The Limits of Rule-Making in a Grace-Focused Congregation

The Spirit Calls, Gathers, Enlightens and Sanctifies God’s People

The Limits of Rule-Making in a Grace-Focused Congregation

Heinrich Schwan was a highly respected pastor of a large Lutheran congregation in Cleveland in the latter half of the 19th century. For fifty years he faced thousands of German immigrants who were attracted to the opportunity to carry forward the culture they knew from the old country. He despaired that so many approached church life as a set of requirements for belonging and participating in the congregation. He criticized this legalistic attitude.

In a conference presentation to other pastors (Concordia Theological Monthly, 1945), Schwan contrasted this attitude with a Gospel-based approach to life together in a congregation, which he summarized as an evangelical attitude. As a Lutheran, he knew well the proper distinction between Law (legalistic) and Gospel (evangelical), based on Paul’s contrast in Galatians 3.

“Evangelical practice treats everything in evangelical fashion. This means that we expect justification before God, the renewal of the heart, and the fruits of the Spirit only through the Gospel. In everything we do we have this one thing in mind, to give free course and sway to the Gospel.”

When Schwan talked about evangelical, he meant grace-focused. We are saved by grace (the Gospel) not by works (legalistic expectations). An Evangelical approach does not make the state of grace dependent on keeping the Law or meeting behavioral expectations.

Schwan was speaking to mostly second-generation pastors of what was essentially a Pietist emigration to the new country. He was challenging them to appreciate their roots in what was an even earlier Pietist movement. Those roots emphasized the Spiritual motivation for a new life in Christ. But such personal evangelical motivation does not transfer over well to later generations. As that happens, church life degenerates into rule-keeping prohibitions against un-pious behaviors like dancing, gambling, and attending theater or movies. Generations grew up confusing the Gospel with living out rules for behavior.

I personally experienced the extremes of that approach when attending a church school where the dean tried to shape student behavior with a fifteen-page rule book prohibiting any kind of behavior that could cause problems. My favorite was no throwing snowballs with a stone in them. There were more rules than anyone could possibly keep in mind. The book was a joke, especially in the hands of a dean of students who swore at students to whip them into shape. He exemplified extreme legalism.

Evangelical Motivation

Johann Arndt was the grandfather of the Pietist movement. He presented a healthy perspective on the balance between grace-oriented and legalistic ministry.

“True knowledge of Christ is ignited by the Holy Spirit in our hearts as a new light that becomes ever brighter and clearer, like a mirror that is polished, or as a small child grows and matures daily in body. A man is a newborn in his conversion if the righteousness of Christ is given to him through faith. Then the image of God will be daily renewed. He is not yet, however, a perfect man but a child who must yet be trained by the Holy Spirit and become conformed from day to day with Christ Jesus.”

This movement shifted from legal to biological language and from an external to an internal work of God. It placed a heavy emphasis on growth—growth in knowledge but also growth in grace. The intent of the movement is captured in this phrase: “God is not only good enough to justify persons, but he is also powerful enough to change them.”

Evangelical Disappointments

As a pastor addressing other pastors, Heinrich Schwan wanted them to be prepared for disappointments in pursuing evangelical practices. Such practices should flow from knowledge of the Gospel, but do so rather seldom and slowly. Evangelical practices expect the fruits of the Spirit to be produced solely by the Gospel and is willing to wait for them. Such practices bear with all manner of defects, imperfections and sins rather than remove them merely in an external manner. Evangelical pastors will resist letting fiery zeal become legalistic practice. They will avoid overabundantly castigating individual sins. They will not engage in unnecessary, unedifying polemics.

Schwan warned that an evangelical attitude will resist making large the chasm between those who are in and those who are outside the congregation. Evangelical pastors will build bridges toward those on the outside. The Gospel as a gift, not an accomplishment. It is to be shared widely rather than restricted only to those who show enough appreciation for it. The instinct is to give the Gospel away to the many rather than hold tightly among the few.

Bridging from Cultural Faith to Convicted Faith

Heinrich Schwan was facing members attracted to the church through a shared immigrant culture. They had a cultural faith. He was holding out for convicted faith. Social culture is the beliefs, values, and behaviors passed from generation to generation. The reality is that most members in church cultures stay focused on behaviors and thus try to regulate them, usually placing a high value on legalistic expectations. The beliefs are usually left to authorities to define, which they do by teaching Bible truths and faith based on them. Too many merely assent to these beliefs rather than personally owning them.

The inherited Lutheran culture Schwan faced did not place a high value on moving head knowledge to heart conviction, beyond describing what that should look like. Indeed, that old culture resisted distinguishing between those who have “real” faith and everybody else. Such emphasis can bring resentment from those who remain “normal” believers. That old church culture placed a high value on avoiding divisiveness.

Moving beyond cultural faith to personal conviction is like a conversion. Whether cultural faith saves for eternity is not the issue. That end-of-life outcome is offered by grace to all who confess Jesus as Lord and Savior. Rather it is a conversion to a new growing personal relationship with God and to changed motivation to become more like Christ in personal values and behavior.

This change comes only through the work of the Holy Spirit. Beyond presenting the Gospel as creatively as possible, we cannot put the Spirit on a schedule or demand that he do what we think is necessary. In the quaint nineteenth-century phrase, we have to “give free course and sway to the Gospel.” It is this reliance on the work of the Spirit that can be so frustrating to pastors looking for quick results.

The Problem of Later Generations

Churches that have mostly cultural faith face the problem of the later generations. Will young adults continue in the ways of their parents? The present reality is that most don’t. The old church culture is dying.

Of course, the pressing issue is what to do about bringing new generations back into church life. The only real solution is to increase exposure to the Spirit’s work through the Word. It’s not going to happen by trying to enforce rules that are easily ignored. It is only going to happen through creative grace-focused, Spirit-shaped ministries.

Which brings results faster: legalistic or evangelical church practices? Which produces more lasting results?

Scroll to Top