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Luther and the Eschatological Boundaries of Worship

This Advent season, on the eve of the five hundredth anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, I’ve been thinking a lot about the theology of Martin Luther. Particularly, I’ve been pondering his doctrine of simul iustus et peccator. This doctrine often gets articulated anthropologically—you and I live our lives “simultaneously justified and sinful.” Our experience of life under the simul is described well in Romans 7:15 (ESV): “I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do.” The simul, from this angle, is just another way of saying that we Christians live our lives on the front lines of the war between the Spirit and our flesh (Gal 5:17). This is often where articulations of Luther’s simul end, however: the simul as an anthropological doctrine.

Life in the Football

For Luther, though, simul iustus et peccator was equally an eschatological doctrine. In other words, the doctrine isn’t just a description of our humanity but of the present state of affairs for the entire cosmos which stands between the two Advents of Christ. We might imagine a Venn diagram with two circles, half-way overlapped. The left circle reads “Old World,” and the right circle reads “New World.” The Old World is passing away, and the New World has come. This is precisely the “new creation” theology described by Paul in 2 Corinthians 5:17 (NIV): “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come. The old gone; the new is here!” Notice how Paul makes an anthropological point (we are new creations in Christ) right alongside an eschatological one (the old cosmos is passing away, the new has come). This is what Luther is getting at with his simul. If we can indeed think of our current existence as a kind of “simul eschatology,” where the passing Old World is overlapping with the arrival of the New World, then we should see our present life within that football-shaped overlap. The left edge of the football is Christ’s first Advent, two thousand years ago. The right edge of the football is Christ’s second—date TBD.

Luther would tell us that Christian error exists in trying to break through either of these boundaries, to the left or to the right. We are tempted to break through the left when we think that we, as Christians, can “sin our way” out of God’s favor, falling back into the Old World, into condemnation. We are tempted to break through the right when we think that we, as Christians, can “behave our way” into perfection, breaking through to the New World, where no sin, tears, and injustice can corrupt.

Boundaries in Worship

What would it look like for worship to take seriously these two eschatological boundaries today? Thinking about the left boundary, perhaps this means that we can never think of lamenting in worship without hope. Lamentation without hope is falling back into Old World thinking, denying that the New World has actually broken in and that Christ has actually come. If this is true, then hopeless Christianity is no Christianity at all. Any lamentation we engage in our services cannot be the kind of grief that has no hope. Perhaps there’s a word for those of us here who are scared and despondent over the current state of affairs in the United States. Luther’s (and Paul’s) simul, as an eschatological reality, reminds us that Christian lamentation always includes hopefulness. It’s the kind of turn we see happen in Psalm 13. After lamentation, the Psalmist hopefully cries out, “But I have trusted in your steadfast love; my heart shall rejoice in your salvation” (Ps 13:5, ESV).

Thinking about the right boundary, Luther would challenge worship that is overly “victorious,” which has no room for suffering, acknowledgement of sin, and grief. I was recently in a dialogue on Facebook with a worship leader friend who commented on a confessional song’s lyrics I had posted. He said, “We’re Christians! Why would the butterfly ever want to mention, talk about, go back to life in the cocoon?” Luther’s response would be, “Because the Old World, while fading, is still here!” Luther might rework the metaphor, “We live a life that is ‘simultaneously cocoon and butterfly.’ To deny either would be putting your head in the sand.” Overly “victorious” worship that refuses any acknowledgement that we still live in the Old World ends up making worshipers, deep down, feel like frauds. We don’t really feel victorious. We don’t really feel perfect. And social media and news are evidence enough that the Old World is still here. Maybe, therefore, worship language that has no place for confession and lamentation, is just as un-Christian as the hopeless worship mentioned above.

Thinking Like a Dietician

This little thought exercise might be a useful grid to analyze the “theological diet” of our liturgies, hymns, prayers, and worship songs. Does the content of our worship over the course of a month or a year faithfully acknowledge the boundaries of life in the football? Does our denomination or tradition tend to lean a little too heavily on one boundary or the other? How can we find a faith-filled balance that acknowledges the anthropological and eschatological truth of simul iustus et peccator?

Perhaps these are the kinds of questions we can ask in 2017 as we seek to remember the best that the Reformation has to offer.