This article was originally written in 2009 as a series of blog posts for the website New Reformation Press, which has now merged into the 1517 Legacy Project. Since the blog posts are no longer at the new website, and I have been asked about what drew me to Lutheranism, I have decided to repost it here.
Somewhere near the end of 2007 and the beginning of 2008 I was quietly standing on the verge of utter despair.
At that point I really feared that Christ’s terrifying words “Depart from me, I never knew you” might be for me. And there was nothing I could do about it. I was a Christian, but a poor excuse for a Christian. I looked at my life and everything I did was tainted with sin. Even the best works I did were tainted with sin. My heart was desperately wicked and I did not love God with all my heart. And worst of all, there was something inside me that hated God, that had contempt for Him. How could I possibly be saved?
Maybe I was fooling myself about being a Christian. The lives of true Christians kept getting better and better, and I felt as though mine was getting worse and worse. My “growth in holiness” and in love for God was supposed to assure me that I really was a child of God. But I did not see this. All I saw was sin. And I despaired that the salvation offered in Christ was really for me. Salvation was for people who really believed. And I was not sure I really believed. How could I be a true believer when I continued to sin and sin and sin and abuse the grace of God? How could I be a true believer if everything within me was sin?
* * *
It’s hard to summarize my spiritual life. I still struggle to make sense of it all. But I can say this: when I discovered the Reformation, my eyes stopped looking at myself and my faith and my sincerity, and raised to look at Christ alone. I finally understood that Christ’s death on the cross was really, truly for me, after years and years and years of struggling to find assurance of salvation.
I grew up in American evangelicalism of a moderately fundamentalist stripe. The church I grew up in instilled in me the importance of God’s Word. They emphasized that Jesus died on the cross for all our sins, that good works could not save us and that we were saved through faith alone.
This sounds great on paper. The problem was that the way faith was defined it became a work. My church taught decision theology – being born again meant praying the “sinner’s prayer” to accept Jesus into your heart and committing your life to Him. If you prayed that prayer and meant it, then you were a child of God – born again. Your life would be radically transformed and you could be certain beyond a shadow of a doubt that you were going to heaven.
I probably don’t have to tell you that it didn’t quite work that way. At least not for me.
According to my mother, I first “prayed the prayer” when I was six years old. The problem was that even a few years later I had no memory of the event. And no matter how many times I tried to “make sure of my salvation” by praying the prayer again or recommitting my life to God, I was in doubt as to whether I really meant it or was really sincere.
No matter where I was taught to look for assurance of salvation – be it by family members or people at my church or later, Bible teachers on the Internet – I was always taught to look inside myself. The decision theology I grew up with taught me to look at my sincere free will decision. Later I read various Bible teachers who repudiated decision theology but instead taught me to look to my works and my growth in holiness to determine whether or not I was really saved.
Well-meaning folks at my church said that if only one would surrender everything in one’s life to God like they had, one would have peace and joy and freedom from doubt, just like them. My problem was that I felt powerless to surrender in this way. I did not have this power. There was something inside me, even as a Christian, that would not submit to God’s Law, not even for a second, no matter how committed I tried to be. I hated it, because I wanted desperately to please the God that I loved. But there was always sin in my life that would not go away.
Somewhere down the line I discovered what can only be called a form of Christian mysticism. It had to do with “listening to what God is saying to you personally,” or “listening to God’s still small voice speaking to your heart.” I came to believe that God regularly spoke directly to my heart. And how could I not be a true Christian if God was working so powerfully in my life in this way? Yet I always wondered whether what I was hearing was really God, or just my own heart.
The only time I had any real peace was when I looked outside of myself to Christ. My favorite hymns were the ones that pointed to Christ alone. But in evangelicalism, these things were so often overshadowed by the hymns and praise songs and teaching that pointed me to myself – to my feelings, to my obedience, to my acts of worship, to my commitment.
At some point I came across a doctrine known as Christian Hedonism. Many people seem to find this doctrine wonderful and comforting. I did too at first. And then it became the most terrifying Law.
According to those who promote this teaching, how do you know you are saved? Because you love God. Because you find your satisfaction in God. Because you find your joy in God. If these things are not true of you, then you will not be saved. Period. Oh, of course we are saved by grace alone. But if God truly regenerates you then these things will be true of you.
Well, these things were not true of me. I desperately wanted them to be, but they weren’t. The fact was that I did not love God with my whole heart. Every time I sinned in thought, word or deed – by what I had done or what I had left undone – I did not love God with my whole heart. Worse, even the good things I did were tainted with evil motives. And worse still, the Christian Hedonism teaching had associated with it a pietistic form of Calvinism – which was also promoted by the systematic theology text a Reformed-leaning friend had given me – and I ended up wondering if I was one of those false believers who were predestined to go to hell.
So I found myself where I was at the beginning of this article – on the verge of utter despair. And then sometime in February 2008 I found the blog of Michael Spencer, the Internet Monk.
Michael Spencer is not your typical evangelical. Anyone who has read his blog knows this. His writing fascinated me. He said things about certain aspects of evangelicalism that I had thought in my heart but had been too afraid to say out loud for fear of being seen as heretical. And he pointed me to an article that would forever change my life.
The article was written by Dr. Rod Rosenbladt and it was called “Reclaiming the Doctrine of Justification.” The following paragraph from that article was mind-blowing for me at the time:
If the Christian is reading the Law and says, “This is not yet true of me: I don’t love God with all my heart, and I certainly don’t love my neighbor as I love myself. In fact, just today I failed to help a poor chap on the side of the road who was having car trouble. I must not yet be a Christian,” here the reformers would counsel, “You hurry back to the second use of the law and flee to Christ where sanctification is truly, completely, and perfectly located.” After this experience, the believer will feel a greater sense of freedom to obey, and it is the only way that one will ever feel free to obey.…The answer of the Higher Life movement to the struggling Christian is, “Surrender more,” or, ” What are you holding back from the Lord?” The Reformation answer is different.
Prior to this time I thought all Lutherans – and probably most Presbyterians and anyone who baptized infants – were unsaved liberals (and if any of them were saved it was in spite of their Lutheranism or Reformed ideas). Dr. Rosenbladt shattered this conception completely, as did the Reformed folks with him on the White Horse Inn radio program. I started listening to every episode of the White Horse Inn I could get my hands on. Some of the things that the folks on that program said shocked me. They criticized decision theology and revivalism. They criticized pietism. They criticized my view of the end times. They criticized the evangelical tendency to focus on self in worship. And they introduced me to the concept of the distinction between Law and Gospel. The continuing theme of that program is the Reformation concept of extra nos – “the whole Gospel is outside of us.”
What does this mean? The Gospel is not about my inner transformation or personal experience. It is not about what Christ is doing inside of me, but what Christ did FOR me. All I contribute to my salvation is my sin. I found that my Arminian concerns about “free will” and “making a decision” had fallen by the wayside in favor of what Scripture actually says about these things. We are dead in our trespasses and sins, and until God makes us alive and gives us faith we have no ability to believe. God does not save us because we make a decision to believe, but because of His grace in Christ. At that point I was well on my way to becoming Reformed. I was reading everything by Michael Horton that I could get my hands on. It was such a relief to know that I was not saved because of something I had done, but solely because of Christ’s mercy.
Yet there were certain things about Calvinism that I had a hard time reconciling with Scripture, chief among them the idea that Christ did not die for the sins of the whole world, but only for the elect. The “Five Points of Calvinism” are very logically coherent. However, I was not sure that some of them were entirely Biblical. I had a hard time with this despite the clever ways the Reformed tried to get around it. I remember realizing that if I accepted Limited Atonement I could not honestly say to someone, “Christ died for YOUR sins” – because it might not really be true.
After I had been listening to the White Horse Inn for a while, I read on Kim Riddlebarger’s blog about the cancellation of the Lutheran radio program Issues, Etc. and the fact that the program was going to come back on the air. So I resolved to start listening when they started up again, even if I was a bit skeptical at first. I found Lutheran theology to be remarkably comforting and their view on the extent of the Atonement to be much more in line with what Scripture actually taught. But the one thing that was a real stumbling block for me was the idea of baptismal regeneration. It seemed too much like adding a work to salvation. I remember thinking, “I don’t think I could ever believe THAT. It would be way too much of a stretch.”
So I started listening, and as I said, I was skeptical at first. But after weeks of listening to Pastor Wilken and his guests, I became much less skeptical. Through Issues, Etc. I found other radio shows such as Fighting for the Faith, The God Whisperers and Table Talk Radio. Somehow I discovered an online forum called the Wittenberg Trail where I could ask questions about what Lutherans believed and how that fit in with the Scriptures.
From all of these things I came to realize this – confessional Lutherans were literally the most Christ-centered people around. They always pointed me to Christ and not to myself. I came to understand that Baptism was Gospel and not Law. That the idea of Baptism as an “outward sign of an inward commitment” was something foreign to the Scriptures and a relatively recent innovation in church history. Baptism was not just water – it was water combined with the Word of Christ. If faith comes by hearing, and hearing through the Word of Christ, it was not that big of a stretch to believe that that Word could work through physical means appointed by Christ.
When I read passages about Baptism in this light, everything started to fall into place. Most crucial was Romans 6:1-4:
What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it? Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.
I had been baptized years before when I was barely out of my teens. I had no idea what my baptism meant at the time. I thought it was all about my obedience and commitment. But all the Scriptures that talk about what Baptism means talk about it as being God’s work, not our work. God had objectively, through external means, put His name – the name of the Triune God – upon me in Baptism.
It was around September 2008 that I realized, “I think I’m becoming a Lutheran.” But I was still attending an evangelical church. It happened that after Christmas was over I decided to visit an LCMS church in my area. It was the closest of three that had been recommended to me by a pastor on the Wittenberg Trail.
I can’t really say “I didn’t know what to expect” because I did. All those months of listening to Issues, Etc and all the other Lutheran podcasts – as well as using the Treasury of Daily Prayer for a month or so beforehand! – had taught me exactly what to expect, though not being used to liturgical worship I found myself fumbling around to figure out where I was in several parts of the service.
I found myself very emotionally moved, in particular, by corporate confession and absolution. Why? Because finally, there was open, public honesty. No coming before God and others pretending to have it all together, like I did on so many Sundays before that. I was coming to God with only my sin because it was all I had to offer Him. I was publicly admitting – in church! – along with a hundred or so other people, that I had not loved God with my whole heart, that I justly deserved His punishment and that all I could do was plead for mercy.
And for the first time I heard those wonderful words, “I forgive you all your sins in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”
The whole service was saturated in Scripture from beginning to end. From beginning to end everything pointed to Christ –for me – and not to what was happening inside of me.
I had the opportunity to speak briefly with the pastor at the end of the service. I told him that I was an evangelical who had discovered Lutheranism on the Internet through such programs as Issues, Etc, that I was VERY interested in Lutheranism and that I had wanted to see it for myself. I remember him asking me, “Was it what you expected?”
And my answer was a somewhat wide-eyed “Yes.”
I started attending Bible study every Sunday at this church, though it was a few more months before I started attending services there exclusively. I continued to learn and grow in my understanding of the faith. But I knew I was finally home.
In Lutheranism there is no more wondering if I am sincere enough. No more wondering whether I really believe. No more wondering how God really sees me. I know that my salvation was and is entirely His work. He put His name on me in Baptism, and He sustains my faith through the hearing of His Word and the receiving of His Sacraments.
I dare not trust in anything inside of myself. Instead, I look entirely outside of myself to Christ alone – who was born for me, lived a perfect and sinless life for me, died for me, and was raised to life again for me.
Even for me.