Pastor William Weedon (he of Higher Things, which actually published me once or twice) gave an extremely entertaining and enlightening talk at Redeemer Conference 2014 in Fort Wayne, Indiana, in which he confessed his attempt to leave the Evangelical Church of the Augsburg Confession (I just think that’s such a cool name), Missouri Synod division, for Eastern Orthodoxy.
Sure he wrestled with Orthodoxy’s Mariology (his bit about the Marian prayer being a letter with the wrong address is spot-on) and theory of atonement, but he was so sick of the LCMS’s flakiness and instability that he thought he had the perfect exit strategy, or rather excuse: a material error in the Augsburg Confession, article 3.
He came close to leaving his call (despite the protestations of his wife), and even considered becoming something too horrible to be named among good Christians: an editor.
But fear not: there’s a happy ending.
Keep an ear out: Pastor Weedon explains the orthodox Lutheran teaching on theosis and mystical union. Both are part of the Lutheran doctrinal patrimony: progress in sanctification! (Although if I had a nickel for every time I’ve heard it preached in a pulpit, I’d owe you five bucks.)
One quick quote: “You know what’s screwed up in the Lutheran church? She does not order everything about her life toward the comfort of terrified consciences.”
Now, I’m about to enter into one of those semi-rhetorical discussions that I’m sure irritates the many and depresses the few, and is the cause of a classic Tina Fey eye roll among whoever is left. Like when I used to ask teachers where Cain got his wife. (If only I’d known the truth: Christian Mingle. Which reminds me of a funny story about the first time I was in RCIA. One class began like this: “Every family has a problem child. Anthony is our problem child.” Just gave me the warm and fuzzies it did. Needless to say, I dropped out. No one was exactly sad to see me go. I get that a lot.)
Why is it assumed that the average Lutheran congregation is comprised solely, or even primarily, of people crippled by terrified consciences? Are Lutherans really such horrendous, habitual sinners that they sit shivering Sunday after Sunday in horrific fear of God’s imminent judgment on their manifold and blatant awfulness?
I read this a lot, usually in combox battles over sanctification or exhortations to good works — but is it true? Is it so unreasonable to assume that any given congregation enjoys a good number of folk who are smug or complacent, who have no trouble believing that their puny sins are forgiven, or that, yes, maybe their sins are not so puny, but that’s what it means to be a sinner and to sin boldly, no? And won’t they always be sinners, hence the peccator in simul justus et peculator, but so long as they’ve got that justus, what’s the fuss about a bad conscience since we can’t help but sin in the first place?
Pastor Weedon does begin to address such cases about midway through video #2. But what does “You don’t go around preaching the doctrine of justification to a sinner who is secure in his sins [Walther]” really mean for Sunday morning? Is this a matter of preaching the Law? It would seem that breaking God’s holy Law is the quasi-antinomian’s thing, and knowing he or she is forgiven is the cherry on the cake. Is it something that’s left to personal counseling? And if so, who initiates it? Because it would seem to me that the complacent person doesn’t see a problem that needs addressing, by definition.
This is what troubles me about the Law-Gospel paradigm as an inflexible frame for all preaching all the time. People sit in church for a wide variety of reasons — and to have their terrified consciences salved may be low down on their list of priorities, if it makes the list at all. I think one of the reasons Lutherans are not as widely known for their preaching as are the Reformed and Arminians is that they’re constantly preaching conversion to the converted. As if it’s always back to step one. As if there is no step two. As is there is no discipleship — something more than just staying at one’s post, more than pursuing one’s vocation like a good citizen. In other words, that theosis.
Now I know what some of you are thinking: “Exactly! Christians need to hear the Gospel too! To add anything to it, or to speak of another step after it, is to confuse —” Yeah, yeah. I know. If by that you mean we need to see Jesus in all of Scripture, and see Jesus as the one and only way to the Father, to Truth, despite our habitual idol-making, that we need to see Jesus as vital to every aspect of our lives, then I’m with you a hundred percent. But, again, I do wonder what effect the “You’re a sinner, but fear not, you’re forgiven, go in peace” model has on expositional preaching, and on the felt needs of many Christians in the pew. (Watch it — you’re straying into Rick Warren territory there, boy!)
My concern is that you will read all of this as an apologia for confusing Law and Gospel. It is not. That is self-justification, and self-righteousness. What I’m trying to argue is that what is often denounced as the confusion of Law and Gospel may not necessarily be — and may have plenty of warrant from within the larger Lutheran tradition itself.
Let me give you an example, because I can see you’re beginning to give me that look. (Oh, you know what look I mean.)
Let’s take Dwight. Dwight usually sits in the second to the last row on the left. He always keeps his head down. He rarely stays for coffee hour. He’s pleasant enough when addressed but not all that outgoing. His church attendance is spotty. People do wonder what’s up with him.
See, Dwight truly believes that God is mad at him. Actually, more than just mad — that God hates him, or, on a good day, loves him least in all the kingdom. And this is not because of Dwight’s gross and misery-inducing sins. No. God must hate Dwight because Dwight’s life stinketh like a ripe diaper on a summer day.
Why does Dwight think this? Oh, there are a bunch of reasons. Dwight has had not one, not two, but three thorns in his side since pretty much childhood that God has seen fit to stick him with despite years of praying for some kind of relief. And the debilitating effects of those thorns have certainly taken their toll. Oh, and Dwight’s dreams, none of which were all that unreasonable given his talents and skill set, lie in a heap at his feet, tripping him up time and again as he runs for the bus so as not to be late to a tedious, soul-sucking job he dare not lose because he needs his crappy health insurance. Which pays for only part of his ulcer and type-2 diabetes meds and one kid’s orthodonture — and another’s intensive behavioral intervention to mitigate the worst symptoms of autism.
And Dwight’s only 40.
Or maybe 50 — and still unmarried, or recently abandoned by a spouse after 20 years, and so heart-wretchingly lonely and overwhelmed by the responsibilities of a newly single life that even prison is starting to sound good, because at least he’d have a roommate and free meals?
And if you caught Dwight on a really bad day (say, any Tuesday or Thursday), he’d admit quite frankly that he kinda hates God, and doesn’t believe that’s much of a sin so much as a perfectly reasonable response to the endless frustrations and utter stupidity of life.
So Dwight goes to church to find — well, he’s not even sure anymore. All he knows is that Sunday after Sunday after Sunday he’s offered free grace for the forgiveness of his sins.
Thanks. Got it.
Now — who’s going to forgive God?
Blasphemy! you say. Yep. But walk in Dwight’s, or Rebecca’s, or Sean’s, or Maria’s shoes a few days, then we’ll talk.
Now I’m sure this scenario is such a cartoon, so absurd, so utterly exaggerated, that only the fetid imagination of one such as I could conceive of such a thing. So feel free to jump to the videos now.
Still here? OK. Does it never occur to anyone that some people abandon church when even the Gospel becomes a Sisyphean task? “How can that be, except that you confuse Law and Gospel?” you say, way too loudly, so you might want to tone it down a bit. Here’s how: because the inevitable unmet expectations of the Law and the inevitable “But it’s really OK, believe and go in peace” keeps rolling back down on you, like those sins you’re supposed to feel so bad about but can’t because sin seems a necessary component of a package deal, which comes with free forgiveness and salvation. And none of it actually changes anything in your life anyway, like a nicotine patch that’s past its sell-by date. So,really, isn’t this a game just rigged against us in the first place? So what is it we’re supposed to be terrified about again? Damnation? Because we’re sinners? As opposed to what? Unicorns?
So, after a while, damn right Dwight’s going to sin, if that’s what it takes to feel something, and to keep from blowing his brains out. (Even though Dwight knows Lutherans are down on both, namely, feeling something and blowing one’s brains out.) And in the wake of such sin Dwight feels not so much “terror” before a righteous God but just more disappointment, the kind of disappointment he pretty much felt in his Christianity, which failed miserably in making sense of his life, taking him only in circles.
“You have to stop feeling sorry for yourself! Stop whining! Attend to your vocation as husband, father, assistant associate inventory distribution manager for the 33rd district! Stop thinking of yourself so much!”
“Thanks, Sarge. Now, what button do I push to get to there?”
Perhaps the problems may appear complicated but the solution, such that there is a solution to a really hard life, is simple. Regardless of the backstory, Dwight’s just a garden-variety sinner, even if he can’t make the connection between his sin and his life — or his attitude toward his life. Perhaps he just has to hear the Law-Gospel dynamic, Sunday after Sunday, even if it sound like a psychological Merry-go-round after a while. Perhaps he has to attend to the Sacrament, even if he feels nothing, experiences nothing. Perhaps the discipline, in and of itself, works its own kind of spiritual renewal, which will reinvigorate other parts of Dwight’s life in due course.
Or perhaps not. Perhaps Christianity is just about dying a good death — and not about “life” at all. And if Dwight had only picked up on that when he was, oh, I dunno, 12, he’d have learned to die quietly by now, and seriously lower his expectations, and not bore his spiritual elders.
Which is just my typically longwinded way of saying that people are complicated, and needy, and irreducible to patterns and paradigms and frames, which may be why so many are restless and continually seek out ever new emphases — or gimmicks, if you like — in Christianity, hence all the Tiber crossing and Bosphorus swimming and trekking in the Evangelical wilderness, and all the denominations and sui generis ministries and churchlets.
And what twenty-somethings are needy about is not what fifty-somethings are needy about.
(Tim Keller once told me that cultures themselves have their own spiritual needs and emphases, which may be why South Koreans are, generally speaking, attracted to Reformed denominations, while ex-Catholics in Latin America are, generally speaking, going Pentecostal. Which is why Redeemer Presbyterian in New York is open to planting non-PCA churches. But that’s another story.)
Believe it or not, I can understand why most of what I just wrote makes little (or no) sense to adult converts to Lutheranism, especially those who grew up in or spent too much time around legalistic churches. They most probably did have terrified consciences, and most probably were burned out with all the supererogatory “God work” they thought they had to do to prove their election or true appreciation for all that Jesus did for them on the Cross. I got that. I understand why, say, Rod Rosenbladt’s “The Gospel for Those Broken by the Church” is a literal God-send for them.
But, again, the pew is filled with all kinds of people. Including people who were never broken by the church.
Anyhoo, watch and listen to both videos. (And don’t forget to read the two postscripts that follow them.)
If you watch only one video, or part of only one, or one and part of only the other, or part of both of them, I will know. And
Never. Gets. Old.
P.S. The more I think about this, the more I wonder what role the Lectionary itself plays in the freedom of the pastor in his preaching. I have no doubt many pastors view the lectionary as liberating, because they don’t have to devise a “theme” on which to preach. The church has already given them the text, and they know they are in a certain rhythm observed by the church worldwide. But doesn’t it also hamstring a preacher from preaching through an entire book of the Bible in a systematic fashion? Or should that be left solely to Bible study, outside the liturgy itself?
P.P.S. (02/03/14): Please read Gene Veith’s most recent post on vocation. He is playing off my contention that Lutheranism is “boring,” detecting the locus of that tedium in the Lutheran concept of vocation, which is rarely sexy, often trying, and whose dividends are paid only over time — if you can persevere. I agree completely, but I also believe that the demands of vocation impinge on everyone. No one, Christian, pagan, or fruitarian, is off the hook when it comes to duty. The problem I have been seeking to highlight and address, starting with my review of Pastor Fisk’s book Broken, and through all my postings about discipleship and sanctification, and now about the freedom of the pastor to preach beyond certain prescribed models, is that Lutheranism can devolve into something that is experienced as little more than good citizenship and a responsible bourgeoise existence, when in fact many a Christian in the pew may begging for a new life. “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly” (John 10:10).
Is it enough to simply say, “Remember your baptism?” And if so: what exactly does that mean?
I don’t want to be misunderstood here: I’m not trying to swap out Lutheran distinctives for something else. What I want to know is how we can drill down into those distinctives when our lives become so raw that more “enthusiastic” forms of Christianity come calling, when the desire to feel something becomes so great that any drug that promises a kick — even ecstatic religion, or for that matter even a religion with a new set of colorful demands, demands that perhaps offer new insights into how to get God’s attention — will do.