Does the Gospel Excuse Sin?
As readers of this blog site know, a topic that has had my attention for quite some time is the problem of an aversion to sanctification that has taken hold in certain quarters in Confessional Lutheranism. It is a subset of Gospel reductionism, and a sad legacy of those years in our Synod when there was active and open denial of the third use of the law. Under that influence there developed unfortunate views of Christian sanctification. Also there are those who appear to think that the best antidote to legalism is a certain kind of antinomianism. I’ve noticed for many years that there are those who go so far as to think that since Pietism is a problem, a demonstration of impiety is the solution: coarse language, crude humor, making fun of people, drinking to excess, etc.
It is a sort of pendulum move. If there are Christians who lose sight of Christ and the Gospel in their quest to be about good works, there is this odd notion that the way to counteract that is attempting to reduce the entire Christian experience and life to a rather formulaic, rote articulation of the doctrine of justification and denunciation of works righteousness. The proper distinction between Law and Gospel has come to be understood to mean that a sermon should not speak about the Christian’s life transformed by the Gospel. I’ve been told by several Lutheran pastors that any sermon that ends with any mention of works thereby fails to distinguish between Law and Gospel. I find no evidence for this position in the Scriptures, the Lutheran Confessions, or any of our Lutheran orthodox fathers, including Luther, down to our own time with Walther. It is a legacy of more recent Lutheran speculation, not historic Lutheranism.
As a result of all this, it is no wonder that there are Lutheran Christians who regard the Gospel as not much more than a way to be "let off the hook" for personal responsibility for moral, virtuous Christian behavior. I’ve had more than one conversation with a pastor who has indicated that this is cropping up increasingly in pastoral ministry. A person comes expressing a sense of remorse for a situation but is not capable of recognizing their own culpability for the situation and their contribution to the situation in their lack of commitment to virtue and morality as a Christian living out their lives in grateful obedience to God. They come seeking forgiveness, or perhaps, to be made to feel better, with some sort of pastoral, "Oh, that’s ok. You are only human. Don’t worry, you are forgiven" when they have no intention to stop the sinful behavior. Simply put, Christ did not shed His blood on the cross to give you "freedom" to live like a pig, unconcerned about good works and living your life to glorify God. Some have even taken to promoting shirts that say "Weak on
sanctification." That is as offensive to me as a shirt that would
proclaim, "Weak on justification."
The Gospel sets us free from sin, not free to sin. The Gospel liberates us from captivity from sin, but does not excuse a libertine life. The Gospel forgives sin, it does not excuse it. We are justified by Christ’s perfect righteousness, but unrighteousness is never justified.
Some might say, "There McCain goes again. Another rant about good works. Who does he think he is?" Who am I? ‘m a sinner who daily sins, much, and is in need of forgiveness. I’m a man who loses my temper, who becomes impatient, who says things I wish I would not say, who thinks things I wish I would not think, who does thing I wish I would not do, that I don’t even want to do. Who am I? A sinner. Like you. That’s why daily I pray, "Forgive us our trespasses." But I do not want to reach a point where I try to let myself off the hook and say, "Oh, don’t worry about the sins in your life. Don’t be concerned. Don’t try to stop sinning and don’t try to live the life to which I’m called in Christ." I hope I’m never not concerned. I hope and pray I’m never not troubled by my sin. For if and when that time comes, I know that the Gospel will not be as sweet and of such joy.
Time and again I encounter an attitude born of an improper lack of teaching about the life of good works to which we are called in Christ. I’ve run into more than a few earnest Lutheran Christians who actually believe that it is permissible for them to indulge themselves in drunkenness and coarse, crude, vulgar language, enjoying pornographic rap lyrics, and the most vile of movies. Where does this idea come from? Certainly not from the Scriptures, nor the Lutheran Confessions. We Lutherans love the Bible when it talks about justification and forgiveness, but do we love it as much when it speaks specifically to us, as Christians, about the consequences of the new life in Christ? Note the two passages that follow. These are not being written to unregenerate pagans but to those who have been born anew in Christ.
Therefore be imitators of God as dear children. And walk in love,
as Christ also has loved us and given Himself for us, an offering and a
sacrifice to God for a sweet-smelling aroma. But fornication and all
uncleanness or covetousness, let it not even be named among you, as is
fitting for saints; neither filthiness, nor foolish talking, nor coarse
jesting, which are not fitting, but rather giving of thanks. (Ephesians
But now you yourselves are to put off all these: anger, wrath,
malice, blasphemy, filthy language out of your mouth. (Colossians 3:8)
In Christ, we do strive to obey God and glorify Him with our behavior. Notice: in Christ we do this. We in Christ and Christ in us. We are not concerned about good works to win or merit or earn God’s love and favor, but to glorify Him, to thank Him, to praise Him, to serve Him, to obey Him, for the pleasure of it, for the joy of it, for the fact that we are new creations in Christ.
Update: Thanks to Brian who offered a comment to this post. I went over to his blog site and there discovered a couple quotes by LCMS theologian Gilbert Meilaender that are expressing concerns similar to mine. I’ve never read Meilaender much at all, to be honest, but it was intriguing to me to read him expressing things I’m wrestling with. I am not at all persuaded that the problem is the Law/Gospel dialectic itself, but very poor applications and understandings of it. Here is what Meilaender has written:
“I want to examine critically a certain understanding of Lutheranism,
which (whether our language in that of paradox, of the law-gospel
distinction, of the law always accusing, of dialect, or of freedom from
the law and critique of any third use of the law) eventually arrives at
a kind of practical antinomianism — which is, alas, all too readily
accompanied by a strident moralism — but which, were it consistent,
would have no reason to pray that our hearts may be set to obey God’s
commandments.” (p. 253)
“Not without good reason … has Niels Henrik Gregersen argued that
“Luther’s dialect of law and gospel should not be elevated into a
theological principle that structures the interpretation of Christian
faith from beginning to end.” When that is done, Gregersen notes, we
end with a theology that “cannot express the extent to which the New
Testament constantly instructs the believer to act according to his or
her belief: ‘Let the same mind be in you that was in Jesus Christ.’” We
need to better than this dialectical Lutheranism. We need a theology
that does not invite us to forget that “the grace of God has appeared
for the salvation of all men, training us to renounce irreligion and
worldly passions, and to live sober, upright, and godly lives in this
world, awaiting our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our
great God and Savior Jesus Christ, who gave himself up for us to redeem
us from all iniquity and to purify for himself a people of his own who
are zealous for good deeds” (Titus 2:11-14), We need a theology that
does not invite us to act as if the incarnation, cross, and empty tomb
have done nothing new and transforming in history.” (page 263-264)
From Hearts Set to Obey, chapter 14 of I Am the Lord Your God: Christian Reflections on the Ten Commandments, edited by Carl Braaten and Christopher Seitz (Eerdmans, 2005).