A recurring assertion in the discussion about new obedience is that it is incorrect to speak of “increase” or “progress.” It is argued that this is not possible because of the continuing presence of the old man or because love cannot in any way be “quantified" or because in baptism our new self "in Christ" is actualized and so for this reason any progress that we may want to speak about is instead a return to that original reality. We may want to grant that the dogmatic assertions about love and baptism view the matter from a particular vantage point and in so doing provide a helpful way of describing the matter. However, they cannot be allowed to exclude biblical data that does not fit neatly in their dogmatic categories.
The job of an exegete is to return our dogmatic discussions to what the biblical text actually says. And on this point, it is clear that Scripture does speak about the possibility of an increase in new obedience. Scripture explicitly indicates that an increase in new obedience is to be a goal in the Christian life, and that this also does in fact occur. This is clearly found in Paul’s discussion of love. For Paul it is axiomatic that love is the fulfillment of the law. He says this in both Romans 13:8-10 and Galatians 5:13-14 (naturally this goes back to our Lord, Matthew 22:34-40). It is not surprising then that Paul focuses upon love in 1 Corinthians 13:4-7 where he writes words that any Lutheran recognizes to be Law – they are saying what we must do. We find that Paul understands “love” to be not merely an emotion but instead an activity – activity directed primarily toward others.
Yet because of what Paul believes about what it means to be “in Christ” and to have the Holy Spirit at work in the individual, he explicitly expresses the expectation and wish that Christians will increase in love. Based on what Paul says about love in Romans 13:8-10 and Galatians 5:13-14, this will therefore also be an increase in the fulfillment of the Law.
Paul writes in Philippians 1:9-10:
“And it is my prayer that your love may abound more and more (ἵνα ἡ ἀγάπη ὑμῶν ἔτι μᾶλλον καὶ μᾶλλον περισσεύῃ), with knowledge and all discernment, so that you may approve what is excellent, and so be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God” (Philippians 1:9-11 ESV).
Paul’s prayer is that the Philippians will increase in love and this is linked to the desire that they be filled with “the fruit of righteousness” (meaning either “righteous fruit” or “the fruit which is righteousness”; cf. Galatians 5:22-23 and the fruit of the Spirit). We note also that this is described as occurring “through Jesus Christ” which grounds this increase in Jesus Christ and his saving work. We have clear evidence in this text that Paul’s hope is that Christians will increase in love, and so naturally this should be ours as well.
In a similar manner, Paul writes in Paul writes in 1 Thessalonians 4:9-12:
“Now concerning brotherly love you have no need for anyone to write to you, for you yourselves have been taught by God to love one another (Περὶ δὲ τῆς φιλαδελφίας οὐ χρείαν ἔχετε γράφειν ὑμῖν, αὐτοὶ γὰρ ὑμεῖς θεοδίδακτοί ἐστε εἰς τὸ ἀγαπᾶν ἀλλήλους), for that indeed is what you are doing to all the brothers throughout Macedonia (καὶ γὰρ ποιεῖτε αὐτὸ εἰς πάντας τοὺς ἀδελφοὺς [τοὺς] ἐν ὅλῃ τῇ Μακεδονίᾳ). But we urge you, brothers, to do this more and more (περισσεύειν μᾶλλον), and to aspire to live quietly, and to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands, as we instructed you, so that you may walk properly before outsiders and be dependent on no one.(1 Thessalonians 4:9-12 ESV)
In this text Paul affirms that the Thessalonians are loving one another and the Christians in Macedonia, and he then expresses the desire that they do so more and more – that there be an increase in this manner of life. Here again we have clear evidence in this text that Paul’s hope is that Christians will increase in love, and so naturally this should be ours as well.
Paul writes in 1 Thessalonians 3:11-13:
“Now may our God and Father himself, and our Lord Jesus, direct our way to you, and may the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all, as we do for you (ὑμᾶς δὲ ὁ κύριος πλεονάσαι καὶ περισσεύσαι τῇ ἀγάπῃ εἰς ἀλλήλους καὶ εἰς πάντας, καθάπερ καὶ ἡμεῖς εἰς ὑμᾶς), so that he may establish your hearts blameless in holiness before our God and Father, at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints” (1 Thessalonians 3:11-13 ESV).
Again, this is explicit textual evidence for Paul’s hope that Christians increase in love (Paul’s desire for them expressed with an optative of wish). More importantly for our discussion, not only does Paul express the wish that this increase will happen for the Thessalonians, but he also states that it is true for him, Silvanus and Timothy. It is not a hypothetical possibility or wishful thinking, but something that is true for Paul and his companions.
Paul writes in 2 Thessalonians 1:3-4:
“We ought always to give thanks to God for you, brothers, as is right, because your faith is growing abundantly, and the love of every one of you for one another is increasing (ὅτι ὑπεραυξάνει ἡ πίστις ὑμῶν καὶ πλεονάζει ἡ ἀγάπη ἑνὸς ἑκάστου πάντων ὑμῶν εἰς ἀλλήλους). Therefore we ourselves boast about you in the churches of God for your steadfastness and faith in all your persecutions and in the afflictions that you are enduring” (2 Thessalonians 1:3-4 ESV).
In this text Paul not only speaks about increasing love, he also asserts that this is true of the Thessalonians. This is occurring among them and it is something that Paul can even boast about among the churches of God. Here again is explicit biblical evidence that an increase of love (new obedience) does occur among Christians.
However, “love” is not the only way this is expressed. Paul writes in 1 Thessalonians 4:1-8:
“Finally, then, brothers, we ask and urge you in the Lord Jesus (ἐρωτῶμεν ὑμᾶς καὶ παρακαλοῦμεν ἐν κυρίῳ Ἰησοῦ), that as you received from us how you ought to walk and to please God, just as you are doing (καθὼς καὶ περιπατεῖτε), that you do so more and more (ἵνα περισσεύητε μᾶλλον). For you know what instructions we gave you through the Lord Jesus. For this is the will of God, your sanctification (τοῦτο γάρ ἐστιν θέλημα τοῦ θεοῦ, ὁ ἁγιασμὸς ὑμῶν): that you abstain from sexual immorality; that each one of you know how to control his own body in holiness and honor, not in the passion of lust like the Gentiles who do not know God; that no one transgress and wrong his brother in this matter, because the Lord is an avenger in all these things, as we told you beforehand and solemnly warned you. For God has not called us for impurity, but in holiness. Therefore whoever disregards this, disregards not man but God, who gives his Holy Spirit to you.” (1 Thessalonians 4:1-8 ESV)
This is an important text for several reasons. First, Paul expresses that the Thessalonians are walking in the way they should and that this is pleasing to God. Naturally this does not mean they are perfect but it shows that those in Christ are able to live in ways that Scripture is willing to describe as the very thing they should be doing. Second, we must note that Paul exhorts them to do this more and more. This shows that it is entirely Scriptural to tell Christians that they should strive to live in God pleasing ways.
Finally, 2 Peter 1:5-8 says:
“For this very reason, make every effort to supplement (ἐπιχορηγήσατε) your faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with steadfastness, and steadfastness with godliness, and godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love. For if these qualities are yours and are increasing (ταῦτα γὰρ ὑμῖν ὑπάρχοντα καὶ πλεονάζοντα), they keep you from being ineffective or unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.” (2 Peter 1:5-8 ESV)
In this text, Peter commands Christians to be growing in the qualities of new obedience in light of what God has done for them (1:3-4, 9). There is the explicit expectation that Christians will not only have these qualities such as love, but also that they will be increasing in them.
Because the Scriptures explicitly speak of increase in new obedience, the Confessions do as well. An obvious example to begin with is Apology IV.136 which states, “We openly confess, therefore, that the keeping of the law must begin in us and then increase more and more (quod necesse sit inchoari in nobis et subinde magis magisque fieri legem). And we include both simultaneously, namely the inner spiritual impulse and the outward good works.”
Statements like this are not rare in the Confessions. For example:
“Besides, we have sufficiently shown above that we maintain that good works must necessarily follow faith. For we do not abolish the law, Paul says [Rom. 3:31], but we establish it, because when we receive the Holy Spirit by faith the fulfillment of the law necessarily follows, through which love, patience, chastity, and other fruits of the Spirit continually grow” (Ap. XX.15) (emphasis mine).
“The Holy Spirit will remain with the holy community or Christian people until the Last Day. Through it he gathers us, using it to teach and preach the Word. By it he creates and increases holiness, causing it daily to grow and become strong in faith and in its fruits, which the Spirit produces” (LC II.53) (emphasis mine).
“Consequently, nothing is so necessary as to call upon God incessantly and to drum into his ears our prayer that he may give, preserve and increase in us faith and fulfillment of the Ten Commandments and remove all that stands in our way and hinders us in this regard” (LC III.2) (emphasis mine).
“Now, when we enter Christ’s kingdom, this corruption must daily decrease so that the longer we live the more gentle, patient, and meek we become, and the more we break away from greed, hatred, envy and pride” (IV.67) (emphasis mine).
“The Holy Spirit will remain with the holy community or Christian people until the Last Day. Through it he gathers us, using it to teach and preach the Word. By it he creates and increases holiness, causing it daily to grow and become strong in faith and in its fruits, which the Spirit produces….” In these words the catechism makes no mention whatsoever of our free will or our contribution but ascribes everything to the Holy Spirit, namely, that through the ministry of preaching he brings us into the Christian community, in which he sanctifies us and brings about in us a daily increase in faith and good works” (FC SD II.37-38) (emphasis mine).
“Although those born anew come even in this life to the point that they desire the good and delight in it and even do good deeds and grow in practicing them, this is not (as we mentioned above) a product of our own will or power; but the Holy Spirit, as Paul says himself, ‘is at work in us to will and work’ (Phil. 2[:13])” (FC SD II.39) (emphasis mine).
When we consider texts like these in the Scriptures and Confessions, we must bear several things in mind. First, they are the result of justification by grace through faith apart from works, and sanctification through the work of the Spirit. Because God has justified and sanctified Christians, they now live in new obedience. It is faith active in love (Gal 5:6) through the work of the Spirit and it has nothing to do with merit for salvation.
Second, these are not statements that lead to despair because they are spoken to Christians whose daily life is focused on Christ and the ways that he is present for us with forgiveness through his Means of Grace. When there is failure and sin, we return to the Word, to Holy Baptism, to Holy Absolution and to the Sacrament of the Altar. Christ and the Means of Grace are what make growth and increase possible and they provide forgiveness when we fail.
Third, these texts lead to a recognition that, yes, it is possible to see growth and increase in new obedience. It does happen and it can be seen. We see it in the lives of other Christians and in our own lives. If we are inclined to say that no we don’t, then we need to listen to what Scriptures says does happen. This is linked to a robust view of regeneration which believes that the Spirit actually does something to the believer. There is the expectation among some Lutherans that growth in new obedience will never be seen because of our sinful condition. This contradicts the text of Scripture. I would also argue that it contradicts our own experience as we observe the lives of others and ourselves. We do see failures and regression. But we also see growth and deepening as we continue to grow in faith toward Christ.
Fourth, striving to grow in new obedience is a good thing. It is what Scripture tells us to do and is what the Holy Spirit wants us to do. As stated above in the second point, this does not lead to despair because it is lived as part of a life that is daily centered on Christ and his Means of Grace.
Fifth, this new obedience takes place in the setting of vocation. The fruits of the Spirit and work of love occur in ordinary and unimpressive ways. Yet in these very acts of service, sacrifice and compassion we see the new obedience at work.
Finally, language about growth and increase does not mean that it is constant and uninterrupted. As Paul indicates there is struggle and the old man remains a powerful opponent (Galatians 5:16-17; Romans 7:13-25). The Formula acknowledges in the same article where it has just said that Christians “do good deeds and grow in practicing them” (FC SD II.39): “Because in this life we receive only the first fruits of the Spirit and our rebirth is not complete but rather only begun in us, the struggle and battle of the flesh against the Spirit continues even in the elect and truly reborn. For one can detect not only a great difference among Christians – one is weak, another strong in the Spirit – but within each Christian who is at one moment resolute in the Spirit and at another fearful and afraid, at one moment ardent in love, strong in faith and hope, and at another cold and weak” (FC SD II.68). It may even be that as the Christians grow in faith they become more perceptive of their sin and so while new obedience is growing they perceive the exact opposite in themselves. In the face of these kinds of situations, Scripture affirms what is really happening – a truth that may in fact seem contrary to the perceptions of the individual Christian.
Dr. Jeff Gibbs at Concordia Seminary likes to say, “The Bible is a messy book.” In the mystery that is God and his work, and the mystery of the Christian who is new man and old man at the same time, there is biblical date that sometimes defies easy systematic organization. Yet in faithfulness to God’s Word, we cannot ignore it in our attempt describe and explain the new obedience worked in the Christian by the Holy Spirit