Home > Christian Life > Root Cause for Much of the Confusion in Lutheran Circles about Sanctification, Good Works, and Preaching

Root Cause for Much of the Confusion in Lutheran Circles about Sanctification, Good Works, and Preaching

April 27th, 2012
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I picked up these interesting comments from an ELCA pastor who was, and still is, a very admiring student of the theology of Gehard Forde, whose influence, in my opinion, has gained far to great a toehold in The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod, and it may well be that this attitude explains why we see some Lutheran sermons going out of their way to avoid any kind of parenesis. This of course flies directly in the face of Scripture, the Lutheran Confessions and the preaching from all confessionally Lutheran orthodox fathers of our faith, from Luther well into the 19th and 20th centuries. This attitude has spread in Lutheran circles to the point that we often see sermons and teaching that ignores, even goes out of its way, to avoid mentioning anything concrete about the life of holy living to which we are called in Christ.

[Forde's] primary weakness can be illustrated by examining how he concludes his sermon “Justification by Faith Alone.” He proclaims, “There is nothing for me to do but just say it: You are just for Jesus’ sake. And there is nothing for you to do but just listen. Believe it, it is for you! It will really reform your life!”There is nothing for me to do? Really? Can’t we say anything, then, about what this reformed life looks like? Forde is adamant that preaching is not about moral instruction, paraenesis, growth, faith practices, or a description of what this new life accomplished through the word might look like. Most of it would amount to a “third” use of the law, an understanding of the law Forde opposed and thought was actually just a return to the first under a new guise. Forde refuses to preach about the Christian life, change, and progress for, as far as I can tell, three reasons. The first reason is anthropological, and is the most damning, for it virtually silences anyone who would even question Forde’s thinking on the matter. The second reason, this one harmatological, offers a view of humanity that does not include things like progress, growth in virtue, holiness, and the like. This second reason, less accusative in nature, is easier to engage. The third reason concerns imputed or passive righteousness, a doctrine that circles back to reason one, for it is a concept only the New Adam can understand by faith. 

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Categories: Christian Life
  1. April 27th, 2012 at 07:33 | #1

    Interesting that you point towards Forde on this. I had never thought of that – but “Theology is for Proclamation” was one of the first systematics texts that we read at sem while I was there. I think a big part of the issue is that we’re confused about how to discuss sanctification in such a way that we don’t turn ourselves into “theologians of glory” but remain under the theology of the cross. Of course, easier said than done. I’m interested in the “neediness/expenditure” way that Arthur C. McGill looked at it in the 70′s. Thanks for the thoughts.

    • April 27th, 2012 at 07:38 | #2

      The seminaries should not be having students read Forde as “one of the first systematics texts” in the classroom. He is not a faithful guide to Scripture and the Lutheran Confessions.

  2. April 27th, 2012 at 07:50 | #3

    All this discussion about the late Dr. Forde has led me to start reading his works for myself to discern evil from good. Rev. McCain, would you care to join me in reading his works with a critical eye to discern whether or not Dr. Forde’s teaching should not be tolerated in the Church of God? I would like to get a nice sized group of pastors (and perhaps laity) together to read and discuss his writings in an open, online forum.

    • April 27th, 2012 at 08:07 | #4

      I already have, and continue, to report out my concerns and why, in my opinion, Forde is not a good and faithful guide to Holy Scritpure and the Lutheran Confession and why there are far better resources to be having first and second year seminarians read and study, you know, like Luther, Chemnitz, Gerhard and dare I say it? Pieper! And the “Quest for Holiness” by Koberle is still, in my view, one of the finest treatments of these issues. I’m not interested in giving Forde more promotion and publicity than he is already receiving (too much of) in our circles.

  3. Marion Hofman
    April 27th, 2012 at 09:00 | #5

    How about reading, studying and discussing Edward Engelbrecht’s “Friends of the Law” from CPH, too.

    • April 27th, 2012 at 09:02 | #6

      A most excellent suggestion, though, WARNING, it totally destroys any notion that Luther did not teach the third use of the law. Blows the Forde theories popular among some totally out of the water.

  4. April 27th, 2012 at 09:10 | #7

    Pastor McCain,

    Thanks for this post. I note Forde has a lot of notable disciples who continue in his legacy.

    I recently came across this, and had an enlightening conversation, which I recount on my blog here:



    • April 27th, 2012 at 09:32 | #8

      Wow, that’s terrific stuff, Nathan. I’m going to repost on my blog.

  5. April 27th, 2012 at 09:15 | #9

    You are absolutely right. Forde’s work in this area and that of his followers are one of the great pitfalls of American Lutheranism and a triumph for revisionism. After all the proof is the denial of all core understanding of sanctification found in our Book of Concord ranging from the 3rd Use to the New obedience to Regeneration to the Spirit dwelling in our hearts and bearing good fruit. But then again is it any wonder he has been so embraced? With these core doctrines out of the way we are free to throw up our hands and declare “Oh well we are just sinners” or mis quote “Sin Boldly”. Faith in Christ vs faith in sin?

  6. Robert Buechler
    April 27th, 2012 at 10:05 | #10

    @Pastor Rob MoskowitZ
    Indeed Rob. I remember reading Forde and discussing him with pastors in my former denomination (ELCA) conference. It became very apparent that any discussion of third use of the law was considered heretical and it was precisely Forde’s view of things that was used to support all manner of sin proscribed by Scripture.

    • April 27th, 2012 at 10:22 | #11

      On the LCMC Facebook page one chap, Christopher Miller, is kind of going into melt down over any critique of Forde. Sad.

  7. Denton White
    April 27th, 2012 at 10:46 | #12

    I have returned again and again to Adolf Koberle since first reading it in 2006. I am humbled each time I turn to it and thankful for it. I am not aware that Korberle, at any point, lost his way as he explained the relationship of what I have come to understand as “passive righteousness” and “active righteousness.” And I have found Pieper valuable time and again at keeping my thoughts conditioned by the teaching of our church. I’m am certainly open to any one who may help me see some dangers with Korberle that I’ve missed.

  8. April 27th, 2012 at 11:10 | #13

    Pastor McCain,

    Thank you. I am humbled.


  9. Jonathan Trost
    April 27th, 2012 at 11:19 | #14

    When I read the quotation from Forde above (…there is nothing for me to do other than listen and believe), I understand it to be made only within the context of the sermon’s title, “Justification by Faith Alone”. As to Justification, isn’t he just preaching “sola fide”?

    Might it be that he limited the content of his sermon to the means of Justification (faith), and saved for another sermon the fruits of Justification (sanctification) and the application of the Formula’s 3rd Use of the Law to them?

    If, however, he denies the the 3rd Use, why did Luther write in his catechisms more about (parensis concerning) the Christian’s observance of the 10 Commandments than he did about The Lord’s Prayer and the Apostles’ Creed combined?

    Could Forde’s aversion to this topic flow from the emphasis Lutheran Pietism placed upon it?

  10. Martin Diers
    April 27th, 2012 at 12:16 | #15

    Here is how I see the third use of the Law: If I swear in public, and I am admonished by my brethren, I respond, “Thank you for your admonition. I am ashamed. Please forgive me.” Why is it the third use? Because as a Christian I know and recognize that what my brother says is true and good, and that I have done evil of which I am ashamed, for I desire to do good. If this were not true, then I would not be a Christian at all. Was the brother applying the law specifically in the third use? No. He was accusing me of my sin. And yet in my inner man I received it as a well deserved and welcome correction. Thus the Law worked in its third use upon me.

    I have a difficult time separating the denial of the third use of the law, and antinomianism itself. In fact, I don’t really think that it is possible to separate them. The error begins when the preacher confuses the three effects of the law with three compartmentalized applications of the law. This is not how Luther and the Confessions speak. They do not talk of three Laws, or three separate applications of the Law, but of the three things that the Law, when properly applied, does.

    The Law is not divided as God is not divided, for it is nothing less than the holiness of God, codified. If one tries to compartmentalize the Law, and then deny one “compartment”, in actual effect, the Law itself is denied, just as you cannot deny one person of the Trinity, without denying God himself.

    And it shows in preaching. When a pastor denies the third use of the Law, his sermons are not deficient in the third use of the Law, but in the Law itself, for it is not possible to preach the Law without preaching it with its full condemning voice. A Law which does not condemn sin, also in Christians, is not the Law at all.

    Lex semper accusat. This is true of all three uses of the Law. I do not think it is possible to preach the Law in any other way than to accuse sinners and saints alike. When you convict the members of your congregation of their sins, that is the Law working in the third use just as much as the first and second.

    So was Forde an antinomian? I was not trained in the LCMS, and have only been exposed to Forde recently, and mostly only in his essay, “A Lutheran View of Sanctification”. I thought that paper was very good. Unfortunately, what I have seen done with this paper is certain sentences are plucked out of their context, as if this is Forde’s last word on Sanctification. By that I mean the sentences which say “You mean there’s nothing that I have to do? That’s right. Just listen.” One could perhaps accuse him of being naive as to how his words would be picked up by the flesh of his readers as a license to sin. However, my reading of his paper, taken in its entirety, finds him agreeing with St. Paul: “Shall we continue in sin that grace may abound? God forbid!” I will not speak to what Forde writes in his books, since I have not read them, but I wonder if a similar cherry-picking is happening there as well.

    I do think Forde is right in saying that the Law has the same relation to Sanctification as it does to Justification to the extent that we can hardly separate the two. My takeaway from Forde is that the Law is not to be equated with Sanctification at all. The common view that the Gospel is for Justification but the Law is for Sanctification is just wrong. Wrong completely. All good that is done in us in Sanctification is done by the Holy Spirit, and we dare not, in any way, equate our Sanctification with the sin which we have avoided, or else we reduce Sanctification to mere moralism, when it is, in fact, God’s holiness working in and through us by His Spirit.

    I presume however, that when Forde is accused of denying the third use of the Law, the above is not what people are talking about. Or is it? I ask honestly, because I have not read “Theology is for Proclamation”. Perhaps it is time to do so.

  11. SorenK
    April 27th, 2012 at 14:15 | #16

    I was first introduced to Forde (and Giertz) by an ALC pastor in 1975. Following that year I wandered off into methbapticostal strains of Lutheranism. It wasn’t until 20 years later that I was introduced to Senkbeil’s ‘Sanctification’ which opened my eyes. I followed it up with ‘Dying to Live’ and Walther’s ‘Law and Gospel.’ These books present questions for which I could not find the answer in otherwise confessional Lutheran literature, such as Pieper, but did appear to be addressed by Forde (not important to the discussion, Hammer of God has become my favorite book). I further took confidence in what Forde was saying because his books were endorsed by current LCMS seminary profs. I don’t believe that I am at all an exception, but Pastor McCain this is why in my view Forde has a hold in LCMS. I’m rather looking forward to Dr. Jack Kilcrease’s book on Forde; it should help settle the discussion.

  12. Jonathan Trost
    April 27th, 2012 at 17:20 | #17

    I made reference to Lutheran Pietism above because I was born and baptized in that tradition in what originally was a (German) Evangelical Synod congregation.

    Among other things, I remember Pastor Schroeder having exhorted us in catechism class with words to this effect:

    “As the Holy Spirit makes possible, live your life as if your very salvation were dependent on how well you do it. But, believe, and take comfort in the sure knowledge that, it doesn’t!”

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