Week 24 Reading Reflection
Guest Author Molly Lackey
Today’s Reading Reflection has been written by Molly Lackey, another one of my favorite Lutherans on Twitter (@mb_lackey). Today, she directs us to the intersection of order and grace as well as the blessings and dangers of tradition.
God of Order, God of Grace
Our God has two words which He speaks to us: His Law and His Gospel. The Law sets forth God’s plan for our lives and shows us how sin has wrecked all hope of fulfilling those plans; the Gospel sets forth God’s forgiveness and reconciles us to Him and to one another.
Here’s another way of thinking about this: God loves order, and God loves grace. Our readings this week all deal with order, grace, and how they intersect in our lives on earth and before God.
What is order? Order is structure, pattern, harmony, rhythm, rules. Order is certain people having certain jobs that other people don’t. Order is doing the right thing at the right time and the right place. Article XIV speaks about order in the church, namely, the God-pleasing and appropriate institution of pastors, and Article XVI speaks about order in the world, namely, the God-pleasing and appropriate institution of government. Both orders are tools through which God acts to reveal His will for our lives to us. We are commanded by God to obey the laws of the state, namely, those which are in accordance with God’s will and do not cause us to sin. Likewise, we are forgiven by God through the Word and Sacrament administered to us through our pastor. These are special roles set up by God, which we uphold, given to maintain order and prevent us from falling into chaos.
Because what happens in church is so important, we maintain traditions related to the ordination and calling of pastors, as well as the way churches are organized and conduct discipline. These are not laid out with exactitude in the Bible, but we, nevertheless, uphold these customs because they protect the Gospel. Our pastors are given to us by God to speak and act in His stead. Pastors are entrusted with the Sacraments, the efficacious presence of Jesus for the forgiveness of sins. This is a high honor and a great responsibility. For this reason, we set apart men to dedicate their whole lives to stewarding these mysteries, and we do so in a way that is reverent and orderly.
This is not the only tradition that we uphold for the sake of good order. Article XV discusses the continuity of tradition within the Lutheran Church. Melanchthon writes this because many in Rome claimed that the Lutherans were extremists throwing off the whole of historic Christian practice. There are some today who still think likewise. This is not and has never been the case, however. Our forefathers in the Lutheran faith thought it was helpful to maintain these traditions of men, because they connect us to other Christians throughout history and because they have proven helpful. In traditions, we find answers that continually work to questions that continually plague us. We do not just show up on a random day of the week, choose a random member from amongst the assembly, read a random selection of passages from the Bible, deliver a sermon on a random theme, and progress randomly through the observance of the Lord's Supper. We are certainly free as Christians to do so: there is no God-breathed set of rules about worship in the Bible. Yet it would be an absolute disaster to attempt this kind of a service. And so, we have seminaries, ordination, hymns, lectionaries, rubrics, vestments, paraments, a church calendar—not because God says that we must, but because people have experienced, for thousands of years, that they work. Order, because it is the will and very nature of God, is conducive to human flourishing.
Of course, there is a dark side to traditions that must be avoided. Utter chaos is bad, but order that has become tyrannical and legalist is also bad; the opposite of an error is, almost always, another error. This is why Philip Melanchthon and the other Lutheran reformers cautioned against the Romanist view that the traditions of men are necessary for salvation. These traditions developed and were adopted for all the best reasons, but, as Luther and his colleagues saw in their day, they had overgrown their bounds, stifling the faith of laypeople and clergy alike. Consider, for example, the good practice of encouraging acts of penance to reconcile brothers and sisters in Christ after a particularly public or hurtful sin. Apologizing to and attempting to do right by the one we have harmed by our sin is always a good idea. What is not good, however, is to believe that this penance is what reconciles us to God.
Sometimes, these overgrown traditions can be alluring to us. Our world is full of chaos and unrootedness. We desire stability and continuity with our communities. It is not uncommon to hear some in other church bodies argue that their traditions are good on the sole basis of their age and popularity. We are told to confess Mary as mediatrix and co-redemtrix and offer prayers of supplication to her because it will bind us to an unseen multitude across space and time. In our age of great emotional, mental, physical, and spiritual distress, fomented by none other than Satan himself, this is a seductive claim. However, it is ultimately trying to pit God’s two words against one another. And order, here in the form of tradition, can never be used to diminish grace.
What is grace? Grace is the over-flowing, all-consuming, sin-destroying love and forgiveness of God. Grace is Jesus taking on your sins and dying in your stead on the cross. Grace is the new identity nurtured in you by the Holy Spirit, enabling you to stand before the Father in the robes of Christ. And throughout all these discussions of order, Melanchthon has woven the gleaming, golden thread of grace. Article XIII, at the beginning of our readings this week, makes clear that the point of the Sacraments is to deliver God’s promise of forgiveness, not earned through mere outward act but received by the faith that trusts God’s Word. Article XIV asserts that our pastors are given to us by God to deliver to us His divine gifts won for us by Christ on the cross. Article XV proclaims that tradition is good, but only insofar as it never, ever takes our eyes off of Jesus. Article XVI announces that, despite the utility and goodness of government, Christ’s kingdom is not of this world, for He sees all Christians through the watery lens of Baptism. It is all good order, all in the service of grace.
Praise God for order! Praise God for grace! Amen.
Molly Lackey is a wife, author, and church historian. She has a Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of Alabama with a triple major in History, German, and Latin and a Master of Arts in Early Modern European History, with an emphasis on the Reformation in Germany, from Saint Louis University. Molly’s first book, Confessing Jesus: The Heart of Being a Lutheran, comes out from Concordia Publishing House this autumn. She enjoys reading, discussing theology with other laypeople, creating art, and drinking tea with her husband. You can read her online at her blog abovetowne.com.