What Lutherans say here, based on Augustine, is true. Even if we say someone does the right thing for the right reasons, there is more to be said. For the motives of even the strongest Christian are mixed, as the infection of original sin remains with us until the grave (see Romans 7). And besides this, even Christians…
– do the wrong things for the wrong reasons
– do the right things for the wrong reasons (which we sometimes feel or think are right)
– do the wrong things for the right reasons (though are right reasons are never totally pure)
I recently read The Gift and Task of Lutheran Higher Education (2004) by Tom Christenson. Here are some quotes related to this:
– “[Luther said] there was no part of our human life that was essentially more sinful than another. We cannot avoid sin by beating up on our bodies or by practicing self-denial” (43)
-“Our very intention to be virtuous may be as motivated by our sinfulness as anything is” (111).*
– “For Lutherans… sin is not a moral category but an ontological one. It is how we now are, not what particular thing we have done or not done. We do not avoid sin by being good, because our every effort to be good in itself is sinful” (43)
– “How much evil in the world has been done by people trying desperately to establish their own righteousness!” (44)
– “For Lutherans neither ethics nor religiousness are ways to avoid sin. Both are sin-stained institutions.” (45)
I agree with all of these statements and yet I want more nuance to be introduced. The reason for this is that some want to take statements like these and build on them so that they ultimately can feel justified in saying that there are some things the Bible calls “sin” that we do not need to worry about.
So when Christenson, says:
“We may say about an unmarried couple living together that they are ‘living in sin’. A reflective Lutheran should not talk that way because, from a Lutheran point of view, we are all living in sin, whether we are married, single, sexually active, or celibate. Our sexual situation or orientation or practices do not make us more or less sinful. Any relationship may be self-serving, harmful, abusive, careless, and hateful. We are certainly not rid of all that simply because we have enjoyed a church wedding” (44).
…I need to balk. His point is taken, but it is also easy to see where this road goes, and has gone. Whatever wisdom he may have here, it is what is left unsaid that is the biggest problem. And that is that faith only lives in repentance, and we should fear the effects of all unrepentant sin. To say “we are all sinners” is not to give up on this.
And what this tells us is that we live in sin not only according to our ontological state, but in the “grooves of life” we choose to inhabit (this goes hand in hand with God’s Law “curbing” sin – it is not only about the force of Another’s will). There is something very objective about these matters. You use something in the wrong way, and you get burned.
As I said before:
“The Law of God describes that objective form of life wherein (not whereby) our relationships with God and neighbor are nourished and are brought to fulfillment.”
Update: as my pastor more simply puts all of this: “just because sin taints the thoughts, words and actions demanded by God, a distinction must still be made between such acts and those acts which are by definition sinful. In the former case, we have the New Man at work attempting always to keep the Old Man under control. In the latter case, we have the Old Man firmly in the drivers seat.”
* – Christenson also says “Our own efforts to secure our own sinlessness themselves spring out of pride and are marred by sin” (43) which sounds good on one level, but may cause one to wonder whether there is any genuine “pursuit of holiness”…. I wonder if what he states here goes hand in hand with his anthropology, which, among other places, he addresses on p. 74 of his book:
“But what if Luther was right, that we are simul justus et peccator, not only both saint and sinner but both at the same time and in the same respect? What if, for example, human accomplishments and human destructiveness are not expressions of opposite parts of the human, but expressions of the same thing? What if it is the best part of us that goes wrong? Is Is that the meaning of the story about Adam and even in the garden who ate the fruit from one tree that was the tree of knowledge of both good and evil? (p. 74)
Note that this is not Luther’s view of the same issue. What exactly does Christenson mean by a) “in the same respect;” b) “expressions of the same thing;” and c) “the best part of us”?