"Purity Culture" vs. "Promise Culture"
"Beware of aspiring to such purity that you will not wish to be looked upon as a sinner, or to be one. For Christ dwells only in sinners."
–Martin Luther in a letter to his fellow Augustinian monk, George Spenlein; Wittenberg, April 8, 1516 (Prior to the start of the reformation)
In Sunday’s sermon I spoke strongly about the dangers of purity, perfectionist culture. Recent news reporting on the Atlanta Spa Shootings have highlighted the role that a “purity culture” of sexuality may have contributed to actions of the shooter. We are called neither to be perfect nor pure.
Paul tells the truth when he writes that “the good I want to do I don’t do; the evil I don’t want to do I can’t help but do” (see Romans 7:15, 19, 21) and when he celebrates that “We don’t preach about ourselves. Instead, we preach about Jesus Christ as Lord … we have this treasure in clay pots so that the awesome power belongs to God and doesn’t come from us” (2 Corinthians 4:5, 7).
Perfection is not in our reach. Purity is not our calling. Instead, we are called to be people of God’s promise despite our brokenness. Let me explain, drawing from the writings of Martin Luther, the church reformer after whom our church tradition is named.
In a letter to a fellow monk he had not seen in some time, Martin Luther wrote in reference to prior conversations with his Augustinian brother, “I should like to know whether your soul, tired of its own righteousness, is learning to be revived by and to trust in the righteousness of Christ.” Besides throwing some shade at his old friend, we see in this pre-Reformation letter seeds of Luther’s later teachings about the necessity of Christ and the futility of our own efforts to impress God with our good works. “[Too many people] try to do good of themselves in order that they might stand before God clothed in their own virtues and merits. But this is impossible,” Luther writes.
“Therefore, my dear Friar, learn Christ and him crucified. Learn to praise him and, despairing of yourself, say, ‘Lord Jesus, you are my righteousness, just as I am your sin. You have taken upon yourself what is mine and have given to me what is yours. You have taken upon yourself what you were not and have given to me what I was not.’ Beware of aspiring to such purity that you will not wish to be looked upon as a sinner, or to be one. For Christ dwells only in sinners. “
[The reality that Jesus takes on our sin and gives us his righteousness is often referred to as “the joyful exchange” in Lutheran theology.]
With these words Luther invites his friend to give up the farce of believing in his own purity, his own righteousness, his own merit before God. Luther urges his friend to take the pressure off himself. Be a sinner, for Christ dwells only in sinners.
–Martin Luther in a letter to fellow church reformer, Philip Melanchthon, Wartburg, August 1, 1521
Luther’s letter to his fellow monk in 1516 foreshadows a more famous – and oft-misunderstood – phrase of Luther’s, written five years later (and four years after the start of the Protestant Reformation). In a letter to his fellow reformer Philip Melanchthon on the practice of Holy Communion, Luther responds to the claim that it is a sin for someone to receive communion only in one kind – that is, only in bread or only in cup (usually the cup was withheld in late medieval churches, leaving Christians to receive only the bread of holy communion). Luther explains that receiving only one element of communion is not a sin, since the recipient has no power over what the minister offers. Instead, the sin lies with the priest or bishop who refuses to offer communion in both bread and cup in the manner that Jesus instituted the sacrament at his Last Supper.
But even if it were a sin to receive communion in only one kind, Luther writes, “[be] a sinner and sin boldly, but believe and rejoice in Christ even more boldly, for he is victorious over sin, death, and the world.” If a paralyzing fear of sin keeps you from receiving communion – or, applied more broadly, keeps you from striving to live faithfully in the world – then “be a sinner and sin boldly,” for God’s grace is bigger than our sin. Let us not be afraid to sin in service to Christ.
Luther then continues to explain the reality of sin in our lives. “As long as we are here [in this world] we have to sin. This life is not the dwelling place of righteousness, but, as Peter says, we look for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells [2 Peter 3:13].” Luther seeks to bring down the temperature in the room when it comes to anxiety about sin. He understands that sin is a function of the human condition, and thus as something that is unavoidable in our lives.
When teaching about Confession and Forgiveness of Sins in his Small Catechism, Luther offers an order of confession that a parishioner may use with her or his pastor. Partway through the brief liturgy the penitent says, “Merciful God, I confess that I have sinned in thought, word, and deed, by what I have done and by what I have left undone.” Luther directs that the penitent may at this point confess sins that are known and that burden her/him.
Luther then notes, “If some individuals do not find themselves burdened by this or greater sins, they are not to worry, nor are they to search for or invent further sins and thereby turn confession into torture. Instead, mention one or two that you are aware of and let that be enough. If you are aware of no sins at all (which is equally quite unlikely), then do not mention any in particular, but instead receive forgiveness on the basis of the general confession that you made to God in the pastor’s presence.” [See Luther’s Small Catechism, available free via app on Apple and Android devices. The “study edition” notes are worth the $1.99 purchase. I also have copies available in my office to give to anyone interested.]
This posture towards sin is not a “cheap grace” that invites a lackadaisical attitude toward faithful living. Instead, it is a posture that acknowledges the reality of human brokenness and sin, and turns the believer toward Christ for all goodness and righteousness. In his lectures on Galatians chapters 5 & 6 Luther teaches, “It does not follow from [God’s forgiveness], however, that you should minimize sin or think of it as something trivial because God does not impute [our sin]. It is true that He does not impute it, but to whom and on what account? … [To] those who repent and who by faith take hold of Christ … on whose account sins are forgiven them. […] Such people do not minimize sin; they emphasize it, because they know that it cannot be washed away by any satisfactions, works, or righteousness, but only by the death of Christ.”
Unlike some contemporary “purity culture,” Luther does not teach that the Christian “must” be pure, “must” be good – because, indeed, we cannot do so. Instead, faith in Christ leads us not to gaze upon our own sin and worry about our own righteousness, but instead to trust in Jesus’ promises of forgiveness, mercy, and love. That is the fundamental difference between a “purity culture” and a “promise culture.” A “purity culture” looks inward at one’s own actions seeking to attain purity in moral living. “Promise culture” looks to Christ’s promises and trusts in the love of God that transforms us and this world that God so loves.
May we not be afraid of sin, but instead, by divine grace, live God’s promise.
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