Grace, Real Life, and Confessional Lutheran Theology

I readily admit I am not a trained theologian of any kind, but over the years I have been compelled to ask questions, to seek God, and to try to live out my faith where the rubber meets the road.  As the apostle James duly noted, what’s the point in hearing the word of God if you’re not doing what it tells you to do?  I can’t do anything of any value or merit, save by the grace of God, and even by His grace the “old Adam” is kicking and screaming all the way.  It’s not easy to surrender and let God have His way- even though eventually He will anyway.  I’m encouraged by that.  God will straighten me up, not the other way around- and there’s a lot of repair work to be done, I can assure you.

As a child, right or wrong, my view of God was pretty scary.  Jesus was the Enforcer, Who lurked about and could see you being bad even if no one else could- when he wasn’t hanging out in the little gold box in church.  I had a really hard time with that.  If Jesus lived in the gold box, how could He be out spying on everyone?  Is that what the Holy Spirit (Grandma’s Baptist Pastor referred to Him as the Holy Ghost which really creeped me out) was supposed to do- spy on people while Jesus hangs out in the gold box with the Communion wafers?  Where does Jesus hang out in the Baptist church, because there’s no gold box?  Is He taking a dip in the Baptismal pool that sits in front of the cool mural of the pasture with sheep in it?  How can He be in the Catholic church and the Baptist church at the same time- especially when Grandma says Catholics aren’t saved, and Mom says Protestants are heathens and heathens go to hell?

We were also taught that if you didn’t confess ALL your sins that you were headed straight to hell, and it was still a sin even if you just thought about it and didn’t do it.  If you died suddenly and you hadn’t confessed ALL your sins, then it was straight to the netherworld with you.   If you tried to confess, but you forgot stuff or you died half way through confessing, then you were stuck in Purgatory until either you remembered them or your relatives remembered to pray for you to bail you out.

So every month (or more often when Mom got the wild hair) when I got dragged to Confession I always had a laundry list of things like,”I wished my sisters would get sent to Africa with the starving kids,” (believe me, I wished that a LOT)  or “I was the one who gave my sister’s Barbies Marine Corps hair cuts,” or “I was the one who fed the dog Mom’s burnt black flaked mashed potatoes, and I think that’s why the dog died.” (I still wonder if Mom’s frighteningly bad cooking killed that dog!)

The sins that I carefully made mental note of and took to Confession usually consisted of either evil thoughts or passive-aggressive revenge kinds of stuff.   Penance always depended on which priest you got.  Everyone always wanted Father Furey because he gave easy penance- he would give you fairly easy and positive things like remembering to thank God for good things like candy and cartoons, and he actually laughed at the stuff that was funny.  I’d like to think that if Jesus were a priest he would be like Father Furey, and not like the stuffy mean ones who would give you the evil eye and tell you to say 50 Hail Marys and to love your sisters or you’d be bunking up with Beezelbub.

To make it all the more confusing, I also got the Baptist teachings on salvation and eschatology (eschatology: the study of End Times.)  Basically I took that as: If you are saved you go to heaven, if you’re not, you go to hell.  And the Rapture can happen any time, so one minute you can be here and the next you’re either in heaven (if you’re saved) but if you’re not saved -you’ll burn forever in the Lake of Fire.   Grandma always insisted Catholics weren’t saved by their religion, so what were you supposed to do?

So my whole childhood take on religion was that the object of religion is Avoiding Hell.  And like everything else, I was scared to death of God, because I know all too well how much I sin.  If it was up to me and my behavior I could clearly see-by about age five or so- that I was doomed to spend eternity doing the backstroke in the Lake of Fire.

Since I was in high school I have had many serious questions about faith.  It took many years to understand that the Christian life is not about what we humans do to “save” ourselves but what Jesus did to redeem us and remake us in His image. The challenge of the Christian life is the way of the Cross- to follow Jesus and be like Him especially when it is not easy or expedient- but we can only follow in so far as He leads us and carries us along.  As a young adult I made it a point to explore the different flavors of Christianity.  I had an upclose and personal childhood filled with the more legalistic side of Catholicism, so I investigated the various Baptists and Pentecostals,  the Reformed Protestants (Methodists, Presbyterians, Nazarene) and finally ended up intrigued by what I was learning by going to Luther League with a friend at a small Lutheran church.   At one point in my searching I almost ended up as a Southern Baptist because I loved their emphasis on Bible study, but I missed the liturgy.   Eventually I ended up being confirmed (as an adult) in the Lutheran church I’d been going to.

Faith Alone, Grace Alone, Scripture Alone.  I finally found a “system” that wasn’t really a system, but a way of understanding Jesus not simply as the Enforcer, but the One Who loved me literally to His death, the One Who is at the heart of everything. I still wrestle with the question of grace, (because I am acutely aware of my lack of merit) but that is part of the beauty of seeking God.

Martin Luther was quoted as saying, “Sin Boldly.” He did say that, but to quote just those two words out of context is missing a lot of Luther’s point.  He wasn’t saying that the grace of God is license to sin.  The grace of God gives us the freedom to be authentic, to let others see us how we really are instead of hiding behind the facades of goody-goodyness or leading double lives.  God wants us just the way we are.  He wants us to admit our failings, deal with our weaknesses, and come to Him the way the tax collector in the temple did.

Have mercy on me, a sinner.

I’m sure God has had enough of all the times when we (and I include myself in this because I’ve done it) come to Him telling Him how great we are.  The prophet Isaiah told us that all of our good deeds are like dirty, stained rags. (Isaiah 64:6)  Nasty, dirty and unspeakably unclean- and that’s our good deeds.  So we’re not getting anywhere with God going off on a laundry list of all the things we’ve had to suffer, or all the good things we’ve tried to do for other people.   We don’t earn any brownie points for clean living, because we aren’t capable of clean living.  (Any time one may want to wonder if you’re living clean enough, check out the ten commandments and see how many of them you’ve violated or even thought about violating in the past three or four hours.)  Anything good comes from Him.  Yes, we were created to do good works (Ephesians 2:10) but unless it’s a good work that comes from God working in and through us, it’s not quite so good.  Anyone can do (in theory) do great things, but it’s the motive from the heart that God is looking at.

Jesus never gave anyone a harder time than He did the Pharisees.  These guys were the “Dana Carvey as the Church Lady” types of their day.  Prim and proper, following the letter of the law- but missing the spirit of it entirely.

(Jesus said:)“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence.  Blind Pharisee!  First clean the inside of the cup and dish, and then the outside also will be clean. 

“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean. In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness.” – Matthew 23:25-28 (NIV)

I don’t want to pretend to be something I’m not.  If I were to play the prude and the goody-goody it would simply be a front.  I am not a prude.  I am not a goody-goody.  Putting on a facade is just a show, and even if I try really hard to put on a good one, I’m not much to look at.  I am an example all the time- but a lot of times I’m an example of what not to do.

I also think one of the elements of Luther’s “Sin Boldly” statement is that it’s a call to action.  I don’t know how many times in my life I have let fear paralyze me into not doing anything instead of (possibly) doing the wrong thing- but for the right reason.  Sometimes I think God challenges us to weigh the option of begging forgiveness rather than asking permission.  My Dad always put it another way:  If you’re not screwing up, you’re not doing anything.

The apostle Paul said that if we don’t have love, we are nothing. (1 Corinthians 13)

Jesus said that the greatest commandment is to love others as we love ourselves- but apart from Him there is no love.  If we act out of love we are obeying Him, but even if we do what appears to be the right thing- without love, it doesn’t mean anything.

I know today mainline Protestantism (Roman Catholicism too, in some areas) gets a bad rap for being “too liberal”- and antinomianism (“we’re forgiven so everything goes”) is a rampant heresy that has taken hold in many churches.  Liberty should not be taken as license.  Jesus talks about hell more than anyone else in Scripture, and I believe hell is real.  However, Jesus holds out the invitation- to the worst of sinners (people like me who aren’t prudes, who sometimes say cuss words and indulge in passive-aggressive revenge and road rage and have to deal with all that real life stuff) to come to Him and let HIM do the transforming, let HIM work the good works through us that He created us to do.

I know that the Lutheran approach to Christian faith is not entirely unique.  We share much in common with both Roman Catholics and the Reformed (and some with the Baptist groups too.)  The Lutheran Confessions are simply statements of faith based on Scripture and teaching from the greater history of the Christian church.  A confessional Lutheran is simply one who believes the statements of the Confessions.

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