In light of some recent comments I’ve run across again on this issue, it’s time once more for the “Aversion to Sanctification” blog post, since the problem persists and appears to have become part-and-parcel of what some perceive to a confessional Lutheran understanding of God’s Word.
More recent examples of this problem in action include a pastor posting a picture of a guy giving “the finger” and claiming there is nothing wrong with that and defending it, continued comments about how no matter what good works are done they are still “sinful,” and the ongoing effort to turn every comment in the Scriptures about the good works to which we are called into a discussion about the second use of the law, virtually laughing off Proverbs 31 and saying that text does not really apply to individuals but is really about Christ and the Church. I’ve had occasion, unfortunately, to observe pastors in my church body defending the use of obscenity and profanity. Why? Because they are “free” in Christ to do. I wish I was making this kind of thing up.
I think the comment that took the prize was posted on my Facebook wall some time ago where the text of God’s Word was actually twisted to the point that the that indicates that God has prepared good works for us to walk in, to read “good work upon which God has prepared us to work” thus not about good works, but about Christ. All these things are put forward with the best of intentions, but they betray an unhealthy lack of balance and understanding on these issues.
I read recently a lay Lutheran theologian taking broad swipes with little understanding of the subject about which he was speaking, and, I should note, this lay theologian is a disciple and fan of Gerhard Forde, whose writings I have always found to be remarkably unremarkable and, in fact, a cause of some of the problems we have on these issues. As one wag put it, the only thing he finds helpful in Forde’s writings is when he is quoting Martin Luther. Keep in mind that Forde denied the Biblical teaching concerning the atonement, the very heart of the Gospel itself, and from there he went wrong on sanctification, the law, good works and a whole host of other Christian doctrines. My advice for any seminarian or college student reading this is: put away Forde and take up much better resources on Lutheran theology!
The memory of a most disturbing conversation with two younger men I had some time ago still is as fresh as ever. They were gleefully asserting that listening to the audio pornography and vile filth of Eminem is appropriate for Christians. One suggested that because only what comes out of a man is what makes him sinful that it matters not what he sees, or hears, as a Christian. These two young men are sadly typical of a poorly formed understanding of the life of good works to which we are called as Christians that seems pandemic in the Christian Church, where apparently some can wax eloquent about how they are striving to be faithful to God’s Word, but then turn right around and wallow in the mire and squalor of sin. This all the more underscores for me the point that we have a serious lack of emphasis on the call to holy living and good works which is part-and-parcel of our new life in Christ, truths that have, apparently until recently, been taught in our beloved Lutheran church. There is much teaching that is not being done, that must done. Simply repeating formulas and phrases about justification is not teaching and preaching the whole counsel of God. Comforting people with the Gospel when there is no genuine repentance for sin is doing them a disservice. There is a serious “short circuit” here that we need to be mindful of. Let this be clear. Listening to the “music” of swine such as Eminem is sinful and willfully choosing to listen to it is sin that drives out the Holy Spirit. This is deadly serious business. Deadly. Serious.
Pastors who wash their hands of this responsibility claiming that they want to avoid interjecting law into their sermons when they have preached the Gospel are simply shirking their duty as preachers and are being unfaithful to God’s Word.
We have done such a fine job explaining that we are not saved by works that we have, I fear, neglected to urge the faithful to lives of good works as faithfully and clearly as we should. This should not be so among us brethren. Parenesis is lacking in much preaching and teaching. Sermons become a never ending recitation of the doctrine of justification, as if that is the only doctrine taught in Holy Scripture.
I’m growing increasingly concerned that with the necessary distinction between faith and works that we must always maintain, we Lutherans are tempted to speak of good works and the life of sanctification in such a way as to either minimize it, or worse yet, neglect it. I read sermons and hear comments that give me the impression that some Lutherans think that good works are something that “just happen” on some sort of a spiritual auto-pilot. Concern over a person believing their works are meritorious has led to what borders on paranoia to the point that good works are simply not taught or discussed as they should be. It seems some have forgotten that in fact we do confess three uses of the law, not just a first or second use.
The Apostle, St. Paul, never ceases to urge good works on his listeners nad readers. I recall a conversation once with a person who should know better telling me that the exhortations to good works and lengthy discussions of sanctification we find in the New Testament are not a model at all for preaching, since Paul is not “preaching” but rather writing a letter. This is not a good thing.
A number of years ago an article appeared that put matters well and sounded a very important word of warning and caution. It is by Professor Kurt E. Marquart of Concordia Theological Seminary in Fort Wayne, Indiana. I strongly encourage you to give it your most serious attention.
Antinomian Aversion to Sanctification?
An emerited brother writes that he is disturbed by a kind of preaching that avoids sanctification and “seemingly questions the Formula of Concord . . . about the Third Use of the Law.” The odd thing is that this attitude, he writes, is found among would-be confessional pastors, even though it is really akin to the antinomianism of “Seminex”! He asks, “How can one read the Scriptures over and over and not see how much and how often our Lord (in the Gospels) and the Apostles (in the Epistles) call for Christian sanctification, crucifying the flesh, putting down the old man and putting on the new man, abounding in the work of the Lord, provoking to love and good works, being fruitful . . . ?”
I really have no idea where the anti-sanctification bias comes from. Perhaps it is a knee-jerk over-reaction to “Evangelicalism”: since they stress practical guidance for daily living, we should not! Should we not rather give even more and better practical guidance, just because we distinguish clearly between Law and Gospel? Especially given our anti-sacramental environment, it is of course highly necessary to stress the holy means of grace in our preaching. But we must beware of creating a kind of clericalist caricature that gives the impression that the whole point of the Christian life is to be constantly taking in preaching, absolution and Holy Communion-while ordinary daily life and callings are just humdrum time-fillers in between! That would be like saying that we live to eat, rather than eating to live. The real point of our constant feeding by faith, on the Bread of Life, is that we might gain an ever-firmer hold of Heaven-and meanwhile become ever more useful on earth! We have, after all, been “created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them” (Eph. 2:10). Cars, too, are not made to be fueled and oiled forever at service-stations. Rather, they are serviced in order that they might yield useful mileage in getting us where we need to go. Real good works before God are not showy, sanctimonious pomp and circumstance, or liturgical falderal in church, but, for example, “when a poor servant girl takes care of a little child or faithfully does what she is told” (Large Catechism, Ten Commandments, par. 314, Kolb-Wengert, pg. 428).
The royal priesthood of believers needs to recover their sense of joy and high privilege in their daily service to God (1 Pet. 2:9). The “living sacrifice” of bodies, according to their various callings, is the Christian’s “reasonable service” or God-pleasing worship, to which St. Paul exhorts the Romans “by the mercies of God” (Rom. 12:1), which he had set out so forcefully in the preceding eleven chapters! Or, as St. James puts it: “Pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this, to visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep himself unspotted from the world” (1:27). Liberal churches tend to stress the one, and conservatives one the other, but the Lord would have us do both!
Antinomianism appeals particularly to the Lutheran flesh. But it cannot claim the great Reformer as patron. On the contrary, he writes:
“That is what my Antinomians, too, are doing today, who are preaching beautifully and (as I cannot but think) with real sincerity about Christ’s grace, about the forgiveness of sin and whatever else can be said about the doctrine of redemption. But they flee s if t were the very devil the consequence that they should tell the people about the third article, of sanctification, that is, of new life in Christ. They think one should not frighten or trouble the people, but rather always preach comfortingly about grace and the forgiveness of sins in Christ, and under no circumstance use these or similar words, “Listen! You want to be a Christian and at the same time remain an adulterer, a whoremonger, a drunken swine, arrogant, covetous, a usurer, envious, vindictive, malicious, etc.!” Instead they say, “Listen! Though you are an adultery, a wordmonger, a miser, or other kind of sinner, if you but believe, you are saved, and you need not fear the law. Christ has fulfilled it all! . . . They may be fine Easter preachers, but they are very poor Pentecost preachers, for they do not preach… “about the sanctification by the Holy Spirit,” but solely about the redemption of Jesus Christ, although Christ (whom they extol so highly, and rightly so) is Christ, that is, He has purchased redemption from sin and death so that the Holy Spirit might transform us out of the old Adam into new men . . . Christ did not earn only gratia, grace, for us, but also donum, “the gift of the Holy Spirit,” so that we might have not only forgiveness of, but also cessation of, sin. Now he who does not abstain fro sin, but persists in his evil life, must have a different Christ, that of the Antinomians; the real Christ is not there, even if all the angels would cry, “Christ! Christ!” He must be damned with this, his new Christ (On the Council and the Church, Luther’s Works, 41:113-114).
Where are the “practical and clear sermons,” which according to the Apology “hold an audience” (XXIV, 50, p. 267). Apology XV, 42-44 (p. 229) explains:
“The chief worship of God is to preach the Gospel…in our churches all the sermons deal with topics like these: repentance, fear of God, faith in Christ, the righteousness of faith, prayer . . . the cross, respect for the magistrates and all civil orders, the distinction between the kingdom of Christ (the spiritual kingdom) and political affairs, marriage, the education and instruction of children, chastity, and all the works of love.”
“Grant, we beseech Thee, Almighty God, unto Thy Church Thy Holy Spirit, and the wisdom which cometh down from above, that Thy Word, as becometh it, may not be bound, but have free course and be preached to the joy and edifying of Christ’s holy people, that I steadfast faith we may serve Thee, and in the confession of Thy Name abide unto the end: through Jesus Christ, Thy Son, our Lord. Amen.”
Concordia Theological Quarterly