One of the things I love most about the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, in which I was confirmed as a young married twenty-something in the late 1980's (having been Roman Catholic in my teenage years), is its perfect understanding of salvation and the individual's role in obtaining it. As human beings we naturally (and sinfully) desire ultimate power over our own lives and credit for our accomplishments. No wonder, then, that we struggle so with realizing that when it comes to justification--being made righteous in the sight of God--we have no role to play. Martin Luther described the human condition as that of a beggar standing before God. There is nothing we can do to remove the stain of sin, nothing we can offer to earn God's forgiveness. We are utterly dependent upon God's mercy, and because God is God and He demands perfection, our only hope is to plant ourselves firmly behind the cross of Christ, trusting the Father's promise to impute the righteousness of the Son to those who live under that cross. As the pastor who confirmed me described it, God looks at the sinner through the lens of the cross and, seeing only the perfection of Jesus, likewise pronouces the sinner to be "poi-fect."
To realize that there is nothing I can do to gain salvation--indeed, nothing I need to do, since Jesus has done it for me--brings a feeling of peace, rest and freedom that goes beyond human words because it is not of this world. And yet, the sinful nature still fights against it, wanting to reclaim that power and control. I am the master of my destiny, after all. Aren't I? Aren't I helping just a little by what a good person I'm being and how hard I'm working? "No," says the Father, smiling gently. "No. You are a poor, miserable sinner. But you are my child whom I love, so much that I sent my own dear Son to live the perfect life you couldn't and to pay for the sins you couldn't pay for. Rest in His triumph over sin, death, and the grave. It is finished. There's nothing more to be done!"
Oh. Yeah. I forgot for a moment there. And on it goes--the daily forgetting and reminding that is the essence of the life of a Christian.
I think it may be that constant need of the sinner to be reminded of his sinful condition that leads to something I sometimes encounter among my Lutheran friends.* Because they so deeply understand their sinful state and love the theology of the cross, I think there is sometimes a tendency to put their sins on display in a way that is not necessarily helpful to either themselves or those with whom they come into contact. And because it is so easy to fall into the "try to be good so God will love me" trap, they overcompensate by trumpeting as loudly as possible what wretches they are, turning their shortcomings, weaknesses, and sinful nature into almost a point of pride or badge of honor: "Look at me! Look at what a messed up, sinful excuse for a human being I am! Can you believe it? I'm even more screwed up than you!"
And indeed, they are wretches. We all are, and again, one of the things I love most about Lutheran theology is how effectively that message is communicated. But I think there's a balance to be had. There's a difference between quietly hanging our heads in shame as we acknowledge our sins and perhaps even share them in hopes of pointing another towards Christ, and standing before the world, playing a game of sinner's one-ups-man-ship as we tick off our transgressions with Technicolor detail and provide the equivalent of a Powerpoint presentation on our messed up selves.
I sometimes even see what strikes me as intentionally edgy behavior that has as its goal the avoidance of the dreaded "pietist" label: "See? I appreciate wordly music and pleasures. I can swear and drink and party and tell dirty jokes with the best of them. I'm no goody-two-shoes holier-than-thou Pollyanna. I'm a sinner!" The mind reels with the possibilities. "See Dick sin. Sin, Dick, sin!"
I think that sometimes our sins, like our prayers, might be best kept between us and God: “And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you." (Matthew 6: 5-6)
And you know, there's nothing wrong with trying to be good as long as we realize that, while it will certainly make our earthly life and that of those around us better, it's not going to get us any closer to heaven.
*I do it, too.