Monday, May 23, 2005

Saved For What?

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.


greg said...


I'm a mathematician of sorts, and your decription of an asymptotic process is just fine. The beauty of this set up is that we can keep on improving (i.e., drawing closer to God) forever. I love it!

Anonymous said...


I love that quote from your Dad so much I'm going to send my readers over to you. Thanks for sharing the gem!

Lutheran Zephyr said...

Your dad is one heck of a Lutheran theologian. I'll keep that gem tucked away and bring it out on a rainy day . . .

Ain't God's grace and mercy great? If I could do those sermon on the mount things all myself, who needs God?

LutheranChik said...

Greg: You can thank Mark Allan Powell for that analogy. (I'm so glad I signed up for his book discussion!)

Dash: [blushes] Yeah...Dad's religious formation was...interesting. He went to the kind of Pietist church where, if you went to Communion much more than on Christmas and Easter, the rest of the congregation, and probably the pastor, wondered what you'd been up to.;-)

Christopher said...

This was real good. I'm preaching this sunday about Jesus talking about "doing the will of the Father." and such from Matt. 7:21-28, I may end up using the "His Job to keep on forgiving" quote.
PS You've been added to my blogroll.

LutheranChik said...

Glad I could be of help...honored to be on your blogroll.;-)

KA said...

My Pastor's pithy response to the salvation question is "about 2000 years ago."

Thanks for the engaging and thought-provoking blog. Makes me proud to be Lutheran! Anyone up for some tuna hotdish?

LutheranChik said...

Hey, KA! Thanks for the kind words. Hope to see you here again.