Devotion: A Fundamental Exploration and Practical Guide to Formation


Editor’s note: This is the first of two articles that originated as a sectional presentation at the 2019 Theological Symposium, “Devoted: (Re)forming the Devotional Life.” We publish them here in conjunction with the articles published in the Summer 2020 issue of the Concordia Journal. Adam Clark earned his Ph.D. in Christian Ethics at the University of Notre Dame with a dissertation on Christ and creation in the moral and political thought of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. He currently serves as associate pastor of outreach and teaching at St. Peter Lutheran Church, Mishawaka, IN, and as director of Michiana Lifetree Conversation Cafe.

What is devotion? We often think first of “daily devotions”—that is, individual devotional practices like praying and reading Scripture. And certainly, these practices are vital. This paper, however, seeks a fuller picture of devotion and how to live into it. In the first section, I explore several key scriptural passages that lead us to think of devotion first as a central disposition in the internal form of the human being; specifically, the disposition whereby every aspect of life is encompassed in an undivided orientation to God. These passages also show that this internal form correlates with specific actions and practices that express devotion and give the “external” world a devoted form as well. Next I show that according to Scripture, the form of devotion is in fact original to creation, destroyed through sin, but now both restored and transformed in Jesus Christ and his church. I also show: that devotion intrinsically connects with other key elements of the human form like worship, hope, love, gratitude, and obedience; that faith forms the basis of devotion, especially in the midst of suffering and sacrifice, which press devotion both to its limits and its most exemplary expression; and finally, that a door to understanding how devotion and these other forms come about is opened by viewing them as “habits” in the sense traditional to virtue theory, only now reformulated in light of key scriptural claims about God’s action in justification and sanctification. In all of this, we discover that devotion occupies a far more central place in the Christian’s core existence than is often recognized. This is the first half of the paper.

The second half of the paper begins by showing that since human life is intrinsically historical in nature, full devotion happens only as all the historical particulars of life are taken up into the specific history God has graciously given and commanded us in Christ, a history that gives the virtues a concrete historical form as well. We then explore how preaching and teaching, the sacraments, worship, and the living out of our various vocations come together, as forms enlivened by the one word of God, in a single sacramental-liturgical drama in which each component devotes our lives to God in distinctive ways. Finally, we explore specific means to amplify devotion in our preaching, liturgy, Bible studies, and life in church and world.

Devotion and the Core Form of Human Life

We begin to understand the heart of devotion by looking at a passage like Jeremiah 2:1–2: “The word of the Lord came to me, saying, ‘Go and proclaim in the hearing of Jerusalem, Thus says the Lord, “I remember the devotion of your youth, your love as a bride, how you followed me in the wilderness, in a land not sown.”’” Here Jeremiah describes the (erstwhile) devotion of God’s people as like the dedication of a bride to her husband: so dedicated were they to God, so much did they desire to be with him, they went willingly into desolation and hardship to stay by his side. Here devotion is at once an internal disposition and an external action, specifically one closely linked to love, a point to which we will return momentarily. Significantly, however, in the next verse (Jer 2:3), the Lord also goes on to link devotion to holiness: “Israel was holy to the Lord, the firstfruits of his harvest.” Holiness is being “set apart” to the Lord. On the one hand, it is a division that creates undividedness: one is separated from everything besides God in order to be wholly with and for God. So too, there is implied a comprehensiveness: to be wholly for God and separated from all that is not of God means that everything in one’s life besides God must be “comprehended,” contained within, one’s fundamental orientation to and relationship with the Lord. There is a kind of fundamental logical necessity at work here: devotion will only remain undivided as long as that undividedness is preserved in every other attitude and action. This undivided and comprehensive dedication, in turn, comes to include a devotion to the “things of God” that also shapes one’s disposition and actions. For instance, in 1 Chronicles 29:3, David speaks of his “devotion to the house of my God,” that is the temple that David’s son was soon to build; this devotion led him to dedicate a host of goods from his treasury for the building of the temple.

Similar features appear in the New Testament’s invocation of devotion. We might think, for instance, of Jesus’s words in Matthew 6:24(a): “No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other.” Here too, devotion is an all-or-nothing matter of undivided dedication and loyalty: one can have only one master. Implicit here and in the passages above is the idea that devotion necessarily entails sacrifice: to be devoted to God, one must surrender not only all other loyalties but also one’s goods for service in the kingdom—even one’s very life. Jesus’s call to save one’s life by “losing” it in and for the gospel underscores the point: this master requires all (Mk :34–37). Just as importantly, this sacrifice is strange: in devoting one’s life to the Lord, one loses it; and yet, it is also returned—but now, with the concrete shape of a life of discipleship in and to Christ, who now has become the disciple’s very life (Col 3:3). Devotion draws us out of conformation to the world, to present our bodies as living sacrifices in the Lord (Rom 12:1–2).

Perhaps one of the best passages for seeing the specifics of devotion displayed in vivid detail is 1 Corinthians 7. Here Paul offers a host of instructions about the believer’s approach to singleness, marriage, and the goods embodied in these “estates.” Here Paul registers a certain “preference” for singleness, a preference that in fact aims at devotion:

I want you to be free from anxieties. The unmarried man is anxious about the things of the Lord, how to please the Lord. But the married man is anxious about worldly things, how to please his wife, and his interests are divided. And the unmarried or betrothed woman is anxious about the things of the Lord, how to be holy in body and spirit. But the married woman is anxious about worldly things, how to please her husband. I say this for your own benefit, not to lay any restraint upon you, but to promote good order and to secure your undivided devotion to the Lord. (1 Cor 7:32–35)

In this passage, devotion appears as an undivided dedication and orientation to the Lord and his purposes in the world. On the one side, this devotion “forms” the person inwardly: it shapes desires and concerns (“interests” and what one “is anxious about”), as well as judgment and decisions (e.g., in preferring singleness). Here there is an “inner detachment” from the goods of this world, like marriage, in favor of the overriding orientation to God. Yet on the other side, it comes to comprehend and determine the concrete form of one’s life and world as these desires, thoughts, and choices become actions that shape the choice of “vocation” as part of a wider “good order” in the world.

In the same passage, Paul calls for the same kind of devotion also in those Christians who enter into marriage. On the one hand, he writes, “This is what I mean, brothers: the appointed time has drawn in! From now on, let those who have wives live as though they had none, and those who mourn as though they were not mourning, and those who rejoice as though they were not rejoicing, and those who buy as though they had no goods, and those who deal with the world as though they had no dealings with it. For the present form of this world is passing away” (1 Cor 29–32). Here the married are called, even in their pursuit of the goods of this world, to reserve a foundational “inner detachment” from those goods in favor of an undivided orientation to God, who has drawn the end close through Christ’s fulfillment of salvation history. On the other hand, Paul calls for devotion to God to encompass and positively shape the concrete decisions, actions, practices, and life that these same believers pursue in marriage itself: time is to be set aside that both partners might devote themselves to prayer; yet the spouses are also to come together, so that temptation might be avoided (vv. 3–5).

In this way, devotion guides and is expressed in both abstention from sex and sexual expression—that is, when, as Paul said in v. 35, both of these are set in their good and proper order with full devotion to the Lord. Likewise, Paul asserts, devotion to the Lord and his missional, kingdom purposes should also define Christian decision and action with respect to divorce: if both spouses are believers, they should remain together—or if they cannot, should remain single and seek reconciliation (vv. 10–11); vice versa, if an unbelieving spouse will live with a believer, Paul says, the believer should remain in the marriage—for who knows if the witness of that decision and the believer’s life of Christ-like love might not save the spouse? (vv. 12–16). To be sure, the appropriate application of these passages in specific human lives and relationships requires a great deal of prayer, practical wisdom, and pastoral sensitivity. However, the point for our purposes here is to see that Paul expects devotion to God, and specifically to the “norms” given by God in Christ (like a focus on reconciliation and pursuing God’s mission in all things, as well as the covenantal faithfulness given and commanded marriage in Ephesians 5), to define the very form of life in marriage, just as much as in singleness.

Taken together, Paul’s treatment of singleness and marriage shows how devotion is both internal and external, and one intended by God to apply to the whole of every Christian life. This point is further affirmed and extended in 1 Corinthians 7:17–24, a passage that interrupts Paul’s treatment of singleness and marriage precisely to assert that the critical focus in any historical situation, identity, or community—for example, also as a circumcised Jew or an uncircumcised Greek, a slave or a master—is to abide in that particular form of life with God (v. 24). Full devotion to God thus means, to use terms borrowed from Dietrich Bonhoeffer, that none of these things is to be considered or pursued as “good” simply “in and of itself,” rather, all things are to be pursued only as part of a wholehearted devotion to God and his grace as our all-encompassing, and only necessary, true good (cf. Ps 73:25–28 and 2 Cor 12:1–10).[1] This devotion is, in short, required of all people in all things.

At this point, we have ample evidence for the basic thesis that devotion is an internal-external form in which an undivided and comprehensive orientation and dedication to God shapes the entirety of the Christian person and the world embraced and shaped; we also see that it directs us to foster devotion in each area of our lives by concretely shaping the practices of each vocation and community toward God in Christ.

We turn briefly to our second thesis about the fundamental nature of devotion as such, that is, that devotion is thus constitutive of the core form not just of “Christian” life but of human existence, as both created and redeemed. That devotion is fundamental to the creaturely form of human beings is evident already in the Genesis creation narrative when God commands human beings “not to eat of the tree of knowledge of good and evil.” This command seeks to stop more than simple, physical eating; rather, as Bonhoeffer helpfully elaborates, it forbids human beings from attempting to decide upon the meaning of good and evil for themselves, precisely by deciding whether or not to obey, rather than simply receiving God’s will as (the) good. Thus it seeks to preserve their total and complete orientation to God and his will, that is, their comprehensive and undivided devotion.[2]

Devotion is thus clearly fundamental to our creaturely form. Vice versa, in Genesis 3, we see that the fall of Adam and Eve is precisely a fall from total and undivided devotion, even as Paul’s identification of devotion as a central component of Christian life in 1 Corinthians 7 shows that its restoration is equally fundamental to redemption. All this is further affirmed in 2 Corinthians 11:3: “But I am afraid that as the serpent deceived Eve by his cunning, your thoughts will be led astray from a sincere and pure devotion to Christ.” Here too the fall is identified with loss of “sincere and pure devotion.” But more is said: the redemption of devotion is now no longer simply redemption of the creature’s basic devotion to its Creator; it now is identical specifically to devotion to Jesus Christ—“that I may be his own and live under him in his kingdom.”[3] This redeemed devotion to Christ brings with it not only the cultivation of this devotion in our vocations but also to the church and its core practices: to preaching, fellowship, the sacraments, prayer, worship, the works of God, and the works of mercy and of mission.[4] Vice versa, as 2 Corinthians 11:3 makes clear, Christians also were cautioned to be on guard against thoughts that would lead them astray even from this wonderful form of devotion redeemed.

In all these passages, then, devotion is central to the creaturely and redeemed form(s) of human life. This realization grows further when we notice how powerfully devotion is bound up with other core elements of our human form. In the passage from Jeremiah, we noted devotion is fundamentally connected to the love of God, which in turn is placed at the head of all human life in the “great commandment”: “you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength” (Mt 22:37–38). In fact, note how such love itself essentially embodies devotion: this love is undivided and comprehensive! A similar point could be made about the call to obedience, summarized in the first commandment as font of all others: what else is “having no other gods” but wholehearted devotion to the one true God!

The point is not that devotion, love, and obedience are collapsible into each other. To the contrary, each has its own distinct elements that respond to distinct aspects of God’s identity and action: love is affection and desire oriented to God as good and the giver of all good gifts; obedience is submission before God in his sovereignty; and devotion is our committed dedication and our express gathering of all things in our lives and world within our undivided orientation to God. The point is that all these forms only fully become what God gives them to be in, with, and through one another. Devotion is pivotal to a nexus of characteristics that defines our fundamental form as creatures redeemed in Christ.

Indeed, several other key characteristics of human life identified by Scripture also discernibly embody and extend devotion in other pivotal ways. Devotion lies, for instance, at the heart of worship, which devotes to God alone the glory in all things, and of gratitude, hope, and prayerfulness, which in diverse ways all fix our being wholly on God as the source of all good. (The idea of devotion as a form that makes a form of prayer perhaps also helps us understand what Paul means by the command to “pray without ceasing” in 1 Thessalonians 5:17. Obviously, we cannot be consciously praying in every moment; otherwise we wouldn’t do anything else. But through devotion we gain a prayerful form that always opens to God as the giver of all good, even if this is not always a conscious thought or action.) Ultimately, since devotion essentially is our undivided directedness to God, more or less every Christian act and orientation that directs us to God in any way finally will, by definition, be both a necessary element within devotion and a crucial extension of it into the totality of our lived existence.

The qualification, “more or less” is important. For there is one fundamental “form” that is not “coeval” with devotion in quite the same way, namely faith. For as Scripture attests, faith, especially as trust (fiducia) and knowledge (fides) of God in his basic self-revelation, is rather the starting point of the Spirit’s work in orienting the person toward God through Christ.[5] This would seem to indicate that we should expect faith to be the operative basis that ignites and supports devotion. And indeed, our own experience grants this a certain intuitive plausibility: in all of human life, do we not tend to devote ourselves firmly and wholeheartedly only to those people, communities, and so on which we trust?

Recent philosophical research further supports this basic scriptural claim and personal intuition in a way that adds an important focus to our study of devotion. One example appears in the work of Joseph Godfrey—though to be clear from the start, some of Godfrey’s arguments are problematic while others are at least in need of clarification and elaboration.[6] Examining a multitude of human “phenomena,” Godfrey shows that devotion is consistently based in trust in relationships, religious experiences, knowledge and language acquisition, and more (86–87). Godfrey adds this “trust” manifests as a “receptivity to enhancement” (88): we trust those whom we believe will care for us. Martin Luther makes a similar argument with respect to trust in God: “For I could not have faith in God if I did not think he wanted to be favorable and kind to me. This in turn makes me feel kindly disposed toward him, and I am moved to trust him with all my heart and to look to him for all good things.”[7] Trust is fundamentally linked to the expectation of good.

Godfrey’s arguments seem plausible. And yet, they also need (more) careful clarification and elaboration—especially if they are to apply to the kind of God-directed trust and devotion that is attested and enjoined in Scripture. For a focus on “enhancement” could easily sound like—or mistakenly be embraced as—crass egoism: I am focused only on my own advantage, and therefore trust only as part of the pursuit of my own advantage. This of course would be the precise opposite of devotion as we have defined it from the Scriptures, namely as an orientation, form, and acts that are fundamentally and even self-sacrificially focused on God and his will.

Nevertheless, God promises to work all things for our good (Rom 8) and encourages us to receive our true good in him (Is 55:1, Mt 6:19–21, Mt 11:25, etc.). Likewise, as Luther’s comment implies, even the gospel itself is in some sense “keyed” to our good: Christ is for you! Therefore, it ultimately must be in keeping with God’s will to desire, receive, and pursue our “enhancement” and “good”—as long as this enhancement and good are enfolded within a more fundamental orientation to the glory of God, and as long as “enhancement” and “good” themselves thus come to be defined as God and his gracious plan and presence in Christ. Indeed, this kind of careful definition is particularly vital insofar as Scripture attests that God himself, and his grace and plan for us, are to be received as our true and sufficient good, with or without other “lesser” goods (e.g., Ps 73:25–28 and 2 Cor 12:1–10). Since God does not always enhance such “lesser” goods (e.g., by giving some a calling against pursuing marriage), these are not properly included in our definition of our ultimate and necessary good. Just as importantly, neither will we trust God in faith for our enhancement unless we understand God and his concrete will to be our true fulfillment. In short, there is nothing wrong with identifying the link between trust and enhancement as Godfrey and Luther do, as long as this enhancement is clearly and explicitly defined in an overriding way as our life in and with God.

Godfrey seems to attempt clarification in places (see e.g., pp.75, 170–173, 367–399)—though not without other complications from the perspective of a wider biblical theology. Most importantly for our present line of inquiry, Godfrey also calls our attention to the link between devotion and trust. Indeed, he sharpens our grasp of this link: only such trust, he argues, can account for and support devotion when God does not provide other forms of “enhancement.” Interestingly, here Godfrey gives both Jesus and Abraham as key examples (86–87): Abraham faced a call to sacrifice his beloved son and heir, Isaac; Christ faced the cross that demanded a total and complete sacrifice. Given that we only trust those we take to have our ultimate enhancement at heart, Godfrey reasons, what else could have preserved the devotion of Abraham and Jesus Christ except a profound faith that God still was working their good, even in and beyond these things? And indeed, Scripture confirms Godfrey’s claim: on the one side, in Romans 4 and Hebrews 11 respectively, Paul and the author of Hebrews expressly base Abraham’s action in his trust of God. On the other, in the Gospel accounts, Jesus’s trust of the Father is likewise in evidence in his willingness to surrender himself to the Father’s will in Gethsemane (Lk 22:39–46) and also, especially, in his continued entrusting of himself into the Father’s hands even on the cross (Lk 23:46).

Philosophical examination thus converges with our own testimony and that of Scripture in showing not only that faith is the operative basis for devotion but also that such devotion based in faith is pivotal to preserving our creaturely and redeemed human form especially at two critical junctures that occur repeatedly in human life: in the midst of the suffering God often permits, and in those instances where he actually calls on us to sacrifice other goods for his sake and the sake of Christ and the gospel—in the call to singleness, or martyrdom, or any of the other thousand ways God calls us to put him, his kingdom, and/or the neighbor ahead of ourselves. Vice versa, these same events also develop and display devotion in its exemplary form, since it is precisely in the cases that our allegiance to God above and beyond all things stands out clearly in its own right. Furthermore, it is quite clear that this same faith in the goodness of God and his reign in Christ is what sustains hope, love, gratitude, worship, obedience, and the rest in these same instances. Therefore, we must also conclude that while devotion is bound up with these latter traits and their ensuing actions, devotion is not their sole or most fundamental cause. Rather, through God’s own action, faith operates as the foundation for the entire nexus, which ultimately appears as nothing other than the many traits and deeds by which the form of faith overflows into all of life.

Thus far we have seen that devotion is a form constitutive of human existence as it is both created and redeemed in Christ. Specifically, devotion is a fundamental orientation toward God that is both undivided and comprehensive, bringing within itself the whole of our concrete historical life: shaping our desires, choices, and actions, as well as the fundamental ordering of the goods of earthly life that these yield. Likewise, devotion lies at the nexus of still other basic orientations and actions that define the core of our creaturely and redeemed form. Finally, flowing out of faith as trust, this nexus operates to keep the whole of life rigorously devoted to the Father who loves us in Christ and draws us through the Spirit—even in the face of the suffering and sacrifice that life and discipleship bring.

I have also suggested that we should think of devotion as a virtue and habitus. What do these terms signify, and what are their benefits? The next section will argue that both the way these terms appear in traditional virtue theory and their refraction through Lutheran theology have something vital to teach us about how devotion comes about in the human person.

Devotion as a Virtue—and its Sacramental and Liturgical Source(s)

Traditional virtue theory appears first in philosophical sources like Aristotle and the Stoics, which are then reworked in the church by theologians like Augustine and Aquinas.[8] The philosophical versions begin from a basic description of human existence as an orientation and movement toward a “telos,” an end or goal that is at once a good to be desired, a historical destination, and the perfection of the human being’s true nature. As good, this telos functions as something like a magnetic target that draws the human being as “arrow” toward itself.[9] Insofar as human beings are conscious agents, however, our orientation to the telos is not just an “inanimate” response; rather, it includes an “intentional” aiming at the telos, and pursuit of it, through our own capacities, powers, and action. Especially for the Aristotelian tradition, repeated actions directed toward a telos in turn form a habitus, a steady disposition to orient oneself toward it and then act out of this orientation. A “virtue” is in fact nothing other than this habitus, taken to be a “form” in the human soul. For the ancients, the “cardinal” or primary virtues were prudence, temperance, justice, and fortitude (courage). Theologians like Augustine and Aquinas adopted this basic framework but also attempted to reformulate such virtue theories in light of scriptural claims about God and humanity. For them, the telos thus became God himself, along with the encompassing “common good” he gives the whole creation, ultimately in Christ. This good in turn reshapes the specific form of the cardinal virtues and also leads to the addition of the forms identified above; faith, hope, and love (1 Cor 13) became the core “theological” virtues, joined by worshipfulness, gratitude, obedience, and so on as correlates.

If this scheme is adopted, devotion too would then figure, at least in part, as one key virtue interwoven with these. In fact, devotion already appears briefly in this guise in both Augustine and Aquinas. However, Augustine seems to mention devotion only in passing while Aquinas puts it at the end of a chain of “secondary” virtues.[10] The claims of the first section, in contrast, suggest that devotion holds a more pivotal place at the nexus of the virtues: it is the form by which faith extends to encompass every other aspect of our being and action into our trust in God and our undivided orientation and dedication to him.

But what, precisely, is gained by thus speaking of devotion as a “virtue” rather than simply as a “form” of human life? First, virtue theory supplies us with more specific terms that help crystalize the basic description unearthed in our exploration of Scripture: the undivided and comprehensive orientation that is devotion is nothing else than the form that gathers the entirety of the person and one’s action into the intentional orientation and dedication to God and his will as our true telos, the eschatological destination of our history, our true good, and that which brings our creaturely nature to its true fulfillment. Second, virtue theory identifies character as a moral matter of fundamental significance, and this corresponds to God’s continual concern and commands regarding the character of his people, including their devotedness, which appears throughout Scripture. Third, the Aristotelian emphasis on “habituation” also corresponds to the implication of the scriptural commands that our own action has at least some role to play in the acquisition of a virtuous character. Indeed, one New Testament passage (2 Pt 1:5–7) directly employs the most common Greek term for virtue, ar?te, in precisely this context: “make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue (ar?te), and virtue with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with steadfastness, and steadfastness with godliness, and godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love.” Fourth, as Aquinas notes, the emphasis on stabilization in the concept of habituation corresponds to biblical depiction of both the created and fallen “nature” of human beings: as created, human beings have a given form and set of capacities (reason, will, etc.) that yet require the “stabilizing” development of training; as fallen, this need increases precisely because sin is now actively destabilizing us.[11] Applying these last points to devotion, by calling devotion a virtue, we identify it as a form with fundamental moral and ontological/anthropological significance; it answers to the command of God to develop our creaturely nature and stabilize it against sin, in part through our own repeated action according to the good God gives and commands.

Of course, the grammar of virtue has been somewhat controversial theologically. Luther, for instance, directly opposes the language of habitus in multiple works on the grounds that any attribution of our righteousness to an internal form that we acquire seems to make justification something we possess in ourselves and gain through our works.[12] To be sure, the core theological commitments motivating this concern is apt. Passages like Romans 4 and Ephesians 2:8–9 make clear, as Luther insists, that justification occurs by grace through faith on account of Christ alone. Nevertheless, not only does Scripture sometimes explicitly draw some connection between our action and our character (e.g., 2 Pt 1:5ff, “make every effort . . .”), God’s very action of commanding a whole range of specific actions toward the end of devotion through Paul in 1 Corinthians 7 also implies that these very actions will at once express, and help us cultivate, devotion. The same point could be made with regard to commands given with respect to many of the other character traits proposed as virtues above. Thus, holding to the unity and inspiration of Scripture, it seems it must be possible to square Scripture’s own doctrine of justification with its own call for human action in pursuit of the virtues.

Thankfully, even from the earliest appropriations of the grammar of virtue, Christian theologians have worked to reformulate it through these twin scriptural emphases.[13] Moreover, recently Joel Biermann proposed a specifically Lutheran paradigm through which virtue can be fully integrated with a robust doctrine of justification: the “two kinds of righteousness” introduced by Luther in a 1518 sermon of the same name and adopted in the Lutheran Confessions. This framework emphasizes that alongside the primordial, passive righteousness of justification, there is an active righteousness of sanctification in which the human being comes to participate, in and through the Holy Spirit. In sanctifying righteousness, Biermann argues, there is thus ample room not only for virtue but also for the idea that virtue is acquired, at least in part, by human action toward our divinely appointed end.[14]

At the same time, as Gifford Grobien recently has underscored, building on Biermann’s work, we should not miss the full force of the priority of divine grace and action also with regard to sanctification.[15] Since God’s own action through Christ and Spirit is the font of our sanctification, in which we then participate, we should expect that the prime source of our virtues, including devotion, will be these agents, Christ and the Spirit, and the means of grace through which they accomplish their work (i.e., the word and sacraments). Thus, it is to a close examination of the way each of these means source devotion that we will turn in the next section.

Yet in that section, we also will extend the ambit of what is sometimes considered under this head, that is, preaching, baptism, and the Lord’s Supper. Luther and the Confessions begin this expansion by calling confession with absolution a “third sacrament” while later adding the “mutual conversation and consolation of the brethren” to the core means of grace.[16] This expansion follows on the key Augustinian insight that it is the word added to an element that makes a sacrament, which in principle implies that anything to which God adds his word can count as “sacramental,” at least in a broad sense.[17] At the same time, the identification of confession/absolution as a sacrament adds the further recognition that even the spoken word is a kind of “material element,” thus making every use of the word (including in preaching and mutual conversation and consolation) broadly “sacramental.”

What we glimpse in these descriptions is the beginning of a profound indication that God works through a unified, word-driven sacramentality with both core forms and a wider extension. It is this unified form that we will continue to explore, precisely as the unifying means by which Christian life is comprehended as a whole within devotion’s undivided orientation to God. In particular, we will attend closely to the liturgy, understood first as the church’s formal practices of common worship. As William Cwirla has argued, such liturgy embodies the word of God.[18] Thus, it too holds a pivotal place in God’s “sacramental” formation of human beings. Yet, insofar as the sacramental word in all its forms awakens the worship at the heart of the liturgy, we also can regard all forms of the sacramental word as intrinsically “liturgical” in the broad sense.

Taken together, these points indicate that we should think of God’s means of grace as a unified, expansive sacramental-liturgical network. We should also recognize that even as this network is the site of God’s work in us, it also becomes the site of practices through which we embody and express devotion as our response to God—and thus also engage in those repeated human actions by which we acquire the “habitual” side of devotion as a virtue. Ultimately we can say that the sacramental-liturgical network simultaneously gives, embodies, expresses, and cultivates our devotion.

As we turn to examine the specific ways this happens it is necessary to examine another dimension of human life: its “historicity,” that is, its “social and historical particularity.” As we will see, attention to this dimension profoundly affects the way we understand the nature of devotion as virtue. Likewise, amplifying our view of devotion as an external as well as internal form (virtue), the emphasis on history will allow us to see the unfolding of the word across all the means of grace as an apocalyptic, salvation-historical drama that enfolds individuals, communities, and all of life in a unified enactment of devotion to God.

The Sacramental-Liturgical Network and God’s Apocalyptic, Salvation-Historical Drama

Simply put, human life is fundamentally social and historical. It is social because we were created by God for community: in our families, societies, and even “humanity” and “all creation” considered as encompassing wholes. It is historical in turn because (a) particular individuals, communities, institutions, and places converge in specific but contingent ways, and (b) human beings intentionally shape all these things into specific historical forms by acting on their visions of the telos, what each takes to be real, true, and good. Therefore, to understand how devotion forms in the individual as virtue, we must understand how it forms individuals in their concrete histories and relationships; otherwise, our “virtue” of devotion would be only a very “formal” form that fails to incorporate the actual content of a real human life (which is constitutively historical, social, and concrete). Vice versa, considering how human beings embody devotion in these contexts will show us how devotion takes on external form in just these histories and relationships.

We must make a turn to history for another reason: according to Scripture, God himself ultimately elects a concrete history for the world. This history includes certain common forms, including especially the individual virtues and the communal practices that belong to Israel’s way of life, now fulfilled and transformed in the specific life(form) that Christ shares with individual believers and his body, the church. Yet it also includes more specific historical decisions, works, and identities commanded to particular individuals and communities. (For both aspects, see Col 1, Eph 1–2, Acts 17:26 and really the whole historical narrative of Scripture). On the one hand, since God’s history and specific commands are wider than the general forms, the whole of this history and its commands, rather than just those forms, must remain the focus of the Christian. Indeed, to our specific concerns, only thus is devotion—which is nothing else than the wholehearted dedication to God and the whole of his will—rightly and fully formed in us. On the other hand, precisely because there is a common general form of individual virtue and communal practice at the heart of God’s concrete will for us, we can focus especially on that core form. [19] In what follows, we will join Biermann and Grobien—as they appropriate Alasdair MacIntyre and Stanley Hauerwas—in describing God’s work through all the means of grace and ecclesial practices as God’s “narration” of our lives, a narration which also gives to the church and its members a concrete culture that integrates the practices in a unified, historical way of life, or Lebensform (lifeform).[20]

What becomes clear is that the “narration” at work in these practices is not “just” storytelling but something like “dramatic performance.” As Kevin Vanhoozer points out, “drama is a doing, an enactment,” and one that typically involves a physical embodiment. The gospel itself, Vanhoozer argues, is a drama of God’s mighty acts embodied in our concrete world, from the garden through the exodus to the death and resurrection of Christ and the growth of his body the church in the Spirit, even as the word and sacraments make this drama ours by “re-enacting” it in and for us.[21] These claims are substantially similar to the common Lutheran claim that the word gives or performs what it promises.[22] Yet they highlight both the sacramental materiality of this performance, as well as the fact that the discrete forms of the word are not just a string of “one-off” deeds but linked performances of an integrated historical narrative, which likewise integrates the whole of our historical and embodied lives within it. Thus, the concept of drama expresses both the sacramentality of the word and the way its specific instances combine to bring the whole of existence—individual and communal, inner and outer—into unified devotion to God.

In all of this we also come face to face with the “apocalyptic” character of devotion and the means of grace that source it. “Apocalypse” in Scripture refers to the “revelatory unveiling” of God and his will in history, in distinction from and victory over sin, death, and the devil and all fallen powers (see, paradigmatically, Revelation as introduced by Rv 1:1).[23] This unveiling often includes an explicit judgment. And yet, precisely because God’s appearance already draws an absolute line between God as the good and all that opposes him as evil, this apocalypse itself already is and performs in the world the division basic to such judgment. For our concerns, through this very division, God’s apocalypse performs in us the “undividedness” and positive “comprehension” at the heart of devotion: it crucifies and hews away all in us that is not of God and raises to life only that which is. As we will see, this is what the means of grace do both in general and with regard to the specific historical content of our present lives—and the fallen powers that play through it.

We can see this once more in liturgical terms. As Jamie Smith notes, just as the church’s liturgical life (in the broad sense) is its own culture, so too cultures outside the church also constitute a “liturgy,” since they too form human beings in the worship of [devotion to!] something—albeit false gods. For instance, he argues, through the “sacred space” of malls that look like cathedrals, the narratives of advertising, and so much more, we are being formed in “liturgies of consumption, hoarding, and greed” that make mammon, our bellies, and ourselves into our gods.[24] Therefore, we can regard God’s apocalypse in Christ, Scripture, and all the forms of the word precisely as fundamentally liturgical—a reclamation of the worship that interpenetrates closely with our focal point of devotion.

Let us then delve into specifics. The formation of devotion in human beings in all these ways is most immediately evident in the practices of preaching and teaching the faith. Insofar as the Spirit uses the word to establish faith these practices likewise establish devotion as well as the whole range of other virtues that unfold from faith. Vice versa, for hearing and reflecting consciousness, preaching and teaching elaborate the specifics of the whole narrative of God’s history with the world in a way that takes up the specifics of each hearer’s life within it, vividly declaring that God’s work, promises, and commands are “for me” and showing how they direct one’s life and action today. As Gifford Grobien points out, it is through preaching and teaching that the biblical narrative becomes a “symbolic order,” an “applied language” or “culture” that in turn frames all other church practices.[25] It is preaching and teaching that establishes the grammar that enables one to understand both that and how all these practices give, embody, and cultivate our devotion and wider life in Christ.

Likewise, it is easy to see how the sacraments of baptism and the eucharist are means toward the wholly devoted life. Like preaching and teaching, these sacraments anchor faith, devotion, and all the virtues. They also simultaneously work and proclaim to reflective consciousness other aspects of devotion: it is the very nature of baptism to incorporate the candidate into Christ’s own total devotion to God, as well as his death and resurrection, which crucify all that is not devoted to God in order to raise a new life that is (Rom 6). Likewise, baptism’s core words, “I baptize you in the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,” not only “narrates” the candidate into God’s family but devotes the baptized to it by instantiating a “break” between this family (including both Christ and the church) and all other communities and identities (both creaturely and fallen), establishing the candidate’s undivided loyalty to God.[26] Similarly, the Lord’s Supper gathers the whole of individual and communal life into its telos in Christ, forming believers in love, changing them into one another by that same love (Luther), and thus transforming them into one, reconciled, catholic “new humanity” (Bonhoeffer; Eph 2:11–22) that is a foretaste of the ultimate telos of all things. This formation in the love of Christ in turn leads directly into the corresponding virtue of compassion and the sacrificial sharing of burdens that fulfills the “law of Christ” (Gal 6:2).[27]

As we have seen, the Lutheran Confessions identify the next core extensions of the sacramental drama, confession with absolution and the “mutual conversation and consolation of the brethren” to the list of core means of grace.[28] If we take “mutual conversation and consolation” to open ultimately on the whole of Christian life together in word and deed, these two additional means of grace manifest themselves precisely as the further extension of the specific kinds of devotion fostered by the two core sacraments into our wider, ongoing history. On the one hand, confession and absolution extends our baptismal death to all that is undevoted in our concrete life at the present moment, so that a new, wholly devoted life may once more emerge in every present.[29] On the other, Christian life together extends the love and reconciliation of the communion table into an ongoing form of human existence.[30]

These five means of grace thus converge to form the core of the dramatic-sacramental network of grace. Yet as noted above, properly conducted, the church’s liturgy, understood first as its established worship services, is itself a form of the word of God.[31] Again, this would be true of any form of Christian worship that brings the word to bear. Yet it is also true of the church’s historic liturgy.[32] For on the one hand, as Gifford Grobien notes, the individual elements of the historic liturgy allow us to actively practice and inhabit the core dispositions and acts of Christian virtue: the Kyrie embodies prayer, the Gloria thanksgiving, the offering sacrificial love, and so on.[33] Each of these liturgical moments thus embody and extend our devotional form. So too, distinct gestures like making the sign of the cross re-inscribe the whole dramatic re-enactment of Christ’s death and resurrection on our bodies through a single, concise movement. Other individual elements “flesh out” our dramatic connections to specific elements of the wider salvation story. For instance, drawing on both Isaiah’s vision of God’s throne (Is 6) and the Hosanna of Palm Sunday, the Sanctus stitches our story into central moments of salvation history where God was becoming present to his new creation as King, ultimately in Christ. So too the Agnus Dei stitches our lives into Christ as the fulfillment and end of the sacrificial trajectory from Abraham to temple, even as the Aaronic blessing stitches us into God’s history of blessing a people as his own. Similarly, specific elements of the liturgy confront the fallen powers most directly at work in our current history. For instance, as Smith points out, the offering tears us away from our false devotion to “mammon” and gives the self and all that it has over to Christ, even as communion and the use of the offering to help the needy tears us away from our “individualism” and restores us to our fundamentally relational mode of being.[34]

While these diverse elements each enact devotion in their own distinctive way, we should take notice that the service as a whole embodies an integrated dramatic trajectory that performs the core narrative of salvation again week in and week out, devoting all our history to that point to God. This begins with the invocation, confession, and absolution, which links us to our baptismal death and resurrection with Christ and so takes us “back to the beginning,” to conversion, repentance, and justifying forgiveness. Cleared of sin, the Kyrie and Gloria then perform what are perhaps the pivotal points of “re-entry” into life as a creature: the prayerfulness that cries out to the giver of all good, both for his ongoing mercies in all of life and in thanksgiving for all he is and does. Next come the Collect, Scripture readings, and sermon, which take us beyond forgiveness and the beginnings of creatureliness toward mature devotion, growing our faith through specific knowledge of God and growing us also in knowledge of what God desires for specific areas of our lives. Then comes the Creed, where faith bodies itself forth as confession and solidifies core reflective knowledge of God and the core narrative of history as such. Next, intercessory prayer performs a central role given God’s people, namely the lifting up of all concrete people and situations in the fallen world to him.

Another central part of the telos to which God devotes human life is existence as community, and in truth, even the simple performance of all the liturgy so far described embodies this element of our devotion. However, the second half of the divine service also strengthens this formation of the individual in and with the community: the sharing of the peace performs the repentance that leads to reconciliation. In the offering, we offer up the goods of this world and our very selves to God by offering them in, with, and to his church as well. Next the great thanksgiving embodies our collective sigh of praise for these gifts and the opportunity to use them in mission as we are led to the consummation of our unity in Christ in the Eucharist. Finally, we are sealed as the blest and sent people of God, called to receive and serve him in the rest of our lives.

I would also like to note the contribution to this “retelling of the whole of our lives” offered by a perhaps underappreciated moment of the historic liturgy, the Nunc Dimitiis. The Nunc Dimitiis is of course the song of Symeon, who was readied to depart this world by his encounter with the infant messiah. We are perhaps most likely to participate in this moment primarily by receiving it as another element preparing us for departure into the world and mission, and indeed, it is that. However, the deeper intimation here is that, having received God’s promises in Christ, we too like Symeon are prepared for death itself, whenever it may come. In this way, the Nunc Dimitiis actually, if proleptically, brings our lives to their final moment and portends their eschatological transformation and assurance. In my view, the Nunc Dimitiis offers a distinctively powerful service in fostering the complete giving over of the whole of our lives to God that is devotion.

We should note how the liturgical calendar, linked with the propers of the day and thence the Scriptures and sermon, serves to bring the whole of Scripture and the drama of salvation into our lives over wider spans of time. Concisely summarized, each year, Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Holy Week, and Ascension “press in” on our life the transformational significance of each moment of Christ’s life. Each year, Pentecost and “Ordinary Time” then form us to be the church that is born in the Spirit, that grows into the full-breadth of Christ’s teachings through his active rule from on high, and that lives all life “toward” the final end of all things in the return of Christ the King. Likewise, whether on a one- or three-year cycle, or even structured in other ways, the lectionary ensures that the whole of our lives are brought under the whole counsel of God’s will and word. As Jamie Smith notes, a liturgical calendar is an important practice for confronting the “secularization” of our time by absorbing it back into God’s time.[35] In our terms, it devotes our very temporality to God.

In these ways and more, the weekly liturgy and correlative worship practices like the church year play a pivotal part in the “sacramental” network and drama that embodies the word and wholly devotes us to God. Finally, since devotion encompasses all of life within a rigorously undivided orientation to God, ultimately devotion requires bringing all of life, Monday through Saturday too, into alignment with the specifics of our true telos in Christ. One way this happens is through what we perhaps are most used to thinking of as “devotions,” that is, Scripture reading and prayer. However, as Bonhoeffer and Grobien note, developing points made by Luther, it also happens as the “transposition into the other” that Christians experience at the Lord’s table and in mutual conversation and consolation gives impetus to a wider communal action and existence with and on behalf of all the various neighbors in all the communities of our lives: not only the most commonly identified “orders” or “mandates,” like family and political society, but also every friendship, workplace, school, and voluntary association—essentially any “neighborhood” that makes other human beings “neighbors” through proximity in time, geography, interest, or common projects.[36]

Importantly however, for all of these relationships to be gathered into their proper telos in the glorification of God through our reception of Christ-life and so into devotion, these relationships cannot simply be affirmed “in and of themselves,” that is, in the earthly goods they are and secure for their members. To the contrary, as Bonhoeffer takes pains to insist, each community must be directed toward the specific embodiment God gives it within the overall Christ-directed drama of creation.[37] This is precisely what we begin to see in 1 Corinthians 7 where the goal of devotion to God and to his missional purposes both establishes a preference for singleness as well as a specific form and set of practices for both singleness and marriage. One is single in order to have more focus on God and spend more time directly serving the kingdom. Yet even in marriage disciples are to cultivate a certain detachment from the spouse and all earthly goods for the sake of an undivided, foundational orientation to God alone. They are to practice this devotion by setting aside time from the goods of marriage, like sexual activity, for the sake of devoting time to God in prayer. So too, devotion to the Lord and his mission keeps a believer in a relationship even with an unbeliever, with the hope that the believer’s witness might save the spouse.

The importance of this point can be seen in the way that devotion to the Lord’s purposes is the controlling interest in several other passages on marriage. For instance, 1 Peter 3:1–7 begins by making clear that husbands are given headship in marriage, but that this too is for missional purposes: “wives, be subject to your own husbands, so that even if some do not obey the word, they may be won without a word by the conduct of their wives, when they see your respectful and pure conduct” (vv. 1–2). Similarly, the wife is directed to adorn herself with spiritual rather than physical beauty for the same missional purpose, and also because such beauty of spirit is “precious” to the Lord (vv. 3–4). In the same passage husbands are directed to live with their wives “in an understanding way,” especially in regard to their (typically) lesser physical strength—not just because this “makes a happy marriage” but because this honors their wife’s equality as heirs of life and ensures that the husband’s own prayers are not hindered (v. 7). Here too the core rationale has to do with honoring eschatological realities and divine purposes: the equality given and commanded men and women in Christ (cf. Gal 3:28), and the prayer constitutive of the true life of a redeemed creature.

None of this is to say that God does not care for the earthly good itself or gives commands that see to that good. As we see in Ephesians 5, God calls spouses to covenantal fidelity and the exchange of sacrificial love that does indeed provide the vital foundation for the maintenance of the marital relation as an earthly good. Yet even here the concern with the christological telos notably predominates: the love of husband and wife reflect the relationship of Christ and church, and as Paul concludes in Ephesians 5:25, the husband and wife relationship was in fact always intended to refer in this way to Christ and the church—and thus the core narrative of God’s salvation history with his people. Thus we see that even in providing for his people’s earthly goods and directing them to the pursuit of those goods, God never simply affirmed those goods “in and of themselves.” To the contrary, he affirms earthly goods as earthly goods only by reaching them “in and through” his shaping of all things toward their ultimate telos in Christ.

To receive, express, and cultivate devotion in every area and community of life, we should likewise continually be looking for the ways the word of God orders each of those areas in and to Jesus Christ. Bonhoeffer gives us another pertinent example: in pursuing the relationship of parents to children, we should understand that “human beings are procreated for the glory and service of Jesus Christ and the enlarging of Christ’s kingdom. This means that marriage is the place where children not only are born but also are educated into obedience to Jesus Christ.”[38] To devote one’s family life to God is thus to make it the site of discipleship and not just the pursuit of family entertainment and memories, or the support and education of children for financial and social status. This is, Bonhoeffer concludes, how we should give form to every one of God’s “mandates” (orders) and every relationship. All should be shaped toward the ultimate purposes God gives them in Christ.[39] Bonhoeffer also emphasizes, we should not forget that God calls each of us to specific good works as individuals (Eph 2:10). Therefore, full devotion of all things to God will come about only as every individual also considers the “command of God” for the particular, concrete history God has given them, in but also beyond and sometimes over against the mandates.[40]

On the most basic level, this section has shown that devotion comes through the reception not just of distinctive virtues but of a unified life cogently given by God through the word embodied in all the diverse practices of the sacramental-liturgical drama as it moves from the core life of the church in word and sacrament out into the world. However, it is possible to amplify devotion in these sacramental-liturgical practices. In the next section, we will examine a few of the most fruitful ways in which to do so.

Amplifying Devotion in the Sacramental-Liturgical Drama of Our Lives

Perhaps the most obvious way to increase devotion is simply to engage in the preaching and other sacramental and liturgical practices that foster it. All who participate in these practices are already being formed into the devoted people of God, whether they have ever considered devotion as a Christian concept or not. However, such devotion is no doubt more fully pursued (and embodied) when pursued consciously. This in turn recommends explicit public teaching and preaching on devotion as a form and act constitutive of our creaturely and redeemed nature; my hope is that this essay will be an aid to just this kind of explicit preaching and teaching.

It also seems wise not only to teach the role of preaching, sacraments, and liturgy in fostering devotion by “narrating” our histories toward God but also to encourage fully engaging in the practices of the church to this end. Not only should we teach how each moment of the liturgy and each particular means of grace devotes particular aspects of our lives to God, while the Sunday service as a whole recapitulates the core of salvation in our lives each week; we also should encourage one another to consciously engage preaching, sacraments, and liturgy in a way that sharpens their gathering of our specific history into God. For instance, we teach one another to approach the confession with specific sins in mind, the Kyrie with the needs of the present moment, the readings and sermon to hear how God’s word speaks “today and here,” the offering with a desire not just to dedicate our money and the whole of our lives to God but perhaps also with specific areas of life in mind that need this rededication, and so on. In the same way, in both Bible classes and sermons, we try to help one another think through what it means to follow the pattern of 1 Corinthians 7, Ephesians 5, and 1 Peter 3 in each area and vocation of our lives: what practices can devote that area explicitly to God and not just to “itself,” or to our own “earthly” good in it? What does it mean to direct all things to God in Christ in our workplaces, our schools, our hobby groups (sports, etc.), and so on?

Insofar as our devotion is sustained by fully identifying God and his specific will with our true telos, another vital way to amplify that devotion is to be clear and explicit about that telos in our preaching and teaching. Not only does this mean continually pointing to God and the specifics of his will as our true end and goal, it also means identifying and defining key concepts by which human beings tend to be ordered to a concrete goal for their lives. One that is vital for our concerns is the idea of “the good.” By “the good,” we generally signify what is ultimately fitting and/or desirable.[41] Related terms include “valuable” and “values.” Another key concept is “life”: everyone has some idea of what it means to “truly live” that guides their choices. We often link this idea to concepts related to “reality” and “truth”: insofar as we all intrinsically act on what we believe actually exists, or can exist, in our lives and world, describing something as “real” or “true” gives it power to define the good we pursue. Finally, we might think of more “aesthetic” terms like “beauty,” or “excellence.” These are all terms we use to describe or flesh out what we take to be our telos; therefore, we must link these terms to our true end in God and his will, in all its specifics, if we are to be wholly directed and devoted to God.

Specifically, we should take pains to make certain key points about life, reality, and goodness in our preaching and teaching. First, we should clearly identify God in his glory—initially, in distinction from God in his benefit for us—as the ultimate reality and good. We should then identify God and the whole of his concrete will for us and our world also as our true and sufficient life, reality, and good—our true “fulfillment” or “enhancement.” These things are, quite simply, the core of our true life, reality, and good in God, and thus the proper object of our devotion per se; as we saw in the opening section, the greatest challenge to faith, and thus also the devotion it sustains, comes when suffering or the call to sacrifice produces a stark division between these and every other “earthly good,” including our biological life as such. If we are to remain devoted to God when such crosses come, we must trust and love God, and his will for us as part of the creation directed to Christ, as our true and sufficient end and good—precisely over against and in the absence of every other putative end or good. Otherwise we will either be tempted to choose those other “goods” over God, or to conclude that God himself is not “good,” since in suffering or sacrifice, God refuses to provide us with all possible earthly goods. In either event, devotion fails.

Thus, it is crucial to cultivating devotion the reality and sufficiency of God and the specifics he wills for us in Christ as our true life and good. It is equally critical not to falsely present other things besides God’s glory and will for us in Christ as good simply “in and of themselves.” In so doing, we set up for our hearers a false and misleading notion of life, reality, and goodness that causes them to “fall away” from knowledge of and devotion to our true telos in God. Furthermore, we should recognize that we do not have to use any of the specific concepts for a telos just mentioned in order to direct our hearers toward one. Whatever we treat, even implicitly, as good, true, and valuable is offered to our hearers as a guiding telos. Moreover, it is also possible even to name “God,” “Christ,” or “the gospel” as goal and yet tacitly attach these names to other goods. For instance, if I articulate the “good news” primarily (or worse, solely) as Christ providing for the needs of this earthly life in itself, this wrongly frames these needs as my true end and good, rather than God himself in Christ. This happens perhaps most obviously in the so-called “prosperity gospel.” But it can happen, even unintentionally, when we focus on Christ as the “solution” to earthly problems in our career, relationships, self-esteem and so on, or even as the healer of our physical and other earthly ills. Do not misunderstand: Scripture does clearly portray Christ as a healer and as one who is concerned with this bodily, earthly life; so this is part of the gospel (in the “wide” sense of all the good news Jesus brings). And yet, when not explicitly ordered “under, to and by” our good in God and the concrete historical life he has willed for each of us in Christ, these “lesser” elements of the good subtly displace God—and so undermine our wholehearted devotion to him.[42]

Another way we might amplify devotion is by carefully amplifying the “apocalyptic” in our preaching, sacraments, and liturgy. One excellent example appears in Luther’s baptismal liturgy, translated with light modifications in the Lutheran Service Book (268ff). That liturgy begins with the “minor exorcism,” which radically divides that which is of the Holy Spirit from all that is of the “unclean spirit.” It then proceeds to the “prayer for the flood waters of baptism,” which embeds the baptismal act within God’s whole history of “salvation by water” as it divides Noah, Israel, Christ, church, and the baptized from Noah’s “unbelieving world,” Pharaoh and his host, the “multitude of unbelievers,” and the sinfulness of the baptized herself. At each step, this liturgy places the baptismal candidate into the apocalyptic history whereby God himself fosters an absolute division between faith and unbelief, devotion and rebellion. The stark terms of this liturgy, and its vivid invocation of the unseen world long discounted by many scientistic moderns, could tempt us to look for a “rosier” alternative. And to be sure, such liturgy needs to be preceded by solid teaching in order to be rightly heard and salutarily received. Nevertheless, as we have seen, it is just such “stark,” apocalyptic words that are critical to God’s formation of wholly devoted disciples; thus, we should preserve them even as we seek to ensure they are rightly understood and used.

We likewise can amplify apocalyptic formation of devotion in preaching and teaching by confronting the specific idols common in our particular lives and communities—for instance, the consumerism and individualism Smith identifies. In the interest of incorporating devotion in every area of our lives in our undivided dedication to God, we can use sermons and Bible studies to probe how particular idols influence specific areas like marriage and childrearing, local and national community and politics, and so on. At its best, indeed precisely on the model of 1 Corinthians 7 and related passages, this “negative” exploration of idolatry would dovetail with our positive imagination of how to embody Christ-shaped alternative practices in those same situations.

In all of these amplifications of apocalyptic, however, we are well-advised to proceed carefully, in the following specific ways. First, it is all too easy for “apocalyptic” thoughts, conversation, and practice to focus on “the culture out there.” However, as church we are called to judge ourselves, not the “worldly”; indeed, we Christians, simul justus et peccator, find that we have been influenced in conscious and unconscious ways by our cultures, so that we “do the very same things” (1 Cor 5, Rom 2). Thus, our goal in sermons and Bible studies should be to grow in devotion ourselves by allowing God’s apocalypse to reveal our sins, these cultural influences which we have made our own. Second, any faithful amplification of apocalyptic needs to proceed always with a nuanced understanding of key biblical distinctions. In all our preaching and practice, we must make clear that apocalyptic divides what is godly from what is sinful and not from what is created. For instance, Scripture makes clear that God desires us generally to pursue the bodily good of all except where this pursuit collides with the call to sacrifice for God’s ultimate purposes in Christ or to vindicate God’s goodness in the midst of suffering in our witness. Therefore, while apocalyptic might condemn turning bodily goods into idols, it should be careful not to suggest that all pursuit of bodily goods is evil as such. Third, in speaking apocalyptically, we need a nuanced analysis of what is happening “on the ground.” Since even outside the church God preserves some of the ordering that belongs to creation amidst the fall and loves all things in and toward Christ (Col 1), we must not simply refer to everything in “the world” as that which God’s apocalypse rules out. Rather, we must distinguish the positive elements in the world from those that “fall away.” We ultimately will fail to draw the line of devotion rightly if we do not explicitly identify and “retrieve” these creaturely elements within “fallen” culture—and so clarify where the real sin lies while actively learning how to devote that area of our lives to God once more.[43]

Let me make these points more concrete with one example, the “apocalyptic” confrontation with individualism. On the one hand, God has created human beings as communal and relational in his own Trinitarian image (Gn 1:26–27); therefore, it is valid to speak “apocalyptically” against a common North American bent toward emphasizing the individual in an isolated and egoistic way; against this, we can explore what it concretely means today to totally devote ourselves to God, neighbor, and the common life of the church and our other communities (cf. Acts 2:42ff; Phil 2:4; Heb 10:25). However, since God also created human beings with “individual” destinies, works, and rights (Eph 2:10, Prv 31:8–9), we would be mistaken to rail “apocalyptically” against all emphasis on the individual as such. Instead, we should present and explore God’s own subtly-nuanced, given and commanded relation of individuals to their communities. A full exploration would require attending to the different ways God relates individuals to the community throughout Scripture, that is in the example of God’s interactions with the patriarchs, his specific commands in the Mosaic law and NT apostolic paraenesis, and the practices of the various early congregations. Yet we can also begin to make headway by simply asking what it would mean for a given context to “love the neighbor as myself,” act as a member whose own life and good is organically and cooperatively bound up with the overall health of a given communal “body,” and seek first the kingdom in that situation for one’s self and others.

Finally, in all of this, we must be careful not to speak of devotion only or primarily as a “law” that judges what is not of God and directs us to do what is. To be sure, devotion includes this too. However, at its root, our lack of devotion stems from a corrupted orientation to and desire for false “gods”; and as Lutheran ethicist Bernd Wannenwetsch notes, while “moralizing” can make us feel shame and guilt, the desire for a false good itself can only be displaced by a stronger positive desire for God as the greater and true good. It is precisely this desire that God gives us through the gospel.[44] Therefore, in all our preaching and teaching, we should highlight the “gospel” side of devotion. For instance, we might highlight the image of Jeremiah 2: devotion as part of our “marital” relation to God, and the joy and love to be found there, rooted as it is in his ever-greater devotion to us in Christ. Likewise, we might highlight how what God devotes us to—himself and his concrete will—is in fact our true good and the good of all things. So too, we might highlight the gospel side of sanctification itself: this sanctification is first and foremost God’s gift to us of a life freed from the fallen powers that ultimately enslave us (Rom 6). We might also note that devotion is a sharing in the life of Christ, who literally found his most fundamental nourishment in his complete dedication to the Father and his will (Jn 4–5). Recognizing, with Alasdair MacIntyre, that one of the fundamental problems of contemporary life is its fragmentation into the pursuit of discrete and conflicting goods by discrete and conflicting individuals in discrete and conflicting communities, we might welcome the undivided comprehensiveness of devotion as the alleviation of this pressing human condition in complete freedom for God.[45] Exploring how devotion is thus gospel in each of these ways in each area of our lives thus should also be a critical component of our preaching and Bible studies.


This essay argued that Scripture calls us to think of devotion first as a key component of the core created and redeemed form of the human being, which is simultaneously embodied in and through our external lives and actions. We also saw that devotion interweaves with other core dispositions like love, obedience, and worship, but also how it depends on faith, especially when pressed to its greatest test and most exemplary form by suffering and sacrifice. We then considered the benefits of speaking of this form as a “virtue,” refined by the robust scriptural and Lutheran insistence on the precedence of justification and divine action also in sanctification and the formation of devotion itself. We explored how devotion is given, expressed, embodied, and cultivated especially through the apocalyptic, sacramental-liturgical drama that unifies the diverse instantiations of God’s word as means to devote the whole of our lives unto the Lord. We considered the specific, intrinsic contributions of each of these means in their regular administration and also how to amplify devotion within these practices and clearly present devotion as part of the “good news” of the life God gives us in Christ. May these reflections assist in some small measure as we continue to receive and participate in God’s own gracious action to devote us ever more deeply to himself and one another.


[1] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ethics: Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Works in English (DBWE), vol. 6, trans. and ed. Clifford J. Green, et al. (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2005), 47–59. Bonhoeffer does not expressly use the term devotion in this passage, but his claims express and elaborate upon just the kind of undivided comprehensiveness we have found in 1 Corinthians 7.

[2] Bonhoeffer, Creation and Fall (DBWE 3)

[3] Martin Luther, Small Catechism (SC), Explanation to the First Article of the Creed.

[4] Acts 2:42–47: “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. And awe came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles. And all who believed were together and had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.”

[5] Cf. Ephesians 2:8–9, Romans 4, and AC IV.

[6] Joseph J. Godfrey, Trust of People, Words, and God: A Route for Philosophy of Religion (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2012). In addition to mounting the arguments described here, Godfrey also offers a helpful overview of key literature on trust in philosophy, philosophical theology, and several social sciences.

[7] Luther, “Treatise on Good Works,” AE 44:30. Cited in Gifford Grobien, Christian Character Formation: Lutheran Studies of the Law, Anthropology, Worship, and Virtue (Oxford: OUP, 2019).

[8] This paragraph draws on aspects of Jean Porter, “Virtue,” The Oxford Handbook of Theological Ethics, Gilbert Meilaender and William Werpehowski, eds. (New York: OUP, 2007) and Porter, “Virtue and the Happy Life,” Nature as Reason: A Thomistic Theory of the Natural Law (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005), 141–230.

[9] The image of the good as magnet comes from Iris Murdoch’s Sovereignty of the Good, refracted through the work of John Hare, God’s Call: Moral Realism, God’s Commands, and Human Autonomy (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000). I added the image of the human as arrow to highlight the centrality of intentionality (aim).

[10] Augustine mentions devotion in at least one list of virtues in On the Morals of the Catholic Church (31.67), albeit only in passing: “quiet, modest, peaceful, their life is one of perfect harmony and devotion to God, an offering most acceptable to Him.” Aquinas makes devotion an auxiliary virtue “annexed” to the virtue of “religion,” which itself is “annexed” to the primary virtue of “justice.” See his Summa Theologica (ST) II–II 82.2c, ad 1.

[11] See e.g. Aquinas, ST I–II 49.4 ad 1, 71.1, 85.1 et passim.

[12] “Treatise on Good Works” AE 44:77–78; Isaiah AE 16:321; Greater Galatians Commentary AE 26:127.

[13] This is true of both Augustine and Aquinas (see again, Porter, “Virtue”), even if we ultimately conclude they did not go far enough.

[14] Joel Biermann, A Case for Character: Toward a Lutheran Virtue Ethics (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2014), 118–133, 162.

[15] Grobien, Christian Character Formation, 84ff et passim.

[16] Apology XIII.4; Luther, Large Catechism 4.65; Luther, Smalcald Articles III.4.

[17] See, Smalcald Articles III 5.1: “as also Augustine says: Let the Word come to the elementand it becomes a Sacrament.”

[18] William M. Cwirla, “Unfolding the Meaning of the Liturgy” in Paul J. Grime and Dean W. Nadasdy, eds. Liturgical Preaching: Contemporary Essays (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2001), 135–161 (136).

[19] I take my cue here from Bonhoeffer’s emphasis in Ethics that God has elected a concrete history with concrete commands that must determine our “form” on every level, individual, communal, thoughts, words, deeds. Notably, in Ethics, Bonhoeffer seems to refuse any notion of “virtue” as one such level. However, as Jennifer Moberley has recently pointed out, Bonhoeffer does speak of certain “virtue-like” forms. See Moberley, The Virtue of Bonhoeffer’s Ethics: A Study of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Ethics in Relation to Virtue Ethics (Eugene, OR: Pickwick, 2013). While Moberely leaves form and command largely side by side, we can go further: for Bonhoeffer himself, these forms are commanded, which should lead to the logical resolution implicit in the claims above: virtue is one element within the command of God, though that command cannot be reduced to virtue and the virtues must be continually determined by the breadth of God’s concrete commands.

[20] Biermann, A Case for Character, 1–14 et passim. Grobien, Christian Character Formation, 71–72. For a mature essay by Hauerwas that concisely uses MacIntyre to show the importance of narrative, virtue, and practices for the human existence in its historicity, see “How to be an Agent: Why Character Matters,” chapter 4 in The Work of Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2015), 70–89.

[21] Kevin J. Vanhoozer, The Drama of Doctrine: A Canonical-Linguistic Approach to Christian Theology (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2005), 37–56, 407–409.

[22] Perhaps few have done more to advance this claim than Oswald Bayer. See, e.g., his Theology the Lutheran Way, ed. and trans. Jeffrey G. Silcock and Mark C. Mattes (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007). See also Grobien’s use of Bayer and others in this vein in Christian Character Formation, 144ff.

[23] “Apocalyptic” has recently experienced a resurgence as a major theological category, especially in the wake of the work of Ernst Käsemann and J. Louis Martyn. For an overview of Martyn and an indication of the variety of directions taken thereafter, see Joshua B. Davis and Douglas Harink, eds. Apocalyptic and the Future of Theology: With and Beyond J. Louis Martyn (Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2012). For a critical appropriation of Käsemann and a perspective on apocalyptic particularly close to that employed here, see Philip G. Ziegler, Militant Grace: The Apocalyptic Turn and the Future of Christian Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2018).

[24] James K. A. Smith, Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2009), 19–22; Imagining the Kingdom: How Worship Works (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2013), 75–103; Awaiting the King: Reforming Public Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2017), 203–205.

[25] Cf. Grobien, 148–152. I offer my own summary of Grobien’s use of the term “symbolic order.” Grobien in turn takes it over from Louis-Marie Chauvet, Symbol and Sacrament: A Sacramental Reinterpretation of Christian Existence, trans. Madeleine Beaumont and Patrick Madigan (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1995), including from the following from p.84–85: “This symbolic order designates the system of connections between the different elements and levels of a culture . . . a system forming a coherent whole that allows the social group and individuals to orient themselves in space, find their place in time, and . . . situate themselves in the world in a significant way.”

[26] Bonhoeffer, Discipleship, 207–210. NB: Bonhoeffer is drawing implicitly here on the narrative of Mark’s Gospel in which Jesus performs this devoted “supplanting” of the natural family for God and “those who do God’s will” first with respect to himself (“whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother,” Mk 3:35) and then with respect to the disciples, who, in place of the families and fields they have left to follow Jesus, are given “a hundredfold in houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands in this life, with persecutions, and in the age to come, eternal life” in place of the families and fields they have left to follow Jesus (Mk 10:30). While Bonhoeffer doesn’t explain the hermeneutic moves that get him to the final point, it seems likely that he is aptly taking the idea of a “hundredfold” increase to rule out the standard, “biological” definition of family and property; instead, Jesus must be speaking metaphorically (parabolically?) of the disciple’s reception of new “brothers, sisters, and mothers” and “mission fields” as the join Jesus in the new family of the church.

[27] Both Bonhoeffer and Grobien develop the first point by citing and building on Luther’s “The Blessed Sacrament of the Holy and True body of Christ and the Brotherhoods (1519), AE 35:45–74. Bonhoeffer, Sanctorum Communio, 178–182; Grobien, Christian Character Formation, 170–172.

[28] Apology XIII.4; Luther, Large Catechism 4.65; Luther, Smalcald Articles III.4.

[29] Cf. Grobien, Christian Character Formation, 164–167. I also agree with Grobien when he argues in this passage that proclaiming and practicing this link between baptism and confession/absolution is vital for countering Hauerwas’s charge that Lutheran theology tends to divorce baptismal conversion from the equally biblical conception of life and salvation as an ongoing journey of continual (re-)conversion, faith, and sanctified growth.

[30] Bonhoeffer points the way toward these claims with his connection of baptism and the Lord’s Supper to the ongoing life of the church in Sanctorum Communio, 178–208 and in the way that his “Lectures on Christology,” narrate the “Form [Gestalt] of Christ” (NB the singular, “Form”) precisely as a threefold movement: “Christ as Word, Christ as Sacrament, Christ as Church-Community.” Berlin, 315–323.

[31] See again, Cwirla, “Unfolding the Meaning of the Liturgy,” 136.

[32] The term “historic liturgy” simply refers to the basic form or structure of the historic rite of the western church.

[33] Grobien, Christian Character Formation, 163–182.

[34] Smith, Desiring, 203ff.

[35] Smith, Desiring, 155ff.

[36] I am drawing on Bonhoeffer, Ethics, 388–405 and Grobien, Christian Character Formation, 204–207.

[37] Bonhoeffer, Ethics, 70ff.

[38] Ethics, 71.

[39] Ethics, 69: “It is a matter of ‘divine’ mandates in the midst of the world, whether they concern work, marriage, government, or church. These mandates are divine, however, only because of their original and final relation to Christ. Detached from this relation, ‘in themselves,’ they are not divine, just as the world ‘in itself’ is not divine. Work ‘in itself’ is not divine, but work for the sake of Jesus Christ, for the sake of a divine task and goal, is divine. The reason for the divine character of work cannot be seen in its general usefulness, its value, but can only be found when looking to the origin, the existence, and the goal of work given in Jesus Christ. So it is with the other mandates.”

[40] Bonhoeffer, Ethics, 289–293.

[41] This is a modification of the definition of goodness offered by Aristotle and taken up by Thomas Aquinas: “The essence of goodness consists in this, that it is in some way desirable. Hence the Philosopher [Aristotle] says [Nichomachean Ethics I]: ‘Goodness is what all desire.’” (ST I 5.1). Across the history of “Western” ethics, the notion of “desirability” has tended to be indexed to the self, i.e. desirable for me. The addition of the term “fitting” intends to emphasize that the desirability can be more “objective” and less egocentric, i.e. desirable on account of its intrinsic goodness, truth, and beauty.

[42] Many of the specifics in the last three paragraphs are my own. However, I take from Dietrich Bonhoeffer the core awareness that critical terms like life, reality, and goodness need to be explicitly connected to God and his will in Christ, and that the naming of anything else as good “in and of itself” creates a false notion of our end that causes us to “fall away” from God as our true reality and goal. See for instance Ethics, 48–49, 59, 249–250.

[43] We spent eight months in Sunday adult Bible class in my own parish, St. Peter Lutheran in Mishawaka, IN, doing just this, before being interrupted by COVID-19. We were in the midst of considering particular areas of reality and practice like: cultivating one’s own bodily existence (practices of health, well-being, and dying; consumption and leisure; success and achievement, etc.); near relationships (interpersonal friendship; singleness, marriage, sexuality, childrearing, and household-building; schools and education; companies and economic relations; sports teams and other voluntary associations); larger relationships (city, state, and national political communities; arts, culture, and entertainment; military and legal communities and practices; media and social media; racial and ethnic groups); global relationships (international relationships and the human community; animals, the environment, and us). Participants found it a fruitful way to discern what the Gospel and devotion to God means, practically and concretely, for each area of their lives. However, in support of the points above, I want to flag that we were unable as a group to even identify the “idols” of culture until we first explicitly “retrieved” what is at least partially in line with creation and even “redemption” (e.g. the cultural exercise of mercy) in common cultural practices. Also, this side of the eschaton, as the parable of the wheat and tares reminds us (Mt 13:24–30), it is not always possible to totally separate what is righteous from what is wicked, since the fallen world is precisely the weaving together of God’s good gift with human misuse of it. This calls for a great deal of discernment, as well as refusal of falsely “ideal” solutions that uproot good with bad. Finally, NB also that Smith confesses, in the preface to Awaiting (xii–xiv), that his earlier volumes had failed to draw this distinction rightly—in part, he thinks, because he relied too much on the work of Stanley Hauerwas, which tends to draw an absolute [I would say: “ideal” and rhetorical, rather than concrete, “real,” and biblical] church-world distinction. Smith credits Augustine and Oliver O’Donovan for drawing him back to the more nuanced view represented here.

[44] I paraphrase these claims from memory. Sadly, I cannot locate the original reference.

[45] MacIntyre, Chaper 15, After Virtue (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1981). I thank Gerald McKenny for encouraging me to think about the significance of devotion as the opposite of fragmentation.





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