By Rick Barker
It is hard to write on this topic without sounding like I am judging other believers and their practices. Please trust me that I am not. I don’t consider myself, my religious affiliation, or my practices to be any more pleasing to God than yours. I only wish to comment on my personal experience.
I was raised Lutheran, and I grew up reciting all of the liturgy. At the time, all of it was meaningless to me. Perhaps my disconnection from my church’s tradition is part of the reason I became an Adventist, but that story isn’t what I want to focus on in this article.
When my family first left Adventism, we visited a number of different churches trying to find the “true Church”. After each visit, we discussed the service as a family, even though our kids were still young.
Perhaps because of my background and my familiarity with the denomination, several of those visits included trips to a local Lutheran church. One day, after attending another Lutheran service, our youngest daughter commented that she didn’t like that church. We asked more questions, trying to find out what bothered her. It turned out that she didn’t like having to say that she was sinful—a confession embedded in the Lutheran liturgy.
Her admission led to an interesting family discussion, and looking back, I realize that my daughter’s honestly-admitted aversion illustrates several important points. Most obviously, sinners don’t like admitting that they are sinful.
What does “being a sinner” mean?
Perhaps it is important at this point to look at what a typical Lutheran confession of sin looks like:
“We confess that we are in bondage to sin and cannot free ourselves. We have sinned against You in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done and by what we have left undone. We have not loved You with our whole heart; we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves. For the sake of Your Son, Jesus Christ, have mercy on us. Forgive us, renew us, and lead us, so that we may delight in your will and walk in your ways, to the glory of Your holy name.”
The confession above begins by identifying the avenues of sin: our thoughts, words, and deeds, and it confirms that we are all intractably bound to sin. All too often, we limit our personal definition of sin to our deeds, or immoral acts. Consequently, we conclude that we are “pretty good”. After all, we didn’t murder, steal, or commit adultery, so we comfort ourselves that we are relatively righteous.
Unfortunately, Scripture doesn’t acknowledge any degree of righteousness. Either we are as holy as our Father in heaven, or we are sinners. Our verdict is that black-and-white. When we understand that our sin extends beyond what we have done to include what we have said and even what we have thought, our status as “sinners” becomes far more clear. Our thoughts, after all, reflect what is inside us, and they come unbidden—unerring mirrors of our own weaknesses.
Next the confession identifies the scope of sin, making it even more obvious that we are sinners. It is, after all, relatively easy to avoid active sins (things that we do), but far more demanding to avoid passive sins (things we have left undone). Every single situation in which we could have acted in the way that Jesus would have acted (including in His heart responses) becomes a source of sin for us. In fact, we didn’t always do the good that we could have done. We didn’t always love our neighbors as ourselves. We have sinned.
Indeed, there is neither anything in us nor in anything we have done that is worthy of justifying our salvation. Even when our actions look “good” to those around us, our thoughts and words betray our sinfulness. No matter how many good works we perform, there are always the good works that we failed to complete ready to condemn us.
In fact, one of the great things about the Lutheran confession of sins is that we are “forced” into an awareness that we don’t deserve the salvation that we are given. The truth is that we are sinners who have earned death. Yet instead of death, we receive eternal life because of what Christ has done.
There is one more element in this confession that often goes unnoticed. The Lutheran pastor confesses his sin along with the confession of the congregation. Because of this public confession, the pastor can speak very directly about grace. None of us deserves the gift of grace, yet we can thank God that He has given us this grace through the blood of Jesus and His resurrection from death.
A pastor who shares the same sinful nature as his congregation also shares the same grace and the same Savior. He can, therefore, gratefully share the gospel of the new covenant with his fellow worshipers and join them in hymns of praise for the gift of salvation by grace through faith in the Lord Jesus.
Church traditions and liturgies still provide meaning. In fact, one does not need to be a Lutheran or a proponent of any other specific denomination in order to examine the values presented in the hymns and liturgies of the Christian faith. In our rush to be “current” and “culturally relevant”, Christians can easily overlook the truth and beauty of the traditions that came before us. Those traditions are not important because they are traditions, however; rather, the thing that makes traditions valuable is the degree to which they articulate the truths Scripture teaches about God and about humanity.
Consequently, when the Lutheran confession made my young daughter uncomfortable, it was doing what it was designed to do: to convey the Scriptural truth that she—and we all—are sinners. When we confess that we are sinners not only in deeds but also in words and thoughts—spiritually dead in our sins and by nature children of wrath (Eph. 2:3)—we realize we need a Savior. We understand and believe that He died for our sins according to Scripture, was buried, and rose on the third day according to Scripture (1 Cor. 15:3-4), and we pass at that moment of belief out of death and into life (Jn. 5:24).
I am not suggesting that Christians need to recite liturgies in order to worship properly. Rather, I believe we need to remember the truths of the gospel and of our dependence upon our Savior when we worship corporately. I am grateful for the regular reminder that Jesus Christ, the Son of God, forgives me, renews me, and leads me so that I may delight in His will and walk in His ways, to the glory of His holy name.