influence and ensnaring power, those places where it is glorified in sensuous and wild revelry are to be absolutely avoided. At the present time there are many things about which previous generations might have had differences of opinion but which today are no longer permissible for a Christian. In a time as morally lax as ours it is necessary in considering the Pauline assertion, “All things are lawful unto me, but all things are not expedient” to lay the greatest emphasis on the second part pf that statement, “all things are not expedient.” But it is not enough to exclude the gross, sensuous, defiling lusts, there must be a continuous readiness to surrender all secular good, no matter how exalted it may be, when it threatens to master us. “It can be a part of the care of souls to take the newspaper out of someone’s hand—even out of our own.” […]

Luther, who was not so poverty-stricken mentally that he could not grasp more than one idea at a time, could poke fun at the people who proudly thought that “it was much more excellent if they did not eat flesh, eggs, or butter” . . . but he also knew that “gourmandizing, intemperance, excessive sleeping, loafing and idleness are weapons of unchastity by which purity is speedily overturned” and therefore did not cease, by invoking the authority of the “holy Apostle Paul” to warn men against gluttony and drunkenness. […]

Our times need both statements; the emphasis on the freedom of faith as well as the exhortation to maintain a watchful discipline. In the new life program of the Youth Movement in the linking of the reform of life and natural hygiene, a situation that demands the careful consideration even of Christians, has again come to its fitting expression; it is the recognition of the multitude of sinful temptations that arise ceaselessly from the great morass of improper nourishment, clothing and neglect of the awakening consciousness that our responsibility toward God is for our physical welfare as well as for that for our souls and that the whole previous separation of the two (Greek and Roman Catholic) has been a mistake that was fraught with serious consequences.

Does your pastor preach anything like this today?

I’m beginning to think that the third rail of Lutheranism isn’t really sanctification. It’s self-examination. And I think I know why, beyond the obvious “It’s not about us, it’s about Jesus.” Even though, it is kinda sorta about us too. After all, we are the church, no? We are the ones for whom Christ died, no? We are the ones who are to present ourselves as living sacrifices to God, no? So, we’re in this mix somewhere, yes?

Examine yourselves, to see whether you are in the faith. Test yourselves. Or do you not realize this about yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you?—unless indeed you fail to meet the test! I hope you will find out that we have not failed the test. But we pray to God that you may not do wrong—not that we may appear to have met the test, but that you may do what is right, though we may seem to have failed. For we cannot do anything against the truth, but only for the truth. For we are glad when we are weak and you are strong. Your restoration is what we pray for. —2 Corinthians 13:5ff

Once more, Köberle, with feeling:

The danger to the Church that came from libertine, antinomian fanatics in Corinth, Rome, and Muenster was faced by Paul and Luther all through their lives just as much as the mischief that came from teachers of works-righteousness in Galatia or in the ranks of medieval religious orders. Today, in view of the crass weakness and unbridled license in nation and Church, at home and in heathen lands, the danger of luxury and debauchery must appear greater than its legalistic opposite. The number of those destroyed by the mad zeal of monastic methods of seeking sanctification is small compared with the millions who are the victims of the lowest defilements of the flesh. A one-sided opposition that is directed exclusively against works-righteousness cannot for the time being be the task of theology.

Are you sure you guys read this book before recommending it to me?

For neither visions nor merciless castigations nor ecstatic feelings at the reception of the Sacrament are the true signs that we are in a proper state of faith, but the test is whether we feel constrained to assist our neighbor and to help him “bear his sorrows and sufferings.” In the place of mystical experiences of God has come the certainty of experience described in the First Epistle of John: “We know we have passed from death unto life because we love the brethren.”

Everybody got that?

Even the need for prayer and fasting Luther derived from the obligation of being prepared at all times for the service of our neighbor: “For at the last day Christ will not ask how you have prayed, fasted, gone on pilgrimages or done this or that for yourself, but how much good you have done to others, even to the very least.” (Luther) If the idea of service be lacking in devotion, or benevolent offerings, or these become only a secondary appendage to sanctification, their exercise becomes more dangerous than their omission. Only when service has become the central motive, when the very “subjugation of body and soul” is only for the accomplishment of this purpose, is the sanctifying process of a Christian’s life honest and profitable.”

This is exactly what Luther had in mind when he famously opined, “A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none. A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject of all, subject to all.”

Köberle, again, but quoting Luther, again:

“On the other hand we must understand the nature of Christ’s office and work in His Church, that while He pours out His purity on us at once, through the Word and faith, and, in addition, renews our hearts through the Holy Ghost, He does this in such a way that this work of purification is not completed all at once, but He daily labors with us and purifies us so that we become continuously purer and purer.”

So our sanctification/purification is progressive . . .? Yes, no, maybe so?

I would say that if you really dig down into what Köberle is arguing, it’s that everyone has the same vocation in one sense: to subjugate the flesh to the spirit for the sake of one’s neighbor, as Christ’s flesh was nailed to the Cross for the sake of a lost world.

To circle back to the self-examination business: Lutherans like to chide Calvinists for a “morbid introspection” that leads to “works righteousness,” a way of proving their election. But the Lutheran dread of the Self seems a way to avoid the implications of its own understanding of monergism, election, and the prospect of losing one’s justification—something that is a theological impossibility in Reformed thought but a very real and present danger in Lutheranism. The battle between belief and unbelief, justification and self-reprobration (given that there is no double predestination in Lutheranism), is a daily fight not only for peace and assurance but also for the destiny of the soul.

Focus too much on the I, and you begin to realize how powerful it is. That I, that disruptive, disobedient, unbelieving, depraved I,  is powerful enough to wrest you from the grasp of Christ.

Yet Lutherans chastise Wesleyans, too, for the emphasis they give to personal “holiness,” as if it were born of some narcissistic need to prove they are better Christians than those in other denominations, or somehow worthy of their salvation.

Köberle, again:

Because sin and the Spirit of God destroys God’s holiest works, faith, prayer and renewal, Scripture demands that we break with it unconditionally. Scripture also demands that we break with it immediately, not only in the beginning but also in the further maintenance of faith. Both demands, that of a radical and that of an immediate severance from sin, are made by Scripture with such an emphasis that it is well not to criticise too unconditionally the importance Pietism attached to conversion. The psychological form it assumed in many revivals was and perhaps still is exaggerated but the fact of a call to conversion has the weight of Scripture behind it. The antagonism between Methodistic and churchly teaching does not involved he question as to the necessity of conversion. In this there should be complete unanimity. The difference in spirit appears when some come to regard the first, possibly sudden conversion, that can sometimes be fixed as taking place at some definite time, as something of unique significance that, like baptism, cannot be repeated, instead of recognizing the fact that daily renewal, the daily journey to the Cross is extolled by Scripture as the only possible expression of a living state of faith and that it holds good even for the one who has been justified and is progressing in sanctification; that it is necessary if we do not want to fall into a dead legalism or a false freedom.

For someone championed as representing a proper confessional Lutheran view on sanctification, Köberle certainly places a lot of emphasis on our deliberate, habitual efforts. I won’t use the word cooperation, because, strangely, Köberle himself doesn’t care for it. He even faults the Formula of Concord in this respect.

But in spite of this, in spite of all caution, the Formula was mistaken when it called this liberated activity, that after all is no part of us but proceeds from God, a “cooperation.” …

Cooperation would presuppose that we do not everlastingly hinder, spoil, and destroy the work God is trying to accomplish in us, when in fact the truth is that in spite of much indolence,opposition, and despondency He nevertheless succeeds in us through the power of His Omnipotence.

In theory, at least. Because the possibility of the loss of one’s justification, nevertheless, remains a looming reality.

If the break with sin is not complete, nor rightly timed, nor constant, faith will at last be lost. If sin be not cut off it will grow and finally triumph. It is true that God’s faithfulness that was pledged in baptism remains but there is no longer any desire for forgiveness, no hunger to seek His face in prayer. God’s saving, purifying power is even still ready to act but there is no longer any willingness to be judged and renewed by His Spirit. . . . Grace is full of strength and power but it is not irresistible. The human spirit, even in the one who has been regenerated, possesses a fearful freedom of choosing what is beneath when it will not accept the gift of the freedom of choosing what is above.

A fearful freedom. But isn’t this an impossible freedom in the regenerate, more a lingering thralldom?

Allow me to think out loud here, as I work through the implications:

If the Old Adam retains its negative power such that it can trump the power of Christ to save, then how on earth is anyone saved? If we’re not capable of any good thing in and of ourselves, only evil, which is to say, only what is contrary to God’s perfect will and holiness, despite our liberated will, isn’t my rebellion inevitable? What greater example of evil can there be than our rejection of God’s good gifts in Christ? If it’s a battle between Christ and the Old Adam, and the Old Adam can triumph, how exactly is Christ Savior? Shouldn’t the Second Adam supersede the First by right in the regenerate? What exactly did Christ accomplish on the cross? A justification that, theoretically at least, could redound to the ultimate benefit of no one?

An uninitiated observer can be forgiven for thinking that Jesus may have died for the ungodly, but He cannot save the ungodly, because the fallen human negative has the power to overcome the divine gratuitous positive.

Where is the peace and assurance in that? “I believe, I don’t believe. I’m justified, I’m not justified. I’m in, I’m out.” Isn’t this what we criticize Rome for teaching?

Lutheranism is proving to be a much more dangerous thing than the benign bit of business I have come to know.

And that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

Let’s cut to it: the real turd in this punch bowl is election. Is our perseverance—in faith, in the avoidance of sin, and in a commitment to self-sacrifice for the sake of our neighbor—really a matter, then, of who is elect and who isn’t? Are we back to the 19th-century election wars? Are those who make shipwreck of their faith merely the reprobated, the passed-over ones? If so, do Lutherans owe Calvinists an apology?

I have ranted repeatedly on this blog and over at First Things against the Calvinists’ double P, which seemed to me to make salvation little more than a spin of the Eternal Decree Roulette Wheel. (Although, an Eternal Being cannot be subject to randomness, and so nothing He does can be deemed arbitrary.) And yet, the more I study the Lutheran understanding of election, it seems that the real difference between single and double predestination is a matter of the language we use regarding God’s saving will and the extent of the atonement. Jesus died to save everyone, we say. God loves everyone. But, unlike the synergists, we insist that He is also sovereign in salvation. Yet he does not save everyone He regenerates.Which is to say, He frees us from despair only to enlighten us to a deadly freedom: the freedom to challenge necessity, God’s eternal foreknowledge.

But this is impossible. Yet we are warned repeatedly in Scripture of its possibility.

I will draw all men/pot and clay

But doesn’t Jesus make intercession for us before the Father? Isn’t this His ongoing priestly duty? Doesn’t He pray that our faith would not fail? Aren’t His prayers always heard, i.e., granted? Or does He pray only for those who finally persevere: the elect?

Reason may be a whore, but it isn’t stupid. It still has rights before the law of noncontradiction. Or are we lost between the finite and the infinite? (Soren Kierkegaard, call your office.)

Here is where God’s hidden will peeks out from behind the curtain of eternity: He may allow (ordain?) the Old Adam to have the last word in your case or mine. Even though Christ died for you. Even though Luther insists that faith—”God’s good work in us”—kills the Old Adam.

This smacks of a kind of Manichaeism, with God confronted by an evil Force, human depravity, and at times being bested by it, at others being triumphant? Doesn’t this idea of losing and regaining your justification also sound a lot like, well, Roman Catholicism? (That doesn’t make it wrong. It just makes it scary.)

Can we bear to confront this? Again, is this why we fear that self-examination, the subjective, and emphasize the objective, like the sacraments?

But when we say that the Sacraments convey grace, what does that mean? Isn’t grace God’s unmerited favor? Can God favor us more or less? Isn’t this a kind of quantifying of grace, like the quantifying of sin we reject in Roman theology? (Say so many Hail Marys and so many Our Fathers as penance for the temporal penalty of X, and thus save so much time/agony in Purgatory.)

How can we believe in true penal substitution, that Christ died my death for me, only to acknowledge that I can still die in my sins?

What is there to hang on to here if there isn’t a Savior who can hang on to me, despite my proclivities? After all, what else is he saving me from?

Look, we can throw Scripture verses at each other all day long. But is that plain sense that the Reformers, especially Luther, fought to recapture after centuries of allegorical mush enough to apprehend the Gospel? Or do you need a good grounding in the Greek tenses to get exactly what is being taught and what everyone else seems to be missing? Are the Confessions an absolutely authoritative interpretive grid? But what if they get some things wrong, as Köberle says? (I’m beginning to see this kind of argumentation in comments from Lutherans on other blogs: The Confessions are good, but not perfect—give them A- when it comes to works-righteousness, but an A for effort. Also, check this out, from Rod Rosenbladt’s website: a non-Lutheran who points to the same problem with the Formula Köberle cites.)

If the Formula of Concord is flawed, what does that mean for quia subscription and one’s status as a confessional Lutheran? Who interprets the Confessions for us such that we can glean the proper understanding of the proper interpretation of the plain sense of Scripture? (Really?) Can I trust that my pastor is doing so? That Pastor Fisk is doing so? That Luther did so?

Köberle is not the last word on sanctification or discipleship or anything else, of course. And neither is Gerhard Forde, who had his own agenda, and who lurks behind many of these discussions. And neither are the superstar preachers who make a racket out of guilting young Christians into thinking they’re not authentic if they don’t live in a refrigerator box in the Bowery preaching to the homeless. And neither are the adult converts to Lutheranism who have imported their own contempt for their previous religious affiliations into this discussion, inviting us to ride their particular hobby horses almost to the exclusion of the rest of a very rich, and at times complicated, tradition.

So to circle back to the question that started this exercise: Is Lutheranism broken?

I think the more important question now is: Are we broken? That’s an easy one. Yes. Every last one of us. Just in different places. And where that break is in your life will determine the medicine you seek out.

If you came out of a fundamentalist or Wesleyan or Sovereign Grace Calvinist church and found relief in an LCMS congregation, you don’t want to know from do. Only what Jesus did. So, in the slightly altered words of the Soup Nazi, “NO THIRD USE FOR YOU!” You can be handed this and you’ll only throw it in the nearest recycling bin. Köberle himself has his idea of what sanctification means, and doesn’t mean, and if the Formula of Concord disagrees, well, the Formula is wrong. (Although the program Köberle lays out for an ascetical approach to neighborliness makes the Formula look down right hippy-dippy.)

Who’s the final authority on such contentious issues?

Whoever happens to agree with you.

And if you’ve spent too many years falling asleep in church, or sitting in what is little more than one interminable Sunday School class in which there is only ever milk on the table and no meat—but also can’t help but feel that your life is as confused as it was before your conversion, or re-version, you begin to ask questions like “What does it mean to have Jesus as Lord and Savior? What is true conversion if it’s constantly slipping through my fingers? Can Christ hold on to me? What if my faith—that divine gift—fails? Was Bonhoeffer right: “The only man who has the right to say that he is justified by grace alone is the man who has left all to follow Christ”?

I’m not saying that these controversies don’t really matter because there is no referee whose authority we all respect. The last thing I want is a Protestant pope. (After all, who would interpret his interpretations?) I am saying that well-intentioned, devout, well-educated folk reading the same texts within the same tradition can come to different conclusions about very specific things—despite what may be considered a settled matter intended only for confessing and not for debating. And that’s because we have different needs, and different concerns, at different stages in our spiritual life.

And because we see through a glass darkly.

Lutheranism is right to warn against the idea of a Christian life being necessarily something spectacular, composed of grand gestures to glorify God and witness to what God has done for us. Sometimes we want some great “project” or “mission” from God as a way to avoid the mundane. We want to save the world, but we won’t hold our tongue when it comes to the idiot next door. We want to witness to the lost, but are embarrassed to invite our snarky atheist friend to church. We want a rock-star career that effects millions but call in “sick” every other Monday because we’re bored out of our minds with the work we have.

Bonhoeffer again: “Who can really be faithful in great things if he has not learned to be faithful in the things of daily life?”

But as Köberle demonstrates in his fascinating book, discipleship, the work of being a student of Christ, begins with our focusing on Christ for us, and does not demand—in fact cannot demand—our withdrawal from the everyday responsibilities of our station in life.

Yet, as Köberle exhaustively also shows, discipling entails a relentless and brutal self-mastery.

I was sincere when I said I was seeking to learn here, too. And if I have learned anything in the past few weeks, it’s that you can make a potent argument to the effect that sanctification, or discipleship, can’t be preached, except, perhaps, in a negative way, by holding up the mirror of the Law as a prelude to presenting the Good News. Perhaps what we’re all really talking about—growth in Christ, a transformed life, a Christ-focused life, a neighbor-focused life, a disciplined life, a sanctified life, a life of faith that bears fruit, pick your terminology—can’t be addressed directly, in the form of exhortation, to folks in the pews. Maybe it looks so different in the lives of individual Christians that there’s just no way you can prod or urge a mixed group on this subject.

But I am also convinced that when the Law is preached as a means of quickening slack consciences, it must be preached HARD. For the consequences of complacency are—or should be—terrifying.

Maybe I never quite appreciated the danger of Lutheran worship because it was always presented to me as something safe, secure, benign because there are so few rules. Yet it’s anything but. When we walk into that sanctuary, we are about to be confronted with the possibility that we’re little more than pious heathen. Or impious poseurs. Or both, depending on the day. It really is a call to renew our lives in Christ every single Sunday. It is the drama of conviction, repentance, belief, renewal, and service in the world again and again and again. That drama that modern Evangelicals insist is a once-in-a-lifetime crisis event that demands a once-in-a-lifetime release of tension, that special day when you accept Jesus as Lord and Savior or ask Jesus into your life or give your life over to him. When you became born again.

Years ago I used to despair over not really having experienced a one-off crisis event. My life was a crisis event. It was while reading Bonhoeffer, again, that the truth of Ephesians 1:4 came home, that we are chosen in Him before the foundation of the world, so there is no need to worry about a particular moment when that was made real to me.

Maybe I tired of hearing the Gospel message over and over, as if I were an unbeliever. “I got it, already, I’ve heard it a thousand times! Enough! This is not the first time stepping into a church for some of us!” I craved more about the Christian life lived, perhaps, because I never understood what real repentance looked like such that I would feel the need to hear the Gospel again and again and again. Maybe it never sunk it that whole business about “When Christ calls a man, He bids him come and die.” Isn’t the whole idea of the Good News that we now have life, and have it more abundantly? That’s what I need—not more bad news about death.

Now imagine a 17-year-old, whose life hasn’t even begun, being subjected to this business over and over.

But there’s no evading it. No getting around it. You either die now so your life can be a gift, or live life now solely as commandment, and die later.

Terrifying stuff. All of it: election, discipleship, that zombie the First Adam who threatens to undo all the work of the Second Adam, like a vacuum sucking all the air out of a hospital room.

Have we made everything too safe, given how much is at stake every single Sunday, every single day, for that matter?

Work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for God is at work in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure. Do all things without grumbling or questioning, that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world, holding fast the word of life, so that in the day of Christ I may be proud that I did not run in vain or labor in vain.

Once upon a time, there was no need to take chastity vows. There was no need for Promise Keepers. There was no need to state for the record that you were pro-life. Or that you didn’t gamble (yes, there was a tradition from the earliest centuries that prohibited Christians from engaging in games of chance upon pain of excommunication).

And there was no need for T-shirts that proclaimed “Weak on Sanctification” as an ironic statement intended as a rebuke of those who failed to place the soteriological accents in the right places.

All you had to say was, “I am a Christian,” and the rest was a given.

Now we’re conservatives and liberals, pietists and confessionalists, paedos and credos, monergists and synergists, egalitarians and complementarians.

There’s probably no getting around it at this point.

What Lutheranism has always said concerning the tertius usus legis [third use of the law] is especially true of the sanctification that shall take the place of the Torah in the life of the believer. As the Law by its bridling and judging prepares the heathen for conversion to God, so sanctification in the life of the baptized Christian drives him ceaselessly to a return to God. Neither the Law nor sanctification in themselves possess a saving or preserving power, “but the Holy Ghost, who is given and received, not through the Law, but through the preaching of the Gospel (Gal. 3:14), renews the heart,” (Form. Conc, 642:11.) But afterwards the Spirit ses the office of the Law and its disciplinary application against the “lazy, careless, antagonistic flesh, so that faith maynot become “lazy, dull and weary.” Where the exertions of sanctification do not daily impel, threaten and coerce the natural desires, there sin, which persistently strives to regain its lost territory in the life of the regenerate, soon regains the mastery, and man loses his faith because he has not used the powers given with his faith to repulse evil or to protect and strengthen the precious treasures he has received. […]

So here theology is again forced to the paradoxical statement that the activity of sanctification, because it is a fruit of the tree of faith, does not give us any claim on God (I Cor. 3:6 seq), but that its omission destroys both the fruit and the root. The tree that cannot grow, dies.