In the latest "Issues, Etc. Journal" (Winter, 2009), there is an excellent article written by Pr. Wilken titled, "Legalism & License." In it, Pr. Wilken reveals how both the legalist and the licentious 1) share a common, false assumption, namely that "God cannot forbid something I cannot avoid" (the legalist comes to the conclusion that he must have the ability to avoid sin; the licentious comes to the conclusion that, since he cannot avoid sin, he must have permission to sin), 2) underestimate sin (the legalist underestimates sin's depth; the licentious underestimates sin's danger), and 3) are prevented from struggling against sin, based on their false assumptions (the legalist thinks he's struggling against sin, but is really only struggling to keep the rules, and thinks he's getting it done; the licentious believes it is pointless to struggle against sin, so he indulges his sinful nature). Legalism and License are the same error expressed in two different ways. The only answer to both is a proper application of Law and Gospel, which will lead both to repentance and faith in Jesus Christ, who alone kept the Law perfectly in our place, and died on the cross for our sins. What both the legalist and the licentious need is the forgiveness that comes only through Jesus.
Pr. Wilken's excellent article (of which the above summary obviously doesn't do justice) got me to thinking about the ongoing "worship wars" in our synod (which, contrary to David Luecke and "Jesus First," aren't nearly over). Legalism and License are not only errors to be avoided by individual sinners, but by the Church at worship as well.
The Church must not demand that Christians follow a specific set of liturgical rites and rubrics. That would be legalistic. At the same time, the Church must not demand that she is free to do whatever she pleases in worship. That would be licentious. Both are the same error expressed in two different ways, for both shift the focus in worship away from Christ and toward what we're doing, whether rigidly following a specific set of liturgical rites and rubrics or allowing our freedom to be expressed however we wish.
Our Lutheran forefathers were wise in addressing this matter, neither falling into legalism nor licentiousness. Would that we would simply listen to them today, for they have the answers we need to put an end to this "war." Essentially, what they said was that we Lutherans should keep that which has been handed down to us in worship and does not conflict with the Gospel, but, at the same time, that we should not bind consciences by demanding these things as necessary for salvation. They recognized that there was freedom in worship, but also that this freedom was not limitless. They were careful not to pen themselves in to a specific set of liturgical rites and rubrics, allowing for an appropriate amount of freedom in worship, but they were also careful not to endorse a free-for-all, do-whatever-you-like, theology of worship.
One would think that we would have little trouble following the guidance of our Lutheran forefathers in this area, but we modern-day Lutherans just don't seem to get it. And I would contend, much to the chagrin of many, I suppose, that our not getting it has far more to do with abusing the freedom we have in worship than it does with being overly legalistic. I would also contend, as I have all along, that the war being fought over worship today in our synod is theological, not practical or pragmatic.
It is not legalistic to demand that Lutherans be Lutherans. Those who, in the name of freedom, borrow worship practices from those whose theology is not in line with what we Lutherans believe, teach, and confess are simply being dishonest and bearing false witness. We Lutherans are NOT free to worship like methobapticostals. How can we worship like those we condemn in our own Confessions?
But, what about those among us who demand that every liturgical "i" be dotted and "t" be crossed in the same exact manner, or else? What about those crass legalists in our midst? Well, if they exist, they're wrong. The problem is that I've never met these mysterious types. I really haven't. But, as I said, if they're out there, they're wrong and should be corrected.
That the "worship wars" continue in our synod is sad. It shouldn't be this way. There is enough freedom within our common confession of the faith to allow for a variety of practices that fit comfortably under the tent of a Lutheran theology of worship. The problem is that many among us want to remove that tent altogether. They want to be free to do whatever they please and are quick to cry "Legalist!" when anyone points out the obvious, namely that they have abandoned our Lutheran theology of worship and replaced it with a theology of worship held by those with whom we are not in fellowship.
The bottom line is that Lutherans should be, well, Lutherans. And to be Lutheran is to neither be legalistic nor licentious when it comes to worship. It simply means putting into practice what we believe, teach, and confess. That comes in many shapes and sizes, but it is identifiable. It is apparent where the Gospel is preached in its purity and the Sacraments are administered according to Christ's institution. It is identified where the liturgy is Christ-centered and Cross-focused, and when the children of God recognize that they are gathered in the very Presence of their Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, who comes among them to Gift them with forgiveness, life, and salvation through His precious means of grace. There is nothing legalistic about this; it's just a matter of Lutherans being who they are - those who voluntarily restrain themselves from abusing their freedom in worship because they share a common confession of the faith and a theology of worship which puts that common confession into practice.