I have just started reading a little book by Andre Louf called “Tuning into Grace” (1992). In the first chapter he makes the obvious point that in Christ we meet not only God’s grace, but initially and very concretely God’s wrath (Matt 3:7, Rom 1:18 etc.). The point at which the experience of wrath becomes the experience of grace is the point of repentance, of conversion (Matt 3:2).
He goes on to speak of the way in which, throughout our life as baptised people of faith and in our daily encounter with Christ, we occupy a space between sin and grace. That place is the place of conversion, which must be a daily experience, and can never be “once and for all”. He cites one of the desert fathers who wept on his death bed because he had “only just begun” the journey of conversion.
Now, as a Lutheran in communion with the bishop of Rome, I live within two Christian traditions, and am forever seeking the points of contact and contrast between the two. I could not fail to recognise how close what Louf was saying was to what Luther himself proclaimed, especially in the spirituality of “simul justus et peccator” (at the same time both saint and sinner). While that spirituality describes a real experience for the Christian, it has always had the problem of never leading anywhere. Or rather, where it leads is to the old saying “Sin boldly, yet even more boldly believe in Christ.” It takes grace too much for granted. “As long as I have faith, I don’t need to fear my sin”, sort of thing. There is no advancement in holiness – in fact, since holiness is taken as a “given” attribute of the Christian, it isn’t even seen as something to which we are “called”.
I’m not saying that that is what Luther meant, but he has certainly been interpreted in that way, and that is how it often pans out in the lives of faithful Lutherans.
Now it is very interesting to read the passage from the Large Catechism of Dr Luther which my friend Fraser dug up recently in discussion with Pastor Paul McCain:
‘Meanwhile, however, while sanctification has begun and is growing daily, …we are only half pure and holy, so that the Holy Ghost has ever to continue His work in us through the Word, and daily to dispense forgiveness, until we attain to that life where there will be no more forgiveness, but only perfectly pure and holy people, full of godliness and righteousness, removed and free from sin, death, and all evil, in a new, immortal, and glorified body.’ (Creed, Third Article, 57-58)
That is a little different from the “total sinner/total saint” approach more common in Lutheranism. It suggests a journey, a goal, which takes place in this life even if it is only completed in the next. In the middle is what Luther calls the work of the Holy Ghost thorugh the word in dispensing forgiveness. That points to something he more clearly stated eleven years earlier in the very first of his 95 theses:
When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, “Repent” (Mt 4:17), he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.
And that fits better with what Louf said.
So, to sum up: In our encounter with Christ as sinners we encounter the wrath of God (what Lutherans classically call “the Law”). He leads us to know and receive God’s forgiving grace (again, what Lutheran’s classically call “the Gospel”). However, what is so often missed out in Lutheran preaching and teaching (I mean in practice here; they would never deny it in theory) is Luther’s original emphasis (still evident in his Catechisms) of daily repentance and conversion. And I would assert that it is in this daily repentance and conversion that one actively answers the universal vocation to holiness of which our beloved John Paul II taught so much.
One last point, I wonder if this emphasis on simul justus et peccator without the corresponding emphasis on semper penitens might be behind the disappearance of the practice of private confession in the Lutheran churches? (See Fraser’s comments here).