During August I was working on a writing project that deals with exhortation in Paul’s letters and the third use of the law. For this reason a piece by Steven Hein entitled “About Preaching Good Works” on the 1517 Legacy Project website caught my attention. Hein’s piece is a good example of modern Lutheran thought about the law and preaching, and so it is worthwhile to consider what he says.
Hein begins by warning against “soft good works.” He says:
The most distinguishing characteristic of soft good works is that they are doable—by anyone. If this is how good works are preached and taught, it’s time shake the dust off your feet—and walk. Encouragement and soft good works just feed the sinful flesh and rob believers of the power and freedom of the Gospel.
Correctly, Hein’s concern is that true good works are produced by faith in Jesus Christ:
Good and God-pleasing works are always normed by the Law of God, but they need to be preached and taught at full-strength. This means that whatever outward actions they may demand, they will always include what is demanded in and from your heart. You need to listen to preachers who exhort and admonish all your good outward doing to flow from faith in Christ and love of God and neighbor.
Hein is clear about how good works are to be preached. He says: “Proper preaching of good works is never for our encouragement. Rather, it is intended do two things at the same time: inform you about what God-pleasing works really are; and then, where it is that they are lacking in your life.”
According to Hein, proper preaching of good works serves the purpose of showing what we fail to do:
Proper preaching and teaching good works with appropriate admonitions are not designed to reveal your virtue or make you feel good about yourself. They are intended to expose your poverty—what you should do, but don’t.
For Hein preaching about good works is law that drives the hearer to the Gospel:
This is a good thing for your spiritual health and, oddly enough, such preaching actually has an important role in doing good works … Because good preaching of works commands the spirit with the letter of the Law, it always exposes our weak faith and nails us for our impoverished, often self-centered works. While this may make us squirm, it is a good thing. The Spirit of the Lord uses this to expose false works and indict our poverty to make us hungry for the Gospel—to make us hungry for the all-sufficient works and righteousness of Christ. So, is proper preaching and admonishing of good works a setup for the Gospel? Yes!
Hein says this “setup for the Gospel” is needed so that something remarkable can happen:
Gerhard Forde called it the hilarity of the Gospel. When you realize there is nothing you have to do, the impact of the Gospel produces both the desire and freedom to do them, and do them from the heart. God is sneaky. Christ is the end of the law so that there may be righteousness for everyone who believes (Romans 10:4). Works of faith without Legal compulsion from a free spirit was His plan for you all along (see John 15:1-5 and Galatians 2:10)! Luther understood that this is what St. Augustine meant when he said: Love God and do as you please.
Hein's presentation provides an excellent example of what modern Lutheran theologizing about the law produces – a teaching that contradicts the way Scripture actually speaks. All that Hein has to say about the preaching of good works focuses on revealing sin: “where good works are lacking in life”; “what you should do, but don’t.” This is, he says, “a set up for the Gospel” in the movement from Law to Gospel. Hein's presentation is helpful because it leaves no doubt that in his view, as the law accuses it does one thing: it reveals our sin. Preaching of the law then has one purpose: to reveal sin in the movement from Law to Gospel (this is exactly the description I have provided of soft antinomianism). Only the Gospel then can produce “works of faith without Legal compulsion from a free spirit.”
The problem is that Hein's view can make no sense of what Paul actually does in his letters. While Paul would agree that works that are good in God’s eyes are not doable “by anyone” (they can only be done by those who are in Christ through the work of the Spirit), he certainly believes they are doable by the Christian.
What is more, Paul does not teach and exhort about good works in order to drive hearers to the Gospel. Instead, he speaks this way because of the Gospel that his hearers have already received through baptism and faith. In Pauline studies this is described as the “indicative and the imperative.” James Dunn summarizes this view that is axiomatic among those who study Paul:
The point, widely agreed then, is that the indicative is the necessary presupposition and starting point for the imperative. What Christ has done is the basis for what the believer must do. The beginning of salvation is the beginning of a new way of living. The “new creation” is what makes possible a walk “in newness of life.” Without the indicative the imperative would be an impossible ideal, a source of despair rather than resolution and hope. The imperative must be the outworking of the indicative …. At the same time the imperative needs also to be stressed. To reduce Paul’s paraenesis to an afterthought is to misunderstand Paul’s theology. The imperative is the inevitable outworking of the indicative (The Theology of Paul the Apostle [Grand Rapids: Eerdmanns, 1998], 630).
Paul knows that through the work of the Spirit the Christian is a new creation in Christ (2 Cor 5:17). He doesn’t write about the life of good works and new obedience in order to show his readers that they don’t do or can’t do these things. Instead, he exhorts his readers to undertake activities that he believes are doable because of the Gospel they have received.
A simple and easy illustration of this is Eph 4:32, “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.” For starters we note that within the “macro structure” of Ephesians this verse is located in chapters 4-6. Like Romans (1-11 and 12-16), Galatians (1-4 and 5-6) and Colossians (1-2 and 3-4), Ephesians contains a focus on the Gospel followed by exhortation to live in ways that are produced by the Gospel. Michael Middendorf is correct when he writes: “Paul’s regular sequence is not so much imperative accusations of the law followed by the gospel. Instead, he generally articulates law and gospel indicatives followed, in Walther’s words, ‘by instruction regarding things we do after we have become new man’” (“The New Obedience: An Exegetical Glance at Article VI of the Augsburg Confession” Concordia Journal 41 (2016): 211). An examination of the imperatives in Philippians and 1 Thessalonians reveals the same pattern (212).
However, even more important is the “micro structure” of Eph 4:32. While the general distinction between the first portion and latter portion of Paul’s letters is true, this does not in any way mean that the Gospel is absent in the latter portion. Instead, as Raabe and Voelz have observed about Romans 12-16, “Paul repeatedly sprinkles Gospel indicatives into the midst of the paraenetic material” (Paul R. Raabe and James W. Voelz, “Why Exhort a Good Tree?: Anthropology and Paraenesis in Romans” Concordia Journal 22 (1996): 158).
Paul says, “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as [literally “just as also”; καθὼς καὶ] God in Christ forgave you.” Paul’s imperative is immediately followed by a statement of Gospel that provides the reason a Christian does the imperative. Logically, we see here the indicative and imperative described above.
Eph 4:32 shows that Hein has it all wrong. First, Paul tells them to do something that he believes in entirely “doable” as a Christian – to be kind and forgive one another. Second, he doesn’t write these words to the Ephesians in order to show “that they are lacking in your life” or that they are “what you should do, but don’t.” Instead, Paul writes these words with the goal of having the Ephesians be kind and forgive. Third, Paul doesn’t write these words to drive them to the Gospel. Instead, he writes these words because the Ephesians have received and know the Gospel. They are to be kind and forgive, “just as also God in Christ forgave you.”
Now the first half of Eph 4:32 tells the Ephesians what they are to do. As such, it is Law. Terminological games like calling this a “Gospel imperative,” or Gebot (“command”) instead of Gesetz (“law”), or the “second use” or “paraenetic use” of the Gospel cannot change this fact. These terms simply seek to avoid the reality that this is law (one which does not fit with the theological assumptions of their creators).
Why does Paul speak this way? The answer is very simple. He knows that while the Christian has received regeneration through the Spirit in baptism (Tit 3:5) and is a new creation in Christ (2 Cor 5:17), he is also still flesh and old Adam that struggles against the new man (Rom 7:14-25; Gal 5:16-17). Christians are both at the same time and in this struggle they need to side with the Spirit’s work in them against the old Adam. This is why Paul has just said,:
But that is not the way you learned Christ!-- assuming that you have heard about him and were taught in him, as the truth is in Jesus, to put off [ἀποθέσθαι] your old self [literally, “old man”; τὸν παλαιὸν ἄνθρωπον], which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires, and to be renewed [ἀνανεοῦσθαι] in the spirit of your minds, and to put on [ἐνδύσασθαι] the new self [literally, “new man; τὸν καινὸν ἄνθρωπον”] created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness. (Eph 4:20-24; ESV).
If the Christian were only new man, Paul wouldn’t have to write this. But because the old Adam still struggles against the new man, it is very necessary.
According to Formula of Concord Article VI, there is a very good theological explanation for how we are to understand this. This article focuses on the third use of the law, while also mentioning the first and second use. The key point that must be understood about the term “use” is that it has nothing to do with who is using the law. Three times Article VI says that the Holy Spirit utilizes the law as his instrument (FC SD VI.3, 11, 11). “Use” instead refers to the effects in the hearer produced by the reception of the law. The Spirit utilizes the law as his instrument in order to produce the results he intends, and those effects in the hearer are the “use.”
Lutherans know that the “the law always accuses” (lex semper accusat) (Ap. IV.38). However, Hein’s explanation of preaching good works assumes that the law only does one thing as it accuses – it reveals sin. This second use of the law certainly can and does occur. But it is not the only thing that can happen as the law accuses.
Hein has failed to understand and include the third use of the law. Formula of Concord Article VI states that as the law accuses, it also compels and represses the old Adam:
Likewise, it is necessary so that the old Adam not act according to its own will but instead be compelled against its own will, not only through the admonition and threats of the law but also with punishments and plagues, to follow the Spirit and let itself be made captive (1 Cor. 9[:27*]; Rom. 6[:12*]; Gal. 6[:14*]; Ps. 119[:1*]; Heb. 13[:21*]). (FC Ep VI.4; emphasis mine)Therefore, in this life, because of these 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. 9:27*]. And again, “If you do not have that discipline in which all children share, then 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 mine)“For the old Adam, like a stubborn, recalcitrant donkey, is also still a part of them, and it needs to be forced into obedience to Christ not only through the law’s teaching, admonition, compulsion, and threat but also often with the cudgel of punishments and tribulations until the sinful flesh is completely stripped away and people are perfectly renewed in the resurrection” (FC SD VI.24; emphasis mine).
In addition, as the law accuses it also teaches and instructs the old Adam. The Formula of Concord does not describe this as a neutral guide, but rather that of telling the old Adam what he has to do and what he can’t do so that he doesn’t make up his own works:
…nevertheless the Holy Spirit uses the written law on them to teach them, so that through it believers in Christ learn to serve God not according to their own ideas but according to his written law and Word, which is a certain rule and guiding principle for directing the godly life and behavior according to the eternal and unchanging will of God (FC SD VI.2-3; emphasis mine)For this reason, too, believers require the teaching of the law: so that they do not fall back on their own holiness and piety and under the appearance of God’s Spirit establish their own service to God on the basis of their own choice, without God’s Word or command. As it is written in Deuteronomy 12[:8*, 28*, 32*], “You shall not act … all of us according to our own desires,” but “listen to the commands and laws which I command you,” and “you shall not add to them nor take anything from them (FC SD VI.20; emphasis mine)In order that people do not resolve to perform service to God on the basis of their pious imagination in an arbitrary way of their own choosing, it is necessary for the law of God constantly to light their way (FC SD VI.4; emphasis mine).
In the third use the Spirit utilizes the Law so that the actual behavior of the Christian reflects God’s will. It is the Spirit who always supports the new man through the Gospel so that he can struggle against the old man. It is the new man who struggles against the old man. The Spirit applies the Law in its third use to the old man and the Spirit's utilization of the law to guide and repress the old man aids the new man in his struggle so that the new man determines what the individual actually does. In this way it is entirely correct to say that the Law helps the Christian live according to God’s will.
It is critical to recognize that what is being described here is not a Calvinistic understanding of the third use of the law nor the view of the law found in American evangelicalism. Calvin wrote about the third use of the law:
The third use of the Law (being also the principal use, and more closely connected with its proper end) has respect to believers in whose hearts the Spirit of God already flourishes and reigns. For although the Law is written and engraven on their hearts by the finger of God, that is, although they are so influenced and actuated by the Spirit, that they desire to obey God, there are two ways in which they still profit in the Law. For it is the best instrument for enabling them daily to learn with greater truth and certainty what that will of the Lord is which they aspire to follow, and to confirm them in this knowledge; … Then, because we need not doctrine merely, but exhortation also, the servant of God will derive this further advantage from the Law: by frequently meditating upon it, he will be excited to obedience, and confirmed in it, and so drawn away from the slippery paths of sin. (1559 Institutes 2.7.12; emphasis mine)
For Calvin the third use of the Law predominates instead of second use. Here the third use has two parts. First, it makes the Christian more certain of the will of God. And second it prompts obedience. The Law itself becomes a means of producing obedience in the Christian. This basic understanding continues to underpin the way the law is employed in American evangelicalism (consider the evangelical penchant for listing “seven principles of….”).
The Lutheran understanding differs because here in the third use the Spirit employs the law as it accuses to guide, repress and restrain the old man. As the Spirit utilizes the law to guide and restrain the old man, the new man is assisted in his struggle against the old man and is able to determine what the individual actually does. In this view, new obedience and good works of the Christian are produced by the Spirit working through the Gospel. Of course, the new man rejoices in the Law and agrees with it (this is the positive side of the third use that is often overlooked; FC SD VI.4-5). New obedience and good works are considered good by God only because of Christ (FC SD VI.23).
Only the Spirit determines what the “use” – the effect on the person – is. Because of the complexity of the sinner, there may be more than one occurring at the same time. But we know that the Spirit can and does use the law in the manner described by Formula of Concord VI. And so the law’s relation to good works is not only to convict of sin and drive the person to the Gospel as Hein describes. It is also one in which the Spirit utilizes the law to repress and compel the old Adam as this assists the new man in his struggle and enables the new man to determine the action by a Christian in a particular situation.
In explaining the third use of the law, Formula of Concord article VI refers to Luther’s Church Postil for the Nineteenth Sunday after Trinity (Eph 4:22-28) (FC SD VI.9). There Luther writes:
1. This is once again admonition to Christians to put their faith into practice through good works and new life. Even though through Baptism they certainly have the forgiveness of sins, yet the old Adam still sticks to the flesh and is always active with evil inclinations and desires to both worldly and spiritual vices. If they do not resist and restrain these, they will again lose the faith and forgiveness they have received, and afterward will become much worse than they were before. They will begin to despise and persecute God’s Word if they are rebuked through it. Yes, even those who gladly hear it, value it, and intend to live according to it still need daily admonition and incitement. The old skin of the sinful flesh is so strong and tough, and the devil is so powerful and villainous that if he can get a little space where he can insert a claw, he presses in and does not give up until he has sunk the man down again into his former old, damnable way of unbelief, contempt for God and disobedience.2. For this reason, the preaching office is necessary in the Church, not only to teach the ignorant – such as the simple, foolish populace and the young people – but also to awaken and exhort those who certainly know how they should believe and live, so that they daily restrain it and do not become lazy, reluctant, and tired in the battle which they must have on earth with the devil, their own flesh and all vices.3. Therefore, St. Paul diligently emphasizes this admonition for his Christians, so that it almost seems that he is doing too much, since he everywhere presses it upon them forcefully, just as if they were so foolish that they did not know or were careless and forgot, so that they would not do it unless commanded and driven to it.However, he also knows that even though the Christians have begun to believe and should be demonstrating the fruit of faith, this is not so quickly done or accomplished. It does not do to think and say: “Well it is enough that the teaching has been given. Therefore, wherever the Spirit and faith are, there the fruits and good works will follow of themselves.” Even though the Spirit is certainly there and (as Christ says [Matt. 26:41]) “willing,” and also works in those who believe, yet, on the other hand, the flesh is weak and lazy, and the devil does not stop trying to ruin that weak flesh through temptations and enticements.4. This is why we must not let people go away as if they did not need to be exhorted and urged through God’s Word to a good life. No, you dare not be negligent and lazy here, for the flesh is already far too lazy in obeying the Spirit; yes, it is all too vigorous in opposing Him, as St. Paul says elsewhere: The flesh desires against the Spirit,” etc., “so that you do not do what you want’ [Gal 5:17]. (LW 79:181-182; emphasis mine)
Raabe and Voelz point to a fact that should be obvious, but often seems to allude Lutherans such as Hein: “The fact of the matter is that the Biblical writers do a lot of exhorting of God’s people in sermonic as well as didactic contexts. This, we believe, has important ramifications” (Raabe and Voelz, “Why Exhort a Good Tree?” Concordia Journal 22 (1996): 154). Formula of Concord Article VI explains some of the ramifications because it describes how the Spirit can and does use such law.
When it comes to employing exhortation to Christian living we recognize that the preacher cannot control how the Spirit utilizes the law. We must recognize that Paul couldn’t control how the Spirit utilized the Law either. And yet, Paul exhorted, admonished and taught Christians how to live. His goal was for them to do some things and not to do other things. He actually thought addressing them in this way was beneficial for achieving this goal. Because of the inspiration of Scripture, the apostolic pattern of exhortation and admonition described by FC VI in relation to the third use of the law is in fact the Spirit provided model and pattern for addressing Christians. So how do you preach about good works? Follow Paul’s example.