The estimable Anthony Sacramone has been carrying on a fascinating and helpful discussion (in two posts here and here on Jonathan Fisk’s Broken) about the Lutheran view of the Christian life, how it perhaps doesn’t do enough with sanctification. I think the missing link, so to speak, is the doctrine of vocation. Here is a somewhat revised version of what I posted as a comment:
The doctrine of vocation is not just about our work. It really is the Lutheran doctrine of the Christian life. We are brought to faith through Word and Sacrament and then we live out that faith in love and service to our neighbors. “Let each person lead the life that the Lord has assigned to him, and to which God has called him” (1 Corinthians 7:17). And God assigns us and calls us to various and multiple tasks in the orders that He has created for human beings: the household (the family plus economic labor), the church, the state, and what Luther called “the general order of Christian love” (the informal relationships of friendship, interactions with others, as in the Good Samaritan parable, etc.) . Vocation is where sanctification happens, where we exercise our faith, where we battle with sin, where we grow “in faith towards you [God], and in fervent love for one another” (as it says at the end of the liturgy, when we are sent back into our vocations).
I wonder if the problem is the ordinariness of the good works that take place in vocation. As Einar Billing says in Our Calling, “In all our religious and ethical life, we are given to an incredible overestimation of the extraordinary at the expense of the ordinary.” You say that when you were growing up, it seemed like all the Lutherans you knew were just plodding along pursuing a middle class lifestyle, with lots of respect for authority. Well, you speak of that as if it were a little thing. I suspect that whether they were pursuing a “middle class” or a “lower class” lifestyle, they were attending to their families, to their work, and to their communities (going to Kiwanis, going bowling with their buddies, watching a game). These all have to do with vocation. Now I recall that when I was young and didn’t particularly have vocations of my own that I knew about (though I had the vocation of being a son, a student, and more, though I didn’t think of them in that way), I looked down on the mundane life of those adults, but now I have a lot of respect for that.
It was John Wesley, I believe, who, though coming to faith by hearing Luther’s Commentary on Romans, said of Lutherans that they were good on the Gospel but “weak on sanctification.” Lutherans shouldn’t brag on that, but rather deny that it is true. Wesley was really strong on sanctification and became a model of pious behavior. And yet his marriage was miserable. He mistreated his wife and she mistreated him. Luther would say that there is something lacking when a Christian does great things for the Lord, but neglects his calling in marriage. (All due respect to Wesley, by the way, a great evangelist. He was, in fact, the great preacher and exemplar of sanctification, the call to holiness, attaining the second gift of perfection. And yet he and his wife refused to love and serve each other.) Sanctification without vocation tends to be reduced to minor asceticisms (not drinking or smoking), or to monastic-style doing great deeds for the Lord (becoming a missionary or starting a ministry). Those can indeed be worthy vocations for some people. But for most Christians in this vein, when you ask them what works they are doing that are so good, so sanctifying, they usually don’t amount to all that much after all. But they can still have great significance. And they usually take place in the context of vocation: Being a good husband, a good father, a good worker, a good citizen. These things are hard. They are frustrating, filled with trials and tribulations but also occasions for growth. They’ll make you plenty holy if you do them in faith.
You talked about the constant repetitions of Lutheranism, a sense that there is no progress being made. We sin, we repent, we receive forgiveness in church, we go back into our vocations, whereupon we sin, we repent, we receive forgiveness in church. Lather (work yourself up), rinse (return to your baptism), repeat. But this is a cycle, like the days of the week or the seasons of the year, an order of life. Yes, in our vocations we often do not love and serve our neighbors (like our wife, our children, our customers); rather, we want them to love and serve us. So we sin in and against our vocations. Then we come to church, and, as the Catechism says about “what sins we should confess,” we consider our various “stations” (i.e., vocations) in light of the Ten Commandments and we receive absolution from the pastor as from Christ himself (“as a called [vocation reference] and ordained servant of the word”), just as God works through all of our vocations. And in the service we hear God’s Word, experience Christ’s presence and realize again His sacrifice for us, and we are built up in our faith. Whereupon we are sent back into our vocations to live out that “faith working through love.” That’s how we grow and how we make progress, though with much slippage along the way. But it’s a real thing that is happening. As for conquering the sins we struggle with, believe me, individual confession and absolution is the best and most powerful way to do that, as many will testify.
Luther is actually the best theologian I have read about ethics and the Christian life. He says that for a good work to be “good” it should actually help someone. That is, it should be directed to one’s neighbor, as opposed to being directed to God. He gives all kinds of practical guidance for how this plays out in everyday life.
Do read Gustaf Wingren’s Luther on Vocation, the book that made the scales fall off of my eyes about the Christian life. (Read Koeberle’s The Quest for Holiness too, as other commenters have been recommending.)