Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Mark's thoughts: David Scaer describes the problem of soft antinomianism

In my work with soft antinomianism, a consistent response from some pastors has been the claim that there is no such thing.  It has been asserted that there is no such “problem” and attempts to describe one are a figment of the imagination.  It was therefore with great interest that I read a statement by David Scaer in his article “Sanctification” that appears in the current issue of the Concordia Journal (Summer 2015 [41:3], 236-249).

You will be hard pressed to find a LCMS theologian who has done as much work with Law and Gospel as Scaer.  He has thought deeply about the issue and how it plays out in the life of the Lutheran church.  In this recent article he writes:

For the most part the law-gospel paradigm defines LCMS preaching and in some cases serves as an outline.  Such a sermon begins with law alerting the congregation to their aberrations and predictably ends with the gospel relieving the pain imposed by the law.  Time allotted to the law is monopolized by the second use and little time, if any, is left for its third use or sanctification, that is, what people should do. Should good works be specified – that is what the law’s third use is all about – some preachers are quick to remind their hearers of the impossibility of doing good works, and so, the second use is substituted for the third use that is in effect denied. (244).

Scaer’s description of current LCMS preaching is precisely what I have called soft antinomianism: “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.”

My explanation of what soft antinomianism means for preaching matches what Scaer has written:

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.

In preparing for some speaking engagements about this topic, I have read through most of Scaer’s publications on this subject.  It is interesting to note that the statement in his 2015 article further develops a thought expressed in his 2011 article “Walther, the Third Use of the Law, and Contemporary Issues” (Concordia Theological Quarterly, July/October 2011 [75:3-4], 329-342). There he writes:

For self-styled confessional minded preachers, the core meaning of a biblical passage is exhausted if, after bringing the people to their knees, they are lifted up by the gospel.  In certain and perhaps most cases, the imposition of the principle curtails rather than helps determine what was on the mind of the inspired writer. Walther did not preach like this, as is obvious from his robust engagement with biblical texts, but the law-gospel principle came to form the basis of “Gospel reductionism.” (338).

Scaer states in the quote from the current 2015 article, “Should good works be specified – that is what the law’s third use is all about – some preachers are quick to remind their hearers of the impossibility of doing good works, and so, the second use is substituted for the third use that is in effect denied (244).”  This is very interesting because I have argued that the first presupposition of soft antinomianism is “that Paul's statement in Rom 7:14-25a describes what always happens in the Christian life.”  I explained that, “In the first presupposition the description provided in Rom 7:14-25a explains that Christians must expect to fail in their attempts to live in God pleasing ways.”  I have maintained that:

For soft antinomianism, Romans 7:14-25a describes what always happens in the Christian life.  It shows that Christians can’t live in godly ways and always fail.  Any language that exhorts or urges Christians to live in God pleasing ways and actually expects that people will do this contradicts what Paul says in Rom 7:14-25a.  Instead (see below) this language can do nothing except reveal the fact that Christians don’t do this.  It reveals their failures.   Romans 7 shows that Christians must expect to fail.

Yet while that sounds depressing, the good news is that our sin serves to extol the saving work and forgiveness of Christ.  In a way, our failures are a good thing because they remind us that we can’t earn salvation and so serve to magnify the salvation found in Jesus Christ. Focusing on our failure and sin keeps us focused on Jesus Christ.  Soft antinomianism finds classic expression of this in Rom 7:24-25a where Paul exclaims, “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (ESV).  For soft antinomianism this means that while there is no real possibility that we can avoid sin, the good news of the Gospel is that in Jesus Christ we have forgiveness for this sin.

I find that Scaer is describing the same problem to which I have called attention, and labeled as soft antinomianism. This is no unicorn.


  1. I think that Scaer is right. There is more to the task of preaching than simply "Law-Gospel."

  2. Observation from a lurking layman:

    I have no scientific surveys to back this up but it seems to me there is a correlation (but not quite one-to-one) in LCMS circles between those who assert that soft antinomianism is a paranoid delusion and those who think more muslim immigration to the West is awesome, those who were more bothered by the actions of Kim Davis than those of Justice Anthony Kennedy, and those who had a negative response to the recently published book 'LadyLike' from Rebekah Curtis and Rose Adle.

  3. Mea culpa, mea culpa. Thank you, Mark, for your efforts in this regard. I personally find preaching the Law, both second and third uses, far more difficult than preaching the Gospel. In my own estimation, second use I either bludgeon with a mace rather than cutting to the quick with a surgical knife, inadequately unpack, or miss the mark. Third use I neglect fearing that I will wound consciences by placing them under the Law rather than leaving them under grace. I'm my most severe critic (usually), though.

    Of course, the third use needs to be preached. John the Baptist, Jesus, Peter, Paul, the apostles, Luther, Walther and countless others preached the third use unapologetically. Our Confessions admonish us to preach the third use. We need look no further than the Small Catechism: 10 Commandments, Petitions 1-3, Table of Duties, Baptism part 4, etc.... Catechesis/instruction is itself an exercise of the third use. Soft antinomianism is comparable to parents leaving their child to raise him/herself.

    Hopefully, I will master the art of preaching before my 70's. Again, thank you for your work (and admonitions) in this area.

    Rev. Justin D. Kane

  4. Thanks for this segment. This reminder from the law serves us well: "The law always accuses, but it does not only accuse." It is in the phrase, "it does not only accuse," where we will find the third use.

  5. The preaching of the Law is the preaching of the Law. Whatever my intent as a preacher, 1st, 2nd and 3rd uses are happening. I may try to highlight one or the other, but the Lord is at work doing all three all the time through His Law.

    1. The Law is the Spirit's to use as he sees fit. By the same token, your intent should reflect the apostolic pattern of Scripture, just as Luther too describes.

    2. Walter too, http://surburg.blogspot.com/2015/11/marks-thoughts-walthers-law-and-gospel.html