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Preaching Good Works

April 22nd, 2007
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Reflecting on the conversations that this blog site and others have engaged in on the subject of whether or not, or to what extent, or how, preachers are to preach to Christians about good works, I ran across this sermon by Martin Luther, a sermon that is not at all atypical of Luther’s preaching, nor the preaching of those who came after Luther, down to the 20th century. What do you think? Did Luther get it right, or wrong? I’ve read posts from several Lutheran pastors who assert that the preacher must not spend time in his sermon talking about the Christian’s life of good works, and must certainly never mention good works after he has preached the Gospel in His sermon. I can find no evidence in Scripture, the Lutheran Confessions or historic Lutheran preaching to support this position. I’ve put the sermon in the extended entry.

A Sermon by Martin Luther; taken from his Church Postil.

following sermon is taken from volume VII:217-230 of The Sermons of
Martin Luther, published by Baker Book House (Grand Rapids, MI). It was
originally published in 1909 in English by The Luther Press
(Minneapolis, MN), as Luther's Epistle Sermons, vol. 2. The pagination
from the Baker edition has been maintained for referencing. This e-text
was scanned and edited by Richard P. Bucher, it is in the public domain
and it may be copied and distributed without restriction.]

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We have been hearing of the glorious message of Christ’s resurrection,
how that resurrection took place and how we must believe, for our own
blessing, comfort and salvation. Now, that we may be sincerely thankful
to God for this inestimable blessing, and that our attitude toward the
doctrine of the resurrection may be one to truly honor and glorify it,
we must hear also, and practice, the apostles’ teaching of its
essential fruits, and must manifest them in our lives. Therefore, we
will select Paul’s admonition to the Colossians (ch. 3), which has to
do with this topic particularly.

Observe here, Paul exhorts Christians to be incited by the resurrection of Christ unto works truly good and becom-

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the text declares unto us the supreme blessing and happiness the
resurrection brings within our reach–remission of sins and salvation
from eternal death. Lest, however, our wanton, indolent nature deceive
itself by imagining the work is instantaneously wrought in ourselves,
and that simply to receive the message is to exhaust the blessing, Paul
always adds the injunction to examine our hearts to ascertain whether
we rightly apprehend the resurrection truth.


By no means are we simply to assent to the words of the doctrine.
Christ does not design that we be able merely to accept and speak
intelligently of it, but that its influence be manifest in our lives.
How is a dead man profited, however much life may be preached to him,
if that preaching does not make him live? Or of what use is it to
preach righteousness to a sinner if he remain in sin? or to an erring,
factious individual if he forsake not his error and his darkness? Even
so, it is not only useless but detrimental, even pernicious in effect,
to listen to the glorious, comforting and saving doctrine of the
resurrection if the heart has no experience of its truth; if it means
naught but a sound in the ears, a transitory word upon the tongue, with
no more effect upon the hearer than as if he had never heard.

to Paul in the text, this nobly-wrought and precious resurrection of
Christ essentially must be, not an idle tale of fancy, futile as a dead
hewn-stone or painted-paper image, but a powerful energy working in us
a resurrection through faith–an experience he calls being risen with
Christ; in other words, it is dying unto sin, being snatched from the
power of death and hell and having life and happiness in Christ. In the
second chapter (verse 12), the apostle puts it plainly, "buried with
him in baptism, wherein ye were also raised with him through faith in
the working of God, who raised him from the dead."

3. If,
Paul says, ye have apprehended by faith the resurrection of Christ and
have received its power and consolation, and so are risen with him,
that resurrection will surely

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manifest in you; you will feel its power, will be conscious of its
working within. The doctrine will be something more than words; it will
be truth and life. For them who do not thus apprehend the resurrection,
Christ is not yet risen, although his rising is none the less a fact;
for there is not within them the power represented by the words "being
risen with Christ," the power which renders them truly dead and truly
risen men.

So Paul’s intent is to make us aware that before
we can become Christians, this power must operate within us; otherwise,
though we may boast and fancy ourselves believing Christians, it will
not be true. The test is, are we risen in Christ–is his resurrection
effective in us? Is it merely a doctrine of words, or one of life and
operating power?

4. Now, what is the process of the life and
death mentioned? How can we be dead and at the same time risen? If we
are Christians we must have suffered death; yet the very fact that we
are Christians implies that we live. How is this paradox to be
explained? Indeed, certain false teachers of the apostles’ time
understood and explained the words in a narrow sense making them mean
that the resurrection of the dead is a thing of the past according to
Paul’s words in Second Timothy 1, 10, and that there is no future
resurrection from temporal death. The believer in Christ, they said, is
already risen to life; in all Christians the resurrection is
accomplished in this earthly life. They sought to prove their position
by Paul’s own words, thus assailing the article of the resurrection.

But we will ignore these teachers as being condemned by Paul, and
interpret the words as he meant them, his remarks both preceding and
following making it clear and unquestionable that he refers to the
spiritual resurrection. This fact is certain: If we are, at the last
day, to rise bodily, in our flesh and blood, to eternal life, we must
have had a previous spiritual resurrection here on earth. Paul’s words
in Romans 8, 11 are: "But if the Spirit of him that raised up Jesus
from the dead dwelleth in you, he that raised up Christ Jesus from the
dead shall give life also to your mortal

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through his Spirit that dwelleth in you." In other words: God having
quickened, justified and saved you spiritually, he will not forget the
body, the building or tabernacle of the living spirit; the spirit being
in this life risen from sin and death, the tabernacle, or the
corruptible flesh-and-blood garment, must also be raised; it must
emerge from the dust of earth, since it is the dwelling-place of the
saved and risen spirit, that the two may be reunited unto life eternal.

The apostle, then, is not in this text referring to the future
resurrection of the body, but to the spiritual rising which entails the
former. He regards as one fact the resurrection of the Lord Christ, who
brought his body again from the grave and entered into life eternal,
and the resurrection of ourselves, who, by virtue of his rising, shall
likewise be raised: first, the soul, from a trivial and guilty life
shall rise into a true, divine and happy existence; and second, from
this sinful and mortal body shall rise out of the grave an immortal,
glorious one.

So Paul terms believing Christians both "dead"
and "alive." They are spiritually dead in this life and also
spiritually alive. Nevertheless, this sinful temporal life must yet
come to an end in physical death, for the destruction of the sin and
death inherent therein, that body and spirit may live forever.
Therefore he says:

"If then ye were raised together with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated on the right hand of God."

In other words: Seek and strive after what is above–the things divine,
heavenly and eternal; not the terrestrial, perishable, worldly. Make
manifest the fact that you are now spiritually raised and by the same
power will later be raised bodily.

8. But does this mean
that we, as Christians, are no more to eat and drink, to till the
ground, to attend to domestic or public duties, or to engage in any
kind of labor? Are we to live utterly idle, practically dead? Is that
what you mean, Paul, when you say we are not to seek the things of

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all these are essentially incident to life? What can you say to the
fact that Christ the Lord is, himself, with us on earth? for he said
before his ascension to heaven (Mt 28, 20): "Lo, I am with you always,
even unto the end of the world"; and also the baptism which he
commands, the sacrament and the office of Gospel ministry whereby he
governs his Church here–these are things of earth.

9. Paul,
however, explains in the succeeding verse what he means by "things that
are upon the earth" and "things that are above." He is not telling us
to despise earthly objects. He does not refer to God’s created things,
all which are good, as God himself considered them; nor has he
reference to the Christian who, in his earthly life, must deal with the
things of creation. He has in mind the individual without knowledge of
God; who knows no more, and aims no further, than reason teaches, that
reason received from parents at physical birth; who is an unbeliever,
ignorant of God and the future life and caring not for them; who
follows only natural understanding and human desire and seeks merely
personal benefit, honor, pride and pleasure. The apostle calls that a
worldly life where the Word of God is lacking, or at least is
disregarded, and where the devil has rule, impelling to all vices.

would say: Ye must be dead to a worldly life of this sort, a life
striven after by the heathen, who disregard God’s Word and suffer the
devil to have his way with them. Ye must prove the resurrection of
Christ in you to be something more than vain words. Ye must show there
is a living power manifest in you because ye are risen, a power which
makes you lead a different life, one in obedience to the Word and will
of God, and called the divine, heavenly life. Where this change does
not take place, it is a sign ye are not yet Christians but are
deceiving yourselves with vain fancies.

10. Under the phrase
"things that are upon the earth"–worldly things–Paul includes not
only gross, outward vices, sins censurable in the eyes of the world,
but also greater immoralities; everything, in fact, not in accordance
with the pure Word of God, faith and true Christian character.

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In order to a better understanding of the text, we shall adopt Paul’s
customary classification of life as spiritual and carnal. Life on earth
is characterized as of the spirit, or spiritual; and of the flesh, or
carnal. But the spiritual life may be worldly. The worldly spiritual
life is represented by the vices of false and self-devised doctrine
wherein the soul lives without the Word of God, in unbelief and in
contempt of God; or, still worse, abuses the Word of God and the name
of Christ in false doctrine, making them a cover and ornament for
wicked fraud, using them falsely under a show of truth, under pretense
of Christian love.

This is worldly conduct of the spiritual
kind. It is always the worst, ever the most injurious, since it is not
only personal sin, but deceives others into like transgression. Paul
refers, in the epistle lesson for Easter, to this evil as the "old
leaven" and the "leaven of wickedness." And in Second Corinthians 7, 1,
he makes the same classification of spiritual and carnal sin, saying,
"Let us cleanse ourselves from all defilement of flesh and spirit." By
defilement of the spirit he means those secret, subtle vices wherewith
man pollutes and corrupts his inner life in the sight of God; his sins
not being manifest to the world, but deceiving human reason and wisdom.

If we would be Christians we must, first of all, be dead to conduct of
this sort. We must not receive nor tolerate the worldly doctrine and
corrupt inventions originating with ourselves, whether in the nature of
reason, philosophy or law, theories ignoring the Word of God or else
falsely passing under its name. For such are wholly of the world; under
their influence man has no regard to God’s will and seeks not his
kingdom and eternal life. They are meant merely to further the
individual’s own honor, pride, renown, wisdom, holiness or something
else. Though boast is made of the Gospel and of faith in Christ, yet it
is not serious, and the individual continues without power and without

13. If we are risen with Christ through faith, we
must set our affections upon things not earthly, corruptible,
perishable, but upon things above–the heavenly, divine, eternal;

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other words, upon doctrine right, pure and true, and whatever is
pleasing to God, that his honor and Christ’s kingdom may be preserved.
Thus shall we guard ourselves against

abuse of God’s name,
against false worship and false trust and that presumption of self-
holiness which pollutes and defrauds the spirit.

14. Under
carnal worldliness Paul includes the gross vices, enumerating in
particular here, fornication, uncleanness, covetousness, and so on,
things which reason knows to be wicked and condemns as such. The
spiritual sins take reason captive and deceive it, leaving it powerless
to guard against them. They are termed spiritual sins not simply
because of their spirit-polluting character, for all vices pollute the
spirit, the carnal vices among them; but because they are too subtle
for flesh and blood to discern. The sins of the flesh, however, are
called carnal, or body-polluting, because committed by the body, in its

Now, as we are to be dead unto spiritual sins, so
are we to be dead unto carnal sins, or at least to make continual
progress toward that end, striving ever to turn away from all such
earthly things and to look toward the heavenly and divine. He who
continues to seek carnal things and to be occupied with them, has not
as yet with Christ died unto the world. Not having died, he is not
risen; the resurrection of Christ effects nothing in him. Christ is
dead unto him and he unto Christ.

15. Paul’s admonition is
particularly necessary at the present time. We see a large and
constantly-increasing number who, despite their boast of the Gospel and
their certain knowledge of the polluting and condemning power of
spiritual and carnal sins, continue in their evil course, forgetful of
God’s wrath, or endeavoring to trust in false security. Indeed, it is a
very common thing for men to do just as they please and yet pretend
innocence and seek to avoid censure. Some would represent themselves
guileless as lambs and blameless; no act of theirs may be regarded evil
or even wrong. They pretend great virtue and Christian love. Yet they
carry on their insidious, malicious frauds, imposing falsehoods upon
men. They ingeniously contrive to make

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conduct appear good, imagining that to pass as faultless before men and
to escape public censure means to deceive God also. But they will learn
how God looks upon the matter. Paul tells us (Gal 6, 7) God will not,
like men, be mocked. To conceal and palliate will not avail. Nothing
will answer but dying to vice and then striving after what is virtuous,
divine and becoming the Christian character.

16. Paul
enumerates some gross and unpardonable vices–fornication, or
unchastity, and covetousness. He speaks also of these in Ephesians 5,
3-5 and in First Thessalonians 4, 3-7, as we have heard in the epistle
lessons for the second and third Sundays in Lent. He enjoins Christians
to guard against these sins, to be utterly dead to them. For they are
sensual, acknowledged such even among the gentiles; while we strive
after the perfect purity becoming souls who belong to Christ and in
heaven. It is incumbent upon the Christian to preserve his body modest,
and holy or chaste; to refrain from polluting himself by fornication
and other unchastity, after the manner of the world.

Similarly does the apostle forbid covetousness, to which he gives the
infamous name of idolatry in the effort to make it more hideous in the
Christian’s eyes, to induce him to shun it as an abominable vice
intensely hated of God. It is a vice calculated to turn a man wholly
from faith and from divine worship, until he regards not, nor seeks
after, God and his Word and heavenly treasures, but follows only after
the treasures of earth and seeks a god that will give him enough of
earthly good.

18. Much might be said on this topic were we
to consider it relative to all orders and trades in succession. For
plainly the world, particularly in our day, is completely submerged in
the vice of covetousness. It is impossible to enumerate the subtle arts
it can invent, and the good and beautiful things it knows how to pass
off whereunder it masks itself as a thing not to be considered sinful,
but rather extremely virtuous and indicative of uprightness. And so
idolatry ever does. While before God it is the worst abomination,
before the world its appearance and reputation are superior. So

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far from being recognized as sin, it is considered supreme holiness and divine worship.

very worship of Mammon wears an imposing mask. It must not be called
covetousness or dishonest striving after property, but must be known as
upright, legitimate endeavor to obtain a livelihood, a seeking to
acquire property honestly. It ingeniously clothes itself with the Word

God, saying God commands man to seek his bread by labor, by his own
exertions, and that every man is bound to provide for his own
household. No civil government, no, nor a preacher even, can censure
covetousness under that guise unless it be betrayed in gross robbing
and stealing.

19. Let every man know that his covetousness
will be laid to the charge of his own conscience, that he will have to
answer for it, for God will not be deceived. It is evident the vice is
gaining ground. With its false appearance and ostentation, and its
world-wide prevalence, it is commonly accepted as legal. Without
censure or restraint, men are engrossed in coveting and accumulating to
the utmost. Those having position and power think they have the right
to acquire by violence as much as they can, daily making assessments
and imposts, and new oppressions and impositions upon the poor. And the
common rabble seek gain by raising prices, by extortion, fraud, and so
on. Yet all desire not to be charged with wrong-doing; they would not
they should be called unchristian on account of their conduct. Indeed,
such excess of covetousness obtains that the public robbing and
stealing, and the faithlessness and fraud, of the meanest hirelings,
servants and maids everywhere can no longer be restrained.

But who would care to recount the full extent of this vice in all
dealings and interests of the world between man and man? Enough has
been said to induce every one who aims to be a Christian to examine his
own heart and, if he find himself guilty of such vice, to refrain; if
not, to know how to guard against it. Every individual can readily
perceive for himself what is consistent with Christian character in
this respect, what can be allowed with a good conscience;

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he has Christ’s rule of dealing as we would be dealt with, which
insures equality and justice. Where unfairness exists, covetousness
must obtain to some extent.

21. If you will not desist from
the vice of covetousness, then know you are not a Christian, not a
believer, but, as Paul calls you, a base, detestable idolater, having
no part in God’s kingdom; for you are living wholly to the world and
without intent to rise with Christ. You will receive no blessing from
the joy-inspiring and gracious revelation that Christ died and rose for
sinners. You cannot say, "Therefore he died for me, I trust." Truly,
Christ died for you, but if you continue in your wickedness, using this
revelation as a cloak for your mean covetousness, do not–such is the
declaration of the text–by any means apply that comforting promise to
yourself. Although Christ indeed died and rose for all, yet unto you he
is not risen; you have not apprehended his resurrection by faith. You
have seen the smoke but have not felt the fire; you have heard the
words but have received nothing of their power.


If you would be able honestly to boast of this revelation as unto you,
if you would have the comfort of knowing that Christ, through his death
and resurrection, has blessed you, you must not continue in your old
sinful life, but put on a new character. For Christ died and rose for
the very purpose of effecting your eventual death with him and your
participation in his resurrection: in other words, he died that you
might be made a new man, beginning even now, a man like unto himself in
heaven, a man having no covetous desire or ambition for advantage over
a neighbor, a man satisfied with what God grants him as the result of
his labor, and kind and beneficent to the needy.

23. In his
desire to arouse Christians to the necessity of guarding against such
vices as he mentions, Paul strengthens his admonition, in conclusion,
by grave threats and visions of divine wrath, saying, "for which
things’ sake cometh the wrath of God upon the sons of disobedience";
that is, upon the unbelieving world, which regards not the Word

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God, does not fear or believe in it nor strive to obey it, and yet is
unwilling to be charged with idolatry and other unchristian principles,
desiring rather to be considered righteous and God’s own people.

the last quoted clause Paul also implies that worldly conduct, the life
of worldly lusts such as covetousness and other vices, is inconsistent
and impossible with faith, and that the power of Christ’s resurrection
cannot reach it. For this reason he terms them "sons of disobedience,"
who have not faith and who, by their unchristian conduct, bring God’s
wrath upon themselves and are cast out from the kingdom of God. God
seriously passes sentence against such conduct, declaring he will
reveal his wrath against it in bodily punishment in this world and
eternal punishment in the world hereafter. Elsewhere Paul says
practically the same thing (Eph 5, 6): "For because of these things
cometh the wrath of God upon the sons of disobedience." See also Rom 1,

24. Such is the admonition of Paul unto all who would be
called Christians. He reminds them whereunto the Gospel of Christ calls
them and what his resurrection should work in them– death to all life
and doctrine not in harmony with God’s Word and God’s will–and that if
they believe in the risen and living Christ, they, as risen with him,
should seek after the same heavenly life where he sits at the right
hand of God, a life where is no sin nor worldly error, but eternal life
and imperishable treasures to be possessed and enjoyed with Christ

25. But the revelation of Christ’s resurrection can
be apprehended by nothing but faith. The things Paul here tells us of
life and glory for Christians in the risen Christ are not apparent to
the world; in fact, Christians themselves do not perceive them by
external sense. Notice, he says, "Ye died, and your life is hid with
Christ in God." The world does not understand the Christian life and
has no word of praise for it; it is hostile to the faith and cannot
tolerate the fact that you believe in Christ and refuse to join hands
with it in love for worldly lusts. A hidden life indeed is the
Christian’s; not only hidden to the world, but, so far

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external perception goes, to the Christian himself. Nevertheless, it is
a life sure and in safe keeping, and in the hereafter its glory shall
be manifest to all the world. For Paul says:

"When Christ, who is our life, shall be manifested, then shall ye also with him be manifested in glory."

Here is comfort for Christians in this earthly life where, though they
receive the doctrine of Christ and apprehend him by faith, their
resurrection seems to the world and to their own perceptions untrue;
where they must contend with sin and infirmities and moreover are
subject to much affliction and adversity; and where consequently they
are extremely sensible of death and terror when they would experience
joy and life. In this verse Paul comforts them, showing them where to
seek and surely apprehend their life.

27. Be of good cheer,
he would say, for ye are dead to the worldly life. This life ye must
renounce, but in so doing ye make a precious exchange. Dying unto the
world is a blessed experience, for which ye will obtain a life far more
glorious. Ye are now, through Christ’s death, redeemed from sin and
from death eternal and are made imperishable. Upon you is conferred
everlasting glory. But this risen life ye cannot yet perceive in
yourselves; ye have it in Christ, through faith.

Christ is
spoken of as "our life." Though the life is still unrevealed to you, it
is certain, insured to you beyond the power of any to deprive you of
it. By faith in Christ’s life, then, are ye to be preserved and to
obtain victory over the terrors and torments of sin, death and the
devil, until that life shall be revealed in you and made manifest to

In Christ ye surely possess eternal life. Nothing is
lacking to a perfect realization except that the veil whereby it is
hidden so long as we are in mortal flesh and blood, is yet to be
removed. Then will eternal life be revealed. Then all worldly,
terrestrial things, all sin and death, will be abolished. In every
Christian shall be manifest only glory. Christians, then, believing in
Christ, and knowing him risen, should comfort themselves with the
expectation of living

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with him in eternal glory; the inevitable condition is that they have first, in the world, died with him.

Paul does not forget to recognize the earthly environment of Christians
and saints, for he says: "Put to death therefore your members which are
upon the earth." Though acknowledging Christians dead with Christ unto
worldly things and possessing life in Christ, he yet tells them to
mortify their members on earth, and enumerates the sins of fornication,
covetousness, etc.

This is truly a strange idea, that it
should be necessary for men who have died and risen with Christ and
hence have been made really holy, to mortify worldly inclinations in
their bodily members. The apostle refers to this subject in Romans 7:
5, 8, 23, and elsewhere, frequently explaining how, in the saints,
there continue to remain various lusts of original sin, which
constantly rise in the effort to break out, even gross external vices.
These have to be resisted. They are strong enough utterly to enslave a
man, to subject him to the deepest guilt, as Paul complains (Rom 7,
23); and they will surely do it unless the individual, by faith and the
aid of the Holy Spirit, oppose and conquer them.

Therefore, saints must, by a vigorous and unceasing warfare, subdue
their sinful lusts if they would not lose God’s grace and their faith.
Paul says in Romans 8, 13: "If ye live after the flesh, ye must die;
but if by the Spirit ye put to death the deeds of the body, ye shall
live." In order, then, to retain the Spirit and the incipient divine
life, the Christian must contend against himself.

cannot be accomplished by the monastic hypocrisies wherewith some
expect to resist sin. For the pollution of sin is not merely something
adhering to the clothing, or to the skin externally, and easily washed
off. It is not something to be discharged from the body by fasting and
castigation. No, it penetrates the flesh and blood and is diffused
rough the whole man. Positive mortification is necessary or it will
destroy one. And this is how to mortify sin: It must be perceived with
serious displeasure and repented of; and through faith Christ’s
forgiveness must be sought and

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Thus shall sinful inclinations be resisted, defeated and restrained
from triumphing over you. More has been said on this topic elsewhere.

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Categories: Christian Life
  1. organshoes
    April 22nd, 2007 at 18:19 | #1

    Amen. Certainly the preacher never let up on me, even as he prolaimed the gospel.
    Precisely when and how did it become less necessary for a shepherd to preach thusly to his flock? Or has conducting group-therapy superceded preaching law and gospel?

  2. wmcwirla
    April 23rd, 2007 at 09:14 | #2

    I am reminded once again of how much Luther sounds like the early church fathers in his exhortations to holiness. Unfortunately, some today choose to preach and hear only the “sin boldly” side of Luther (or read only the first half of Paul’s epistles) and ignore these exhortations to the holiness that is ours as baptized believers out of fear of lapsing into “legalism” or “moralism.” As a professor of mine once noted: “The opposite of an error is the opposite error.”

  3. April 23rd, 2007 at 18:11 | #3

    What an Unlutheran sermon!!! :)
    It seems like the answer is simply there by looking at the grammar. Those that want to say “all law points to what Christ did for us” and ignore that it is also telling us what to do are ignoring the fact that these statements are in the imperative. Scripture, the Confessions, and Luther’s sermons clearly state “strive, work, speak, cast aside, refrain from…”
    These are imperatives. We are being commanded to be righteous. The strength to do so comes from God, but we are still accountable to love our neighbor as Christ loves him.
    How can “be imitators of Christ” be about what Christ did? Did Paul really mean to pay attention to how Christ imitated Christ? And who can deny that at times the struggle with sin is painful and excruciating?
    I had one friend describe how her pastor said “we sing in church because it gives comfort to those in the pews around us. Who knows who will find comfort in the sound of a child’s voice singing God’s Word?” Then she went on to say “but that’s the law and the law doesn’t motivate.” Then why share it? Why does the Bible bother with law? This very statement motivated me to sing louder. Because when we are in Christ, we are new creatures and we are constantly being sanctified, and we begin to WANT what is good. WE begin to want what is God-pleasing, and to want to be God-pleasing. We do find His law beautiful, not just condemning. Our old Adam may rear his ugly head more often than we’d like, but to deny this is to deny the presence of the New Adam in us.

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