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Zeal for Good Works

January 26th, 2007
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I’ve had some further thoughts about the subject of preaching about good works and what has been described by Professor Kurt Marquart as a disturbing "aversion to sanctification" that is at work in some of the preaching we hear these days. Some Lutherans are great on Hebrews 12:2, but act as if Hebrews 12:1 was not there. When and how did any of us begin to think that exhorting the regenerate to do good works in a sermon is somehow inappropriate, or must never come after the Gospel is preached, or is "covered" as we preach against sin? I’ve been pondering this and have some more thoughts.

Where these entirely erroneous opinions come from, I’m not sure, but
I am sure of this. I can find no orthodox Lutheran preacher in the
16th, 17th, 18th or 19th century who ever said such a thing. I strongly
suspect the influence of Werner Elert, perhaps misunderstood or misapplied by
his American students, may well be to blame here. The suggestion that
using the Law in our rhetoric along the lines of
its second use will automatically result in our preaching
sanctification, or that preaching justification in Christ will also
result, automatically, in preaching sanctification simply has no
support in classic Lutheran theology or practice.

Further, I believe that the very valid concern that we keep
Law and Gospel properly distinguished and very clearly keep
justification and sanctification (renewal) distinct have led to the
errors out there now. Perhaps folks have forgotten that Scripture and
our Confessions and Lutheran fathers use the term "sanctification" in
both a broad sense (to refer to salvation) and in a narrow sense (to
refer to the renewal that follows justification, but is never a part of
it, or cause of it). I suspect there is at work here a simple matter of ignorance that the term "sanctification" is used in two ways like this.

And finally, I have observed that ex-Evangelicals have properly
warned Lutheranism against the errors of Evangelicalism, but in their
zeal to avoid those errors, they too have gone too far and some are
making their negative experiences with good works, wrongly taught,
normative for how we are to properly teach about good works. In the
process the baby of faithful teaching and preaching about the new life
in Christ is being tossed out with the bath water of false teachings
about these things. It boggles my mind that any Lutheran would go as
far as some are going in trying to avoid preaching sanctification and
life of good works among the regenerate.

And further baffling is that anytime anyone even begins to try to
talk about this problem we are having people immediately want to avoid
the conversation by running right away to: "But the Law doesn’t cause
us to do good works!" No, it doesn’t. "But faith must come first!" Yes,
that is true. "We are not saved at all by our works, only by grace!"
Yes, of course. "Sanctification is not about good works!" No, not when
the word is used in its wider sense. "The Law doesn’t motivate anyone
to do good works." Correct, again. "We are always sinners in this life!" Yes, that is true. "All our works as are filthy rags!" Yes, according to the old man, true. "The Law always accuses us! Just preach against sin and people will hear third use too!" Well, that might be a logical thing to say, but it doesn’t hold up to Scripture and the Confessions and finally all it amounts to is a de facto denial of the third use of the law. It almost seems to me that some have embraced a sort of "don’t ask, don’t tell" policy when it comes to good works!

Granting most of these points, most of which are perfectly true, we need to get back to the issue! The issue is how we do properly preach about
the life of Christian renewal (sanctification in narrow sense)?
Avoiding preaching about good works in a Romans 12 way is certainly no
solution at all, but this is what I hear some of us suggesting.

Here is what Chemnitz says:

The testimonies of Scripture are clear, that the renewal
of the new man, as also the mortification of the old, is not perfect
and complete in this life but that it grows and is increased day by day
until it is perfected in the next life, when this corruptible will have
put on incorruption. Profitable also and necessary in the church are
exhortations that the regenerate should not neglect, extinguish, or
cast away the gifts of the Spirit which they have received but that
they stir them up with true and earnest exercises, calling on the help
of the Holy Spirit, that He may give an increase of faith, hope, love,
and of the other spiritual gifts; for what the punishment of spiritual
negligence is the parable of the talents shows. There is also no doubt
that faith is effectual through love, that it is the mother of good
works, and that good works please God through faith for the sake of
Christ. And in this sense the statement in James 2:21–24 can be
understood and accepted appropriately and rightly, that through the
numerous good works that followed Abraham is declared to have been
truly justified by faith, and it is shown that faith is not empty and
dead, but true and living.

Chemnitz and Fred Kramer, Examination of the Council of Trent,
Translation of Examen Concilii Tridentini., electronic ed., 1:538 (St.
Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1999, c1971).

And, again Chemnitz:

I have, however, cited the chief testimonies of Scripture to show that we exhort the regenerate to zeal for good works
from the sources and foundations themselves, as they are given in the
Scripture, and that I might show that the doctrine of good works is
being taught much more correctly in our churches than among the
papalists, who boast that they alone have good works. For we not
only clearly teach from the Word of God that good works are to be done,
but we also explain the true reasons why they should be done. We also
teach of what kind the good works of the regenerate ought to be, that
there may be a distinction between philosophical virtues and
Pharisaical works and the new obedience of the regenerate
, and how
in this infirmity good works can be done, namely, by a person who has
been reconciled by faith and regenerated by the Holy Spirit.

Martin Chemnitz and Fred Kramer, Examination of the
Council of Trent, Translation of Examen Concilii Tridentini.,
electronic ed., 1:624 (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1999,

Here is what Walther said in Proper Distinction Between Law and Gospel.

is to be effected by preaching? Bear in mind that the preacher is to
arouse secure souls from their sleep in sin; next, to lead those who
have been aroused to faith; next, to give believers assurance of their
state of grace and salvation; next, to lead those who have become
assured of this to sanctification of their lives; and lastly, to
confirm the sanctified and to keep them in their holy and blessed state
unto the end. What a task!

Ferdinand Wilhelm Walther, William Herman Theodore Dau and Ernest
Eckhardt, The Proper Distinction Between Law and Gospel  : 39 Evening
Lectures, Forward by Jaroslav Pelikan. Includes index., electronic ed.,
248 (Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2000, c1929, c1986).

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Categories: Christian Life
  1. Rev. Robert C. Baker
    January 26th, 2007 at 17:52 | #1

    One does note that the reactions garnered from discussing sanctification preaching and teaching in our modern context are strikingly similar to…well…reactions the flesh generally exhibits against the Law.
    We must simply press this topic until there is genuine contrition over this failure in our preaching and teaching and only then apply the sweet balm of the Gospel.
    No wonder our own people pine after Evangelicalism–they’re not hearing the full counsel of God from our pulpits and podiums. “Christian instruction” does not end with confirmation!

  2. Erich Heidenreich
    January 26th, 2007 at 18:28 | #2

    In my online arguments with fellow Lutherans, I find the most disturbing factor in the problem you describe to be a difficulty in distinguishing between Justification and Sanctification in the narrow (proper) senses.
    Truly the doctrine of justification is that upon which all else stands or falls. An error in this doctrine leads to errors in all others. Almost universally the origin of this error is in the doctrine of original sin, which is the negative mirror of one’s doctrine of justification.

  3. January 27th, 2007 at 09:30 | #3

    I agree with your position. I think that there are many who fear that
    the Law always condemns, so therefore you never end a sermon with
    Sanctification preaching because it is the third use of the Law and
    therefore it will always condemn. And yet, when you read Luther,
    Walther, and other great Lutheran Divines, you find that they don’t
    worry about preaching the Law first and then ending up the sermon with
    the Gospel. Their preaching isn’t as stylized as ours seems to be
    today. My preaching has certainly improved and changed the more I have
    delved into the great preachers of the past. The sad thing is that
    today because of the lack of truly evangelical sanctification preaching
    in some pulpits, parishioners consider one who preaches sanctification
    as somehow being a legalist. This abuse in preaching has resulted in
    parishioners not having any spiritual leadership from their pastors in
    how to live a god-pleasing life. What a shame!
    Geoff Robinson

  4. January 27th, 2007 at 10:14 | #4

    Two points:
    1. All too frequently I read pastors saying “we don’t preach and teach . . .” If they know this, then they should be preaching and teaching what is lacking. The guilty rarely recognize themselves in such statements, but the faithful pastor should be sure to proclaim the whole counsel of God and stop saying “WE don’t”.
    2. The Gospel is the will of God for us. The Law is the will of God for us. Since God is one, His will is one, and therefore you cannot proclaim one without the other. To ignore or disparage the Law, even after preaching the Gospel, is to deny the will of God, and therefore to deny the Gospel. The Law and the Gospel are two parts of the will of God — not just two contrasting and independent doctrines.

  5. Michael L. Anderson
    January 27th, 2007 at 17:39 | #5

    The failure to teach and appreciate the doctrine of sanctification, properly, will mold a Christian community indistinguishable from the worldling’s community and its practices.
    The Romans seemingly recognized the Christians less from a declaration of their faith, but from their acting out of it: “Behold, how they love one another.”
    Which acting out, of course, testified nonverbally but boldly to the reality of their faith. The lives, of the early saints, spoke to a vital difference existing between them and their fellow non-Christian breathers of oxygen, around them. I think that living difference speaks, certainly, of sanctification. I don’t think that early example can be ignored or dismissed … unless we wish to entirely cut ourselves off from the departed saints who sing the Sanctus with us on Sundays.
    My dad used to relate the story of a Lutheran seminarian living amongst the burly and brawling lumberjacks in Montanta, during a wartime summer’s break from the rigors of the Greek aorist and such. He was asked by his friends upon his return, “How did you ever get along in camp with those guys, you being a Christian and all?”
    The seminarian nervously scratched his head a bit and sheepishly responded, “They never found out.”
    I didn’t have the cheek to ask pop if the tale was autobiographical, but it’s a good story with some depth, if not quite on the level of the “Sower and the Seed.”

  6. Steve B.
    January 29th, 2007 at 09:56 | #6

    Perhaps the difficulty that many pastors have with the concept of including sanctification in a sermon is that they haven’t been taught where to put it. Most think that a Law-Gospel-Law sermon is incorrect and I would agree. My “formula” would be Law as Mirror-Law as Guide (Sanctification)-Gospel. In this way the preacher shows us our sin, tells us what we are to be doing and then tells us How and Why we can (Only by and because of the blood of Jesus). Just a thought.
    McCain: I do think that we have, perhaps, been assuming that a certain “order” is key to proper distinction and that a certain “order” will nearly automatically guarantee that the Gospel predominates in a sermon. Perhaps we have defined “predomination” in terms of order or even quantity of words in a sermon devoted to the Gospel Some pastors have flat out told me that since the Law always accuses it is therefore impossible ever to “preach” the Law in a third-use kind of a way, but that in presenting the Law to condemn sin and sinners the Holy Spirit will also use it as a guide for those who need to hear that, or who can hear it. They rightly say that it is not we who use the Law in either a second or third way, that is the Holy Spirit’s use. I agree. But I would think we can all agree that in terms of how we actually preach the Law, and we do preach it, there is a difference in how one would preach the Law in a way that we are condemning sin and in a way that is exhorting to good works. It seems this distinction is not clear enough either.
    I do not see this however in much of the historic/classic Lutheran preaching I’ve been reading. I used to believe that; obviously, they were all wrong and we are the ones now who “get this” point. Now I’m not so confident in that conclusion.

  7. Rev. Ken Mangold
    January 29th, 2007 at 17:11 | #7

    1. I don’t beleive it can be much simpler than the First Petition of the Lord’s Prayer and its meaning. How can we “teach God’s Word in its truth and purity” and then teach our people to “lead God pleasing lives” if we cannot preach sanctification?
    2. I certainly do not believe that St. Paul had a problem proclaiming the Gospel and then diving right into his great “therefores.” If Paul can say “Christ died for your sins, therefore you will respond by . . . ” why can’t we do the same?
    McCain: Pastor Mangold, I’m as flumoxed as you are by what appears to me to be making some so complicated and difficult when it really is not.

  8. Josh S
    January 30th, 2007 at 18:19 | #8

    Steve B, that’s not the formula used in Scripture, the Lutheran Confessions, Walther’s Law & Gospel or historic Lutheran preaching. The traditional Lutheran formula has always been Accusation-Justification-Sanctification. In fact, theologians such as Walther take great pains to insist that if sanctification is built on moral compulsion rather than the Gospel, all you end up with is moralism and self-righteousness.
    McCain: Sanctification, defined narrowly, is about our lives in Christ after regeneration. Our sanctification is informed by and guided by the Law (third use!) and created by and continued by the saving good news of Christ that gives us new life and sustains that life. My point with Steve B’s post is that, while I do not agree with his “order” approach, is to indicate that part of what I see happening here is a certain belief that as long as we have some “order” in our sermons that goes perhaps like this: 40% Law 50% Gospel and 10% sanctification talk we are thereby “getting it right.” I do not see this kind of formulaic pattern in much historic preaching I’ve read, but for some reason today many seem to have fallen into that kind of pattern, some even now going as far as to suggest that it must be 40% Law [pointing out sin and condemning it] and 60% Gospel [offering comfort and the Sacrament] with the assumtion that “sanctification” will just take care of itself. That’s not right either. Josh S., thanks for your post. The danger when we start to say that in our sermons we should not, as St. Paul did, exhort believers to works and offer them clear, practical guidance in works, then we risk turning Gospel into Law. Marquart’s paper on this issue is, truly, superb. I can’t commend it highly enough. He nails the issue here squarely on the head.

  9. Josh S
    January 30th, 2007 at 20:42 | #9

    Pr McCain, the sad thing is that this continues to be a debate on seminary campus, even after Dr Marquardt’s death. I have heard certain students and professors say exactly what your case example said above–”Well, Paul wasn’t preaching a sermon,” and “You should never follow the Gospel with a ‘therefore.’” On the other hand, I have professors and know other students that see the Epistles as model homilies and stress that sanctification is a “therefore” that follows on the Gospel.
    McCain: Josh, I’m truly sorry to hear this, but not surprised. I was taught the same thing while a student there. I actually believed that we, in the late part of the 20th century, had finally come to an understanding of what real preaching is all about and we all knew, quite smugly and arrogantly frankly, that Luther didn’t walk the talk of the proper distinction between Law and Gospel. Neither did Chemnitz, or any of the other orthodox Lutherans, nor did Walther. But, fortunately, I had some very good antidotes to this hubris: Robert Preus, Kurt Marquart and George Krauss, whom Robert Preus would say constantly was the “best preacher he had ever heard.” The most powerful and memorable and Gospel saturated sermon I ever heard there came from George Krauss and the last three words of his sermon were: “So, go do it!” My advice to you is read as much of Luther as you possibly can. Immerse yourself in him. It will be a blessing for you. Luther’s House Postils are particular gems.

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