Once upon a time, I had a pastoral care relationship with someone I'll call "Matt."
Matt was a Pentecostal. He apparently had never had any wholesome role models for biblical interpretation, and felt no compunction about taking passages completely out of context to "prove" points he stubbornly insisted- against all evidence and all attempts by me and by others to persuade him otherwise- were literally Gospel truth. Of course, the very interpretations he insisted on caused him a great deal of utterly unnecessary misery, and caused him to feel utterly alienated from God most of the time. But Dr. Walther to the contrary, the Law didn't seem to prepare the way for Matt to hear the Gospel; he simply begged for more Law. I pray that the Law does its primary function for him some day, and crushes him to the point at which he will see what his Savior is for. I pray the same thing for all those who suffer under the yoke of the sub-Christian theology of the Pentecostal and Holiness movements.
Once, Matt expressed his understanding of the Christian faith to me this way: "Jesus died in order to give us the opportunity to be forgiven. But we have to accept his gift, and forsake our sins, in order for that to do us any good. And after that, it's our responsibility to stay sinless." Is it any wonder he couldn't find peace?
But I'm not writing this to put down Pentecostals. I'm writing this because there are a great many Lutherans who suffer from the same syndrome, only to a lesser degree. I- and most of the people I've discussed this with who grew up in the Missouri Synod- grew up believing that the role of Jesus was functionally pretty much that which Matt spelled out. Of course, we understood that sinlessness wasn't an option. But we thought that we had to merit forgiveness by feeling bad enough about things we had done wrong. How bad that was, of course, wasn't clear. We believed that this necessary anguish was called "repentance," and that it was up to us to generate it, if necessary (and it usually was) by an effort of the will. Then God would forgive us.
Although we weren't entirely clear on this point, we also believed that it was necessary to ask for forgiveness. A classmate of mine at River Forest once told me that for the first eighteen years of her life, she prayed the General Confession every time she got into an automobile, so that if she were killed in an accident, she would go to heaven.
Anyone who thinks that this is unusual is kidding himself. Nor are these misconceptions restricted to LCMS kids. Lots of LCMS grownups harbor them, too. The distinction between mortal sins (sins of deliberate rebellion) and venial sins (sins of weakness, usually regretted even as they are committed) is lost on most conservative Lutherans. They're too busy taking to heart the message that even one unrepented sin is enough to send a person who dies to hell for all eternity!
And that, of course, is true- as far as it goes. But in the absence of an understanding of the basic fact that repentance is part and parcel of faith- that nobody can love God and desire His grace without being pained by the knowledge that one has offended Him, and that such knowledge, coupled with a desire for His forgiveness, constitutes repentance- that truth becomes a recipe for sub-Christian works-righteousness every bit as blatant as that which Matt embraced. That- to say nothing of the spiritual consequences of failing to comprehend that it is through faith, and not through the good works of feeling a certain degree of "bad, " and specifically confessing one's sins (as Martin Luther once believed was necessary, and as Matt still does) and asking for forgiveness that one is forgiven- is nothing more or less than rank unbelief!
If asking for forgiveness and feeling bad are the formula for justification- as a goodly percentage of Missouri Synod Lutherans grow up believing- best one spend as much of one's time feeling bad as possible, and praying the General Confession at every opportunity!
May I borrow your rosary, please?
Is this the result of bad teaching and preaching? To some extent, perhaps. But it's not necessarily that their preachers and teachers are less than orthodox. It's mostly that kids are concrete thinkers (I well remember telling my Sunday School class once that the only answer to God's question, "Why should I let you into My heaven?" that would work was "Because Jesus died for me-" and having them come away with the notion that their eternity depended on getting their lines right!), and that, when those kids grow up, they still believe the things they thought they were taught in confirmation class. That's one of the reasons, by the way, while delaying confirmation until kids are old enough to think abstractly- which probably means high school, whatever practical obstacles may be in the way- is not only desirable but, in my view, almost imperative if we want to ever return to the days when we had a theologically orthodox and discerning laity. Even more, it's something that pastors and teachers had jolly well better start taking into account and addressing when introducing our young people to the elements of the Christian faith!
There is nothing new about any of this. Surveys of Lutherans have been revealing shocking levels of works righteousness and outright Pelagianism among Lutherans (sometimes especially "conservative" Lutherans!) ever since the 'Seventies. But I continue to be amazed at our lack of alarm. What I've described above is a spiritual disaster of the first magnitude.
A while back, I attempted to engage Pr. Paul McCain in a discussion of this issue. Perhaps I did it poorly. Perhaps I did not express myself well. Perhaps I should not have chosen his very valid and legitimate assertion that there is a dearth of preaching on the subject of the Christian life among us to raise it. However "over the top" Pr. McCain's reaction was, and however unnecessarily defensive, he was making a valid argument. When I first discussed the entry on his blog in which he made it with him via email, I pointed out the widespread failure among us to comprehend the Gospel. He replied- quite rightly, too- that one does not Let one error go unaddressed simply because one is concerned about the opposite error.
For the most part, I, myself, have been fortunate in the preaching I have heard since my return to the Missouri Synod. With one notable exception- a pastor on the staff of a Church Growth- oriented congregation who briefly served as interim pastor of a congregation to which I belonged- my pastors have been as orthodox as they have been eloquent, and have rightly divided the Word of Truth. Apparently the Synod as a whole has not been so fortunate. Apparently the preaching of the Law and the emphasis on the Christian life have not everywhere been handled as well as they have been handled, in my hearing, by Pastors Meyer and Esget and Picard.
I share the alarm of those who are concerned about this. But surely it is of even greater concern that so many of us do not believe, or even comprehend, the Gospel itself!
The problem manifests itself in another way, among people whom I know do both comprehend and believe the Gospel. There have been attempts on two other Lutheran blogs- in each case, based on a single Bible passage of debatable interpretation- to bind consciences by the assertion that cremation, on one hand, and birth control, on the other, are not merely ill-advised, but actually sinful. In neither case has this been a matter of the citation of a clear prohibition from the One Who is not the Author of confusion. Rather, it's been a matter of a lengthly philosophical argument from a particular and highly debatable exegesis of one single passage.
I might add that, as theoglomena (private theological convictions), both positions are quite valid. I am especially impressed with Bunnie Diehl's case against cremation- as bad practice, to be avoided at all costs by those desiring to give a clear and consistent Christian witness. Even though the position of Martin Luther and of Christian antiquity against birth control has its deepest roots in the biologically obsolete notion that the sperm is literally a "seed," and the ovum merely "fertile ground" (essentially missing the point that both parents contribute to the genetic heritage of a child, and that an individual does not come into existence until spermatozoon and ovum unite in conception), there are valid biblical arguments to be raised that, as a general principle, marriage should result in the birth of children. That contraception is not the moral equivalent of abortion, as Luther and the Fathers thought, does not automatically make it a universally valid practice.
But there might be valid reasons to be cremated. My parents-in-law donated their bodies to science. The ashes in their grave are actually a mere sample of the mingled ashes of many people who made this useful gesture. I do not believe that they can be accused of sin because, after their remains were used to train future physicians or to search for cures for the illnesses from which they died, their widely-scattered members were reduced to ashes.
Similarly, the notion that poor people who cannot feed the children they have are morally obligated to bear more borders on the obscene, no matter how true it is, as a general principle, that children are a blessing.
What is this fascination conservative Lutherans have with legalism? I use that term advisedly. One of the most basic principles of the Lutheran Reformation is that consciences may not be bound except by the clear testimony of the Word of God. Yet the case both that cremation and that contraception are, as such, sinful rest, biblically, upon highly debatable interpretations of single biblical passages- namely, Amos 2:1 in the case of cremation (ignoring I Kings 13:3, 2 Kings 23:16-20, and 2 Chronicles 34:5 ), and Genesis 38 in the case of contraception. In each case, valid theoglomena are being urged- on very debatable and very thin biblical evidence- as the actual commandment of He Who is not the Author of confusion.
The crisis of antinomianism both in Lutheranism and in our culture is grave. I am not surprised that my plea for attention to the utter disaster represented by the widespread ignorance of the very Gospel among us is drowned out by the legitimate concern of many that the Law be given its proper place. And Pr. McCain is quite right: we are not permitted to ignore one emergency, simply because we are legitimately concerned about the opposite emergency.
But for that very reason, ought we not be more concerned than we are for the fate of the very Gospel itself among us- in the narrow sense of the term- and for the principle that only God's clear Word, and not human philosophical arguments coated with the thin veneer of an appeal to scant and debatable biblical authority, may bind the consciences of human beings for whom Christ died?