This criticism of theological pietism is not simply a matter of nit-picking for the sake of picking nits. There are negative spiritual consequences to a steady diet of this kind of rhetoric. To put all my cards on the table, this is not a hypothetical issue for me. What follows is a reflection on something I have genuinely struggled with since attending seminary and being immersed in confessional Lutheran culture. I’ve come to call it “Saint/Sinner Nestorianism.”
The heretic Nestorius was involved in a controversy over the two natures of Christ. On one hand, there were the Eutychians who blended Christ’s human and divine natures so that he became some kind of god/man hybrid who was not really God anymore and was not really human either: Part God, Part Man, All Christ. In response to such teachings, Nestorius sought to keep Christ’s two natures distinct from one-another. Unfortunately, in yet another example of error-by-overreaction-to-error Nestorius did so by separating the two natures amongst a human Jesus and divine Son who essentially amounted to two separate beings. Nestorius described it as seeing two stars at a great distance—they look like the same star, but really are not.
One of the effects of Nestorius’ false teaching was a divided narrative in the Gospels. Some of the actions of Christ (such as miracles and teaching) could be attributed only to the Son, while others (such as suffering and dying) could be attributed only to Jesus the man. Needless to say, the Gospels become a convoluted mess when one approaches them this way. Jesus becomes divided into two different characters. In contrast to both Nestorius and Eutyches, the mark of orthodoxy is the doctrine of the hypostatic union—that these two distinct natures are shared by one Person, the Son, Jesus Christ.
But Christ is not the only one possessing two distinct natures. Every Christian does as well. Lutherans rightly teach that we are simul justus et peccator—simultaneously saint and sinner. By the gracious working of the Holy Spirit, each of us is a saint: utterly righteous before God, perfect and faithful. However, while we still live in this fallen world, each of us is also a sinner: utterly depraved and wicked, and even our righteousnesses are as filthy rags. The righteous saint needs no moral improvement, and the wicked sinner cannot be morally improved—he can only be slain. This is most certainly true.
We cannot forget or dismiss either of these natures anymore than we can Christ’s without swiftly falling into error. If I forget that I am a saint, I live in constant guilt and despair. I am nothing more than a sinner without hope. No matter how I might try to improve myself, I’m always going to fall short of what God demands. This is an exhausting and hopeless way to live—never sure if the works I have done are good enough (unless I actually take the Law as seriously as Christ does, in which case I know that they are not.) If, on the other hand, I forget that I am a sinner, I go the route of the Pharisee. I cut myself off from God’s grace because I think I no longer need it. I become a self-righteous legalist who holds himself up as the standard. And every time I sin, I either have to trick myself into thinking that I have not or else temporarily classify myself as a sinner instead of a Christian until I can adequately improve myself.
Neither can we blend these two natures together without falling into error. I cannot be some half-saint/half-sinner mixture anymore than I can be half saved and half-damned. We will enter into heaven with only one nature: the saint. When we die, our sinful flesh finally dies, and only the saint is raised up. But what would that last statement mean if we didn’t just distinguish our two natures, but separated them—just as Nestorius separated Christ’s? Which one of us would be saved?
Many Lutherans inadvertently teach precisely this kind of wall of separation because of the over-zealous rhetoric used in keeping our works away from our justification. Consider how very familiar these kinds of phrases are in Lutheran circles: “You don’t have to try to do good works–they flow naturally from faith.” “If you’re making an effort at being good, you’re enslaving yourself to the Law; let the Gospel set you free from this burden.” “Only the Old Man asks for moral instruction so he can try and justify himself; the New Man doesn’t need it.” “Let yourself be nourished by Word and Sacrament and any good works will just take care of themselves.” “God doesn’t care about your good works; your good works are only for your neighbor.” “Trying to be Christlike leads to self-righteousness and should be avoided.” “Christ has already won the battle; there’s nothing left for a Christian to do.” Though they are poorly phrased, each of these alludes to essential truths about our distinct natures of saint and sinner. But because they are poorly phrased, they divide the narrative of our lives amongst the two natures.
In short, each Christian becomes described as two different people, one a saint and one a sinner. But which one am I? Invariably, theological pietism assigns every sense of struggle and activity to our old sinful nature while every sense of passivity and inertness is assigned to our new sinless nature. After all, we have to keep our works away from our righteousness at any cost. This separation is reinforced when every request for law, every mention of trying to please God & do His will, and (God-forbid) any talk of God’s plan for our lives is met with suspicions of trying to ascend to heaven on a ladder of our own works and assigned exclusively to the Old Man. But what does human life consist of? Mainly, it consists of doing things. I am the one who struggles. I am the one who tries to do good. I am the one who learns what “good” means. The only times I am as inert as theological pietism makes the New Man sound are times when I am unconscious, and so the saint fades from any kind of perception. What else can I conclude except that the real me is the sinner and not the saint? Sure, there’s going to be a saint raised on the last day that has some kind of connection to me, but only in the most abstract and intangible sense. The saint is an utter mystery.
At this point, a peculiar kind of Lutheran nihilism sets in. God does not care what I do with my life. God cannot be pleased or displeased by anything I do. God does not care about my successes or my failures, my joy or my suffering; that’s just a theology of glory. God does not even listen to anything I say in my prayers; He only listens when I repeat His words back to Him. God does not care how I behave. Sure, my neighbors need my good works, but since God does not care what happens to them anymore than He cares what happens to me, that likewise loses all meaning. I am saved, though, and when I die I will go to Heaven instead of Hell. I should be thankful for that. In the meantime, I might as well just sit around and wait to die. Except, of course, on Sundays when I should go to church to make sure I don’t forget that I am forgiven before I die because if I do, I won’t be saved anymore.
In the end, all of God’s promises become empty because they are only given to this abstract saint who has no substance and no relevance to anything or anyone until after I die.
This is bleak, and this is torturous. If one reads the Bible at all, one cannot help but realize intellectually that this nihilism is not really true because one cannot help but encounter the myriad verses that theological pietism passes over. But it is difficult for this intellectual realization to penetrate the heart when nearly every theologically-informed Lutheran one hears or reads—the ones we count on to instruct and defend against the theological errors in the world—seems to be inadvertently reinforcing the nihilism. Remember some of the uncharitable ways many confessional Lutherans treat expressions of piety that were laid out in Part 2, the disdain with which specifics of the law are treated in Part 3, and the suspicion cast on a desire for instruction in Part 4. When this is the kind of rhetoric he is surrounded with, one cannot help but begin wondering whether that intellectual realization is something he reads into Scripture. For the record, I am not the only Lutheran to experience this. Anthony Sacramone has written about an experience very similar to my own.
Now, I want to again be clear: this is most certainly not the logical conclusion of Confessional Lutheran doctrine. It is, instead, the practical conclusion of theological pietism—a misapplication of confessional doctrine. There is, after all, a very clear solution to Saint/Sinner Nestorianism: a hypostatic union between saint and sinner analogous to the hypostatic union between God and Man in Jesus.
This kind of union has consequences—the kind that make the impossible possible. We can, for example, say that Mary is the mother of God because she is the mother of Jesus and Jesus is God. We can say that God died because Jesus is God and Jesus (being also a man) died. The hypostitic union between saint and sinner has similar consequences. I can say that a sinner does good works, because I am a sinner and I (being also a saint) do good works. I can say that saints sin because I am a saint and I (being also a sinner) sin. The saint may already be perfect and the sinner may be irreparable, but I can be improved as the sinner is put to death and the saint is nourished. Everything the sinner does may be sinful and everything the saint does is already pleasing to God, but I do some things that are pleasing to God and some that are not, and sometimes I even consciously choose between the two. Here, in this hypostatic union, we encounter the real Christian life. Here, by this hypostatic union, our actual experience is explained with theological accuracy and faithfulness to our confessions. Most importantly, here, God’s promises are finally “for me” because the saint is finally the same person who does what I do and experiences what I experience.
So why must we come down so hard on any Christian who says he’s making moral improvement, trying hard to live a godly life, and encouraging others to do the same? Why must we narrow our eyes whenever such ideas cross anyone’s lips?
Again, most confessional Lutherans acknowledge this when pressed. But why should anyone have to press for this? How many lay people would even know how to ask? How much more likely is it that people will instead learn that being a faithful Lutheran means being a theological pietist and casting suspicion on any mention of moral instruction? How many people will try to be better people by following this man-made instruction instead of what God has given us. Theological pietism turns our understanding of the Christian life into a convoluted mess, just as Nestorianism did to our understanding of the Gospels. But how can this misunderstanding ever be corrected if Lutherans are afraid to talk about the Christian life and about good works? How can we rightly instruct when we are afraid of God’s Word?
Tomorrow, I will wrap this up with a way forward.