During its first century of existence, Lutheranism wrestled with two forms of antinomianism. In the first, Johann Agricola argued that it is the Gospel, not the Law, which works repentance in unbelievers. Martin Luther and the Lutherans rejected this antinomianism as they affirmed that it is the Law which works repentance. In the second, the work of George Major prompted a theological disagreement in which some claimed that the Law should not be addressed to Christians. Formula of Concord Article VI rejected this antinomianism and said that the Law must be spoken to believers because the flesh is still present in those who have been reborn.
The proper distinction of Law and Gospel has been recognized as a key theological insight by which the Gospel came clear in the Reformation. The role of the Law in convicting sinners and bringing them to repentance in preparation for the Gospel has become an axiomatic truth in the Lutheran Church.
In the same way, Article VI of the Formula of Concord left no doubt that the Law must be spoken to Christians. It was confessed there that the Law was given for three reasons:
The law has been given to people for three reasons: first, that through it external discipline may be maintained against the unruly and the disobedient; second, that people may be led through it to a recognition of their sins; third, after they have been reborn—since nevertheless the flesh still clings to them—that precisely because of the flesh they may have a sure guide, according to which they can orient and conduct their entire life. (FC Ep VI.1)
The Formula of Concord also stated clearly that in speaking the Law to Christians, the Lutherans admonished the people about living in godly ways and doing good works. As they affirmed in Epitome article IV:
For particularly in these last times it is no less necessary to admonish the people to Christian discipline and good works and to remind them how necessary it is that they practice good works as a demonstration of their faith and their gratitude to God than it is to admonish them that works not be mingled with the article on justification. For people can be damned by an Epicurean delusion about faith just as much as by the papistic, Pharisaic trust in their own works and merit. (FC Ep VI.18).
In light of this background, one would expect that antinomianism would never be a problem in Lutheranism again. However, the surprise is that during the twentieth century another form of antinomianism arose that continues to be with us to this day. In fact, it has become a dominate theological view in the United States that has only recently received serious challenge.
I have called this theological position “soft antinomianism.” In this post I will do three things. First, I will discuss what soft antinomianism is. Second, I will explain why the term “soft antinomianism” is an accurate and helpful term of reference. Third, I will briefly set forth the history and source of soft antinomianism. My task here is largely descriptive. I have written elsewhere about the problems of soft antinomians in pieces such as What does biblical exhortation and admonition mean for Lutheran preaching? and Four things Lutherans believe about theLaw that are false ... and true. In future posts I will examine the presuppositions of soft antinomianism and why they are wrong. This will share the content of the presentation “Preaching the Law without Legalism” that I delivered at the LCMS National Stewardship Seminar on the campus of Concordia Seminary, St. Louis.
Soft antinomianism is an inability and even a refusal to preach about new obedience and good works. It does not exhort, admonish and teach in sermons about how Christians are to live because of what Christ has done for us.
Soft antinomianism ardently rejects the two kinds of antinomianism that arose in the sixteen century. It believes that the Law brings people to repentance, and that this Law must continue to be preached to Christians. A central tenet of soft antinomianism is the fact that the “Law always accuses” (lex semper accusat). This is, of course, an important truth of the Book of Concord which says, “For the law always accuses and terrifies consciences” (Ap. IV.38). However when deploying this theological statement soft antinomianism is saying that the Law only does one thing as it accuses: it shows people their sin (identified in the Formula of Concord Article VI as the second use of the law). All statements about how Christians are to live are inherently Law – they tell people what they are to do. From the perspective of soft antinomianism such preaching can only do only one thing. It will convict people of the fact that they do not do these things.
When soft antinomianism controls preaching, the sermon has only two goals. First, the preacher seeks to address sharp, accusatory Law that will convict the hearers of their sin and prompt repentance. This is done in service of the second and main goal, which is to deliver the forgiveness found in Jesus Christ. The preaching of the Law prepares the hearer for the preaching of Jesus and the Gospel. In that movement from Law to Gospel the sermon has achieved its entire purpose.
What soft antinomianism does not have as a goal in preaching is to guide and direct Christians in how they are to live because of Christ and the Gospel. The reason for this is very simple. Preaching about how Christians are to live is Law. Since the Law always accuses and the only thing the Law does in accusing is to show people their sin, to preach about how they are to live as Christians returns people to a word of condemnation. Preaching about new obedience and good works returns the hearers to the Law. It is therefore a legalism that will either lead people to despair or it will lead to that other product of legalism – pride and works righteousness.
In addition, soft antinomianism maintains that to believe the Law can be involved in any way in assisting Christians to live in godly ways is itself legalism. Good works can only be produced by the Holy Spirit through the Gospel. The Law cannot be of service here in helping the individual Christian to do some things and to avoid other things. Instead, this is legalism that uses Law and threats of the Law as the means to get people to do things. This is contrary to the Gospel, and so to think that preaching of the Law will in some way assist a Christian to live in God pleasing ways denies the Gospel.
The following theological statements about preaching are typical examples of soft antinomianism found in Lutheranism today (I have personally experienced all of them). They guide preaching that does not speak about new obedience and good works - about how Christians are to live because of what Christ has done for us:
1. If you end a sermon by talking about how Christians are to live, you take away the Gospel from them.2. Christians don’t need to be told what to do because the Gospel produces good works. A good tree produces good fruit.3. There is no need for exhortation and admonition about new obedience in a sermon because the law which accused the hearers and revealed their sin also provides any guidance they need.4. Christians don’t need exhortation and admonition about new obedience because it is Christ in them who does good deeds.5. When Jesus and Paul talk about how Christians are to live, they say these things in order to show people their sin.6. You can’t know how the Spirit will use the Law, and so you should just speak Law that confronts the hearers’ sins and let the Spirit do what he wills.
The second topic for consideration is to explain why the term “soft antinomianism” is an accurate and helpful term of reference. The term “antinomianism” is accurate because we are describing a theological perspective that does not believe the Law should be included in preaching. As noted above, language in sermons that exhorts, admonishes and teaches Christians about living in new obedience and doing good works is Law. This is precisely the kind of language that soft antinomianism rejects.
However while soft antinomianism is clearly a form of antinomianism, it is also certainly not the same kind of antinomianism that was rejected by Lutherans in the sixteenth century. Indeed soft antinomianism itself vehemently rejects these. For this reason, a term of reference is needed that identifies the theological belief as antinomianism, and yet also distinguishes it from the forms of antinomianism that were rejected in the sixteenth century.
“Soft” is an adjective that is used in present day philosophical discussions to describe a form of postmodernism in order to distinguish it from hard postmodernism. The term “soft” indicates that this approach shares the same basic philosophical outlook, but that it also differs because it is not as thoroughgoing in the way it applies this outlook.
Found in our current intellectual environment, the adjective “soft” is ideal for describing this theological view in Lutheranism for three reasons. First, by adding “soft” to “antinomianism,” the term “soft antinomianism” indicates that it shares a common, basic approach with the antinomianism of the past. It doesn’t speak the Law. Second, the adjective “soft” serves to distinguish this view from the antinomianism that existed in the sixteenth century. This is necessary because it is definitely not the same thing. Imprecision and confusion reigns when we try to talk about what exists today using the bare term “antinomianism.” Finally, the adjective “soft” indicates that while this operates in the way of antinomianism, it is not as thoroughgoing in the way it applies this outlook. It is “soft” in that it does not completely reject speaking the Law but instead does not employ certain ways of speaking the Law. It will speak Law with the purpose of convicting people of sin, but will not speak Law in ways that clearly exhort, admonish and teach Christians about living in new obedience and doing good works.
Some have objected by saying that “soft antinomianism” is a new term that is not found in the Lutheran Confessions. This is of course true. But it simply indicates that the term refers to something that is a new development, and so a new term is needed. So for example, “feminist God language” is a new term. Yet it is needed to describe a new phenomenon that did not exist in the sixteenth century.
Finally, with regard to the history and source of soft antinomianism, we are fortunate because the history of soft antinomianism has already been written. In his book Law, Life and the Living God: The Third Use of the Law in Modern American Lutheranism (Concordia Publishing House, 2002), Scott R. Murray describes how the Luther renaissance at the beginning of the twentieth century separated Luther from the Lutheran Confessions and interpreted Luther through the lens of existentialism (pg 41-45).
Karl Barth’s 1935 Evangelium und Gesetz (Gospel and Law) prompted European Lutherans to begin discussing the Law prior to World War II (pg 26). After the war, Werner Elert in 1948 published his In Zwischen Gnade und Ungnade: Gesetz und Evangelium (Law and Gospel) in which he argued that Luther did not teach the concept of the third use of the Law and that it should not be used in Lutheran theology (pg. 27). Gerhard Ebeling built upon this position with his1950 Zur Lehre von triplex usus legis (“On the Doctrine of the Triplex Usus Legis in the Theology of the Reformation”).
Since the time of the Formula of Concord, Lutherans had believed that while Luther very rarely used language about the "third use of the law,” it was certainly a concept that he believed and taught using other terms and language. The work of Elert and Ebeling destroyed this consensus and created a new scholarly consensus in which it was assumed that Luther did not teach the third use of the Law. European Lutheran theologians drew from this the conclusion that the third use of the Law should not have a place in contemporary Lutheranism. American Lutherans theologians went to German universities after World War II in large numbers and many studied at Erlangen and Heidelberg. The result was that they learned this new approach and brought it back to the American Lutheran scene (pg. 29).
It was a dramatic claim that Luther did not teach the third use of the Law. The fact that no one else in history had noticed this should have raised suspicions. Driven by the existentialism of their age and the theological utility they perceived in a denial of the third use of the Law, many theologians embraced the view. However, when examined the argument does not hold up and we find that there is good reason why no one prior to the mid-twentieth century held this view. Here again we are fortunate that Edward A. Engelbrecht has examined the subject in detail in his book Friends of the Law: Luther’s Use of the Law for the Christian Life (Concordia Publishing House, 2011). He has convincingly demonstrated that Luther did teach the third use of the Law.
When the third use of the Law is eliminated from Lutheran theology, all that remains for the focus of preaching is the second use of the Law which accuses in order to reveal sin and work repentance. Biblical language such as the paraenesis of Paul’s letters which exhorts and admonishes about living as Christians with the goal that they will actually do this does not fit this model. Biblical paraenesis has always been the Achilles heel of attempts to deny the third use of the Law. Yet where the third use of the Law is denied, language which exhorts and admonishes Christians in how they are to live is ignored – or it is interpreted as being language that is intended to show Christians their sin. In this development, soft antinomianism was born. Everything about preaching the Law becomes wrapped up in convicting people of sin. The Law always accuses, and so to speak in ways that guide Christians in how they are to live is legalism that leads to despair or works righteousness.
Theologians and pastors of the LCMS have never denied the third use of the Law because it is found in the Formula of Concord. However, what developed after World War II was a functional denial that was evinced in preaching. The preaching in the LCMS ended up following the same lines as those who did deny the third use. The important influence of Gerhard Forde needs to be mentioned here. Preaching addressed strong, accusatory Law that was intended to convict people of their sin. Biblical texts that talked about how Christians are to live were ignored or understood to be the biblical writer seeking to show Christians that they are sinners. Sermons did not address the hearers in ways that clearly exhorted, admonished and taught Christians about living in new obedience and doing good works.
This soft antinomianism remains the dominant perspective in American Lutheranism today. When I write this, I am not accusing anyone. I am instead describing the situation that exists. We have all inherited a theological perspective that was shaped after World War II. Murray’s Law, Life and the Living God is essential reading for understanding why this is so. My own recognition of soft antinomianism was prompted by my graduate study of Paul. I realized that Paul spoke about how Christians are to live (and are able to live because of the Spirit) in ways that I never would. Within the theological framework I had been taught, I had no way of understanding Pauline paraenesis except to say Paul wrote these words in order to show Christians their sin. Yet self evidently that was not Paul’s goal. Instead he wrote because he actually wanted Christians to do certain things and not do other things. Why did Scripture speak in this way, and yet I was entirely uncomfortable about doing so? Why did I find it so difficult to speak about Christians doing goods works because of fear of works righteousness?
In the end further study led me to recognize that the cause was soft antinomianism – something that does not reflect the teaching of Scripture, the Lutheran Confessions, Luther or the Lutheran fathers. I learned that Lutherans from diverse and independent backgrounds were also arriving at the same conclusion.
Demonstrating why soft antinomianism is wrong is the topic for other posts. But in evaluating whether soft antinomianism exists it is helpful to consider Luther quotes from two sources. The first is significant because the Solid Declaration Article VI refers to it. The Formula of Concord states:
Therefore, in this life, because of the desires of the flesh, the faithful, elect, reborn children of God need not only the law’s daily instruction and admonition, its warning and threatening. Often they also need its punishments, so that they may be incited by them and follow God’s Spirit, as it is written, ‘It is good for me that I was humbled, so that I might learn your statutes’ [Ps. 119:71]. And again, ‘I punish my body and enslave it, so that after proclaiming to others I myself should not be disqualified’ [1 Cor. 9:17]. And again, ‘If you do not have that discipline in which all children share, you are illegitimate and not his children’ [Heb. 12:8]. Similarly, Dr. Luther explained this in great detail in the summer part of the Church Postil, on the epistle for the nineteenth Sunday after Trinity” (FC SD VI.9; emphasis added).
The Solid Declaration points to Luther’s Church Postil as a key resource for understanding this aspect of the third use of the Law and the manner in which the SD VI wants to be understood in speaking about it. The Church Postil on the epistle for the Nineteenth Sunday after Trinity (found in Lenker 8:304-316) comments on Eph. 4:22-28. There Luther writes:
“DUTY TO NEW AND OLD MAN1. Here again is an admonition for Christians to follow up their faith by good works and a new life, for though they have forgiveness of sins through baptism, the old Adam still adheres to their flesh and makes himself felt in tendencies and desires to vices physical and mental. The result is that unless Christians offer resistance, they will lose their faith and the remission of sins and will in the end be worse than they were at first; for they will begin to despise and persecute the Word of God when corrected by it. Yea, even those who gladly hear the Word of God, who highly prize it and aim to follow it, have daily need of admonition and encouragement, so strong and tough is that old hide of our sinful flesh. And so powerful and wily is our old evil foe that wherever he can gain enough of an opening to insert one of his claws, he thrusts in his whole self and will not desist until he has again sunk man into his former condemnable unbelief and his old way of despising and disobeying God.2. Therefore, the Gospel ministry is necessary in the Church, not only for instruction of the ignorant – such as the simple, unlettered people and the children – but also for the purpose of awakening those who know very well what they are to believe and how they are to live, and admonishing them to be on their guard daily and not to become indolent, disheartened or tired in the war they must wage on this earth with the devil, with their own flesh and with all manner of evil.3. For this reason Paul is so persistent in his admonitions that he actually seems to be overdoing it. He proceeds as if the Christians were either too dull to comprehend or so inattentive and forgetful that they must be reminded and driven. The apostle well knows that though they have made a beginning in faith and are in that state which should show the fruits of faith, such result is not so easily forthcoming. It will not do to think and say: Well, it is sufficient to have the doctrine, and if we have the Spirit and faith, then fruits and good works will follow of their own accord. For although the Spirit truly is present and, as Christ says, willing and effective in those that believe, on the other hand the flesh is weak and sluggish. Besides, the devil is not idle, but seeks to seduce our weak nature by temptations and allurements.4. So we must not permit the people to go on in their way, neglecting to urge and admonish them, through God’s Word, to lead a godly life. Indeed, you dare not be negligent and backward in this duty; for, as it is, our flesh is all too sluggish to heed the Spirit and all too able to resist it. Paul says (Galatians 5:17): “For the flesh lusteth against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh … that ye may not do the things that ye would.” Therefore, God is constrained to do as a good and diligent householder or ruler, who, having a slothful man-servant or maid-servant, or careless officers, who otherwise are neither wicked nor faithless, will not consider it sufficient once or twice to direct, but will constantly be supervising and directing (emphasis added).
The question we must ask is whether this describes our preaching. I submit that in the post-World War II American Lutheran church it does not.
A second Luther text is also significant. Luther’s 1535 Galatians lectures have been an important source for those who deny that he teaches the third use of the Law. However, even in this text we find Luther commenting on Gal 5:14 with the words:
Therefore it is as necessary that faithful preachers urge good works as that they urge the doctrine of faith. For Satan is enraged by both and bitterly resists them. Nevertheless, faith must be implanted first; for without it one cannot understand what a good work is and what is pleasing to God (LW 27:53; emphasis added).
He goes on to say:
Therefore the apostle admonishes Christians seriously, after they have heard and accepted the pure doctrine about faith, to practice genuine works as well. For in the justified there remain remnants of sin, which deter and dissuade them both from faith and from truly good works. In addition, the human reason and flesh, which resists the Spirit in the saints (in the wicked, of course, it has dominant control), is naturally afflicted with Pharisaic superstitions and, as Ps. 4:2 says ‘loves vain words and seeks after lies’; that is, it would prefer to measure God by its own theories rather than by His word and is far more ardent about doing works that it itself has chosen than about doing those that God commands. This is why faithful preachers must exert themselves as much in urging a love that is unfeigned or in urging truly good works as in teaching true faith (LW 27:54; emphasis added).
Again, I ask whether this describes our preaching. If it doesn’t, do we even think it should? It is in the great distance that separates Luther’s comments from contemporary Lutheran practice that we see how influential soft antinomianism has been.
Next in this series: The elephant in the room - Presuppositions of soft antinomianism