Thursday, August 27, 2015

Mark's thoughts: An example of soft antinomianism

When I wrote the blog post What is soft antinomianism?, I encountered the rather interesting response that such a thing does not exist.  Some said that soft antinomianism is no more real than unicorns. There were those who said, “Where’s the proof?  Show us sermons!”

Now the problem with sermons is that there are many variables that go into an individual sermon such as the text, the circumstances in the congregation, and the pastor’s week (every pastor has written a sermon was probably less than his best when short on time because of pastoral care concerns during the week!).  In addition, a sermon is just one sermon.  You would need a large number of sermons to demonstrate soft antinomianism, since of course, this describes a lack of preaching about new obedience and good works. And even if you did show this in one pastor, it would still be only one pastor.

It is more useful to examine what pastors have to say about how preaching should be done, for here you have the assumptions and beliefs behind their preaching set out in the open.  Again, one could argue that a large number of samples would be needed to demonstrate the case that soft antinomianism exists.  But as I looked online yesterday, I was struck by the fact that examining how a prominent and influential pastor discusses preaching can provide important and useful evidence to demonstrate the existence of soft antinomianism.

The thought occurred to me as I read Pastor Donavon Riley’s post Just Another Law-Gospel Sermon?  Pastor Riley is an excellent writer and a prolific blogger.  He has often been a featured speaker and writer at Higher Things.  To his credit, Pastor Riley’s thought is very consistent and developed.  You don’t have to read very much of his writing to recognize the points he is driving home in a well honed fashion. 

Just Another Law-Gospel Sermon is a classic example of Pastor Riley’s work. It is also a classic example of soft antinomianism.  I have defined soft antinomianism in the following manner:

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.

I described that:

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.

In my second post in the series, The elephant in the Room – Presuppositions of soft antinomianism, I wrote:

The second presupposition of soft antinomianism is that the Law always accuses, and that in accusing it does only one thing – it shows people their sin. The fact that the Law always accuses (lex semper accusat) is a basic truth of confessional Lutheran theology.  Apology  IV.38 explicitly states, “For the law always accuses and terrifies consciences” (Ap. IV.38).  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.
Since the Law always accuses and shows people that they can’t do, any attempt to exhort or admonish Christian about new obedience and good works can only lead people into the twin ditches of legalism: despair or works righteousness.  There is no way in which the Law can assist the individual Christian to do things that are right and avoid things that are wrong.  Soft antinomianism maintains that to suggest such a thing (as I will) contradicts a basic truth of the Lutheran confession and ultimately denies the Gospel since only the Holy Spirit can produce these things in a Christian.

When one examines Pastor Riley’s explanation of what a sermon is and does, it soon becomes clear that this perfectly matches my definition of soft antinomianism.  First Pastor Riley clearly indicates that the sermon does not in any way have the goal to exhort, admonish and teach about how Christians are to live because of what Christ has done for us. Rather all attempt to talk about what Christians do is rejected. So in the first paragraph any movement towards talking about Christians and what they do is attributed to a diminishment of justification.  Riley reports how he unfortunately did not believe his professor when he said:

The temptation for you then will be to back off Law and Gospel. Slow but sure, you’ll back off justification. You’ll change your sermons. They’ll be more and more about the people. More and more about what you want them to hear, or what they want to come out from the pulpit. Your sermons will be less and less about Christ, and more and more about Christians. (emphasis added)

The false answers to the challenge of preaching that Pastor Riley then lists share in common the feature that they all in some way deal with what Christians do and how they live:

But I wasn't preaching Law-Gospel sermons. My professor’s warning had been right on. I’d given into temptation. I preached what I imagined the congregation needed to hear or what they demanded to hear. I even sought the advice of pastors and preaching gurus who explained to me that there were ways to read the Bible and preach other than just the Law-Gospel formula. Some said I needed to focus more on how Christians are to live in the world as Christians. Others urged me to emphasize evangelism and the mission the church more often. Still others told me I needed to emphasize Christ as example for Christians to imitate. (emphasis added)

Pastor Riley goes on to say: “The congregation isn’t free to demand the pastor turn his attention to their favorite subject - which is always themselves - either.”  Sermons that talk about what Christians are to do and how they are to live serve the ego of fallen sinners.  Near the end of the piece, Riley delivers some of the sharpest rebuke to any notion that the sermon should have as a goal to exhort, admonish and teach about how Christians are to live because of what Christ has done for us when he writes:

Instead of the preacher’s tales of spiritual victory or his exhortation to the congregation to turn their attention toward moral reform, God’s Word announces “God’s fulfilling of his own law in Christ and the freedom which is now given the Christian in Christ” (David Scaer, On Law And Gospel As A Homiletical Device). (emphasis added)

On the contrary, the sermon is to have only two things – Law and Gospel.  But Riley defines the function of the Law (its “use” as we call it) in a singular fashion.  He says that, “In a Christian sermon the hearer is cracked wide open by God’s Word of Law and pieced back together by the Gospel” (emphasis added).  The Law is something that cracks the hearer wide open.   It does this because, “God’s preacher declares to His hearers that they’ve failed to do what God’s Law demands of them.” This is sharp, accusatory Law that convicts people of sin.

Once the Law has done this, the hearer is then “pieced back together by the Gospel.”  In a clear articulation of the Gospel, Riley writes:

Instead of the preacher’s tales of spiritual victory or his exhortation to the congregation to turn their attention toward moral reform, God’s Word announces “God’s fulfilling of his own law in Christ and the freedom which is now given the Christian in Christ” (David Scaer, On Law And Gospel As A Homiletical Device). All the Bible has to say about the Law’s requirements, demands, and penalties have been satisfied by God’s Son, Jesus Christ. The Old Covenant has been annulled. The New Testament invites all to come, receive their inheritance. Spiritual and moral failures are made heirs of the kingdom of God. Sinners are welcomed to the Lamb’s feast.

Hearers are confronted with the fact that “they've failed to do what God’s Law demands of them. God’s Word of Gospel then announces that these same people are now accepted by God for Christ’s sake.”  And that’s it.  There is nothing more to do.  Riley ends his piece by saying:

The biblical text that is preached is either Law - what hinders the deliverance of all God’s promises in Christ Jesus - or it is Gospel- what gives Christ Jesus and his gifts. There is no other method. No better way to interpret or preach Scripture. There’s God’s Word of Law and the Gospel. What is preached is one or the other. That’s it. There are no more options.

Riley is certainly correct when he writes, “God’s Word announces ‘God’s fulfilling of his own law in Christ and the freedom which is now given the Christian in Christ’ (David Scaer, On Law And Gospel As A Homiletical Device).”  But that is where he stops.  There is nothing of the apostle Paul’s understanding that because the Christian is in Christ through the work of the Spirit, the Christian begins to fulfill the law through love.  There is nothing of his exhortation to live in this way. Paul writes in Galatians, that letter that so greatly influenced Luther because of its focus on justification: “For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith working through love” (Galatians 5:6 ESV). Then shortly thereafter in words that clearly pick up on 5:6, Paul writes, “For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another. For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself'" (Galatians 5:13-14 ESV). 

Paul expresses the same thought in that other letter dominated by justification, Romans:
Owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. For the commandments, “You shall not commit adultery, You shall not murder, You shall not steal, You shall not covet,” and any other commandment, are summed up in this word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law. (Romans 13:8-10 ESV)
This biblical manner of speaking is precisely what soft antinomianism avoids and rejects.  Exactly as Pastor Riley explains, it does not exhort, admonish and teach in sermons about how Christians are to live because of what Christ has done for us (because we are in Christ).  Just as we find in Riley’s piece, soft antinomianism operates with an understanding of the Law that assumes it only does one thing as it accuses – it shows people their sin.  Exactly as Riley describes, in soft antinomianism the sermon seeks only to move from this accusation of the Law which shows sin to the forgiveness and peace found in the Gospel. What Pastor Riley sets forth in his post is soft antinomianism.  What he says is true, insofar as it goes. The error occurs in what he doesn't say, and why he doesn't say it.  It is in these two factors that the great divide exists between the Scriptures and the Lutheran Confessions on the one hand, and Riley's soft antinomianism on the other. 


  1. This post is very clear, civil, and helpful. I look forward to following it. Thanks!

  2. Dude, you are basically calling Donovan a nonconfessional lutheran. Do you know how insane that is?

    1. Pastor Riley has publicly taught this for a long time. If you are going to publicly present teaching, then you must be ready for others to interact with it publicly. I am not looking to label people. What Pastor Riley presents is exactly the way I thought about things when I first entered the parish. Was I "unconfessional" then? I certainly wouldn't say so. But my understanding of what the Scriptures and the Lutheran Confessions teach was not accurate and complete. We all need to be open testing what the way we think against the Scriptures and the Confessions.

    2. I'm gonna send this again.. maybe it didn't go through.

      I wasn't rebuking you. I was encouraging you. This does show the fundamental problem with thinking that exhortation can occur without the Law also accusing. After all, lex semper accusat.

      Since I'm encouraging you to meet with Riley, I would ask also that you give me a chance to come see you. You make reference again to Higher Things in your post. I will come see you at your parish and we can sit down and talk about these things. Would you consider doing that?

    3. Pastor Borghardt,

      I am very puzzled by your statement, “I'm gonna send this again.. maybe it didn't go through.” You can see here by the time stamps that your comment was posted promptly and that I responded to it. In addition, you can see that you are not sending the same messages that you did originally. One wonders why you have worded things in this way. It may, perhaps, give the impression that I did not post your comment. But of course, this is not the case.

      If you examine my response to your comments, you will see that I was not in any way confused by your message and intent. As I indicated there, I have had ample interaction with Pastor Riley in the past. He has made his views known to me very strongly. I will leave it at that. We clearly disagree on this subject. His writing for social media continues to demonstrate this. Therefore, I believe it is far more constructive to interact with his ideas in a way so that the Church can observe and evaluate.
      I mentioned the fact that he writes and speaks at Higher Things, because it acknowledges that Pastor Riley is a “prominent and influential pastor.” Since he is featured so often by Higher Things I can only assume that you do no reject his views.

      You are always welcome to visit Good Shepherd, Marion. I am dubious that after two years of discussing this, we are going to accomplish something by meeting face to face. Actually, in one sense I think we have accomplished a great deal during the last two years. The issues have become quite clear, and it is apparent that there are very significant differences. You seem to think that public discussion of the issues is harmful. I continue to hear from pastors who say the exact opposite. I am inclined to believe that they are correct.

  3. Did you contact Riley and talk to him about your concerns (Matthew 18) or did you just fire this shot off his bow?

    1. Pastor Borghardt, This is a matter of teaching publicly presented on the internet. It is entirely legitimate to interact with and critique that teaching publicly.

    2. All things are permissible but not all things are constructive.

      Why don't you reach out to Riley and talk to him?

    3. The irony is always delicious when one is rebuked publicly for not privately rebuking another.

    4. Pastor Borghardt, I have had ample interaction with Pastor Riley in the past. He has made his views known to me very strongly. I will leave it at that. We clearly disagree on this subject. His writing for social media continues to demonstrate this. Therefore, I believe it is far more constructive to interact with his ideas in a way so that the Church can observe and evaluate.

  4. I think it is most impressive how Pastor Surburg continues to steadfastly and unwaveringly handle the questions, objections, and criticisms hurled his way. Even when some of these seem designed to confuse the subject at hand or to provoke an uncivil response. Following this series of posts (as well as the discussions they have sparked) has been eye-opening, for me. While some things are over my head and some of what Pastor Surburg says I either disagree with or am unsure of, I appreciate that he answers his challengers directly and builds upon his argument and the points raised by others with each successive post. Slowly but surely it seems like his breaking through what may have at first seemed an impenetrable wall.

  5. CFW Walther, Essay 20, Proper Dist. Between Law and Gospel:

    "It is active in good works because it is genuine faith. The believer need not at all be exhorted to do good works; his faith does them automatically. The believer engages in good works, not from a sense of duty, in return for the forgiveness of his sins, but chiefly because he cannot help doing them."

    Sounds a lot like what Forde was saying.

    I'm still struggling to see exactly how preaching must make aims to exhort to good works, especially in light of writings of Walther and Luther. Is it not possible that, in Pastor Riley's form of preaching, the conscience is crushed by law and then given the balm of Gospel and then, without further exhortation, the freed believer then thinks back to the law he just heard, and aims to keep it as best as he is able? Why can't Law, then Gospel, be just as exhorting as Law-Gospel-Law?

    I will also share this video from Pastor Fisk and exhort (haha) everyone to check out the 7:50, 12:30, and 13:30 marks, where he expounds on the Formula of Concord, Article IV, and how that works (pun intended) out operationally in the Christian.

    I guess I still lean towards the "soft" antinomian side - Riley's article just seemed so freeing and loving, and that freedom motivates me to work, whereas specific exhortations always feel so heavy and burdening. But I'm still trying to work it all out, as are many of us!

    Keep writing, and I'll keep reading.

  6. Just a thought... But if you are taught that the law only ever accuses then when you hear exhortation in preaching you will take it as an accusation.

    How do you feel when Jesus says in John 15 "you are my friends if you do what I command you"? It's not talking about Justification. But do you take it negatively? Jesus is encouraging his disciples. He wants them to know when they love one another that He calls them his friends. Is not that a comforting thought? Does not that motivate you to love the brethren? Again its not talking about Justification, nor is it an accusation. It's an encouragement.

  7. Don't the confessions teach that the law ALWAYS accuses? But that doesn't mean it always accuses ONLY/SOLELY. That's where the 3rd use comes in. I don't deny that.

    And yes, encouragement from Jesus, or the pulpit, is always recognized and welcome. But how one tries to accomplish it is where I might take umbrage. Paul, in all his "Gospel imperatives/exhortations" does so only after making grace free and full and having nothing to do with us. Then he bridges to his exhortations with a "therefore" or a "since" or a "because." I find lots of pastors neglect/forget the bridge, and it leaves me falling into a chasm.

    So please, pastors, exhort away, but in an encouraging way!

    1. "So please, pastora, exhort away, but in an encouraging way!"

      Amen to that. No one wants there exhortation to turn into a guilt trip.

  8. The real issue at hand for practical purposes of preaching and teaching is whether or not we should use sound NT parenesis in our preaching.

    The subtle-antinomians would answer no. They assert that as long as the law is proclaimed in such a way as to point out sin and our need for the Gospel, the rest will take care of itself.

    Christ Himself, the Apostles, Luther, and all faithful Lutheran orthodox fathers through the centuries say: YES.

  9. Well thought out and written. Though I would prefer the term semi-antinomian (since I'm not sure there is anything soft about antinomian), the points you make are salient. Semi-antimonian would also keep it in line with other such phrases as semi-pelagian, but that's not a huge issue.

    Seeing Dr. David Scaer quoted, I would be interested if Pastor Riley has read Dr. Scaer on preaching sanctification.

    Also, Jesus obviously saw a need for some exhortation when He instructed both the woman caught in adultery, and the man healed at the pool to "sin no more." Those are not empty words, but they certainly are instructive law, and this, even after the healing.

    1. Mike, Thanks for your comment. You are the second person to suggest "semi-antinomian." I must say that they makes good sense. Naturally, I don't care what we call it, as long as we acknowledge the thing it describes.

  10. I have a question.. Do you think this article you're commenting on is specifically soft Antinominanism? I found it to be an article about the dangers of mixing Law and Gospel or caving into self interests as opposed to preaching Christ crucified. Do you think someone reading this, who maybe newer in the faith or a "laymens laymen" would find the clearer idea posed, the importance of the distinction of law and gospel or lack of need for the law FOR ANYTHING ELSE, except as an accusatory instrument to get people to the gospel? Im just tryin to understand . Thanks

    1. In the basic distinction of Law and Gospel the article is helpful. Where it goes astray is that in addition to showing us our sin when it accuses, the law can also use accusation to teach and repress the old man. So in this way, for the Christian, the law is also a help in the struggle against sin. The basic problem comes out when Pastor Riley leaves no place to speak the way Paul does in exhorting and encouraging Christians to live in God pleasing ways.

    2. Here's the thing though, the site it's published on is specifically law & gospel focused.. So i just think you read too much into the article.. The article was clearly about mixing up those distinctions.. But I understand it's your opinion.. I can respect that.. I still think the soft-Antinominanism is a stretch and to be honest I don't think is a thing.. Like mushy legalist.. 😂.. Blessings

  11. I think that Pastor Surburg is quite courageous actually to write about this publicly, and I don't think there has been any sin involved in him doing so. I think that one of the problems that we have is that we see any word of paranesis or "exhortation" (whatever you want to call it) as being essentially and only "Law." If all such speech is considered to be "Law" in the same sense as the preaching of repentance, then there can be no talk about good works that flow from faith. I think we do ourselves a disservice in categorizing all preaching of a sanctified life as impossible Law and speaking about it as though it were no different than the preaching of repentance. The Sermon on the MOunt, for example, is typically seen by Lutherans as Jesus preaching "Impossible Law" in order to convict and arouse/stir up repentance in the hearer. But this fails to appreciate the teaching of Jesus as instruction for those who have already been brought into the Body of Christ. Where I see the "soft-antinomianism" creeping in is in the assumption that Christians can do no good works, that the regenerate Christian is still just as condemned and rotten as the unregenerate, and is still incapable of doing anything that God requires.

    1. Thanks Paul. You are exactly right about how it is creeping in!

  12. Pr. Surburg et al. :

    I have been following this ongoing debate rather carefully over the last several months.

    With that stated, the article by Pr. Surburg seems to say that Pr. Riley doesn't believe in exhortation. I hope that I am reading that correctly.

    If that is true, I am deeply concerned for it simply is not true. If one were to observe Riley's sermons, you would find that they are full of exhortation. For example, here is a excerpt from a confirmation sermon that Pr. Riley preached several years ago. (The reason why I have this is that I worked portions of his sermon into my confirmation sermon - pastor exchange sermons all the time). He states to the confirmation students:

    "And do not forget to pray to God. Prayer is the life of a Christian the same way breathing is for our bodily life. If you do not breathe anymore your life has come to an end. If you stop praying, if you live weeks and months without keeping communion with God by asking, praising, thanking Him, your Christian life has come to an end. You may live many years, but you have stopped being a Christian, a child of God. So begin a life of prayer and abide in it, then you will abide in the Lord. Do not listen to those who tell you the Bible is only made-up by men, full of fairy tales and errors. Do not listen to those who tell you the sermon preached in church is just one man’s word and wisdom, nothing more. Do not mind it when you are told prayer is useless, instead think of those who have experienced what a great help prayer is, for example: Moses, David, St. Paul, Martin Luther, etc.

    Remember what you have learned: “Call upon me in the day of trouble. I will deliver you and you will glorify me.” [Psalm 50:15] Do not let yourself be turned away from your God, but abide in Him, now and forever. Jesus Christ. Amen. "

    Is this not exhortation?

    Thank you for your time and consideration.

    Rev. Dr. Matthew Richard

    1. Matthew Richard, Thanks for sharing this. It certainly is exhortation, and it illustrates the absurdity of the way Pastor Riley consistently describes the preaching task. Healthy life in the church demands exhortation. A confirmation Sunday stands out as a time that is an example of this - a time when the demands of pastoral care prompt even Pastor Riley (whom I assume is a faithful pastor) to abandon his presuppositions. It is, however, inconsistent with the way Pastor Riley regularly describes preaching, and with what he himself has expressed to me when we interacted on this topic.
      What would be more interesting, would be an example of Pastor Riley's past writing that argues for robust exhortation as an important element in preaching. I have read a fair amount of his work, and have never seen anything that looks even remotely like that. Instead, it all looks like the piece I have used in my post. That is the problem.
      More helpful yet would be for Pastor Riley now to write a piece in which he says, "Pastor Surburg has me all wrong. Of course I believe that exhortation needs to be an important part of Lutheran preaching." If he did that I would say. "Well I was wrong and I am very happy to admit. Now Pastor Riley and I can both speak out in this way." The fact that Pastor Riley wrote for the now defunct Liberate website, and now writes for the Christ Host Fast website seems to indicate that this is unlikely.


    If this isn't exhortation, I don't know what is. However, notice how he frames the exhortation. It is not laid upon the hearer as some "to do" list or burden, but rather as an honor and privilege. It addresses both the Old Adam's objections and the new creation's desire to fulfill the will of God, through Christ.

    I think a lot of "soft antinomians" are really just trying to address the modern American evangelical church's legalistic and moralistic approach to the faith. In doing so, they (sometimes) overstep their bounds and are thusly labeled antinomian, just as Luther was. But like Luther, they would rather preach free, radical grace (erring at times) than have the hearer understand Christianity as moralistic therapeutic deism.

    Personally, as someone who listens to lots of non-Lutheran sermons every week on radio, I find Pastor Riley's message freeing and enabling. For those exposed only to proper Lutheran teaching, it will come off as antinomian.

    As Robert Capon once wrote (paraphrased here), if you don't preach grace radically and freely enough to be accused of being antinomian, then you haven't preached grace properly.

  14. Here's my Luther quote of the day, from his House Postils, 1534 Ascension Day first sermon:

    "I would much rather have people say that I preach too sweetly and that it hinders people from doing good works (even though my preaching does not do that), than that I failed to preach faith in Christ, and there was no help or consolation for timid, fearful consciences."

    So Luther said he never preached radical grace only (and I don't believe Riley does, either), but that he was accused of doing so...but he'd rather be accused of being soft than of being hard on his hearers. He goes on in this sermon to say why he'd go soft rather than hard - people are lost if not first focused on grace.

    It's a great sermon - check it out if you have access.

  15. And yet the next year, Luther wrote this in his 1535 Galatians commentary:

    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).

  16. I am all a wonder that a whole year has passed without you being accused of breaking the 8th commandment and being called to repentance, pastor Surburg! ;-)