“The Law says, “do this” and it is never done. Grace says, “believe in this” and everything is already done.”
– Martin Luther, Thesis 26, Heidelberg Disputation
During his time at Union Seminary, Dietrich Bonhoeffer famously remarked that Protestantism in America had never gone through the Reformation; that is, the dominant ethos of American Christianity was pietism. Even in a post-denominational age, the Protestant Reformation continues to be relevant because Bonhoeffer continues to be correct.
Pietism continues to be the dominant key in which both Evangelicalism and Mainline Protestantism perform the Gospel, preaching the Law without distinction from the Gospel in ways that manifest as either moralism on the one hand or turn-and-burn brimstone, which forgets Christ has already closed the abyss between God and us, on the either.Neither version of pietism reflects the Reformation’s recovery of the Gospel of justification through faith alone by grace alone in Christ alone.
Against Martin Luther, evangelical pietism in America, in its best forms, posits a continuous self and focuses not on how God works to condemn us as sinners and justify us for Jesus’ sake but instead on faith as a program for greater spiritual self-improvement.
The emphasis on spiritual self-improvement is the root that all too often flowers into Christianity as behavior modification.
Mainline Protestants, meanwhile, tend to be what Mark Mattes calls “secular evangelicals” who’ve undermined the evangelistic thrust of the Gospel by instead working “to use the Church at the national level to pressure governmental agencies to conform to its particular version of peace and justice.”
Put simply, what most Protestants hear proclaimed week in and week is one of two flavors of pietism.
From Evangelicals it’s Become a Better You.
From Mainline Protestants it’s Build a Better World.
Mainline Protestants hate Joel Osteen, I suspect, because he’s but the inevitable product of a shared theology.
The assumption conveyed in congregations is that, yes, Christ died to cover your sins (if sin language is even used) but now we have a responsibility to play a part in salvation and the moral progress of self and society. This emphasis on our agency and ability to choose God and the good by our nature is called Pelagianism. Not only is it ripe for self-righteousness, it was condemned as a heresy 1500 years ago, a form of it, Semi-Pelagianism, is confused as our kerygma, our proclamation, by many Christians.
This is a far cry from the Reformation’s reclamation of the announcement from the Apostle Paul that, apart from any of our religious doing (Law), God has shown us sinners grace in Jesus, given us Christ’s righteousness as our own, and gifted this to us through a faith predicated on his faithfulness alone.
Instead I think what many Protestants experience is what Craig Parton describes:
“My Christian life, truly began by grace, was now being “perfected” on the treadmill of the Law.
My pastors did not end their sermons by demanding I recite the rosary or visit Lourdes in order to unleash God’s power; instead, I was told to yield more, pray more, care about unbelievers more, read the Bible more, get involved with the church more, love my wife and kids more.
Not until…some 20 years later, did I understand that my Christian life had come to center around my life, my obedience, my yielding, my Bible verse memorization, my prayers, my zeal, my witnessing, my sermon application.
I had advanced beyond the need to hear the cross preached to me anymore. Of course, we all knew Jesus had died for our sins, and none of us would ever argue that we were trying to “merit” our salvation. But something had changed. God was a Father all right, but a painfully demanding one. I was supposed to show that I had cleaned up my life and was at least grateful for all the gifts that had been bestowed…
The Gospel was critical for me at the beginning, critical now to share with others, and still critical to me into heaven, but it was of little other value. The ‘good’ in the good news was missing.”
Alot of ink has been shed to discuss the decline of worship attendance in America and the rise of the Nones and the Spiritual But Not Religious. As a pastor in a new parish, I meet folks regularly now who introduce themselves with the disclaimer “I used to attend that church.”
More often than not though the reason they give me for putting their church participation in the past tense is not changed beliefs but burnout.
They’re not Nones. They’re Dones. They’re exhausted from the treadmill of the Law
All over America, in red and blue churches alike, Mainline and Evangelical both, we’re exhausting people on the treadmill of the Law, exhausting them with expectations that, by their very nature, grate against the good news of the Gospel that they are justified by grace and reckoned righteous through Christ alone.
Maybe Bonhoeffer’s characterization of Protestantism in America was less an observation and more of a recommendation. Perhaps the Church would do well to heed Luther’s thesis from 500 years ago this April:
The Law says, “do this” and it is never done. Grace says, “believe in this” and everything is already done.”