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280 THE “SORRY” STATE OF LUTHERANS By Robert W. Jenson* Had it been left to the German Lutherans, Hitler would have retired full of years and honor. Had it been left to the Lutherans of St. Louis, whites ‘would still be wallowing in acknowledgment of the sin of our continuing slaveholding. One may—as does the author—thoroughly disapprove standard American liberal Protestantism and yet recognize that Lutherans came into the civil rights and anti- war movements only after those other Christians shamed us into it. There are no white Lutheran heroes of the South African anti-apartheid move- ment, as there are white Anglicans and Reformed heroes; only black Lutherans are in the movement, who have other teachers than our theology. And if it is now left to Lutheran position papers, we will al just have to learn to love the bomb and be.unjudg- mental about abortion, For these examples I re- main within my own diréct memory; the sequence “of disasters could be extended uninterrupted back through our 450 years. It is not that Lutherans have not loathed Hitler, slavery, injustice and war, or are now in love with slaughter. Our ethics are about the same as those of other Christians. It is just that we normally can- not see our way clear to acting on our moral in- sights. What we have gotten from the Reformation is that there is nothing to be done about sin except be sorry for it. That is, we are antinomians of exist- “Gettysburg Seminary ence and practice, whatever our avowed theologi- cal opinions. Lutherans are the virtuosos of moral stasis. Nobody can say with such dialectical elegance on such deep theological basis as can we: “There are few blacks or whites. Our fate—this side of the Kingdom —is to choose among greys. And of course there are no.clear rules for doing that.” It is doubt- less true that there are few moral blacks or whites. But it is also true that few persons ever thought there were many, only that one grey is often plainly darker than another, to the discernment of which the notion of “rules” is irrelevant. Central to Scrip- ture and to ecumenical Christianity is a vision of holiness, of a new humanity in which the Ten Com- mandments are simply fulfilled. And central to Scripture and to ecumenical Christianity is the prin- ciple that what will be can be, and the vision has power, that if God will finally make me peace loving and chaste he can do it now too. One can attend many Lutheran services and encounter no evocation of the vision, and attend even more and encounter no manifestation of its power. But what- ever, then, do we think the Kingdom will be? And who do we think the Spirit is? ee ene Re unin uN L HUENEME onnmnnnn Please note that the error | attack is not formu lated, “What we have gotten from the Reformation is that there is nothing to be done about sin except repent of it,” but, ”... except be sorry for it” It is entirely true, and at the heart of Lutheranism, that there is nothing to be done about sin but repent of it, But itis also true that repentance, for Luther and somewhat less decisively for the initial Lutherans, had its full New Testament meaning: repentance is inseparably acknowledgment of my old life and confident prayer for God’s gift of a new one; itis, indeed, the descriptively ungraspable identity of these two acts. And that is to say, morally, repen- tance in respect of any particular course of sin is inseparably regret for how | have acted and—not resolve to do better but—simply beginning to act differently. What has happened to much Lutheran- ism is that repentance has been set in a christologi cally and eschatologically deprived context, so that the word of absolution and the word of promise are two words, and the backward look of regret and the forward look of moral expectation are separately practicable. The evil is not in insufficient emphasis on the law. The evil is in a peculiar “Lutheran” vacuity of thie gospel. If we ask where Lutheran congregations learn to stop worrying and love their sins, we need look no further than the standard sermon-outline of Lutheran preaching (of course, in those growing areas of the church where the preaching is "narra- tive” or “enabling,” such specificably Christian problems as antinomianism do not arise). In the standard Lutheran sermon, there will first be an analysis of some aspect of fallen human life, often very well done. Then will come the “gospe!”-part: “To be sure, we must recognize that we cannot by our own reason or strength do differently. Never mind, for Jesus’ sake God loves you anyway.” The “gospel” has no content of its own, it consists only in a cancellation of the previous “law.” ‘The Reformation doctrine of justification was an instruction to preachers and teachers about the logic of the gospel: When you make the promises of God to the people, be sure to make them uncon-