When I was in college, during the Reagan years, I often found myself running a daily gauntlet of born-again Christians who'd line the more traveled walkways of our campus and attempt to evangelize passing students. A frequent challenge was, "Are you saved? Do you know you're saved?"
One of the Lutheran campus pastors, who despite or perhaps because of his ubiquitous Roman collar was also frequently confronted by these earnest individuals demanding to know his salvific status, had an excellent rejoinder:
"Saved for what?"
Unfortunately, we Lutherans often have a difficult time answering this Lutheran pastor's question. We're down with justification, the "saved" part of our relationship with God, which we believe God always initiates -- but sanctification -- the "saved for what?" part of the equation, our grateful response to God's love and forgiveness and friendship -- that concept makes us squirm. Because it can sound like works-righteousness; something we do to try and earn brownie points from God.
Heinrich Heine, the German author and humorist, himself the son of a Lutheran pastor, is said to have quipped, during a life-threatening illness that prompted his family to surround his bedside and urge him to get right with his Maker, "It's my job to keep sinning. It's God's job to keep forgiving me." But that's often not far from the truth of how Lutherans think. My own dad, on one of the rare occasions when he waxed theological, tried explaining to me that the Sermon on the Mount was designed not to actually give us guidance in living but simply to make us feel so guilty about our inability to follow Jesus' impossible instructions that we'd be driven to throw ourselves upon the mercy of God, which is what God really wants all along. Which, if you've grown up in a Pietistic Lutheran household, makes a crazy kind of sense.
In my book discussion group we've been talking about a different way to look at sanctification, one taken from the world of mathematics and theologized by people like Karl Rahner: sanctification as a process of pursuing asymptotic goals. In math (and forgive me if I don't explain this exactly right, since I pretty much have to take off my socks to count above ten), asymptotic refers to a problem that never reaches a conclusion -- for instance, dividing a number by another number ad infinitum, but never being quite able to reach zero. Isn't this also the dynamic we experience in mindfully attempting to live Christ into the world? We do our best to follow the way of Christ, knowing that we're never going to achieve perfection, but running that good race and fighting that good fight anyway, not because we're trying to bribe God into loving us more or keep God from zapping us but because we want to; because it's a good way to live; because it's sharing in the life of our Beloved, our Brother, our Friend, who goes ahead of us.
Saved for what? A good question to start each morning...even if you're Lutheran.