Some months back, a good friend of mine posted the above image on one of his social media pages and solicited comments. I commented that day concerning some problems I identified with the image. Instead, I should have said “when you come to a fork in the road, take it.”
While we disagree on quite a bit, I think a lot of my friend who posted the image. I’ve had a lot of great conversations with him, and I didn’t feel bad posting my thoughts in a rather plain manner.
With the benefit of hindsight, I see this in image a fairly large problem in FE Christianity: too often there’s little room for God’s work through the church as he’s ordained it. You’ll find many hymns, preaching, fellowship, public prayer, and more but it’s difficult or impossible to find the dispensation of God’s free gifts like baptism (to FE’s, it’s only a symbol so its administration affects nothing), The Lord’s Supper (likewise, this is only a memorial or some vague connection to Christ based on how much you’re willing to believe it is), a corporate confession of sin and absolution (we all know we sin, and God knows we sin, and that pastor’s “just a man” anyway and can’t forgive sin so it’s all useless), and more.
There’s also another large problem in FE Christianity that the above image exposes: whether or not a church is “faithful” or is even actually a Christian church is judged by something very subjective: how we feel about the works of those in the church.
These problems could be classified in many ways, but I like to be charitable. The FE’s with whom I have spent my time do not intentionally crowd out God’s work through the church. Truthfully, all of these are difficult concepts to understand when one has been raised as a FE or moved from an even more works-driven faith like Roman Catholicism.
These two problems reduce down to the same thing: an improper view of the purpose and mission of the church. There isn’t much wiggle-room on this issue. Either you believe that church is an informal gathering of believers that becomes formalized and blessed with God’s blessing as they worship, or you believe that God has ordained church for the express purpose of disseminating his gifts of grace through means external to us. I won’t dive deeply into the differences now. I’ve covered some of this in earlier posts, and in the future I intend to discuss why I find the means of grace to be a highly biblical concept. Suffice it to say that for a typical FE, church is a confusion of law and gospel: a place where I go to do things that please God, rather than a place where I go to receive the free gifts of God.
Getting back to the image, I get the point and appreciate the sentiment: “Don’t follow what others are doing by only asserting that they follow Christ; instead, follow Christ.” But who gets to define who it is that is walking down which path? This may be the ultimate form of self-justification, encouraging the dangerous practice of deciding whether we or others are Christians based on how well we see and feel devotion to left-path faith.
The problem is that at any random moment of the day, you could catch each of us exhibiting behavior or thinking thoughts contrary to the person walking down the left path.
I think the natural tendency is to wag fingers in a disapproving manner and say: “Hey, you think you’re the one going down the left path but someone as hypocritical as you is surely not on the left path!” The trouble is, for each human on this planet, this is true! Each of us should look in the mirror and sternly proclaim “Hey, you think you’re the one going down the left path but someone as hypocritical as you is surely not on the left path,” because that’s where we are.
In his large catechism, Martin Luther teaches the Lord’s Prayer, the one given with the very mouth of Christ as an example for us to pray. The very first petition of the prayer is “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name.”
Doesn’t this seem a little odd? Asking holy God to make his own name holy? Luther answers this:
Yes, it is always holy in its nature, but in our use it is not holy. […] Now the name of God is profaned by us either in words or in works. (For whatever we do upon the earth must be either words or works, speech or act.) In the first place, then, it is profaned when men preach, teach, and speak in the name of God what is false and misleading, so that His name must serve to adorn and to find a market for falsehood. That is, indeed, the greatest profanation and dishonor of the divine name. Furthermore, also when men, by swearing, cursing, conjuring, etc., grossly abuse the holy name as a cloak for their shame. In the second place, also by an openly wicked life and works, when those who are called Christians and the people of God are adulterers, drunkards, misers, envious, and slanderers. Here again must the name of God come to shame and be profaned because of us. For just as it is a shame and disgrace to a natural father to have a bad, perverse child that opposes him in words and deeds, so that on its account he suffers contempt and reproach, so also it brings dishonor upon God if we who are called by His name and have all manner of goods from Him teach, speak, and live in any other manner except as godly and heavenly children, so that people say of us that we must be not God’s, but the devil’s children.
God’s name is profaned in both words and works. For a similar reason, Paul wrote that on account of sinful believers, that Christ’s name was “blasphemed among the gentiles.” This is a sure thing: as believers, we still mess up. We still have the sinful nature clinging to our flesh. This is why the grave is our destiny, because we cannot shake the old nature.
As an FE, a true church is found when the collective leading body does not profane God’s name in word or deed. As always, if we use God’s holy law as the standard, we know therefore that no church can exist. Our efforts are pitiful when we call ourselves a church simply because we’ve stamped a cross on the sign in the corner of the lawn and proclaimed to the world “THE PEOPLE IN THIS BUILDING ARE WALKING DOWN THE LEFT PATH.”
But thanks be to God, that’s not the mark of a true church. The true church is where you are offered Christ and his gospel. The gospel is for sinners, for hypocrites. It doesn’t “work” for any other type of person. The distinction here is simple: for an FE, a “good church” has its act together by some outward appearance (for who can see the hearts of men but God?), but for the Lutheran, the church is where God’s gift’s are given to bad people: his spoken Gospel, his absolution in Christ, the participation in Christ’s work at the table (because he’s there!), and sanctification by the work of the Spirit. A true church is one that admits our radical failure and pleases God by asking him to hallow his name among us, as Luther writes :
If now you pray for this with your heart, you can be sure that it pleases God; for He will not hear anything more dear to Him than that His honor and praise is exalted above everything else, and His Word is taught in its purity and is esteemed precious and dear.
Where else can you go for the gifts of God? The normal place to receive them is in his house. We don’t get to decide when or how God will give his gifts; he has instituted specific means for their distribution. He has gifted and called specific men to do this work.
And here’s the danger in the philosophy of the image: contrary to the image, God has not ordained a “me, my Bible, and Jesus” means of grace. If he has, then we are not to receive teachings and criticisms from those on the rightmost path because they are wrong. But think this through and ask the question: all of us who are on the rightmost path, how are we to properly judge a church? If we are to abandon the rightmost path, then we must then neglect 100% of teaching we’ve been given, including the very canon of scripture that we read to discern the will of God. Everything we have been given in Christ has been handed down to us through the church, because he’s ordained it as such.
Without this type of doctrine of the church, how does one answer the question: “How do I prove that I’m following Christ and not men?”
He can resolve this question by either inventing his own doctrine out of thin air and convincing himself to follow it (a dangerous practice), or he can find and join group of like-minded people who have banded together and called themselves a church. This yields a democratization of Christianity such that one knows he’s following Christ because someone who interprets the scriptures the same way he does has told him so. This is the very problem the image is trying to convey!
Thank God that he is wiser than us, because all of us find ways to ruin a good thing. God, in his grace, gives us gifts each time his house is open, and they do not depend on us. May his name be hallowed among us. Thanks be to God!