Monday, September 1, 2008

Luther's Legacy

With the very public pregnancy of a fundamentalist teen, the daughter of Republican Vice president nominee Sarah Palin, a deep theological question will soon be more in vogue for discussion by those who are neither deep or theological. The Reuters article on the revelation has a quote from the head of the "evangelical" Family Research Council:
"Unfortunately, teenage pregnancy has become all too common in today's society regardless of a family's economic or social status. It is a problem that we remain committed to reducing through encouraging young people to practice abstinence."

Notice the regret comes with a backhanded attempt at a solution, contraception. He might as well have said "give up, no one can do this." This is a dangerous conclusion and one which a reading of the Letter of St. Paul to the Romans should dispel for Christians. (Or any other book of the New Testament) The good news of Christianity is that Jesus can tell us not even to look on a woman with lust in our hearts. Jesus makes this command because he provides the grace to live a life dead to sin.
Here is the problem, our vocal evangelical brothers live in a world of unspoken theological assumptions that are rooted in Lutheran thought. Luther has a very different and somewhat counter-intuitive understanding of how this works. Luther believed redemption never really stopped sin, or even really gave man the strength to be sin free. His description was that all men where heaps of dung before God, and that God covered the Christians with snow so he could see them as good. God could gift good works to whomever he wanted, but a drunken debauched Christian would have the same value in Gods eyes as a Mother Teresa. Mother Teresa's good was all from God and she gains nothing by doing them, the drunks bad deeds are natural because God has not chosen to give him good deeds, both are covered with the same snow and both are justified just the same. Luther once told a friend to "sin boldly" because after all he was now justified and to pretend to be better than he really was would be an insult to God.
Of course these ideas were never picked up by anybody except Luther, thee problem is they have never been thrown away. The freedom to sin, and the inevitability of sinning, is very much a consequence of any theology of extrinsic justification, or " once saved, always saved." After all the rejection of celibacy and self-sacrifice at the reformation is very much in this line of thinking. So while evangelicals promise freedom from sin by grace, in a sense they know that they can never have it. This is why even so-called Christians are telling every one that the Palin family would have been happier if they had put their daughter on birth control at 13 and kept a bowl of condoms on the table.
While we often do not live up to our Christian standards and the world is very much in full attack mode against sexual purity, even if we fall, the truth is, in Christ, we can really be pure in heart.

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