Thursday, September 1, 2016

Mark's thoughts: Comments on a Robert Capon quote

Recently a quote from Episcopal priest and author Robert Capon has been making the rounds on social media as it is shared and liked by Lutheran pastors and laity.  In it Capon says:

It is not the role of the Church to tell people not to sin and to devise lists. The world perfectly knows what sin is.  The world knows what morality is.  The world knows what’s right.  Morality is the world’s cup of tea. What the world doesn’t know is forgiveness and that’s what the world needs to be told.

It’s not hard to understand what these Lutherans find appealing about Capon’s statement.  It seems to resonate with the distinction Francis Pieper makes between the religion of the law and the religion of the Gospel.  While every religion speaks in the way of the Law about what people must do, only Christianity speaks in the way of the Gospel about what God has done for us in Christ.  In the same way, Capon’s statement seems to reject that understanding of Christianity that is very prevalent in American evangelicalism – the notion that the prime focus of Christianity is holiness of life.  The problem is that the statement is demonstrably false, and the fact that Lutherans find it appealing illustrates a sickness in confessional Lutheranism.

The statement is false for two reasons.  First, the New Testament certainly does tell people not to sin and devises lists.  This is so obvious that I won’t belabor the point.  Paul writes in Col 3:5-10:

Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry. On account of these the wrath of God is coming. In these you too once walked, when you were living in them. But now you must put them all away: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and obscene talk from your mouth. Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have put off the old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator. (ESV)

He does this again and again (see: Gal 5:16-24; Eph 4:17-32; 1 Thess 4:4:1-7).

Second, the world does not know what sin is.  It does not know what is right.  One need look no further than the Sixth Commandment to see this.  In increasingly aggressive ways our culture asserts that sex can be used in any way people choose as long as it pleases them.   Fornication, cohabitation, pornography, homosexuality, “same sex marriage” and even transgenderism are considered normal and acceptable.

Capon’s statement is false.  Perhaps it is not surprising to find it coming from an Episcopal priest.  After all, the Episcopal church seems to have accepted almost every kind of sexual perversion.  But it is surprising to find that confessional Lutherans do not perceive this and instead have shared and liked it.

The fact that they have speaks to a dangerous orientation present in the Lutheran church today.  I have written at length elsewhere about soft antinomianism.  I have described that this 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.  But lurking beneath soft antinomianism is a true and full blown antinomianism seeking to come out.

This fact has been on my mind because recently a post on a prominent confessional Lutheran blog used the HBO program “Game of Thrones” in order to make a point about vocation.  The author began by acknowledging that some people would object to a Christian watching Game of Thrones because of the explicit sexual content.  However, he dismissed this concern for his own life and went on to use a character in the show to make a point about vocation.

The post has since been taken down because a number of Lutheran pastors contacted the blog administrators and objected to the affirmation of Christians watching pornography.  Game of Thrones is well known for scenes that cannot be described as anything other than pornography.  Watching Game of Thrones means you are going to be watching pornography.  I and others asked: “How can a Lutheran pastor affirm the watching of this show?”

This acceptance reflects the ongoing pornification of our culture.  But the discussion surrounding this post also demonstrated the antinomian currents present in modern Lutheranism – even confessional Lutheranism.  Lutherans pastors were unwilling or unable to come out and say that Christians should not watch pornography such as Game of Thrones.  Instead, it was described as a matter of “Christian freedom and conscience.”  In fact, it was even suggested that rather than focusing on whether it was appropriate for a Christian to watch a show that is rife with pornography, a better question to ask is how elements from a show like Game of Thrones can be used to deliver Jesus.

Robert Capon stated:

It is not the role of the Church to tell people not to sin and to devise lists. The world perfectly knows what sin is.  The world knows what morality is.  The world knows what’s right.  Morality is the world’s cup of tea. What the world doesn’t know is forgiveness and that’s what the world needs to be told.

Thankfully, I trust that the Lutherans sharing and liking this do not accept the sexual immorality that Scriptures condemn as sin.  But when a quote like this is shared as an insightful and laudable theological statement, antinomianism and its twin, Gospel reductionism, are afoot.  It’s not surprising to learn that some Lutherans describe watching porngraphic content as a matter of “Christian freedom.”


  1. Well stated, and it must be said, again and again. Thank you!

  2. This is what happens when your primary sources of "Lutheran" theology are the Heidelberg Disputation and Luther's 20th century interpreters.

    1. Not even the whole Heidelberg Disputation, just the Theological Theses.

  3. Great post!

    Another problem with this quote is that it seems to divorce the Kingdom of the Left and the Kingdom of the Right. Yes, the Left is primarily concerned with external obedience and the Right is primarily concerned with justification. However, the two are in constant cooperation with each other. The Lutheran fathers believed that the princes are duty bound to promote and protect the preaching of the Gospel. Also, the Church must remind the secular stations what their responsibilities are and call them out when they resist God's will. Luther was not afraid to write about politics and he did so as a theologian of the Church.

    Another problem ... this quote does not recognize the fact that God rescues us in order that we might live as he intended us to live, namely, in obedience to the Law. Part of the Church's message is this: "Now that you have been made alive, go out and live! Do not return to the grave through sin." The Christian narrative does not end at the cross. It ends at the Parousia with all of us living in the new creation and serving our Lord in all righteousness, holiness, and blessedness.

  4. It is so sad. I came from the Reformed Baptist tradition (the John MacArthur brand), and when I described my reasons for leaving, people told me that I was an antinomian.

    I affirm that the Law is good, in all three uses. I also affirm that Christians ought to live holy lives. I just deny that we should use holiness of life as the primary means of determining whether or not someone is "truly" elect. I deny that we are all supposed to be fruit detectors trying to determine whether or not people in the church are "really" saved, or just deceived.

    I see the Lutheran (and Reformed) distinction between Law and Gospel as the antidote to both the Free Grace antinomian theology of Zane Hodges and Charles Ryrie, and the Lordship Salvation legalism of John MacArthur. Of course, the Reformed understanding of election and the Puritan impetus to "fruit check" sort of distorts the distinction between Law and Gospel, but at least it's there.

    When Confessional Lutherans make comments like this, it just reaffirms the suspicions of Legalists like John MacArthur or Paul Washer, that Confessional Lutheranism really is a form of antinomianism. Tullian Tchividijian (the "Lutheran" influenced Presbyterian) is an example of where Lutheran theology leads (so our opponents say).

    If we want to speak to the problems of American Evangelicalism, we need to look to our own house as well to be sure that we aren't falling prey to the errors that would discredit our witness to the truth. Modern day Judaizers, gnostics, and neo-monastics in the Evangelical world jump at the opportunity to discredit Law & Gospel ministry when they see things like pastors who endorse or excuse the habitual viewing of pornography.

    Hey, I struggle with sin, too... trust me! But we are called to struggle with it, not excuse it. There's the rub.

  5. You've hit the bullseye, Mark. Excellent.

  6. David Yeago's 2002 Pro Ecclesia article, "Gnosticism, Antinomianism, and Reformation Theology: Reflections on the Costs of a Construal", shines much light on this issue. I received permission from the publishers to reproduce it in its entirety on my blog. Here it is:

    "Gnosticism, Antinomianism, and Reformation Theology: Reflections on the Costs of a Construal"

  7. Pastor Surburg,

    "...the world does not know what sin is. It does not know what is right."

    Let me play the devil's advocate here. First, Paul puts together lists - but those are in his letters to Christians. Further, does he not teach that sinful man in some sense knows God by the things that have been made (Rom. 1:19-21) – and also knows what is right and wrong (Rom. 1:32, 2:14-15) – but suppresses the truth in unrighteousness?

    Here, of course, the Scriptures inform us that evil men can grow more evil – where they, for example, assert that there is no God ; or call evil good and good evil ; or are not even able to detect their sin.

    Frighteningly deep suppression yes, but I don't think that we should assert that there is no way they know this, right?


  8. The real issues is what "the world" needs to hear. Capon asserts that the world doesn't need to hear the Law's call to repentance; that unbelievers are somehow already repentant and need only to hear the Gospel. This idea is nowhere supported in Scripture... plus, it's just stupid. TW

    1. So, you need to be repentant before you can hear the gospel?

    2. This comment has been removed by the author.

    3. Yes.

      Acts 3:19 "Repent therefore, and turn back, that your sins may be blotted out, that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord, and that he may send the Christ appointed for you, Jesus."

      Acts 17:30 "Now he commands all people everywhere to repent"

      And, Solid Declaration, V, 25-26: "These two doctrines, we believe and confess, should ever and ever be diligently inculcated in the Church of God even to the end of the world, although with the proper distinction of which we have heard, in order that, through the preaching of the Law and its threats in the ministry of the New Testament the hearts of impenitent men may be terrified, and brought to a knowledge of their sins and to repentance; but not in such a way that they lose heart and despair in this process, but that (since the Law is a schoolmaster unto Christ that we might be justified by faith, Gal. 3:24, and thus points and leads us not from Christ, but to Christ, who is the end of the Law, Rom. 10:4) 25] they be comforted and strengthened again by the preaching of the holy Gospel concerning Christ, our Lord, namely, that to those who believe the Gospel, God forgives all their sins through Christ, adopts them as children for His sake, and out of pure grace, without any merit on their part, justifies and saves them, however, not in such a way that they may abuse the grace of God, and sin hoping for grace, as Paul, 2 Cor. 3:7ff , thoroughly and forcibly shows the distinction between the Law and the Gospel."

  9. Pastor Wilken,

    I see what you are saying... Another pastor I respect said to me: "Well, the point is not whether man has some knowledge of law and sin by nature but whether he has an accurate knowledge of the full depth of his corruption and thus only needs to be told the gospel. I think the confessions don't support the latter view." My response is to say that "I agree with that in general. So would you say though that it is impossible for a any particular person to have a sufficient understanding of the depth of his corruption? I guess I don't think that is a responsible assertion either..."


    The sense I get from Scripture is that one must see that one is a sinner before God in order to desire mercy - or perhaps, simply to receiver mercy when one hears about it... I think that is the main point. Repentance, of course, is also a gift of God and also not from us...


  10. Man is more normal, healthy or happy the more he can, successfully, repress, displace, deny, rationalize, dramatize himself and deceive others. Human character is a ‘vital lie’; the more stable the character the more successful the lie. What we call human character is actually a lie about the nature of reality.