Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Much ado about something. . .

There has been a dust up in the Synod, not official, but a discussion over the issue of the role of the Law in the life of the Christian.  Some probably sigh and wonder if we are narrowing the narrow gate even more in our pursuit of a purity cult but this is not at all like that.  It is a good discussion on a particularly relevant topic.

On the one hand there are those who minimize the so-called Third Use of the Law (look up the Formula of Concord Article VI here for those who wonder what this means).  It is all grace and all good.  And then there are those who speak for the Third Use and insist that the good works we do are guided by the Law (which, as some say, always accuses -- but does not only accuse).  It is a good discussion because on the one hand nobody wants anybody to think that works count toward salvation.  Only Christ and His merits are responsible.  But on the other hand we come face to face with the teaching of St. Paul who repeatedly exhorts God's people to good works and the preaching of Luther which mirrors St. Paul.  On the other hand, Lutheran preachers today are generally not so keen on such a bold call to good works and exhorts the people to godly living (walking worthy of their calling).

I will not attempt to rehash or even summarize the whole debate here but I will say that it is a good debate to have.  Iron sharpens iron (at least so the Scriptures say).  If we are to be discussing things, this is a profound and serious issue to talk about and one that should not be ignored.  It cannot be a choice between the preaching of justification by grace through faith and good works. It must be both. As Luther put it in his 1535 Galatians commentary, “Therefore it is as necessary that faithful preachers urge good works as that they urge the doctrine of faith.” Again he wrote “This is why faithful preachers must exert themselves as much in urging a love that is unfeigned or in urging truly good works as in teaching true faith.”

My point is this.  Preaching the Third Use of the Law does require care but it is not so difficult as to give the preacher the option of ignoring it.  In fact, failing to preach the Third Use is itself failing to preach the whole counsel of God.  Yet who wants to do this?  Nobody that I know.  We would all rather end every sermon at the restatement of what Christ has done for you and presume that the Spirit will fill in the gaps and move the Christian to fight the flesh and to desire what is good, right, true, and virtuous.  Yet, therein lies the problem.  It seems, at least superficially, to take away from the Gospel to urge God's people to good works.  Perhaps more importantly, it steps on toes.

The Formula of Concord says:
Therefore, in this life, because of the desires of the flesh, the faithful, elect, reborn children of God need not only the law’s daily instruction and admonition, its warning and threatening. Often they also need its punishments, so that they may be incited by them and follow God’s Spirit, as it is written, ‘It is good for me that I was humbled, so that I might learn your statutes’ [Ps. 119:71]. And again, ‘I punish my body and enslave it, so that after proclaiming to others I myself should not be disqualified’ [1 Cor. 9:17]. And again, ‘If you do not have that discipline in which all children share, you are illegitimate and not his children’ [Heb. 12:8].
How then shall we live?  It is a joyful affirmation that God has in Christ accomplished all things for us and our salvation and yet the question lingers -- so, how then does the Christian live in response to God's grace and baptismal gift?  That is what this debate is all about.  How then shall we live out the baptismal grace and gift we have been given in Christ Jesus?  And that is every bit as much of the preacher's task as proclaiming that the wages of sin is death and the free gift of God in Christ is everlasting life.

I must admit that the beginning of my preaching career I found it easier to skirt the issue than face it.  Yet, I found, as probably most of my hearers did, that the proclamation of this Gospel alone was not urging me toward or defining for me the shape of the Christian life that follows from God's saving gift.  I confess that I need to hear the urging of the Law and need to be encouraged to good works.  I need to be encouraged to struggle against sin and fight against the dominion of the devil, the world, and my own sinful self.  I am not who I was but neither am I yet who I shall be.  And right now there is a battle going on within me -- not the easy battle between me and the world but the more personal and difficult battle within me, between the dying old man who refuses to leave without a fight and the new person created in Christ Jesus for good works.  I am certainly no better at this than St. Paul:  So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. (Romans 7:21-23 ESV)

This is NOT a question of the Gospel being inadequate but rather how God works to accomplish His will and purpose. It is rather about using the full language of Scripture to confront our sins and call us to repentance. It is about using the full language of Scripture to exhort, encourage, and instruct the forgiven sinner to live the new life given him in his baptism, reflected in new obedience and good works. For the Lutheran preacher, we use both ways of addressing the Christian because both ways are addressed by the Holy Spirit in God's Word.

This topic is not theoretical in the least but profoundly practical and urgent. Brothers, if we cannot discuss this, we cannot discuss anything. So I suggest we discuss this. At our winkels, at district pastoral conferences, and informally. The more the better. Searching the Scriptures and reading again our own Confessions. And I am confident we will be better off for it.


Jason said...

Something I have mentioned to older kids in Sunday school is that we pray every week the Lord's Prayer. "Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven." Again, what is God's will? What is the good life according to a Christian? What are these "good works laid out before us"? (Ephesians 2:10, a confirmation memory verse) Failure to discuss or preach Third Use, or even mention it, is the 40 years of bad catechesis Pres. Harrison told us about a few years back. It is a battle I see playing out in the northeast.

Jason Kiefer

John Joseph Flanagan said...

Good points. Indeed we need to discuss the uses of the Law. I think we should also address the book of James, which clearly shows the relationship between works and faith...."Show me your faith by your works," and the examples James gives.

jwskud said...

I agree - this issue needs discussion, and much of it...but among PASTORS, in PRIVATE.

Much harm has been done in the blogosphere by Lutheran pastors arguing about this particular issue. Nothing good comes of it, and we laypeople are cast into confusion because of it. I could give you many, many examples. Most recently, Pastors Surburg and Borghardt were going at it (

In my personal readings and studying, I too vacillate on this topic like a human metronome. It has, at times, caused me no shortage of concern and despair.

I believe that Jesus Christ is my Lord and Savior, that he willingly took my place on the cross, to save me from sin and death. Without him I have nothing. I stand justified before God, yet still a sinner. Simul justus et peccator.

But now, as a justified Christian, I am faced with a dilemma - how do I live? There seem to be 2 camps out there (even within Lutheranism), preaching two entirely different approaches to sanctification.

Camp 1: sanctification flows spontaneously from faith. This includes the everyday, mundane tasks of living and helping our neighbors. This camp is not overly concerned with active and conscious striving against sin, although it is preached. Into this camp I would place Gerhard Forde (AALC), Tullian Tchividjian (PCA, whose preaching has revealed grace to me in magnificent ways despite his recent fall), and much of what I’ve read in Luther.

Camp 2: sanctification occurs in the believer through the grace of God but also through the will of the believer. It is constantly looking for ways to improve, to stop sinning, to take up one’s cross and be all that you can be as a Christian. This camp largely belongs to the Catholics, Baptists, and Fundamentalists, but Lutherans also preach this way. Some of Luther’s writings can be seen this way, as well.

Allow me to illustrate with the following example by describing the virtue of honesty as seen by the 2 camps:

Camp 1 (the passive/semi-monergistic sanctification crowd) condemns dishonest living based on the lack of faith of the believer, from which honesty flows. In other words, you’re not believing and understanding Christ’s work for your redemption enough, which is why you act dishonestly. It is not your effort that is lacking, but your faith. You need to hear the Gospel more and more, to strengthen that faith. This camp (to me) trusts that God's Gospel word is efficacious and only it can bring about real change, and we need to trust in that. This camp calls Camp 2 "covert antinomians," in that they soften the Law to make it achievable, thereby eradicating its true essence.

Camp 2 (the active/synergistic sanctification crowd) condemns dishonest living because God granted you his power to combat sin and you’re too weak to keep up your end of the bargain. In other words, you have faith but your actions and effort are insufficient. You need to be bludgeoned with the Law to show how you're failing in your Christian walk. This camp calls Camp 1 "soft antinomians."

I understand the arguments of both camps, and I've observed Lutheran pastors engaged in arguments on this topic all over the internet. I wish you guys could get together and talk this over and align your teachings...

ErnestO said...

It would not be a sin to use the law on the unregenerate or the regenerate. If we might wish to measure the strength of ones faith it surely would align in how much they live within and by the law.

All things work they just do not work everywhere.

jwskud said...

ErnestO - Truly I tell you, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, "Move from here to there," and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you!

And yet, I don't see any of us moving mountains...could it be we lack faith the size of even a mustard seed?

I think it is a very, very dangerous thing to try to "measure" the strength/size of one's faith based on what we do (or see others do). Rather, as James says, we can know we have faith by what we do...but not the measure or extent of that faith.

Rather, I think it wise to reply, "I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!" I'll leave the measure of my faith to the Holy Spirit who generates that faith within me.

Moreover, in the context of my post, is the one who is more aligned with the Law keeping it by their own power or by the faith generated within them by the hearing of the Gospel? I'd argue the latter. So do we need more Law or more Gospel?

I believe the Old Adam in us always needs to hear the Law, to suppress him (through fear/admonition) and what he continues to want to do, as Luther would say, but insofar as we are New Creations, with the already Law written on our hearts and the Holy Spirit working within us (Phil 2:13), we need only more Gospel, wherein we begin to keep the Law freely and spontaneously. Since we are both saint and sinner, we need both, but for different reasons.

jb said...

Point of reference: Dr. Scaer's little monograph, James: The Apostle of Faith, is and excellent read. I highly recommentd it.

Pastor Peters - nor argument from me. The proper distinction of Law and gospel should be a topic of weekly personal study. Bit also, we need to get that proper understanding out to the guys in the field. I would rather not have the constant little public battle battles raging, which certainly does the Confessional cause no favor. I agree whole-heartedly with jwskud's very first sentence. We do not need to be airing our dirty underwear in such fashion. Use personal contact, or winkels and District Pastoral meetings to generate discussion. Help your brethren, especially in your winkels, to make a thorough study of this. They, and Districts, can submit findings to the top guns at the Sems, or to CTCR.

I confess an advantage - I sat at the feet of of Scaer, Preus and Marquart for 3 years. There are many of their students out there. I can only speak to Norm Nagel at St. Loo, but he is solid. This is far too important not to study, and know, together(!) as brethren of the LCMS.


Rev Jeff Baxter, Em. (jb)