The Christian is an optimist. I’ve seen that statement attributed to a number of theologians. Whoever said it, he or she was right. The Christian is an optimist. Baptism makes it so. The Christian is confident and free. Absolution breaks our chains and chases away our fears, so that, as Luther says, we “learn to love God and receive a joyful, confident, and peaceful heart.” This confidence isn’t turned inward. We aren’t confident in ourselves. Rather, this confidence, like all else, is a gift. It’s the confidence of faith. It comes with Christ. Paul told the Galatians as he closed his letter to them, “Far be it from me to boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.”

This confidence comes from a new relationship—a new relationship with God. It comes with a new relationship with the world. We have a righteousness apart from the law, given to us through faith, which itself is the gift of God. We know God not according to His wrath but according to His mercy. Heaven isn’t on the other end of a ladder. Heaven is ours, and so our theology works up from the manger and not down from speculations about God and His attributes. The human heart knows no end to idol making. We can turn anything into a god. God has broken this cycle in our lives, though. The world is now given back to us as a gift, full of gifts, not to be deified, but enjoyed and used in service to our neighbor. Gerhard Forde put it well: “Precisely because the gospel gives the kingdom of God unconditionally to faith, this world opens up and is given back as the place to serve the other.” Precisely because there is nothing for us to do for our salvation, we are free to be active in love, to live freely by grace. This is the freedom the church proclaims in the gospel. Forde added, “But after all, in spite of our reluctance and timidity, it isn’t some Herculean task we are being asked to do. It has all been done. All we have to do is say it; just let the bird fly!”

This confidence isn’t turned inward. We aren’t confident in ourselves. Rather, this confidence, like all else, is a gift.

This book is about letting the bird fly, so to speak. It’s about living freely in a world given back to us. It describes the baptismal life—a life lived in the confidence of faith, with the optimism of sins forgiven. Apart from the absolution, it will make little sense. The ethic found here is possible only for the walking dead and crucified living. I pray it finds you as such, and if not, I hope it helps to nudge you that way.

This book is a quick survey. It isn’t an academic treatise. I’m not hoping to talk to a few who “get it.” This book is for us, whoever we may be. To be honest, what was in my mind for much of the time I worked on it was my students: first, in my ethics course, and second, in a Christ and culture course a colleague and I are building at the college where I serve. These are the types of things I want to help anchor and orient my students to in Christianity before we examine other truth claims and philosophies and the world and all its wonder in general through a Christian lens. I’m not aiming for a specific denomination, class, club, or reading level, although I am an ordained Lutheran pastor who serves as a professor at a Lutheran college, and this certainly shapes what you’ll find here. I don’t try to hide it. You don’t have to agree with it all, either. I do hope, though, that what I have to say serves an audience broader than my church body or particular confession. This is a book about the Christian life—where it’s found and what it looks like— and that, in broad strokes. I don’t tackle what theologians call questions of casuistry. There is no “if a, then b” stuff in here. This is the big picture, and it leaves the minutiae for someone else, because if we don’t get the big picture, nothing else matters. That’s what I’m after, at least. Whether or not I accomplish it, that you can decide.

If we want people to understand who Christ is and what the Christian message is in more than just caricatures or according to the worst of the church, then we need to understand how to engage in meaningful, gentle, and loving ways.

As you will find, this book has chapters of two sorts. The majority serve to ground the reader in basic teachings or distinctions fundamental to understanding the Christian life and life as a Christian in this world. Two of the chapters especially tease out how these things play out in the Christian’s experience, first, in the church with the chapter, “Law and Gospel Done”, and second, in our daily lives among others, in the chapter, “Stepping outside the Fortress”. All of the chapters are intended to be practical, insofar as all theology is practical, but it’s in these chapters especially that I want to drive home my key purposes in writing this book. The Christian needs to be fed. He or she needs, not only to understand what law and gospel are but also to have law and gospel done to them. Christians need preachers. The Christian also then goes out into a school or workplace or community, where he or she encounters neighbors of many kinds. If we are going to be salt and light, if the church is going to get a fair hearing, and if we want people to understand who Christ is and what the Christian message is in more than just caricatures or according to the worst of the church, then we need to understand how to engage in meaningful, gentle, and loving ways. “Stepping Outside the Fortress” is my attempt to help us to do that.

In short, I pray that what follows will help anchor you in the gospel and equip you to use the same as a lens for understanding the Christian life, assessing ethical, political, and philosophical arguments, and engaging your neighbors as you find them, both inside and outside church walls.

An excerpt from “Let the Bird Fly” written by Wade Johnston (1517 Publishing, 2019). Used by Permission.

Let the Bird Fly will be available to purchase from 1517 later this fall.