When is the Gospel not the Gospel? When the Law isn't the Law.

The Right-On Rev. Nadia Boltz-Weber is an interesting phenomenon. A tattooed, profanity-friendly ELCA clergy person who wears the only sleeveless clerical shirt I've ever seen is something of a superstar, an advocate of "meeting people where they are." Young folk, especially.

As an alumnus of the 'Sixties (and of Wartburg Seminary, where the 'Sixties never ended), I find this sort of old hat. What's refreshing about Rev. Boltz-Weber, though, is her emphasis on sin and grace- in other words, on the Christian Gospel.

Mind you, she gets the Christian Gospel wrong. But hey. She makes the gesture, at least.

The late Dr. Gerhardt Forde was fond of contrasting Luther's understanding of Christianity as a daily return to the baptismal font to be forgiven and restored with the Roman Catholic (and pseudo-evangelical) understanding of the Christian life as a climbing of Jacob's ladder, an upward ascent toward greater and greater personal holiness. Now, the fact of the matter is that I- and most Missouri Synod Lutherans I know- grew up with that second, essentially Roman Catholic view of sanctification. Certainly the message I got in parochial school is that I needed to be making discernible progress in my spiritual life, because if I didn't something was desperately wrong. In fact, the implication was that if you weren't growing spiritually, you were spiritually dead.

It wasn't so much that the forgiveness of sins was discounted. It's just that sanctification was presented as a work one does by dint of guilt-driven effort, rather than the inevitable consequence of grace-and-gratitude-driven living, not by one's own merits, but by those of Christ.

It wasn't until I was in Dr. Steven Hein's Christian Doctrine class at Concordia-River Forest that I learned otherwise. "Suppose you were tempted to commit a sin," Dr. Hein told the class. "It's a 'big' sin. But you really want to do it- and you give in to temptation. You're a Christian. You're a believer. But in a moment of weakness, you give in.

"At that moment, the roof falls in on your head and you're killed.

"How many of you are confident that you would go to heaven?"

One hand went up. It wasn't mine.

Dr. Hein threw his copy of Koehler's A Summary of Christian Doctrine on the desk and said, "How many times do we have to tell you that you're saved by grace through faith, and not by works?"

It was a revelation to the class. We met over coffee in the Koenecke Center afterward and shared war-stories about growing up living as practical legalists. One girl told us that for the first eighteen years of her life she prayed the General Confession every time she got into an automobile, so that if she were killed in an accident she would go to heaven!

If I can be said to have had a "conversion experience," it was that day. Christianity is a blessing for me now, where it was to a considerable extent a burden when I was growing up. Reading Luther and the great Lutheran theologians, I realized something every Lutheran pastor is taught, but which amazingly few seem to take notice of: that Christian obedience- and sanctification- are driven by the Gospel, not by the Law; that our righteousness is that of Christ, and not something we are called upon to produce by dint of our own efforts and striving.

It was to spread that joyous and liberating message that I became a pastor. Can you imagine? God is my Friend, not my Slave-Driver! And incredibly, this is a fact of which almost everybody- believer and unbeliever alike- is, as a practical matter unaware!

The great Franz Pieper wrote that if a pastor's congregation isn't growing in sanctification, it's his own fault- for not preaching enough Gospel! As Lutherans- and, I would argue, as Pauline Christians- our obedience and our sanctification is driven by gratitude, not guilt; by love, and not by fear. This is not to say, of course, that the Old Self isn't motivated by fear, too. But as John points out, perfect love casts out fear. To the extent that our obedience is precisely Christian obedience,  it is motivated by the Gospel, not by the Law.

The Law, to be sure, informs our obedience. The Third Use of the Law, as the authors of the Formula of Concord called it,  is not that it gives lessons to the Old Self on how to make itself holy, but rather to graciously inform the New Self that loves God and is eager to please Him as to how to go about doing so. The ELCA-style antinomianism which rejects the Third Use of the Law and as a practical matter treats the Gospel as a license to "sin the more, that grace may abound" thereby causes the Gospel to become a false gospel.  Where we live by forgiveness, Christ's righteousness becomes gradually manifested in us- not, to be sure, in a form we ourselves recognize, lest we become proud and ruin the whole thing. But invisibly to ourselves, we are conformed to the image of Christ.

The process requires that our sin be taken seriously- and, by the work of the indwelling Holy Spirit, that we hate it. If we don't (part of what the ELCA misses), then we won't become grateful for being delivered from it. At best, our attitude becomes that of Ibsen's "Lutheran" newsboy: "I like to commit sins, and God likes to forgive them. Really, the world is admirably arranged!"

Such a "faith," of course, saves nobody. And it certainly sanctifies nobody. Luther had nothing but contempt for such "faith." Yet the critical point remains that repentance isn't making ourselves feel bad, but feeling bad because we've hurt Someone we love. It's not something we do so much as it is something we experience. It's something the Holy Spirit does within us.

Just like faith itself- which scripturally is not a decision or a commitment so much as a gift the Spirit works and sustains in us by the Word and the Sacraments. And it's a package deal. If we have faith, we will also have repentance. No repentance, no faith- because no Holy Spirit. Just a calloused heart that rejects and resists the Word.

Probably a heart which doesn't really believe that it has sins that need forgiving- or at least that God likes to forgive them, so they're no big deal.

There is a controversy among LCMS pastors today about something called "soft antinomianism." It's hard to get a precise handle on what it's supposed to be, though I get the impression that it's not yelling at people enough. And certainly some yelling is in order. Perhaps our yelling even needs to be louder and sterner- but not in an effort to get people to try harder in order to produce a righteousness of their own.

If we have a crisis in the preaching of the Law- at least in the LCMS- I believe that it's a crisis caused by our failure to preach it in its Second Use. The problem is that Americans- and even American Christians- don't see themselves as sinners in need of a Savior. They take grace for granted, or else fail to see that they even need it. And where there is no consciousness of guilt and brokenness, there is no gratitude for forgiveness and healing. Hence, no sanctification. If the Gospel is merely that God is a nice guy, nobody's life is going to be transformed by it. We're either sinners saved by Christ- not merely in principle, but in our experience of our personal realities- or we're not.

If we are, we will grow in holiness. Christ's righteousness will gradually become our own- not because we're consciously climbing Jacob's ladder, but precisely because we're returning day by day, moment by moment, to the cross and to the baptismal font to drown the Old Self so that the New Self can emerge to live in humble gratitude by virtue of a righteousness which it is ever so conscious and aware is not its own.

First Things has an interesting article in its current issue on Nadia Boltz-Weber's approach to Law and Gospel. It contrasts Luther's (and Forde's, and Boltz-Weber's) "static" approach to the Christian life with the "dynamic" model of Roman Catholicism- and of the Missouri Synod Lutheranism of my youth, of the youth of my classmates in Dr. Hein's class at River Forest, and- I'm convinced- as a practical matter of most Americans, believers and unbelievers alike. Apparently Dr. Gilbert Meilander, a prominent LCMS theologian, feels that contemporary Lutheranism suffers from this approach. To be fair, the author, Christopher Jackson, attributes the practical antinomianism  which confronts American Lutheranism rather to an experience of the Christian life which is merely static, and observes that Lutheranism "need not end up" with such.  He cites as an example of that which he righty deplores a bizarre article in The Atlantic  on a book by Boltz-Weber in  which she shares her equally bizarre- and quintessentially ELCAn- misunderstanding of Luther's victim that believers are simul justus et peculator- simultaneously sinners (in themselves) and saints (in Christ).

Evidently it's her position that one can not only "sin the more that grace may abound" with reference to one's sex life (or perhaps that Paul- and by extension, Jesus- is wrong about the ongoing relevance of the condemnation of homosexual behavior in every stratum of both Testaments), but somehow be a member of the Church while being an atheist.

Oh. But you have to repent. But somehow, as the saying goes, I do not think the word means what she thinks it means.

If you're a believer, you have a New Self as well as an Old Self. It's not that you agree that the Old Self sucks, as Boltz-Weber might say. It's that you put the sucker to death. You don't practice gay sex (or heterosexual fornication) and then confess it and agree that it's terrible and then go right out and do it again. You drown the Old Self in the baptismal font.

You stop being an atheist, for starters. Where in the name of all that's incoherent does the idea that you can be a member of the Church while not being a believer come from, anyway? You stop practicing gay sex. Or straight sex with people you're not married to.

Ok, you may slip. No, you will slip- daily. Many times a day, in fact. You will commit sins of weakness, as in Dr. Hein's example. When you do, you don't stop being a believer. You repent- which means not simply thinking that it's awful, but rejecting that identity for yourself and claiming the one that is yours in Christ.

One may indeed be a believer and still commit sins of weakness. We all do. Every day. Many times a day. But one cannot do so as a lifestyle and claim that you're leading a life of contrition and repentance.

I'm driven slightly wild by the way many so-called "literal" translations of the Bible render 1 John 3:9. The KJV, the NKJV, and even the ELCA's beloved NRSV translate it as some variation on "Those who have been born of God do not sin, because God's seed abides in them; they cannot sin because they have been born of God (NRSV)." It seems to me that a "literal" translation should get the tenses of its verbs right! At least the NASB translates it, "No one who is born of God practices sin, because His seed abides in him-" before ruining things by going on to say, " and he cannot sin, because he is born of God." There are truly perfectionistic sects which teach- contrary to the testimony of verse after verse of both Testaments- that Christians do not sin at all. And yes, the NASB translates the words literally. But it does so at the expense of distorting the thought.

John is not saying that Christians never sin. The ESV is the only essentially literal translation I've found that accurately translates the thought: "No one born of God makes a practice of sinning, for God's seed abides in him, and he cannot keep on sinning because he has been born of God."

Where one says, "Gee, it's rotten that I don't believe in God. I hope the God I don't believe in forgives me," one is not engaging in repentance. One is engaging in hypocrisy at best, and psychosis at the worst.

When one confesses and tsk-tsks over one's own sinful sex life, and then goes on merrily wallowing in it, one has not repented.  One has done the very thing that has really screwed up the Church and falsified its witness: one has acted, not as if one has a Savior from sin, but as if one's sin doesn't finally matter.

John's point is precisely the same one  Walther makes in his distinction between mortal and venial sins- sins of rebellion or indifference one one hand, and sins of weakness on the other.  The latter, as Dr. Hein pointed out, can coexist with justifying faith.  But the former cannot.

And that is what makes Boltz-Weber a false teacher, and the "gospel" commonly proclaimed in the ELCA a false gospel. That is what makes Dr. Hein right, and Ibsen's newsboy wrong.

The problem isn't that there is something wrong with Luther's "static" notion of sanctification, because Luther's notion of sanctification is never merely static. It is static from our point of view; indeed, it must be, because pride is the only alternative.

But as St. Paul writes in Colossians 3:

If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.

Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry. On account of these the wrath of God is coming. In these you too once walked, when you were living in them. But now you must put them all away: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and obscene talk from your mouth. Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have put off the old self with its practices and have put on the image of its creator.

Our life is hidden with Christ in God. When we live lives of daily contrition and repentance, our sanctification is never merely static; in fact, it is only then that it becomes truly dynamic. But the paradox is that when we treat it as merely or even mostly dynamic- when it becomes a striving after what Paul calls "a righteousness of my own-" the whole process is undercut.  Luther and the Confessions teach just what Paul teaches: that one cannot be a sinner who sees Christ as his or her only righteousness without being conformed- invisibly to ourselves, but inevitably- to His own image. But on the other hand, one cannot see oneself as vested with a righteousness of one's own earning without becoming a Pharisee.

We can only live and grow spiritually if we take our sin seriously. If we don't, we can't take our Savior seriously, either. The result is the same, whether the cause is the practical legalism under which most believers live or the practical antinomianism Boltz-Weber practices even when using the language of sin and grace.

We stop growing, and die spiritually.


Chuck Braun said…
I was under the (hopefully mistaken) notion that Forde wouldn't want Christians to even think about their sins in the least. But his idea that personal holiness should be motivated by the Holy Spirit's working through the Gospel being preached to us, rather than by overly beating the Law over our heads, is sound.

There are several times where I noticed I was led away from certain sins over the years, without ever consciously trying to move away from them. So, in a sense, I believe that sanctification is God's work just as completely as justification is. Totally from without, totally the Holy Spirit's work.

Still, the day when I forget that the Old Adam still lives in me would be a dangerous day. And if that's what Forde truly promotes, a pox on his house. But if his main point was that Lutheran Christians aren't trying to climb a ladder of personal holiness by their own efforts, but rise and fall, perhaps only growing in their knowledge of the depth of their sin and the continual need for Jesus' forgiveness by the hearing of the Gospel, then thank God for what Forde has said.

It is hard for me to accept the writings of a Lutheran theologian who didn't believe in the Fall. But I would agree that the Gospel, not the Law, should be our motivator to produce fruit from our faith. Any "license to sin" greasy-gracer who has made willful sin a new Law is teaching doctrine as damaging as Legalism.
Chuck, while that isn't the way I raad Forde (he did prefer other models to the Anselmian substitutionary atonement model of the Atonement, but despite its influence the Church has never said that Anselm's is the
only way we can think of the Atonement biblically), I am not altogether comfortable with all aspects of Forde's approach, though I think the idea that he wanted Christians to sin merrily away without thinking about it is going to far.

But that's not the point. The point is that orthodox Lutheran theology (regardless of Forde) has always insisted that our sanctification, good works and repentance are in fact motivated by the Gospel rather than the Law. The opposite view is Reformed theology.

In Luther's view (and that of the Confessions) sanctification is worked, not by coercion, but by gratitude. It's the product of the Gospel, not the Law (though obviously the Second Use of the Law makes us aware of our need to repent, and the Third Use informs our response of obedient gratitude). Franz Pieper (I trust you know the name- he was probably the Missouri Synod's greatest theologian after Walther and certainly its greatest systematician) went so far as to say that if pastors try to motivate their congregaton to good works by beating them over the head with the Law, they have nobody but themselves to blame for the fact that sanctification doesn't happen!

There are two sides of the fence that people fall off of. One is antinomianism- the position you ascribe to Forde (as I say, I'm not entirely comfortable with his position either). But he did recognize the opposite problem, which is at least as serious: that you can't work sanctification through the Law. Guilt isn't the tool the Holy Spirit uses in that work; love and gratitude are. And they are worked by the Gospel. The Law prepares the way for it, and afterward gives it form and substance through the Third Use. But the Third Use is the grateful response of someone who understands that he is forgiven and accepted by God by grace through faith, and precisely not because of his success in obeying the law.

Both problems are endemic in Missouri. In the ELCA, antinomianism pretty much runs amok, unchallenged. But Missouri has always had the problem that some pastors are so (rightfully) afraid of antinomianism that they fall off the fence in the opposite direction and become legalists by trying to drive motivation to obey through the Law and guilt rather than through the Gospel and gratitude.

The Law restrains gross sinfulness even on the part of unbelievers (as one theology prof at RF put it, even atheists are afraid of lighting!) Its most important use is that it breaks us, showing us precisely our inability to obey the Law and our need for a Savior. After we repent and believe, it graciously informs people who love God and are eager to please Him how they may do so. Calvin and to some extent Reformed theology generally see this Third Use as the main one. But Luther and orthodox Lutheranism have always insisted that the main and most important use of the Law is the second- and that when the Law rather than the Gospel is used in an attempt to motivate obedience, gratitude and thus sanctification itself are suppressed, and ultimately we are lost either to Phariseeism or to despair.
Chuck Braun said…
Thanks Roger,

Thanks for what you said. I totally agree that sanctification begins with thankfulness for Jesus' sacrifice covering my sins with His Righteousness, the core of the Gospel. Sanctification could never begin with my efforts. Jesus Christ is the Author and Finisher of my faith, justification, sanctification and glorification.

Coming from a Bible-believing Evangelical United Brethren background, having passed through the ELCA desert, and finally arriving in the LCMS, I am thankful for not taking the Reformed stance on sanctification based on guilt any longer. It only bred damning self-righteousness in my past and didn't exorcise any of my sins. Now as a confessional Lutheran, I realize more fully the seriousness of my sins and approach the throne of grace humbly, no longer worrying if my Christian life is being used as a litmus test of my own faith in Jesus, or that faith of those around me who profess faith in Him.

Still, I am always wary when dealing with theologians, Lutheran or otherwise, who would have a liberal Protestantism slant and would downplay the penal substitutionary Atonement of our Lord, of which St. Mark recorded as having said that He "gave His life, a ransom for many". I've been so traumatized by the universalism and other false doctrines of the ELCA that I would never read one of their theologians' writings. But I can accept Forde's point that self-righteousness bred by legalism is just as damning as total disregard for my actions fostered by antinomianism.

Grace, peace and thanks!
As well you should be.

I was a pastor in first The ALC and then the ELCA for twelve long and emotionally draining years. Believe it or not, there were sound theologians in that church body. My seminary advisor, Dr. Ralph Quere, was a perfect example. James Nestigen, who is now in one of the synods that broke away from the ELCA after the Minneapolis fiasco, was also relatively sound. While I'm deeply disappointed in Dr. Quere's response to the gay business ("Lutherans have never regarded church discipline as church-dividing-" which, while true, is not the issue) and that of others of my more conservative seminary professors, they deserve credit for having done what they did when they did it. And don't forget men like Charles Porterfield Krauth, who rank up there with Walther and Pieper as champions of orthodoxy (although Krauth, of course, goes back a ways).

Believe me, I hear you. Having gone through both extremes, I agree that neither is better than the other. And I should say that I have not read Forde extensively; what I said above is based upon what relatively little I have read of him.

In any case, thanks for your comments. Grace and blessings to you as well!

Popular Posts