Forget about “third use”: sanctification seems to be the third rail of Lutheran polemics. Talk about “good works” and you may as well sit in a corner with one of those conical hats that reads “semi-pelagian.”
Recently, a discussion broke out over at Steadfast Lutherans, called “Aversion to Sanctification,” which pulled no punches and spoke to this issue adroitly. It made so much sense you would think there was no way anyone could find cause to object. Ah, but you don’t know Lutherans! Read the comments!
Let me offer one more perspective on why this seeming inability to preach sanctification from the pulpit is doing some serious spiritual harm.
We hear the law. We hear the gospel. We hear what Christ has done for us at Calvary. We confess our sins. We receive the sacrament. All necessary. All good.
Over time, though, some begin to sense an emptiness that, rather than being filled by Word and sacrament, widens. See, there’s Jesus’s blood—his righteousness—which is the covering that God sees instead of me, and there’s my sin. But the two—the white garment that is Christ’s holiness and my miserable sinful carcass—never quite meet. Between the two is this space that remains empty. We’re not quite sure what’s supposed to go there. And after time, if that space is not dealt with, the question becomes, Why do I still feel so empty? I thought Christianity was the answer: or is it merely Protestantism that is the problem?
Give it a year, and EWTN’s Journey Home program has yet another ex-Lutheran as a guest yucking it up with Marcus Grodi.
It’s not that Lutheran pastors are doing something wrong. It’s that too many are not doing something that many of their congregants wish they would do, and that’s give them the spiritual tools they need to deepen a sense of becoming—becoming more and more of what they are already by virtue of their baptism. Becoming more like Christ.
The great exchange that is Luther’s great contribution to our understanding of redemption is not only a covering over of sin but a real gift of Christ’s righteousness—of Christ Himself. Some are afraid to call this “union” with Christ. Call it whatever you will. But we receive Christ Himself in the sacrament and we receive His righteousness through faith. They are outside us, in that they are alien to our nature, but they are also truly ours—as gift.
What does that mean for our walk of faith?
My sense is that many pastors are convinced that if they preach personal holiness or sanctification as something we do (!), they’d be misleading the congregation, pointing them down the road to Rome or a legalistic evangelicalism—which is to say, they’d be acting very un-Lutheran.
Is that the case, then? Is there no room for personal sanctification, personal spiritual growth, in the Lutheran faith? Is it always merely a matter of confession and waiting out the eventual disintegration of the flesh?
Shall we say that, in the Lutheran way of construing the faith, to practice personal sanctification is a mere pretense, the usurping of the role Christ should play in our lives—or rather did play in AD 33?
Yesterday, Gene Veith posted an excerpt from a sermon from his pastor, James Douthwaite, that I thought perfectly avoided the Charybdis of “aversion” and the Scylla of “try harder, you miserable backsliders!”
What does it mean to be set free from idolatry, from selfishness, and from fear? It means the freedom to forgive because I am forgiven. It is the freedom to love because I am loved. It is the freedom to give because I receive. It means the freedom to serve because I am served. It is the freedom to provide for others because my Father provides for me. All these things and more because I cannot out-give my Father and Saviour. And as I believe, so I do. I will show you my faith – what I believe – by how I live, by my works.
He goes on to address the problem of not doing these things:
[I]f you find yourself struggling to do these things, you know what? It’s not a works problem! And so the answer isn’t just to buckle down and try harder or for me to stand up here and either give you a pep talk or berate you. … No, if we find ourselves not doing these things or struggling with them, it’s a faith problem. Not that you don’t have faith, but that our faith is sometimes weak and that faith is often hard. And so the answer is to be ephphatha-ed again, to be opened again, to receive again and again the love and forgiveness and healing of Jesus here for you. For that is what changes you. That is what raises you. That is what makes the difference.
Bingo. On the money. The Lutheran difference.
But I would thicken that Lutheran difference just a bit. One complaint about Christians, especially in their do-gooding best, is that we’re merely trying to earn brownie points for heaven. We’re being driven on by a fear of God and a hope of eternal reward. That we are incapable of true altruism—of doing good for its own sake.
Enter Luther. Luther took the vertical direction of “meritorious works”—what I do in obedience to God’s law in order to merit more grace, more sanctification, more justification—and repositioned it as a strictly horizontal relationship: not one between me and God but one between me and my neighbor.
Now there are plenty of ex-Reformed, ex-Calvinists on the Journey Home show too. And no one can accuse the Reformed of not emphasizing sanctification. But here’s the difference. For Reformed believers, good works are ostensibly evidence of one’s election. That empty space is there for many Reformed as well, in the form of doubt that one is elect. And one of the ways to allay such doubt is to see how the Spirit is working out my faith in good works.
Luther redirects this concern as well. Rather than looking at ourselves, looking inward, he has us remember our death with Christ and rebirth in the waters of baptism. Once we come to the realization that our salvation was secured—and is secure—we are free now to look after our neighbors’ needs (and even those of strangers across the globe). Our neighbor becomes not a means to an end—our spiritual end—but an end in and of himself. He becomes de-objectified. She is no longer a notch on our “good works” belt to be displayed before a dubious deity at the end of history. We are freed both from something—sin, death, and the anxieties that accompany religious scrupulosity—and for something: benefiting others. It may be in our vocation as teacher, preacher, fire fighter, doctor, police officer, or plumber. But also in simply acts of charity, generosity, forgiveness, and patience with the idiot next door.
Here is the great irony to me: the rap against Lutherans is that they suffer from a kind of quietism, if not an out and out antinomianism. But in fact, Lutherans have an opportunity to make a unique contribution in our understanding of what it means to be good and to do good. The resources are all there: in the scriptures first and foremost and also in the confessions.
Once the pulpit starts playing a more consistent role, the “antinomian” and “quietist” Lutherans may finally awaken to their full potential in the body of Christ.