An old joke frames both the promise and particular peril of “living Lutheran”: On his deathbed, a Lutheran pastor assures his family and friends gathered at his side that he is surely going to heaven. “How can you be so sure?” they ask. “Because I’ve not done one good work my whole life,” says the pastor.
Whether it’s funny or not, this joke points to the good news that it is Jesus Christ alone who forgives, heals, restores and saves us. The scandal of this good news, at least for 21st century Lutherans, may be that Jesus saves us unconditionally, “without any merit or worthiness” on our part, as Martin Luther articulates it in his explanation to the First Article of the Apostles’ Creed in the Small Catechism.
The phrase, “without any merit,” may sound scandalous on at least two fronts. Like the pastor who was self-assured that his salvation was secure because he had done nothing that would smack of good works, sometimes we may hear “without any merit” as permission to do whatever we want.
We might believe that Jesus’ death and resurrection means that we are free from the burden of caring for the world God loves.
Ironically, it is sometimes the case that when we fall under this category we are too quick to point out how others have lived recklessly without any regard for how they, too, have fallen short. For Lutherans, the entirety of this condition is known as antinomianism (literally: against the law), and it is a rampant reality among all Christians, not just Lutherans.
What will I now do?
On the other side, the scandal of Jesus’ unconditional love and forgiveness goes something like this: Now that Jesus has done this for me, what will I do for him? Variously called either the third use of the law or the second use of the gospel, the peril of this way of thinking is that it strips the good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ of its unconditional nature.
It suggests that somehow what Jesus has done for us is not enough, that in whatever ways we can conjure up, we need to use our lives to thank God for all God has done for us. Only then will God’s work among us be complete.
While there is nothing wrong with giving thanks to God for what God has done for us — and Luther suggests that we do this, and often, because as it turns out, God has given us everything — the problem lies in how we see our thankfulness as a condition out of which God’s love either does or does not flow for us.
This condition is known as hypernomianism, and it, too, is rampant among Christians today.
Thus, well-meaning ELCA members, and others, are caught between confessing that it is God alone who in Jesus Christ makes all things new for us, and living as if God’s promises are active in our lives only if we do something to put them into action for us.
What then shall we do? What then shall we say?
No need to justify
Planted and watered by the word and sacraments in God’s seedbed of grace, we are freed from the need to justify ourselves to God, or anyone else, for that matter.
Yet, it is also true that out of this same seedbed, God grows us in such a way that we are turned inside out. No longer focused on ourselves because God has given us all that we need in Jesus Christ, we are set “free to be completely attentive to the needs of all,” as Luther declares in his “Freedom of a Christian.”
Living out of the grace of God, we are set free from trying to figure out what best will satisfy God for all that God has done for us. What do you finally get someone who literally has everything already? Luther suggests as much when he writes elsewhere: “God doesn’t need your good works; your neighbors do.”
A scene from the book of Acts gives us a window into this way of thinking. Jesus has ascended into heaven, and the disciples are standing there, their eyes gazing upon the soles of Jesus’ feet.
Then two, robed in white, come to them asking why they are standing there, staring heavenward. Jesus will return, they declare. Taking their gaze off of heaven and fixing their eyes on the world among them, they realize the need around them. As a result, they engage the world around them. Their first act of business is to appoint Matthias to join them in mission and ministry. (Acts 1:6-26)
Changing our focus
That our neighbors need our good works, as Luther tells us, means, in part, fixing our eyes not on heaven but on the world among us. How we do this will vary depending on the gifts, abilities, and passions God has given to each one of us, by the power of the Spirit.
And so, Luther will write, “I believe that I cannot by my own power or strength come to Jesus Christ my Lord or believe in him. But the Holy Spirit has called me through the gospel, enlightened me with his gifts, sanctified and kept me in the true Christian faith.”
The question out of which we live out the gifts God gives us then changes from “Now that Jesus has done this for me, what will I do for him,” to what the late Lutheran theologian Gerhard Forde asks, “What am I going to do now that I don’t have to do anything at all?”