The Lutheran Church is obsessed with grace.
I’ve always known that, of course, from Sunday School and sermons and chats with my pastor, but I never really thought about it. It was there in the background, with no particular impact on my life.
Grace is the cornerstone of Lutheran theology. It’s also the bit most commonly left out by anyone else when discussing the contributions Lutheranism made to Protestant Christianity. I am blessed to have many, very theologically and historically literate Protestant friends from various denominations. They all know about Martin Luther, they know sola fide and sola scriptura. But they uniformly leave out the third part of the equation: sola gratias. Only grace. We are saved by grace alone.
This is part of what makes Lutheranism radical. And it is radical, or it should be, and many brilliant people are working very hard to make it radical again, instead of the dying denomination of wealthy white people from Northern Europe. God asks for our faith and our devotion to scripture. And we, whether we know it or not, ask for grace. Grace is the all-consuming acceptance, the love and forgiveness, the come-as-you-are, part-of-the-family gift that God has for all of humanity. You don’t have to do anything to earn it, in fact, you can’t earn it.
Luther’s confessors became concerned about him when he began confessing compulsively, constantly, convinced that no matter how hard he tried, he would miss out on a sin. Something would go unrepented for, unreprimanded. (To me, this speaks strongly of a man with a powerful anxiety disorder, who was convinced that he was one step away from eternal damnation at all times.) He was consumed by guilt, it ate away at all his waking and sleeping hours.
Eventually, something had to give. And so this man became convinced that the only way he, that anyone, could be saved, was through grace. Human perfection is impossible. No matter how hard you try, there is always something you will miss, through misunderstanding or malice or microaggression, through bad days or busy schedules, you will make a mistake. You will hurt people, have hurt people. Some of them are people you will never meet, and some are just people whose names you will not remember. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try; of course it doesn’t. But it means that no matter how hard you try, you will never be perfect. And that is where grace comes in. Grace is forgiveness for things you have not yet done, for lies you didn’t realize you were telling, for systems of oppression you didn’t realize you help to propagate.
While discussing the most recent round of Black Lives Matter protests in the United States, my pastor and I wandered onto the topic of guilt. So many white people, including me, were (and still are) consumed with guilt for their positions as people of privilege whose actions knowingly or unknowingly have contributed to the oppression of black people in this country and around the world. Pastor Marissa told me something that I think will stick with me for the rest of my life. She said, “So many people want to know, want to be told, that they are good people. But Lutherans don’t believe in good people and bad people.” Then she smiled and said, “Well, we do, but we only believe in bad people.”
And if you truly embrace the truth that no matter how good you think you are, you are no better than anyone else, that you just as much in need of grace as the person next to you, and that both of you have a role to play in bringing about the kingdom of God, you can take your place fully as a member of the Church of Christ.
God doesn’t keep a rap sheet. There is only the promise of grace. Grace not just for you, but for everyone in this world. Including people you don’t like. Including parts of yourself you don’t like. You can’t dress yourself up for God; an all-knowing deity is impossible to fool.
All you can do as a Christian is throw yourself on God’s mercy, and ask for the grace that has already been granted to you.
And then, whoever you are, you can get to work.
There are no slackers in the kingdom of God and there are no slackers in the global struggle for justice.
Christians and many others pray for the brokenness in the world, for guidance and change. But prayer isn’t enough. We all, regardless of our religious affiliation, have to take action to address brokenness in our communities and our nations. We have to ask our community leaders, our mayors and councils and organizers, what we can do as individuals and communities to address inequality and injustice.
And tied to this is the need to accept the idea that success does not look like money. That those of us with more have to give it to those of us with less, even though we “earned” that money and they didn’t. Because what they did earn was a fundamental right to safety, and housing, and food, and healthcare, and education, and until we can get governments to provide those things fully and equally to all people, we are going to have to fund them ourselves. (Think of it as paying taxes for programs the government hasn’t realized they need yet. If you think of the money as having never belonged to you in the first place, you are more likely to feel able to give it up.)
We all have to step up, to redefine our ideas of who is good and who is successful and who deserves what. We have to be willing to extend and receive grace.
It will never be enough. No one can ever do enough.
All you can do is try. Grace will cover the rest.