The Evangelical Lutheran Church — Understanding Purpose

The word “purpose” has become quite a money-making industry. Ever since Rick Warren’s blockbuster book The Purpose Driven Life: What On Earth Am I Here For? hit the shelves in the fall of 2002, the landscape of American Christianity has been driven by purpose.  Videos, music, workbooks, study guides, evangelism programs and more all promise to help you find your purpose. Not only can your life be purpose driven, but also your church, youth group, community, recovery, small group, and even chiropractic care (Eagle, Idaho-check it out!). This new fad is not really new; just a modern twist on an age old question, “Why am I here?”

The question is very real, and answers vary greatly. People genuinely want to know their purpose in life and until the question is satisfactorily answered there is nothing but doubt and worry and quilt and uncertainty. Lutherans have a distinct and unique way to answer questions about purpose, but the answer doesn’t inspire million dollar marketing campaigns and at times leaves people wanting more. It is, however, Scriptural and Christ centered and “cross-driven.”

A few years ago a young women asked to meet with me.  She said she was having a “spiritual crisis” and wanted to talk to a Lutheran pastor.  Having grown up Lutheran, she had spent the last 10 years or so in various Evangelical churches. She had a serious decision to make that involved work and location and family and a boy friend, in short, “should she stay or should she go.” She told me she had visited with several pastors and still had no answer.  She laid out her situation in great detail and asked me what God wanted her to do, which choice would God bless. In obvious distress, this young woman was at a crossroad in her life and had a difficult decision to make. She wanted me, or rather God through me, to tell her what to do.

I shared with her Psalm 55:22 and reminded her that she was righteous, not because of her works or decisions or choices, but because the Righteous One, Jesus Christ, lived and died and rose for her. He delivered the deliverance to her in the waters of Holy Baptism and put His name on her there. Then I went to Galatians 2:20. Crucified with Christ in her baptism she now lives her life by faith in Christ. I asked her if either choice was sinful or harmful in any way.  She said no. I then smiled and said she was free, free to choose knowing that God would be with her and bless her no matter what she decided. I was not prepared for her response.

“Is that really what Lutherans believe, that I am free?”  I nodded and took her to several other passages in Galatians and John and assured her that in her situation she truly was free.  “But I don’t want to be free; I want God to tell me what to do. I want my decision to glorify God!” It was then that I realized I was speaking a foreign language to her. Ten years of Reformed and Evangelical theology had made its mark. I remembered the answer to the first question in the Westminster Catechism; the purpose of man is to glorify God, which is not all that different from the way Thomas Aquinas answered the purpose question in his Summa Thelogica (first part of Part Two) where glorifying God results in true happiness.

I have always been amazed by the number of Lutheran churches that have embraced the “Purpose Driven” methodology. It’s hard work to be consistently Lutheran in doctrine and practice in light of the newest fads and gimmicks.  The fads and gimmicks seem to work, at least when the measuring marks are dollars and seats.  A brother LCMS pastor once asked me, in light of our discussion on being “purpose” driven, “So how would you answer someone who wants to know the purpose of man?”  “The purpose of man” I said, “is to receive the gifts of God.”  The look on his face was exactly the same as the young woman in my office.


The Evangelical Lutheran Church — Understanding Purpose — 22 Comments

  1. “The purpose of man” I said, “is to receive the gifts of God.” The look on his face was exactly the same as the young woman in my office.

    If it astonishes our Lutheran pastors, no wonder the pewsitters are confused!

    (I had remembered that instruction as “to know God and enjoy Him forever” but it’s a long time since I read a Presbyterian catechism and I suppose I put it through a Lutheran filter?) 😉

  2. I’ve always been astonished at the remarkable similarities between the Westminster and Roman Catholic catechisms on this point: What is the chief end of man? ( glorify God and enjoy Him forever) vs. Why did God make me? ( know, love, and serve God). I’d say Rome is actually better on this count for being less ambiguous!

    Good for you for telling her she was righteous! Too often those in monergistic traditions emphasize total depravity to the neglect of imputation. It’s good news to know that, despite our frequent failings, we ARE made righteous in Christ, where our true identity lies.

    But we’ve got to get the idea OUT of our head that we have the potential to glorify God. We do not bestow upon the sovereign deity any glory or magnificence that He would otherwise be lacking, we can merely attribute to Him what we already know to be true. Our failure to live righteously does not diminish his grandeur. And he doesn’t dangle his “perfect will” out there like an impossible mystery which we are to strenuously exert our mental facilities in order to grasp, the failure of which will result in brutal punishment and the achievement of which leads to a life of purpose.

    You want to know how bad it’s gotten? I visited Cal-Baptist University when I was looking to continue my education (Rick Warren’s alma mater). There was a life-size cardboard cut-out of him in the shrine… I mean, bookstore, with this quote (are you sitting down?): “The purpose of life is a life of purpose.” Words fail me.

  3. Martin Luther in his commentary on Psalm 118 would go
    one step further than saying our task is to merely
    accept God’s gifts.

    “We cannot perform a nobler service to God than to offer
    thanks. While praise and gratitude to God are the believers
    highest service both on earth and in heaven, ingratitude
    is the most shameful vice and the greatest contempt of God.”
    LW volume 14 page 51

    Luther’s meaning to the 1st article of the Apostles Creed
    closes with the words, “For all this (gifts from God) it is my
    duty to thank and praise, serve and obey Him.”

  4. @Dave Likeness #4

    Thanks David. First we receive God’s gifts, then and only then do we thank, praise, serve, obey, glorify, etc. AC 6 comes after AC 1-5. Where we begin matters…

  5. Whenever I try to engage people I know about my church life and theirs I always get an answer of how they want to feel something at church, sing and get into the service. When I go to church I want the good stuff – confession & absolution, listening to the scriptures, a good law & gospel sermon and then the true body and blood of my savior. At that point if you’re not moved by the gifts god has given, I don’t know what to say.

  6. helen :
    “The purpose of man” I said, “is to receive the gifts of God.”

    Yes, it has already been posted, but I need to do it also!
    This IS most certainly true! Praise our LORD.

  7. A good antidote to all the PDL stuff going around is Gene Veith’s “God at Work.” If pastors would teach vocation instead of PDL, perhaps there’d be less of those astonished looks.

    “Then they asked him, ‘What must we do to do the works God requires?’ Jesus answered, ‘The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent.'” John 6:28, 29. This is what is means to receive the gifts of God. Everything else depends on it.

    It seems that there are many pastors who must be ashamed of the Gospel, based on how much they preach works-righteousness.

  8. Rev. Poppe-

    It would be very helpful(for those of us who do not see this as so obvious) if you would share where and how you construct “the purpose of man is to receive the gifts of God” from the Word of God. It sounds good, but I want to know that it IS good. Please forgive my ignorance, or my blindness, just seeking to understand.

    Thank you!

  9. “You should remember the words of the Lord Jesus: ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.'” Acts 20:35

    “As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God’s varied grace … in order that in everything God may be glorified through Jesus Christ.”
    1 Peter 4:10,11

  10. If receiving the gifts of God ultimately glorifies God, it seems to me that “the chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy him forever” encompasses this statement as a whole, therefore why would it be incorrect or insufficient?

  11. @Graham #10


    Sorry for the delay in responding; computer issues and parish duties…

    It may be helpful to think in terms that Luther at times used: active and passive righteousnes.

    Natural man wants to save himself. The Old Adam wants to work his way to heaven. The world around us teaches us that we can do anything we want if we just work hard enough and pick ourselves up by our bootstraps. The devil whispers in our ear that God didn’t do enough so its up to us, and we’re not that bad after all…

    Contrast this message to the Word of God. There is no one righteous, no not one. All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. The wages of sin is death. There is no human solution to our sin-problem. So, God does it all for us. He sends His Son-pure gift. Christ lives a perfect life- pure gift. Christ suffers and dies the death we deserve- pure gift. Christ rises from the dead never to die again- pure gift. Christ victoriously ascends to the right hand of God, yet is really present among us in Word and Sacrament- pure gift. The Holy Spirit delivers the deliverence at the Baptismal font- pure gift. The Holy Spirit feeds us Christ’s Body and Blood in the Lord’s Supper- pure gift. The Holy Spirit, through the called and ordained servant of the Word, preaches Law and Gospel to us and speaks into our ears words of Absolution- pure gift. All this we receive by grace, through faith, not by works. In other words, passive righteousnes. God created us to receive His gifts.

    In joyous response to the Gifts of God we respond in lives of love and service and thanksgiving and all sorts of good deeds which are the fruit of faith. These are tainted by our sinfulness, but Christ’s blood covers over them all and makes them acceptable to the Father- pure gift. This is our active righteousnes.

    For a variety of reasons, many Reformed and Evangelical and Roman Catholic teachings and practices stress active righteous over passive righteousness. Lutheran theology and practice has the order right and thus the proper understanding of “purpose.”

    Thanks for the question and allowing me to go into a bit more detail.

  12. @Graham #12

    Properly understood, you are correct. However, that is not how it is understood in most other denominations.

    For many, the Gospel gets you saved. After that event, the Gospel is not needed in your life or is not the most important part of the Word. Now that you are saved you need to clean up your act and get holy. By making the right decisions, discovering your spiritual gifts or purpose, and “letting Christ be the Lord of your life” you glorify Him. For this you need the Law, the Law, and more Law.

    Lutherans know that we are at the same time saint and sinner (rejected by most Reformed and Evangelicals and anathama in the RC Church). The Gospel is not only for conversion but for life each and every day. The Law kills and the Gospel makes alive, daily; we call this repentance- pure gift!

  13. @Win #9

    Win, I echo your suggestion regarding “God at Work.” It is a great book and makes for a great congregational study of vocation.

  14. @Rev. Clint K. Poppe #13
    “God created us to receive His gifts.”

    And for good works as well? “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” Ephesians 2:10

  15. Carl H :@Rev. Clint K. Poppe #13 “God created us to receive His gifts.”
    And for good works as well? “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” Ephesians 2:10

    We are created “in Christ Jesus” (baptismal phrase). Good works are indeed to be preached, but never to the exclusion of Justification. Yes, faith without works is dead, but good works without Justification are meaningless, even filthy rags. We gather around Word and Sacrament (receiving, beginning with our baptism), and the works follow. Focusing only on “walking in good works” results in Law-based living. We dare not forget that we have already been created “in Christ Jesus.” Is it not Christ’s original “Good work” in which we walk?

  16. @Rev. Clint K. Poppe #20

    If the starting point is creation, as in Genesis 1, then is it not clear that God created every living thing not only to receive good things from him, but to bear fruit?

    Who plants a garden just to have it absorb water and nutrients?

    “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.” 1 Peter 2:9

  17. Of course God loves it when we bear fruit, but apart from the water and nutrients there can be no fruit, only death.

    When you see a ship on a calm sea, the ripples on the water indicate that the ship is moving, the ripples do not make the ship move.

    For Lutherans, the starting point is always Christ (AC IV)!

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