During 2013 there has been an ongoing discussion among Lutherans about sanctification/new obedience and the third use of the law. I have addressed both of these topics in earlier posts (sanctification/new obedience; third use of the law). In these conversations, the term “antinomian” is often used. Those who do not believe that exhortation and admonishment to pious and godly living are lacking in Lutheran preaching – or that it is even needed – are often described using this term (for an example of this). At the same time, this group responds by asking for proof and evidence of antinomianism. They ask: “Where are the antinomian sermons? Who are the antinomians? Name them or else all of this is just a straw man argument.”
These are fair questions. And so the time has arrived for me “to come out of the closet” and confess: I am an antinomian. Classically defined, an antinomian is, of course, someone who follows in the theological trajectory of Agricola. In this view, it is the Gospel that both causes repentance and works faith. The law is to have no role in the preaching and teaching of the Church. If you explained the meaning of this term to my congregation members, they would immediately object that this is simply not true about Pastor Surburg. After all, in every sermon he preaches the law in order to confront the congregation members with their sin. He thoroughly teaches about the Ten Commandments in Catechesis. It is not fair to describe him as an antinomian!
This is certainly true. I am not an antinomian in this strict sense of the term. In fact, I doubt that within the LCMS there are any pastors who are antinomians in this way. The law and gospel paradigm is so deeply ingrained that it is scarcely possible for it to exist. Lutherans preach the law in order to convict people of sin and bring them to repentance. The use of the Small Catechism in Catechesis with its First Part means that the Ten Commandments are constantly being taught.
No, I am not an antinomian in this way. However, this full blown “hard antinomianism” is not the only form of antinomianism that exists. There is also a “soft antinomianism.” This soft antinomianism believes that in preaching, the law always accuses and so the law’s only real use is that of convicting people of their sin in order to bring them to repentance – in order to prepare them for the forgiving news of the gospel. Language that exhorts or admonishes Christians to godly living and good works is serving only this second use of the law. If too much of this is used, or if it comes to be considered a separate and important aspect of preaching in its own right, then a diminishing and denial of the gospel is taking place.
I am a soft antinomian. Or rather, I suppose I should say that I am trying to make a recovery from soft antinomianism. My life in the Lutheran church and my training at a Lutheran seminary had taught me to preach the law robustly in order to convict hearers of their sin. This was all done in the service of the gospel, for the gospel offers forgiveness and comfort to repentant sinners. At the seminary I learned about the firm sacramental grounding of the gospel.
This was all true of my preaching during the last ten years. What I didn’t do with any regularity or strength was to encourage and exhort my hearers about good works. What I didn’t do very well was to admonish them in godly living. I didn’t do this because that was the forbidden land of “legalism” and “works righteousness.” It was the place where Baptists, Methodists and evangelicals lived. I certainly wasn’t going to hold up Jesus as an example in my sermons for any other purpose than showing my hearers how sinful they were. What would Jesus do? No biblically grounded Lutheran could ever speak that way.
The recognition of my soft antinomianism was prompted by the study of Paul’s writing in graduate school after seminary. The more I began to preach as a pastor and reflected upon Paul’s letters the more the question began to nag at me: Why did Paul speak so frequently and so robustly about good works and godly living? This was not simply a matter of convicting his readers of sin. He wrote these things because he actually wanted his readers to do them (for more on this). Why did Paul speak this way and I didn’t?
The discussion of sanctification/new obedience this year has caused me to read more of what Luther says about this topic. Once again, I have found that Luther speaks in a frequent and robust fashion about exhortation to godly living and admonishment to avoid sin. There is of course no doubt about the relationship between law and gospel in Luther. And yet, he speaks in ways that often sound quite foreign to a modern Lutheran’s ears as he speaks about exhortation, admonishment and good works.
I don’t believe that my soft antinomianism is all that unusual. In fact, from what I have seen it is endemic to modern Lutheranism. I am by no means the only pastor who has perceived this. When those who share this concern raise the subject, it is not an accusation directed at others. It is instead a description of what we have found in ourselves and the Lutheranism that exists around us. At the same time, we raise the subject because we believe that in order to be true biblical and confessional Lutherans, we need to reappropriate what has been lost.
I have recently finished reading Martin Luther’s antinomian theses and disputations which are now available in translation (Only the Decalogue is Eternal: Martin Luther’s Complete Antinomian Theses and Disputations [Ed. and tr. Holger Sonntag; Minneapolis: Lutheran Press, 2008). In order to help illustrate my point, I am sharing some passages from this work.
It goes without saying that in response to Agricola and the antinomians, Luther emphasizes the law and gospel dynamic throughout the theses and disputations. It is classic Lutheranism. He also emphasizes the simul iustus et peccator:
“What is this? How do these things fit together? How does it agree, to be a saint and to pray because of sin? It surely is a wonderful thing. It is truly a fine thing. Let him figure it out who can. Two opposites in one subject at the same time! If you are saint, why do you cry? Because I feel the sin clinging to me, and this is why I pray: ‘Hallowed be thy name, thy kingdom come.’ ‘O Lord, be merciful to me.’ But you are a saint. But you are a saint? In this way, insofar as I am a Christian, because to that extent I am righteous, pious and belonging to Christ, but insofar as I look at me and my sin, I am wretched and a very great sinner. Thus, in Christ there is no sin, and in our flesh there is no peace and quiet, but perpetual battle as long as this old Adam and this corrupt nature last. They are destroyed only by death itself” (pg. 153).
“For as we have already said many times, the Christian is alive as well as dead, sinner and saint” (pg. 162)
“In view of Christ our Lord and the remission of sins in Christ we are truly saints, pure, and righteous, just as even Gabriel himself in heaven, by faith; and we are truly set in the heavens with Christ (cf. Eph. 2:6). But as for myself and my flesh, I am a sinner” (pg. 180).
Yet in this portion of Luther’s writings there is no mere resignation to sin in the knowledge we have forgiveness in Christ. True, we can never escape sin until death. However Luther has a very robust view that the Spirit actually does something to us and makes a change in the way we are able to live:
“Thus, the demand of the law is sad, burdensome, and impossible for those who are outside of Christ. Contrariwise, among those who are under Christ, it begins to be done as something enjoyable, possible in the first fruits, albeit not in the tithes. And therefore it must necessarily be taught among Christians. Not, to be sure, because of faith which has the spirit subject to the law, but because of the flesh which resists the spirit in the saints, Gal. 5 (:17)” (pg. 43).
“Whoever, therefore, lays hold of this benefit of Christ by faith has by way of imputation fulfilled the law and receives the Holy Spirit, who renders the law, which otherwise is annoying and burdensome to the flesh, enjoyable and gentle” (pg. 55).
“Then we receive the Holy Spirit by faith, who brings forth new motions and fills the will so that it truly begins to love God and hate the sin that remains in the flesh” (pg. 61).
“But still, as I said, we are free even from this law in a twofold way, and it ceases through Christ, since he fulfills that emptiness, and I do so in him. First, imputatively, since sins against the law are not imputed to me and are pardoned on account of the most precious blood of the immaculate Lamb, Jesus Christ, my Lord. Then, in a purging manner, because the Holy Spirit is given me. After receiving him, I begin to hate wholeheartedly everything that offends his name and I become a pursuer of good works. What is left in me of sin, this I purge until I become totally pure, and this in the same Spirit who is given on Christ’s account” (pg. 92).
“For after receiving the Holy Spirit we begin to detest sin, and hate it, and we purge it with the help of the Holy Spirit, not consenting to sin but driving it back” (pg. 94).
“But the discussion is about the fulfillment, that is: Do the human powers fulfill the law? They do not. Who then does? Christ. For he fulfilled it all, and later, we fulfill it in part. Not out of our powers, however, but out of the power of the Holy Spirit, who is given us into our hearts, in whom we cry (Rom. 8:15): ‘Abba, Father’” (pg. 113).
“Yet it is necessary that he first be justified by faith alone. For faith is the first good intention from which later the remaining good works flow like fruits and it remains for the whole life. Thus, after I come to believe in Christ, I intend to want to believe in God, to love and magnify his Word. Then I also intend not to want to commit adultery, to fornicate, to dissipate, etc. For when faith is brought about, the Holy Spirit is given whom, when accepted, follow all sorts of good fruits like of a truly good tree” (pg. 115).
The fact that the believer is saint and sinner at the same time means that there is a continuing struggle. In this struggle, the law is used by the Spirit to repress the sinful man: “But, nonetheless, the law remains, also mortification, since our flesh is always rebellious. Therefore the Holy Spirit or faith always impresses the law on its flesh so that it may cease, lest sin would be permitted to rule, lest it would accomplish what it wills (Rom 6:12)” (pg. 74).
The Christian therefore finds himself/herself in the midst of a struggle. But it is a struggle against sin that he or she actively takes up:
“Every believer, who by faith begins to conquer the terrors of the law, repents throughout his entire life. For the entire life of the faithful is an exercise and a certain hatred against the remainders of sin in the flesh, which grumbles against the Spirit and faith” (pg. 59)
“And even in this way sin is removed in a formal and purging manner, since here, day by day, I purge and mortify more and more the sin that still remains in my flesh, until finally all that belongs to the old man is removed and consumed and a pure and glorified man without blemish or any defect comes forth” (pg. 91).
“Yet the law is nonetheless not to be removed from the temples; and it is indeed to be taught, since even the saints have sin left in their flesh which is to be purged by the law, until it is driven out. For this wrestling match remains for the saints as long as they live here. Here they fight by day and night. Then they finally overcome through Christ” (pg. 116).
“Yet it does not follow from this that you are secure and sound asleep. By this divine reputation – that your sins are forgiven you freely for Christ’s sake – you are sent, as it were, into lifelong military service and battle array, in order to fight and combat sin, the world, the devil, and your own flesh” (pg. 142).
“To be dead and to die to sin is a Pauline phrase for battling against sin and not allowing it to rule in us. And this happens not only in on member, but in all, so that now the heart, eyes, hands, tongue, and feet do something else than before, and serve Christ the Lord, not sin, and thus become from day the next constantly holier and better. But because this nature is totally infected by the devil, we do not hope to be fully free from sins before the body is covered by the ground and consumed with worms” (pg. 179).
So how does a pastor preach and minister to people in this situation? How does the pastor assist people in godly living? Luther leaves no doubt that exhortation and admonishment using the law is part of the answer. The question for us as we read these statements is whether they describe our approach as well:
“Indeed, even the saints need the law as a kind of admonisher, since there is in them a constant war between spirit and flesh, according to Rom. 7(:23): ‘If feel another law in my flesh which wars against the law of my mind etc.’ Yet only to the saints or believers this is not imputed because of Christ, and since he fights against sins, they do not allow sin to rule” (pg. 91).
“But the law is not to be taught in such a way among the pious, so as to accuse and condemn, but so as to admonish to good. For I ought not to say or preach: You are not under the remission of sins. Likewise: You will be condemned; God hates you etc. For these sayings do not pertain to those who have received Christ, but address the ruthless and wild. The law then is to be attenuated for them and is to be taught them by way of exhortation: Once you were gentiles; now, however, you are sprinkled and washed by the blood of Christ (cf. Eph. 2:11, 13; 1 Cor. 6:11). Therefore, now offer you [sic] bodies to obey righteousness, putting away the desires of the flesh, lest you become like this world (cf. Rom. 12:1-2; 6:13; Eph. 4:22). Be imitators of the righteousness of good works (cf. Tit. 2:14) and do not be unrighteous, condemned like Cain, etc.; you have Christ” (pg. 116).
42. Wherefore the law is to be taught indiscriminately – as also the Gospel – the pious as well as the impious.43. To the impious, that they, terrified, might acknowledge their sin, death, and inevitable wrath of God, that they might be humiliated thereby.44. To the pious, that they might be admonished to crucify their flesh with its lusts and vices lest they become secure” (pg. 135).
“Indeed, even the saints carry with them their flesh and fall and err often. This is why it is necessary to admonish, to stir up, and to call as if to battle, so that they may remember in what danger they live. Don’t sleep, don’t sleep, don’t snore! Awake!” (pg. 145).
“Let it be markedly this: The Church needs the law, not only so that the impious might be coerced by it, as by fetters, but also that the pious, who still have sin left in their flesh, can be admonished and convicted, lest they become secure and complacent; so that they be stirred up as for a battle and military service against remaining sins and temptations, which will be of great size and number in every age” (pg. 148).
“Yet because we are not perfect and sin in the present life, the law is to be taught and inculcated, so that we are stirred up for battle, let we become idle and sluggish, lest we perish” (pg. 155).
“This is why the impious are to be struck by the light of the law, so that they, finally terrified, learn to seek Christ. And the law is also to be taught to the pious in order to admonish and exhort, so that they endure in the battle and conflict and do not allow themselves to be overcome by the barking and assault of their flesh” (pg. 156).
In an even more surprising set of statements, Luther indicates that Jesus is to be set forth before believers as an example in order to assist them in godly living:
“You know that Paul often connects these two, as Peter does as well, first, that Christ died for us and redeemed us by his blood in order to cleanse for himself a holy people (cf. Tit. 2:14; 1 Peter 1:19). In this way, however, Christ is presented us as gift or sacrament. In the second place, Paul and Peter present us Christ as example, so that we would be imitators of good works. He redeemed us from all impiety and death, so that we then preach and glorify him by imitating good works. Thus Peter says (1 Peter 2:21): ‘Christ suffered for you that you should follow in his steps’” (pg 110).
“For to present Christ as example is nothing else than showing how to live in obedience to God and parents and superiors and to be a follower of all good works and virtues, as they are recited by Paul and Peter at the end of almost all their epistles” (pg. 111).
“Should they not teach this way: ‘My man, Christ fulfilled the law, and now it is certainly appropriate that we follow his footsteps by living piously and saintly; that you not be an adulterer, a thief, a robber, as Christ says to the Pharisee (Luke 10:37): ‘God and do likewise’?’” (pg. 111).
“Thus Christ is presented to us as gift or sacrament and as example, so that we might follow his footsteps. As far as he is example, we can follow and imitate him” (pg. 111).
“What else does faith give? It requests and brings with it the Holy Spirit, from whom later flow all sorts of good works. Thus, the first part is redemption which we have by faith alone, and by this sacrament the Ten Commandments are fulfilled and redemption is given us gratis. The other part is the example according to which we follow Christ and act well. This is why it is all caused by faith, whatever is done. Therefore is said well: Faith alone does all things” (pg. 121).
For more on this topic see Surburg's thoughts about soft antinomianism, the Law and exhortation.