Friday, April 27, 2012

Lent the nagging killjoy...

Somebody sent me a summary of a recent article from the ELCA's The Lutheran.  It goes like this:

Writing in a recent issue of The Lutheran, David Miller laments the “moralistic” cast of the Lenten worship and piety he grew up with. “Each year Lent came as a nagging killjoy,” Miller writes, “pointing out failures to be what God wants.” This is not what Lent should be about. “It’s a time for drawing close to the river where one is more easily drawn into the currents of unspeakable grace,” he contends, “there to forget every sadness and despair, there to have every haunting failure and preoccupation with self and image swept away in the endlessness of an eternal mercy.”

Well, it made me actually read the article.  It was not long, thankfully.  It was your typical complaint about the Lenten preaching and devotion of the past with its attention to the sinful and unclean and its call to repentance.  It was not terrible but it did seem pretty thin.  The focus on God's grace was not matched up with the concrete events in which that grace is revealed (suffering, cross, death of Jesus, for example).  It lamented the typical moralistic cast on the word "repent" and expressed the desire that Lent focus on the Lord but mostly on the positive expression of love -- knowing Jesus and sharing in His joys and sorrows and in His holy dreams for creation.  He urged Christians to make up their own spiritual practices so that this new positive self may emerge from the depths of God's river of grace and life.  It was about what I expected.  It could have been worse.  It should have been better.

Now lest you think I only criticize the ELCA, there are those in Missouri who regularly complain about the Synod President's call to repentance.  It is said by some among us that Pres. Harrison speaks way too much about repentance.  Some have gone so far as to suggest that repentance is not a word that should be in the usual vocabulary of the active Christian.  In other words, you do not have to be liberal in order to be made uncomfortable by the word repentance and by the call to repent.  I remember one fellow LCMS Pastor telling me he had read Senkbeil's Dying to Life and just did not get what all the fuss over repentance, confession, and absolution was all about.

The funny thing is that this call to repentance is not moralistic at all.  If it is only the behavior that needs shaping up to please God, then we have a screwed up idea of God.  If it is only our behavior we need to be concerned about, then we have a screwed up idea of Christian life.  Repentance is not about painting the exterior of the house so that it looks better to those outside.  It is not even about remodeling the interior to make it new.  Repentance is about the acknowledgement that sin is death.  We come confessing on Sundays (and Wednesdays in Lent) not because sin is bad but because sin is death.  Even to the baptized.  Temptation and doubt and fear are the voices of sin that call even to those in the kingdom of God.  Like the mythical sirens who called to the sailors of old, we hear the call of our culture, the voices of evil, and the still active voices of desire.  But they are not mythological.  They are real.  Repentance acknowledges this reality.

Repentance does much more.  It also points us and pushes us back into the safe and secure arms of our Savior when we are at our weakest and most vulnerable.  Whether we are undone by the load of guilt for our failure or deceived to think of sin as not all that bad, we need to be secure in the arms of our Savior to have the heavy load of our sin lifted from our shoulders and the self-justifying lies removed so that they do not obscure the truth of Christ and Him crucified.

The author is right about one thing.  If Lent and repentance only means, "I was bad, I am sorry, now it is all better...thank you, Jesus" -- then Lent is a killjoy and joke at the same time.  Joy comes not from moral improvement but from grace undeserved that cleanses and restores the unworthy.  Repentance is not the enemy of joy but that which points us to the real joy that does not evaporate when the smile drops off our faces.  Apart from Christ and the work of the Spirit, the word "repent" is a nasty word we would rather avoid.  In Christ, repentance is the work of the Spirit pointing us to the blood that cleanses us from all sin and that binds us together into the eternal community of the Church. 

Funny how the author of this article could talk about Lenten spiritual practices without much mention of the cross.  Repentance, if it is anything at all, is about the cross -- the cross that calls to us in love, the cross makes repentance possible, and the Spirit who works through the Word of the cross works this repentance in us.  Pres. Harrison is right.  Jesus came only for sinners.  Repentance makes sure that we get this for it is only when we count ourselves sinners that grace's river flows to us as the water of life.  We don't need less of this kind of preaching, we need more of it.  And not just in Lent.

9 comments:

Anonymous said...

Expecting the ELCA to say anything theologically worthy of Lent-or anything else, for that matter-is akin to expecting that the Pope kisses his wife every night before retiring for the evening.

Anonymous said...

some of them did

Anonymous said...

Yeah, well a self image that is too positive is rather dangerous.

Unknown said...

Dear Rev. Peters: First, please be assured that whatever follows is neither a criticism or even critique of you nor a defense of the ELCA. My concern is with what we Lutherans (I am a member in good standing of an LCMS congregation) believe abut repentance.

As I look through the New Testament, I find that the words “repentance”, “repent”, “repents”, “repented”, and “repenting” (i.e. their Greek equivalents) refer almost exclusively to what takes place when a person experiences conversion and enters the Kingdom of God. This is equally true of our Confessions; specifically the sections about “Repentance” in the Augsburg Confession, the Apologia, and the Smalcald Articles.

I don’t want to imply that repentance or contrition should not be practiced by those who are already members of God’s Kingdom (the Church), but I cannot find the emphasis that we Lutherans, particularly those in America, make on “a life of repentance” or “contrition” in either the Scriptures or the Confessions.

It has always struck me that in the Prayer our Lord taught us, “…and forgive us our trespasses …”, comes without any kind of preparation, seeming to rank lower on a scale of importance than “give us this day our daily bread.” At least you would think we should not say this petition unless we have done some sincere confessing before that?

Peace and Joy!
George A. Marquart

Lutheran Pastor said...

Luther says in the 95 Theses:

When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, "Repent" [Matt. 4:17], he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance..1

In his Explanation of the 95 Theses Luther writes:
We pray throughout our whole life and we must pray "forgive us our debts" [Matt. 6:12]; therefore, we repent throughout our whole life and are displeased with ourselves, unless anyone may be so foolish as to think he must only pretend to pray for the forgiveness of debts. For the debts for which we are commanded to pray are real and not to be treated lightly; and even if they were venial, we could not be saved unless they were remitted.

It seems that Luther uses repentance not a condition for the Gospel but the living fruit of the Spirit at work and the Gospel finding a home in the heart of the hearer. Luther also speaks of repentance as the life of grace, revolving around confession and absolution. Living in this cycle of confession and absolution is exactly what this daily life of repentance looks like.

This dialectic and contradiction is a necessary theological conclusion from the Lutheran doctrine of justification. Luther's concept of simul justus et
peccator is fundamental for a Lutheran understanding no only of justification but also of sanctification. Before God the person is totally justified and the
same person is in himself and sees himself as a sinner. What is important in this understanding is the Latin word simul, at the same time, and not in a sequential sense as if one followed the other in point of time. Historically this
distinction was lost in Lutheranism, as in the case of Pietism, where man is first justified and rescued from sin and then the work of sanctification begins.

The end result is perfectionism or at least a mild form of it. The matter is viewed in this way: After a person is justified by faith, the new life of
obedience sets in and progresses. Justification is seen as a past event in the Christian life and sanctification as a temporal result, separate and distinct
from justification as the cause. Wherever justification and sanctification are separated from each other with this kind of temporal understanding,
Lutheran theology is brought to ruin.

Unknown said...

It is my practice not to respond to anonymous posts, but in this case, because the errors being promoted are so wide spread in the Lutheran Church, and because others reading this post may be misled, I feel obligated to respond.

As I am sure you know, the 95 Thesis are not part of the Book of Concord, and this for a good reason: they contain error. Luther wrote them before his “Tower Experience”, when he first began to acquire a real understanding of the Gospel. It should not be incumbent on me to disprove someone’s assertions based on any source they choose. If you show me where Scripture or our Confessions say what Luther says about repentance in the first of the 95 Theses or in his explanation, then you will convince me. Both in the Large and in the Small Catechism, when Luther explains the Petition, “And forgive us our trespasses,” repentance or anything related to it are not mentioned.

How does daily repentance affect simul justus et peccator. Do we cease to be justus if we do not repent daily? Actually, Luther implies this in Part 4 of his explanation of Baptism in the Small Catechism when he writes, “What does such baptizing with water signify?--Answer.
It signifies that the old Adam in us should, by daily contrition and repentance, be drowned and die with all sins and evil lusts, and, again, a new man daily come forth and arise; who shall live before God in righteousness and purity forever.
Were is this written?--Answer.
St. Paul says Romans, chapter 6: We are buried with Christ by Baptism into death, that, like as He was raised up from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life.” Unfortunately, Romans 6 says nothing about “a new man coming daily forth” “by daily contrition and repentance.” Romans 6 speaks about the one time renewal when a person is reborn as a new creature by water and the Spirit. Obviously, to be peccator, repentance is not necessary.

As to the fruits of the Spirit, Scripture mentions these: (Rom. 14: 17) “For the kingdom of God is not food and drink but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.” And (Gal. 5:22) “By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, 23 gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things.” Nowhere in Scripture is repentance mentioned as a work of the Spirit, except for that Repentance, μετάνοια, that takes place at conversion. That is not to say that when a Christian shows repentance for daily sins this is not a work of the Holy Spirit; Scripture simply takes this for granted, because the Holy Spirit lives in the Christian. It is a matter of emphasis; Scripture knows nothing about, “Living in this cycle of confession and absolution is exactly what this daily life of repentance looks like.”

When you write, “Wherever justification and sanctification are separated from each other with this kind of temporal understanding, Lutheran theology is brought to ruin,” I cannot help but wonder what the Reformers meant when they wrote:

The Solid Declaration of the Formula of Concord
III. The Righteousness of Faith

35] Hence, even though the converted and believing [in Christ] have incipient renewal, sanctification, love, virtue, and good works, yet these neither can nor should be drawn into, or mingled with, the article of justification before God, in order that the honor due Him may remain with Christ the Redeemer, and tempted consciences may have a sure consolation, since our new obedience is incomplete and impure.

Peace and Joy!
George A. Marquart

Pastor Peters said...

So George, what do we call it when the baptized sin, when the Spirit works to afflict their conscience, when they express sorrow over their sin and when they come for absolution? Is this not the repentance that follows us our whole lives in Christ (at least in this mortal flesh where temptation and sin still entice us)? What do you call it when Christians baptized and confessing faith fall into error or fall away and then return having heard the call of the Gospel and the Spirit working in them as surely the Spirit did for the prodigal? Are these not repentance? Is this not the repentance that the anonymous poster above is referring to and Luther intends? I do not think we so much disagree as use terms somewhat differently. I am asking what you call the first instances I point to above -- that regularly happen in the life of the believer and in the life of the congregation?

Unknown said...

Dear Rev. Peters:
Answer to the first question: We call it repentance or contrition.
Answer to the second question: Yes.
Answer to the third question: I call it repentance. The English version of the Augsburg Confession calls it “conversion.” The story of the Prodigal is about Repentance in the sense of μετάνοια that takes place at conversion. There is no mention in this parable of any subsequent repentance. I am certainly not saying that there is no room for continuing repentance in the life of the Christian. What I object to is what an LCMS pastor wrote in a sermon some years ago: “Repentance is despairing of our sins, being crushed, lying in the proverbial dust and ashes, saying words like ‘Lord have mercy on me, a sinner,’ and truly meaning it from the heart. To live in repentance is to live with a crushed spirit, and casting your only hope for salvation on the mercy of God in His Son Christ.” No, sin is not a good thing, but our Lord has transported us into His Kingdom of Light where we do not despair, are crushed or lie in the proverbial dust and ashes. All that we did in μετάνοια. The Prodigal does not do that after his Father has kissed him, dressed him and put a ring on his finger. Besides, that qualification, “and meaning it from the heart” always allows the Tempter to ask, “Did you mean it enough to be forgiven?”
Answer to the fourth question: Yes
Answer to the fifth question: I do not know whether the anonymous poster distinguished between the two kinds of repentance. Luther, as shown in the explanation of Baptism, did not always.

As we use the word “repentance” it can mean μετάνοια or it can mean the contrition of the member of God’s Kingdom. Since Scripture and the Confessions use the noun and it verb forms almost exclusively in the sense of μετάνοια, what applies only to μετάνοια is often preached as being part of contrition. That is what I object to, and I suspect that aside from anything else the writer had wrong in his article, that is what he objected to as well.

Peace and Joy!
George A. Marquart

Unknown said...

Dear Rev. Peters:
Having raised the matter of the nature of repentance on your blog, I feel compelled to write a few words about what it is the children of God should confess and repent of. I hope you will not think I am taking advantage of the hospitality of your blog.

Much of our concern revolves about the sins involved with such grave matters as homosexuality, abortion, closed communion, not believing in the real presence, the ordination of women, church attendance, and maybe a few others. But I think you get the idea.

Meanwhile we sin every day when we exceed the speed limit, when we do not stop for a stop sign, when we are discourteous to someone, when our patience is tried at airport security and many such minor matters which we don’t even think about as we commit hundreds of them each day. Our Lord reminded us that these sins are just as bad as the really serious ones, when He said, “If you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire.”

All of this points out the difficulty of repentance, because we cannot possibly remember all but the most recent, gross sins, and we sometimes wonder whether those sins which we cannot even remember are included in our repentance. I know that the Church of England has such beautiful, all inclusive language in their prayers that hardly anything can get by. It is in this context that I always remember the words our Lord chose in the Parable of the Pharisee and the Publican. The Publican could not possibly repent of each one of his sins, so he said, “Have mercy on me, a sinner.” The realization that we are sinners and that God in His mercy relieved us of our burden, that, I believe is the essence of repentance. No wailing, despairing, or being crushed by our sins is either needed or desirable. We can trust the Holy Spirit to see to it that our repentance and contrition are adequate to keep us from becoming too proud, together with the Church’s ministry of Word and Sacrament.

Finally, there are the sins of omission. We worship in expensive buildings located on expensive real estate, we must have organs of some quality to make sure we worship God properly, we pay huge maintenance and utility bills, and we buy things like filters for our windows, so the sun will not make it difficult to see. Meanwhile, every minute, somewhere in the world 10 children die of hunger, and the vast majority of us are not even aware of that. I continue to remember that His sheep, whom the Father will welcome into His Kingdom, fed, gave drink to, clothed, welcomed, visited and cared for the least of His sisters and brethren. They do not earn their inheritance, but they do what they have to do, because that is their nature, and hopefully the Church strengthens them in these endeavors.

Peace and Joy!
George A. Marquart