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A Growing Problem in Confessing Lutheranism

August 24th, 2008
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Pastor Esget has written a succinct, spot-on analysis of a growing problem in confessing Lutheranism: antinomianism—in both practice and preaching. Here you go:

There is a growing problem of antinomianism in contemporary Lutheranism. “Christ does all good works through me,” some will say—and
accuse you of false doctrine if you preach that the Christian does (and
ought to do) good works. Such people find a warm welcome in congregations
that bill themselves as “confessional” and “liturgical.”

But do the Confessions teach that “Christ does all good works
through me” (or the variant, “The Holy Spirit does all good works
through me”)? Here’s what the Formula of Concord says (Epitome, Article

Fruit of the Spirit, however, are the works wrought by God’s Spirit, who dwells in believers. The Spirit works through the regenerate. These works are done by believers because they are regenerate.
They act as though they knew of no command, threat, or reward. In this
way God’s children live in the Law and walk according to God’s Law….
The believer, so far as he is regenerate, acts without constraint and
with a willing spirit to do what no threat of the Law (however severe)
could ever force him to do.

As I read it, the Spirit does the works and the believer
does the works. Together. The Spirit dwells in the believer, who freely
cooperates. Both do the works. Which is why I find it a reprehensible
doctrine to say that the believer doesn’t do good works, only Christ (or only the Holy Spirit – sheesh, make up your minds already!) does them.

It is a doctrine that becomes an excuse to ignore the Christian
life. The typical formulaic “You’re a sinner; Jesus died for you; all
is forgiven” sermon leads to antinomianism, where the believer is
taught that he needs no guide and does no good works. You’re free to
believe that. You’re just not free to call yourself “Lutheran,” much
less “confessional” if you do.

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Categories: Christian Life
  1. Joel Woodward
    August 24th, 2008 at 14:55 | #1

    We must also remember, though, that our ability to “will and do” comes from God alone (SD Art. II Par. 39). When we, very correctly, dedicate ourselves to God’s will, we must never come to believe that these actions come from anything inherent in me but that they find their basis in the Spirit’s power (SD Art. II Par. 65). Therefore we need, as a church, not only uphold God’s continued will, but even more importantly, we need to emphasize that God is the source of their fulfillment. Sanctification is certainly not some “unthinking action” as the antinomian would have it, we certainly do cooperate. However, the antinomian tendency in the LCMS will not be solved with just a rediscovered emphasis on the will of God but more importantly with a rediscovered emphasis on the work of God– the gospel. As the Formulators write:
    “Here, too, belong all the prayers of the saints for divine instruction, illumination, and sanctification. With these prayers they demonstrate that they could not have what they asked from God on the basis of their own natural powers…These prayers and verses, which reveal our ignorance and impotence, have not been recorded so that we become lazy and slothful in reading, hearing, and meditating on God’s word. Instead, they have been recorded that we should, above all, thank God from the bottom of our hearts that he has liberated us from the darkness of our ignorance and from the prison of sin and death through his Son and that he has given us new birth and enlightened us thorugh baptism and the Holy Spirit” (SD Art. II Par. 15).
    Cooperation should not be understood as: I do my part, the Spirit does his, but rather: On the basis of his power and his gifts, I “cooperate in all the works of the Holy Spirit that he accomplishes through [me]” (SD Art. II Par. 88).
    [[McCain: Joel, everything you say is true, but it misses the point of what Pastor Esget is trying to make clear. We have a problem precisely with this "Yes, but...." response you have here offered. Sorry, don't mean to picking on you, you are/were the first person to come along and say what I expected to be said in response to Pr. Esget's comment. One of the things I always hear when this comes up.
    The continual raising of the points you make, in the context of this specific discussion, is finally a logical fallacy: the classic red herring. NO LUTHERAN PASTOR I know of ever brings this up in order to assert that our sanctification is not also entirely God's work.
    So, while all you say is true, it is really, frankly, missing the point Pr. Esget makes so well. I've watched with every increasing concern an aversion to talking about the works we are to be doing, and everytime the point is made, somebody is surely, quite quickly, to come along and pull the old, "Yes, of course, but.....it is Christ working in us!" We need to get the "buts" out of this conversation and deal with the reality we face that we have very good Easter preachers, but increasingly fewer and fewer good Pentecost preachers, as Luther put it so well.]]

  2. August 24th, 2008 at 21:43 | #2

    I have found this passage from the Formula to be especially true in my personal life. Before I was regenerate, the works that I desperately wanted to achieve were impossible to accomplish and only lead to frustration and failure. Those same works that were so difficult are now effortless.
    One of the underlying causes of Lutherans taking a stance in favor of antinomianism is a tendency to overplay of the “I am a poor, miserable sinner” at the expense of the sinner/saint doctrine that St. Paul outlines in his epistles (and is echoed in our confessions.) It is true, we are all poor, miserable sinners who still battle against our sinful flesh, the world, and the devil. At the same time, we are a new creation in Christ who are called to do good works.
    The Confessional Lutheran finds it easy to read all of Scripture without concern. The Lutheran who leans towards antinomianism finds some of St. Paul’s passages uncomfortable. There are parts where the antinomianist finds the epistles to be rather “un-lutheran”. Ephesians 4:17-32 and James 2:14-26 are just two examples.
    The truth is that there is nothing “un-lutheran” about passages on works. A confessional lutheran does not bat an eye at passages that call us to good works. These passages and others do not conflict with the Lutheran understanding of Holy Scripture, but they do fly in the face of antinomianism. The “Third Use of the Law” is not only found in Scripture, it is emphatically supported by the very words of the apostles and of Christ. Antinomianists make faces when those passages are read and their wheels begin turning as they try to find some other meaning or context than what is clearly written on the page.
    A theology that has problems with certain passages of Scripture must not be correct.

  3. August 24th, 2008 at 23:39 | #3

    Aren’t all good works done not to merit anything for me but for love fo my neighbor?? Just wondering!!

  4. Ken
    August 25th, 2008 at 08:37 | #4

    It is Christ that works, but He works IN US. 1 Cor. 12:6; Phil. 2:13. That work is manifested in us as love for God and for our neighbor. 1 Cor. 13. Good works that are without that love are useless. So anyone who seeks his salvation in those works will find nothing. That comes only by that one “full, perfect and sufficient sacrifice, oblation and satisfaction” made once for all on Calvary. God has justified us without good works of our own. But He has done so because there are good works that He has created and prepared us to do. Eph. 2:8-10. How He saved us, and why He saved us are two different questions, the first answered in verses 8-9 and the second in verse 10.

  5. Susan R
    August 25th, 2008 at 11:11 | #5

    Ken, that was most helpful.
    You and Pastor Esget made a good exegetical tag-team.
    Thanks to you both.

  6. George A. Marquart
    August 25th, 2008 at 15:23 | #6

    It’s what’s in parentheses that you have to watch. That’s where we put the stuff that we want to have granted without proving it. “…accuse you of false doctrine if you preach that the Christian does (and ought to do) good works.” But just a few lines further down, we read from the Epitome: “They act as though they knew of no command, threat, or reward.” So Christians “do” without any “ought.”
    Further, with regard to the Epitome quote, the part that is in bold and underlined is not meant, in this portion of the Epitome, to address the question of who does the works. The intent of the sentence is clearly to show a cause and effect relationship between regeneration and good works. It is just like some people use certain portions of the Solid Declaration to try to prove that the real Presence takes place at a certain time, because it says “when it is distributed.” Oh yes, “top not come down” comes to mind.
    To my knowledge, the Confessions do not question the fact that it is God’s children who do good works, or even mention it as a false teaching. Therefore, you would not expect an article discussing this position.
    Are those people clearly urging that the Christian life should be ignored? I suspect that those who say that “only Christ (or the Holy Spirit – sheesh)” do the good works, want to distance themselves from the idea of “credit” for the good works. After all, the good works get done, don’t they? And it is not Christ in the body doing them here on earth. Are they really saying, “To Christ alone the Glory?”
    But, speaking of good works, is it just to cast aspersions on all “confessional” and “liturgical” congregations? From the not so long distant past I hear the voice of the junior Senator from Wisconsin, “In my hands I have a list!” Has anyone cataloged the good works of these congregations and compared them to the truly orthodox ones?
    Nobody should think that I am opposed to what the Confessions teach about the Third Use of the Law. I am concerned about our dealing uncharitably with those who may, I repeat “may,” not agree with us on this point. Even more, I am concerned because I suspect much of this argument is based on a partial understanding of the Gospel. The sacrifice of our Lord, His payment for our sins, and our justification because of Him are not the whole Gospel. He repeatedly referred to “the Gospel of the Kingdom.” For this Kingdom we pray in the second Petition. Martin Luther’s explanation in the Small Catechism may lead people to a less than full understanding of that Kingdom, although he expressed the meaning of the Kingdom clearly in many other places:
    Thy kingdom come.
    What does this mean?–Answer.
    The kingdom of God comes indeed without our prayer, of itself; but we pray in this petition that it may come unto us also.
    How is this done?–Answer.
    When our heavenly Father gives us His Holy Spirit, so that by His grace we believe His holy Word and lead a godly life here in time and yonder in eternity.
    Well folks, you have received the Holy Spirit in baptism, and unless you finally reject Him, He will remain with you until you join the Kingdom “which is in heaven.” So to continue praying for that Kingdom for ourselves is to deny that God has made us members in that Kingdom now! We are God’s children now, John the Theologian writes. Our prayer has to be for those who are not members of that Kingdom. And it does not “come of itself.” It comes by that to which our Lord devoted the overwhelming part of His earthly ministry, the proclamation of the Gospel of the Kingdom to the world.
    In that Kingdom, there is no force. God’s people do His will without coercion. God’s Spirit is with them every moment of their lives. Do we thereby deny that along with the justus we remain peccator? By no means! Scripture gives us enough answers to this question, but just as the Trinity, the real Presence, and the dual nature of Christ, it is not given to us to know every detail of these mysteries.

  7. Mike Baker
    August 26th, 2008 at 12:54 | #7

    The Confessions specifically state that Christians “ought” to do good works and that they are “required” and “necessary”. Passages such as AP III:68, 79, 93, 154-155 are among them. It is not a case of them just happening as an accident of regeneration.
    The Christian Life is ignored by many Lutherans because they believe that “Christians do without any ought”. The devil uses this belief and twists it to cause the Christian to falsely believe that good works and resisting temptation are akin to spiritual gifts. This secures believers into thinking that they just do not have the gift of charity, or mercy, or chastity. They begin to see the need to live a life of discipline as something given to some but not all… like tongues or prophecy.
    Believers must be specifically told that they “ought” to do good works. This is rare in the LMCS. We are expected to do them, but we do not merit grace by them.
    It is right for us, as regenerate Christians, to continue to pray “Thy Kingdom come” for ourselves so that God’s Holy Word may become effective in us “by daily increase, to us who have received the same, and hereafter in eternal life.” -LC III:53
    We are sinner and saint. We still need to hear the Law in its full severity and the Gospel in its full sweetness. We do not labor under the necessity of coercion, “but only of the ordinance of the immutable will of God, whose debtors we are.” (SD IV:17)
    This is the church militant and we are still assailed by the flesh, the fallen world, and the wiley devil. You do not get to sit on your rear. It isn’t all bunnies and daisies and vacation days. It will be, but not yet.
    “But it is false, and must be censured, when it is asserted and taught as though good works were free to believers in the sense that it were optional with them to do or to omit them or that they might or could act contrary thereto [to the Law of God], and none the less could retain faith and God’s favor and grace.” -SD IV:20

  8. August 27th, 2008 at 16:40 | #8

    Mike asks:”Aren’t all good works done not to merit anything for me but for love fo my neighbor??” Good works do not merit eternal life which is a free gift given for Christ’s sake and recieved by faith. Good works do merit rewards in glory. They are done by the Holy Spirit working in co-operation with our “new man”. In themselves, our good works are sins. The Father gracously forgives their sinful character and even more graciously rewards them as if they were truly good works performed by Christ himself.

  9. Mike Baker
    August 28th, 2008 at 20:31 | #9

    Actually Cindy asked that question. The authors of the comments are printed below the comment rather than above.
    I think it is important to clarify that the statement that good works are sins is true but can be easily misconstrued. All of our good works are “filthy rags” according to Scripture. They are outwardly good in that they help humanity, but they are not inwardly good when it comes to Justification. This fact remains in the regenerate Christian. Works do not justify and they do not sustain faith. The Holy Spirit alone sustains faith. Good Works are evidence of faith and we should all do them.
    But doing good works is not sin if it is meant that they damage salvation or that adversely they effect justification. When you do good works by faith your are not commiting sin that imperils your soul. “We reject and condemn as offensive and detrimental to Christian discipline the bare expression, when it is said: Good works are injurious to salvation.” [Formula of Concord - SD IV:17]
    Do you agree?

  10. August 28th, 2008 at 22:26 | #10

    Do I agree with the Formula of Concord? But, of course. If they were injurious to salvation they would be mortal sins. The good works of Christians are not mortal sins. Our gracious God not only forgives the sin in our good works He graciously rewards them as meritorious. Do you agree?

  11. Joel Woodward
    August 29th, 2008 at 16:41 | #11

    The Confessions never say that the good works of the regenerate ARE sin, rather they always say that they are impure and imperfect.
    “Good works follow such faith, renewal, and forgiveness of sin, and whatever in these works is still sinful or imperfect should not be counted as sin or imperfection, precisely for the sake of this same Christ” (SA p.325).
    The consistent testemony of the Confessions is that: They are imperfect and will always remain imperfect until we enter heaven. Whatever is still sinful or imperfect in our works is forgiven for Christ’s sake, and are thus pleasing to God.
    To say that the good works of the regenerate are sins in themselves causes many theological problems: 1) They would, then, necessarily be detrimental (even if they were forgiven for Christ’s sake, i.e. sins are detrimental to faith whether they are forgiven or not) to salvation (something the Confessions strongly reject), 2) This would deny any real sense of sanctification and progress in sanctification (the sanctification that takes place on earth is the same sanctification that will be perfected in heaven; it is not a different kind of sanctification).
    This does not mean, though, that whatever in our works is not sin, is righteousness in the sense that it merits salvation. We are accepted fully and only through the righteousness of Christ. To believe that we can be reconciled and have communion with God in any way other than through complete passivity is a rejection of God’s original will in creation. As Luther notes, Adam’s creation and original righteousness shows us that life with God is always a free gift and that our works or worthiness contribute absolutely nothing (Adam did not earn paradise but was given paradise).

  12. August 30th, 2008 at 01:57 | #12

    Joel writes:”The Confessions never say that the good works of the regenerate ARE sin, rather they always say that they are impure and imperfect.” Impure and imperfect sound like a pretty good definition of sin. Sin is falling short of God’s perfection, God’s purity. So if our good works are impure and imperfect they are sins. There is a distinction in orthodox Lutheranism between mortal and venial sins. You find this in Walther’s Law and Gospel and also Franz Pieper. Good works are not detrimental to salvation because they are not mortal sins. They do not kill faith. That does not mean that they are not venial sins. As you admitted Joel they are imperfect and impure. This is perfectly consistent with progress in sanctification since despite the fact that our good works are sins because they are performed by sinners they are genuine good works because they are performed by saints. Faith renews are nature and like you I believe that this renewal is progressive. Since this renewal is not compleat in this life all of our good works are as you say impure and imperfect and therefore sin. These truths are not in conflict.
    [[McCain: Greg, the good works of the regenerate are not sins. If you try to push that, you make God the author and creator of sin, since any good work we do is God's work. "It is God who is at work in you both to will, and to do, according to His good pleasure." Good works are not sin.]]

  13. August 30th, 2008 at 16:54 | #13

    Paul Mcain writes:”Greg, the good works of the regenerate are not sins. If you try to push that, you make God the author and creator of sin, since any good work we do is God’s work.” Well I certainly don’t believe that God is the author and creator of sin. I agree with you compleatly that such a conclusion must be avoided at all cost. And if speaking of the good works of Christians as sin leads inevitably to such a conclusion then such language must be abandoned.
    I see this in terms of our theological antropology. We are sinners and saints. As Saints we have a new nature created and renewed by God that in co-operation with God does good works. In and through our new nature God works good works and as God’s work they are pure, holy even perfect. However, we are also sinners and this side of death our new nature and sin nature cannot be seperated. So every good work we do is also our work as sinful beings and that sin attaches itself to everything we do even our good works. In this sense our sin corrupts even our good and pure works. Do you still find this problamatic?
    [[McCain: I think it better to stick with the language of our Confessions, that in this life even our good works are tainted by sin. But it is wrong to assert that "good works are sin."]]

  14. Joel Woodward
    August 30th, 2008 at 19:23 | #14

    It seems to me that to say that good works ARE sin is a misunderstanding and a projection of our own ideas on how God judges. It makes it sound as if God looks at each work individually and takes the time between when we “start” the good work and when we “end” the good work, and determines if sin is present (which it most certainly is), and then makes his verdict on “that work,” thus either deeming it sinful or holy. This seems to be a very human projection of how we judge works. God does’nt throw the baby out with the bath water– so to say. He recognizes the sinfulness insofar as they are fruits of the flesh and he recognizes the righteousness insofar as they are fruits of the Spirit. We cannot say that IT (that is, in itself) is sin.
    Mortal sins do not kill faith. The Confessions, specifically the Apology, repeatedly claim that if it is a mortal sin– you have no faith (128.48; 131.64; 138.109; 139.115; 143.144). Lutherans believe that there is no sin, besides the sin against the Holy Spirit (which is rejection of the means of grace in the first place), that the blood of Christ cannot cover through faith. Therefore, all sins that a Christian commits are venial, and they are all damaging to faith. Obviously, this understanding of mortal and venial sins is far from the RC view.

  15. September 3rd, 2008 at 00:16 | #15

    God in His grace not only recognizes the righteousness of our tainted works, He regards them as meritorious and rewards them in glory. As far as mortal sin goes Melanchthon quite rightly points out in the Apology citations you list that faith and mortal sin cannot coexist. When you commit mortal sin you cease to have faith. Luther in the Smalcald Articles says that when holy men commit mortal sin they cast out the Holy Spirit and faith. When Christians commit mortal sin they cease to be Christians. So if you say that all sins a Christian commits are venial that is true as long as they remain Christian. If you are saying that a Christian cannot throw out the Holy Spirit and faith by commiting a mortal sin you are in error. If you say that open manifest sins like adultery and murder are venial sins when commited by Christians you are in error. By such sins holy Christians become unholy, that is, they cast out the Holy Spirit and faith.

  16. September 3rd, 2008 at 15:11 | #16

    Saying good works are sins is equivalent to saying that sin is part of the essence of man after the Fall, something that is rejected in the strongest of terms in the FC on Original Sin.

  17. September 3rd, 2008 at 20:29 | #17

    I do not believe that sin is part of the essence of man after the fall. I see it as an accident that is attatched to our essence. If we compare the essence of man to the hard drive of a computer, sin is a virus that has corrupted our soft ware. If I were convinced that saying good works are sins is equivolent to saying sin is part of the essence of man after the fall I would never use such terminology. I am no longer attempting to defend such terminology since McCain’s statement that good works are tainted by sin which is all I ever intended to say when I said good works are sins. According to Herman A. Preus in A Theology to live By published by CPH Luther taught that the good works of Christians are sins and maintaned this in a dispute with a Professor Latomus(p.143-146)I used these terms only in the sense of Martin Luther and in a way consistent with Luther’s theology and the Lutheran confession. I certainly believe that good works are truly good. One of the things I appreciate about this blog is McCain’s spirited defence of good works and sanctification. Since this phraseology of Luther’s leads to confusion even among the followers of Luther I am content to confine myself to McCain’s terminology that good works are tainted by sin.

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