Sunday, December 4, 2016

Mark's thoughts: A response to Chad Bird's "Gospel Phobia"

Recently a piece entitled “Gospel Phobia” was posted on the 1517 Legacy website. Chad Bird wrote the post, and some people have received it quite favorably. It is not hard to understand why. With laser like focus Bird emphasizes the passivity of the Gospel. As the first subheading in the piece declares, “The Gospel Has Nothing to Do with Us.” Later he writes, “All we have is His love. All we have is His mercy. All we have is a Gospel that has nothing to with us."

This is, of course, entirely true. For those who have been living in an evangelical setting where the law dominates and is viewed as the means that produces the true focus of Christianity, namely a sanctified life, this Gospel focus is a liberating and refreshing message. Lutherans too recognize that the Gospel is the true center of Christian theology, and so as they see evangelicals around us (and even Lutherans in our midst) turn the law into the focus of the Christian faith, they also find the thrust of Bird’s piece appealing.
Lutherans will find themselves drawn to Bird’s message for another reason. Bird states:

The phobia can become so acute that even when a person suggests that the goal of preaching is to comfort the congregation, it triggers a backlash of admonitions that the law must be preached, too. Well, duh. Of course it must. The Gospel hardly makes sense without first the law’s exposure of the bad news that we’re all on that sinking ship.
This is a classic expression of the second use of the Law – the Law as a mirror that shows us our sin. Bird describes a movement from Law to Gospel, and nothing rings more true to a Lutheran’s ears (especially a LCMS Lutheran!) than “Law and Gospel.” However if we take our eyes off of the familiar, and consider more closely what Bird presents as “Gospel Phobia,” it quickly becomes clear that he advocates a position which contradicts the Scriptures and the Lutheran Confessions.  

For Bird, Gospel Phobia is prompted by the fact that the Gospel has nothing to do with us: “Why be afraid of the Good News? There are many reasons, but beneath them all is this one: the Gospel has nothing to do with us.” Instead we want things to run in the way of the law because then we have a part to play – we can be in control or at least feel good about the necessity of our participation, and we do not find ourselves in a position that is purely passive as we receive the Gospel. Bird states: 
Because the Gospel has nothing to do with us, and everything to do with Jesus, we are left at His mercy. We have no control over our destiny. We can’t repent or confess or improve our way out of the sinking ship. We can’t exorcise Mr. Hyde from Dr. Jeckel. We can’t by our own reason or strength, moral effort or mystical experience, believe in Jesus Christ or come to Him. 
Gospel Phobia exists when Christians focus on doing and when preachers exhort Christians to live in ways that are true to God’s will. Bird provides several examples of what Gospel Phobia “sounds like.” Two of them are:
Jesus will save you if…

Make sure to conclude your sermons with something that tells people what to do…
Bird then adds: “We’re afraid of letting sinners off scot-free. So we release them (‘You’re absolved’), but keep an ankle monitor on them (‘Don’t do it again, or else’).  

If the Gospel is the purely passive reception of forgiveness and salvation in Christ, then Gospel Phobia is the attempt to do things and to exhort people to act in this way. Gospel Phobia is the opposite of the Gospel, and therefore it is anti-Gospel.

Yet at this point it is critical to consider what Bird is actually saying. This is not simply a one sided emphasis on grace that doesn’t speak about new obedience and good works of the Christian along with the need to exhort Christians to do them. While the constant absence of any talk about how Christians live is inherently unhealthy and dangerous, it does not permit any individual piece to be labeled as false teaching.

Bird’s claim goes beyond this. He is saying here that for a Christian to be concerned about doing good works and for the preacher to exhort the hearers to be engaged in these works is Gospel Phobia. It is the opposite of the Gospel and so is anti-Gospel. This claim explicitly contradicts Scripture and the Lutheran Confessions.

Bird’s piece seems acceptable because of the things in it he says that are true. The Gospel is the center of Christianity and when it comes to why a person is saved the individual is purely passive. The Law must be preached. It does show people their sin, and so prepares them to receive the Gospel.

However, Bird’s definition of Gospel Phobia means that he contradicts Scripture and the Lutheran Confessions when it comes to both the Gospel and the Law. His Gospel Phobia contradicts the full biblical and confessional teaching about both subjects. 

The error of Bird’s Gospel Phobia immediately becomes clear when we consider the other two examples of what he says Gospel Phobia “sounds like.” The first is, “You’re forgiven but….” If Bird’s position is correct, then according to Scripture, Jesus Christ was trapped in Gospel Phobia. In Matthew 6:12 Jesus teaches the Fifth Petition of the Lord’s Prayer as he says, “and forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.” Then, in the very first two verses after the Lord’s Prayer he adds, “For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses” (Matthew 6:14-15 ESV). 

As Jeff Gibbs has clearly demonstrated, the Beatitudes at the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount describe those who have received the kingdom of God (see the present tense of “is” in 6:3 and 6:10; Matthew 1:1-11:1, pg. 234-256). They are “blessed” – they enjoy the eschatological blessing of forgiveness and salvation already now. Jesus speaks the Sermon on the Mount to believers who are already saved and forgiven. Jesus is not explaining how the Christian earns forgiveness. Instead he describes how the Christian now lives because of the Gospel. In direct contradiction to Bird’s position Jesus says that you are forgiven … “but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses” (Matthew 6:15).

This interpretation is then explicitly reinforced by Jesus’ parable of the Unforgiving Servant in Matthew chapter 18. Out of pity, the master forgives the debt that the servant can never possibly repay (Matthew 18:27). This is certainly the grace that Bird extols. But then after the servant refuses to forgive the small debt of his fellow servant we learn:
When his fellow servants saw what had taken place, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their master all that had taken place. Then his master summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. And should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?’ And in anger his master delivered him to the jailers, until he should pay all his debt. (Matthew 18:32-34 ESV).
Because he refuses to share the forgiveness he had already received with his fellow servant, he actually loses it altogether. And then Jesus adds, “So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart” (Matthew 18:35 ESV). Jesus really does teach “You’re forgiven, but….” He does this because the Gospel brings about change and makes a difference. 

Bird’s fourth example of what he what Gospel Phobia “sounds like” is, “Make sure to conclude your sermons with something that tells people what to do….” Yet if Bird’s position is correct, then according to Scripture, the apostle Paul was trapped in Gospel Phobia.

Paul’s letters are filled with exhortation to new obedience and good works: Romans 6:1-23; 8:1-17; 12:1-20; 13:1-14; 14:1-23; 1 Corinthians 5:1-12; 6:1-20; 8:1-13; 10:1-11; 2 Corinthians 5:14-15; 8:1-15; 9:6-15; Galatians 5:13-26; 6:1-10; Ephesians 2:8-10; 4:17-32; 5:1-33; 6:1-9; Philippians 2:1-18; 4:4-9; Colossians 3:1-25; 4:1-6; 1 Thessalonians 4:1-12; 5:12-22; 2 Thessalonians 3:6-12; Timothy 5:1-16; 6:1-19; 2 Timothy 2:22; 3:1-5. It is evident from Romans, Galatians, Ephesians, Colossians, and 1 Thessalonians that teaching about new obedience and good works is often found in the latter portion of his letters. The Gospel fills the earlier chapters. Yet Paul cannot speak about Christ to these Christians without also then speaking about what Christ and the Gospel mean for the way they live.

When we consider this pervasive material from Paul’s letters, it is hard to fathom how Bird can write: “Gospel phobia hears any talk of Christ-centered, grace-rich, justification-proclaiming news as borderline suspicious or possibly antinomian. One wonders how Paul escapes such criticisms when he ‘determined to know nothing among [the Corinthian] except Jesus Christ and him crucified,’ (1 Cor 2:2).” Of course no one would ever think to accuse Paul of being an antinomian. He is exhorting Christians to live in new obedience and good works all the time! The absurdity of Bird’s statement reveals how desperately he is trying to avoid what the text of Scripture actually says.

Bird’s piece is a classic example of the soft antinomianism that has arisen in Lutheranism since the end of World War II. It clearly articulates the two basic presuppositions of this approach – presuppositions that both contradict Scripture and the Lutheran Confessions.

First, Bird defines and limits the Gospel so that the Christian is always passive in relation to it. He writes: 

There is one and only one cure for Gospel phobia: the Gospel.

The Gospel that proclaims that we are, like it or not, let off scot-free. The attachment of ankle monitors is not part of the post-baptismal rite. You’re washed. You’re forgiven. You’re free. No law condemns you. No celestial finger is wagging at you. You walk in the liberation of the Spirit, Who lives in you, is active in you, and works relentlessly to mute the voices of guilt that still growl inside you. 
He says that the “goal of preaching is not to make bad people good, or immoral people moral, but to declare sinners righteous because of the saving death and resurrection of Jesus.”

According to Bird, the Gospel declares a sinner righteous because of Jesus. It provides the internal comfort that sin is forgiven. And that is it. Having declared the individual righteous and provided assurance of forgiveness there is nothing more that the Gospel does to or for a person. To assert anything more would be to fall into Gospel Phobia.

Yet this is not what Scripture and the Lutheran Confessions teach about the Gospel. Yes, of course it declares a sinner righteous because of Jesus and provides comfort that sin is forgiven. But through the work of the Spirit it also prompts and enables the individual to live in new obedience and good works.

The apostle Paul clearly taught that the Gospel causes us to live in ways that reflect God’s will. In the letter to Titus, Paul provides instruction about how pastors should preach and teach. It therefore provides an excellent case study of how Paul wanted things to be done.

In Titus 1:5 Paul has told Titus that he is to appoint pastors in the various congregations and then he provides the qualifications for these men (Titus 1:5-9). In Titus 2:1 he then describes what the pastors like Titus are to preach and teach as he sets forth how different groups of Christians are to live. And then Paul proceeds to give the reason why they should do this – it is because of the Gospel. He introduces 2:11-14 with the word “for” (γὰρ in Greek) as he explicitly introduces the reason and says: 
For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age, waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works. 
In the language of apocalyptic eschatology Paul describes how God’s grace has been revealed to all men (2:11). The grace itself is described in 2:13-14 as the great God and Savior Jesus Christ who gave himself on behalf of us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people of his own possession. At the same time this grace trains Christians how to live in the present time [literally, “the now age”] (2:12) as we await the appearing of Christ (2:13). Christians who are Christ’s own possession are to be “zealous for good works (2:14). Even within this statement that provides the ground for 2:6-10 and its description of Christian conduct, Paul still continues to emphasize that God’s saving action in Christ prompts Christians to live in God pleasing ways. In fact the last statement in 2:11-14 is that Christians are to be “zealous for good works” (2:14).  

After drawing the section 2:1-15 to a close with the inclusio at 2:15 (“speak these things”; cf. 2:1 “speak that which is fitting for sound teaching”), Paul then returns to the topic of living the Christian life in 3:1-2. This time he frames the discussion in terms of general instructions about living as a Christian in society by referring to being submissive to rulers.   

Like 2:6-10 and 2:11-14, in 3:3-8 Paul again provides the reason that Christians are to act in manner described in 3:1-2. The reason (introduced again by “for’ [γάρ in Greek]) is the Gospel, and specifically the Gospel as it has been received in baptism. Paul says that Christians were once sinful and lost in every way (3:3). Then he goes on to say: But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that being justified by his grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life” (3:4-7).

Just as in 2:11, Paul describes God’s salvation as something that has “appeared” (3:4). Throughout the letter as Paul has given instructions to Titus about what he and the pastors on Crete are to teach the people he has repeatedly emphasized good works and Christian conduct (2:6-10, 12, 14; 3:1-2). Yet now he makes clear that we have not been saved on the basis of works that we have done in righteousness (3:5). Instead, it is on the basis of God’s mercy that he has saved us through baptism – a washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit (3:5). In this action he has poured out the Holy Spirit upon us richly through Christ our Savior in order that being justified by God’s grace we might become heirs having the hope of eternal life (3:6).

A Lutheran could not ask for a clearer expression of the Gospel! Salvation is not the basis of works (3:5). It is instead a matter of God’s mercy (3:5) and grace (3:6) as he works through the Holy Spirit in baptism (3:5) to justify us (3:7). Paul highlights this teaching by adding in 3:8 “The saying is trustworthy” [literally, “The word is faithful”], a statement that refers to 3:4-7 and identifies it as being part of the common teaching of the Church. Yet Paul then immediately adds, “so that those who have believed in God may be careful to devote themselves to good works. These things are excellent and profitable for people” (3:8b). Even as Paul emphasizes the primacy of the Gospel, the corresponding good works that flow from this are never far from view.

It is significant that within this brief letter that provides instruction for pastors on Crete we have two sections that explicitly ground the life of good works in God’s saving action. Each time Paul describes the Christian life (2:1-10; 3:1-2) and then provides the theological basis for the life of faith (both passages are introduced by “for” (γάρ in Greek) as he emphasizes God’s saving action (2:11-14a; 3:3-7). Finally he provides a summary statement that explicitly states how Christians are to do good works (2:14b; 3:8). What is more, in the second instance Paul grounds this theological basis in the Christian’s baptism (cf. Rom 6:1-7).

The instruction Paul provides to Titus for the pastors on Crete makes it clear that the Gospel must remain at the center of all that Church preaches, teaches and believes. Yet it also makes clear that God’s salvation in the Gospel cannot be separated from the life the Gospel produces. What is more, this Christian life bears witness to the faith and is important for the way the faith is perceived by the world. Titus repeatedly provides this as a purpose of living the life of faith and good works (2:5, 8, 10). The Christian life of good works that flows forth from God’s saving action bears witness to God’s saving action.

In Titus 3:5-6 Paul refers to the regeneration worked by the Holy Spirit. Paul believed that because of the work of the Spirit a Christian is a “new creation” in Christ (2 Corinthians 5:17). And so it is not surprising that Paul believed that because of the Spirit there can and should be an increase in new obedience and good works: 

Finally, then, brothers, we ask and urge you in the Lord Jesus, that as you received from us how you ought to walk and to please God, just as you are doing, that you do so more and more. For you know what instructions we gave you through the Lord Jesus. For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you abstain from sexual immorality; that each one of you know how to control his own body in holiness and honor, not in the passion of lust like the Gentiles who do not know God; that no one transgress and wrong his brother in this matter, because the Lord is an avenger in all these things, as we told you beforehand and solemnly warned you. For God has not called us for impurity, but in holiness. Therefore whoever disregards this, disregards not man but God, who gives his Holy Spirit to you. (1 Thessalonians 4:1-8 ESV; see also Philippians 1:9-11; 1 Thessalonians 3:11-13; 4:9-12).
 Because Scripture teaches this, the Lutheran Confessions also teach that the Spirit actually causes Christian to do good works and live in new obedience:
Because faith truly brings the Holy Spirit and produces a new life in our hearts, it must also produce spiritual impulses in our hearts. The prophet shows what those impulses are when he says [Jer. 31:33*], “I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts.” Therefore, after we have been justified and reborn by faith, we begin to fear and love God, to pray for and expect help from him, to thank and praise him, and to obey him in our afflictions. We also begin to love our neighbor because our hearts have spiritual and holy impulses. These things cannot happen until after we have by faith been justified, reborn, and received the Holy Spirit. This is because, first, it is impossible to keep the law without Christ and, second, it is impossible to keep the law without the Holy Spirit. (Ap IV.125-127)  
For, on the one hand, it is true that in a true conversion there must be a change—new impulses and movements in mind, will, and heart. As a result, the heart acknowledges sin, fears God’s wrath, turns away from sin, acknowledges and accepts the promise of grace, has good, spiritual thoughts, Christian intention, and diligence, battles against the flesh, etc. For where none of these things takes place or exists, there is no true conversion. (FC SD II.70; see also: AC XX.27-31, 35-39; Ap. IV.250-251; LC II.1-4, 67-69; FC SD II.48).
And like Scriptures the Lutheran Confessions also teach that the Spirit can and does cause Christians to increase in good works and new obedience:
We openly confess, therefore, that the keeping of the law must begin in us and then increase more and more. And we include both simultaneously, namely, the inner spiritual impulses and the outward good works. (Ap IV.136)

Although those born anew come even in this life to the point that they desire the good and delight in it and even do good deeds and grow in practicing them, this is not (as was mentioned above) a product of our own will or power; but the Holy Spirit, as Paul says himself, “is at work in us to will and work” (Phil. 2[:13*]). He says the same thing in Ephesians 2[:10*], when he ascribes these works to God alone: “We are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.” (FC SD II.39; see also LC II.53; LC III.2; LC IV.66-67, 71-72; LC V.23-26). 
In addition, Bird’s piece also illustrates the second presupposition of soft antinomianism, namely that as the law always accuses it only does one thing. It shows people their sin. Bird states: 
The phobia can become so acute that even when a person suggests that the goal of preaching is to comfort the congregation, it triggers a backlash of admonitions that the law must be preached, too. Well, duh. Of course it must. The Gospel hardly makes sense without first the law’s exposure of the bad news that we’re all on that sinking ship. 
As we have seen, Bird believes that telling people what to do at the end of a sermon is an example of Gospel Phobia. It is not surprising therefore, that for him, it is not a goal of preaching to exhort people in the way they are to live. He states: 
But that in no way negates that the goal of preaching is not to make bad people good, or immoral people moral, but to declare sinners righteous because of the saving death and resurrection of Jesus. 
Yet once again, this contradicts both Scripture and the Lutheran Confessions. In the Pauline material discussed above we have already seen abundant evidence that the apostle actually believes Christians can and do live in new obedience, and that he exhorts them to do so. For example: “Finally, then, brothers, we ask and urge you in the Lord Jesus, that as you received from us how you ought to walk and to please God, just as you are doing, that you do so more and more” (1 Thessalonians 4:1 ESV). He does so in the expectation that this will prompt and assist them to live as Christians and not in order to show them their sin.

Paul believes that that through the regeneration worked by the Holy Spirit, the new man is present in the Christian. However, if the Christian were only new man, there would be no need to for exhortation at all. Paul teaches that the individual Christian is both new man and old man at the same time (Rom 7:13-23; Gal 5:16-17; Col 3:5-15). In Christ through the work of the Spirit the new man knows God’s will and lives according to it. Because they are individuals in whom the old man still exists, this new life does not occur perfectly and instead occurs in the midst of struggle and weakness. Christians can and do fail and fall into sin. Naturally, the Lutheran Confessions also present this view of Christians as old man and new man at the same time (for example FC SD II.84-85; VI.6-8).

So what is happening when Paul writes exhortation to good works and the Christian life? Certainly Bird is correct that the law accuses and shows people their sins. But is this the only thing that can and does happen? The answer is clearly no.

The Lutheran Confessions provide us with a very nuanced and careful discussion of how the Holy Spirit uses the law. Luther writes in the Smalcald Articles, “Here we maintain that the law was given by God, in the first place, to curb sin by means of the threat and terror of punishment and also by means of the promise and offer of grace and favor”(SA III.2.1). He then adds, “The foremost office or power of the law is that it reveals inherited sin and its fruits. It shows human beings into what utter depths their nature has fallen and how completely corrupt it is” (SA III.2.4).

What Luther describes as two uses, the Formula of Concord states with more precision when it refers to three uses:

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. In this connection a dispute occurred among a few theologians over the third use of the law. (FC Ep VI.1)
Lutherans have continued to maintain that the second use of the law, that of showing people their sins as it accuses, continues to be the most important use.

When the Lutheran theology speaks of the “uses” of the Law, it is important to avoid a common misconception. The term “use” does not describe what the preacher is doing by preaching the Law. It is not possible to decide to do “third use preaching.” Instead it is the Holy Spirit who determines how the Law is functioning in relation to the sinner. The Spirit uses the Law based on what the hearer needs. Because of the complexity of the sinner, the Spirit may in fact do several things at once.

Third use of the Law always deals with the old man. The new man doesn’t need instruction:

Indeed, if the faithful and elect children of God were perfectly renewed through the indwelling Spirit in this life, so that in their nature and all their powers they were completely free from sin, they would need no law and therefore no prodding. (FC SD VI.6)
The new man doesn’t need the Law to know what to do, but he rejoices in it.
In the third use as the Law accuses the old man it guides and teaches:

The law has been given to people for three reasons … 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)

At the same time it is also true that the gospel illustrates and explains the law and its teaching. Nonetheless, reproving sin and teaching good works remain the proper function of the law. (FC SC V.18; see also FC SD VI.1-3, 4, 11-12).
This prevents the old man from making up his own works:
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 Ep VI.4)
At same time, as the Law accuses the old man it also represses and compels him:
Likewise, it is necessary so that the old creature 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)  
For the old creature, 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. Then they will need neither the proclamation of the law nor its threats and punishment, just as they will no longer need the gospel, for both belong to this imperfect life. (FC SD VI.24)  
Indeed, if the faithful and elect children of God were perfectly renewed through the indwelling Spirit in this life, so that in their nature and all their powers they were completely free from sin, they would need no law and therefore no prodding. Instead, they would do in and of themselves, completely voluntarily, without any teaching, admonition, exhortation, or prodding of the law, what they are obligated to do according to God’s will, just as in and of themselves the sun, the moon, and all the stars follow unimpeded the regular course God gave them once and for all, apart from any admonition, exhortation, impulse, coercion, or compulsion. The holy angels perform their obedience completely of their own free will. (FC SD VI.6)
In the third use the Spirit uses 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 use 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)
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 uses 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. New obedience and good works are considered good by God only because of Christ.

Bird is certainly correct that preaching must be Gospel focused. Biblical and Lutheran preaching is centered on Christ and forgiveness of sins he has won for each hearer through his death and resurrection. It is centered on how Christ’s forgiveness and saving work is present for us in the Means of Grace (Word, Holy Baptism, Holy Absolution, Sacrament of the Altar).The chief goal of such preaching is to provide the comfort of forgiveness and salvation to repentant sinners. However biblical and Lutheran preaching also seeks to prompt hearers to live in new obedience and good works in response to the Gospel. This is not the chief goal. But if preaching is to be biblical and Lutheran it must be a goal. It is simply false to say as Bird does, “the goal of preaching is not to make bad people good, or immoral people moral.” Paul’s letters and Scripture as a whole clearly demonstrate that it must be a goal to cause people to live in godly ways in response to the Gospel. As we will see, this is also certainly the position of Luther and the Lutheran Confessions.

How then can this be done? For starters, we must acknowledge that we cannot control how the Spirit uses the Law (you can’t “choose to do third use”). The Spirit may in fact do more than one use at once. However, as communication, the preacher will have something he is seeking to accomplish. Pity the hearer if he doesn’t!

While we can make no claims of certainty, language that 1) confronts the sinful condition and 2) confronts specific sins of the hearers, follows a biblical model and can be expected to show them their sin and the need for forgiveness in Christ. Romans chapters1-3 provides a model for this, something that Walther describes as “The sharpest preaching of the Law.” (Law and Gospel, pg. 93). For example:

What then? Are we Jews any better off? No, not at all. For we have already charged that all, both Jews and Greeks, are under sin, as it is written:“None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.” (Romans 3:9-12 ESV).

For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. (Romans 3:22-23 ESV; see also 2:21-23)
As texts suggest it we can speak to the general sinful condition that is guaranteed to afflict all people. Likewise, as texts suggest it we can raise accusing questions or make accusing statements that address specific behavior. It is also appropriate to speak in both of these ways even when the text does not suggest it because our hearers are, after all, sinners.

When it comes to the use of exhortation to Christian living, we must recognize that Paul couldn’t control how the Spirit used 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. He certainly didn’t think this was legalism or Bird’s “Gospel Phobia.” In doing so, Paul provides the apostolic pattern that we need to follow. 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.

Of particular importance for understanding this is Luther’s Church Postil text to which the Formula of Concord refers. The Formula 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)
There in commenting on Ephesians 4:22-28 Luther states: 
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. 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.” (Epistle for the nineteenth Sunday after Trinity)
These words are a direct refutation of what Bird advocates. Here Luther explicitly states that preachers are to “urge and admonish them, through God’s Word, to lead a godly life.”
In fact, it takes little effort to demonstrate that Bird’s “Gospel Phobia” contradicts not only Scripture, but also Luther and the Lutheran Confessions. I conclude therefore with several quotations in which we see that true Lutheran preaching includes robust exhortation and admonition to Christian living. This was true for Lutherans in the sixteenth century, and it must be true for Lutherans in the twenty-first century as well because it is the truth of God’s Word:

We also reject and condemn the bald expression that “good works are harmful to salvation” as offensive and harmful to Christian discipline. 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. IV.17-18)

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. (Lectures on Galatians 1535 LW 27:54)

If Christ has now thus become your own, and you have by such faith become pure through Him and have received your inheritance without any personal merit, only through the love of God who gives to you as your own blessing and the work of His Son, then the example of good works follows, that you will also do for your neighbor as you have seen Christ has done for you. Here good works are their own teacher. What are the good works of Christ? Is it not that they are good because they have been done for your benefit, for God’s sake, who commanded Him to do the works on your behalf? In this, then, Christ was obedient to the Father and served us. Therefore, since you have received enough and have become rich, you have no other commandment in which to serve and be obedient to Christ than so to direct your works that they may be good and useful to your neighbor, just as the works of Christ are good and useful for you. For that reason He said at the Last Supper: “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another as I have loved you” [John 13:34]. Here you see the He loved us and did everything for us in order that we may do the same, not for him – for He does not need it – but for our neighbor.” (Church Postil, LW 75:216-217).

The other mystery or secret teaching, is that in the church nothing more than the Gospel should be preached. Now the Gospel teaches nothing more than the two previous things: Christ and His example; and two kinds of good works, the one belonging to Christ by which we are saved through faith, the other belonging to us by which our neighbor receives help. Whoever teaches anything other than the Gospel leads people astray; and whoever does not teach the Gospel according to these two parts leads people all the more astray and is worse than the one who doesn’t teach the Gospel because he desecrates and cheats with God’s Word, as St. Paul complains about some [2 Cor. 2:17] (Church Postil, LW 75:218).


  1. Thank you for a very informative article! Well documented with scripture, Luther and the confessions. One to be bookmarked and saved for future teaching and discussions.

  2. I must give credit to Paul McCain for realizing this problem long before many of us. I publicly resisted his many warnings. Then, I actually sat down and reread the Confessions. To my shame, I discovered that he was absolutely right. I had accepted and promoted a distorted, abbreviated version of Lutheranism on the issues of Law and Gospel and proper preaching that was nowhere supported in the Confessions. I will always be thankful for Pr. McCain's persistence and patience in correcting me.

  3. But what if that particular article is meant to speak to one aspect of the law.... I've heard preachers preach majority law and gospel, but in more intimate settings, bible study, encourage in the third use.

  4. Thank you for the work Pastor Surburg. I hope that many will come to read and take to heart the clarity of the Scriptures and their confession in our Symbols on these matters.

  5. Layman are we to understand Christ's words in Matt. 6:15 ("but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses")? When Christ uses the word forgive, it seems to me as if he is talking about justification. However, this seems to be adding a work to my justification. In addition, how can anyone forgive others in so perfect a manner which would cause God to forgive them? My forgiveness of others seems so incomplete and often contingent on the future acts of those I'm forgiven. Because of this, Christ's words here often cause me to despair. I would be grateful for any help you might have here. - Dan

    1. I suggest to you, Dan, that Jesus' words were yet in the Old Covenant. Too few Bible scholars, not to mention Sunday morning church attendees, realize this. His words, powerful and without error, are inspired YET they are of the Old Covenant. Hence, His telling the disciples not to go to the Gentiles prior to His resurrection and then upon His resurrection, He told them "Go into all the world." In short, those examples used in this article of Jesus teaching are out of context.

    2. Dan. Here is how I view the teachings of Jesus Christ. He told His disciples not to go to the Gentiles before He had risen from the dead. After rising, He told them to "go into all the world." The point is that His words were of the Old Covenant up until His resurrection. Indeed, no one has preached or taught as Jesus had. He is the "Word" of God. But, it seems to me that few understand His words before His resurrection were of the Old Covenant. And that is why sinners loved Him and the Pharisees rejected Him. Food for thought.

    3. Just because a law is from the Old Covenant does not mean that it is done away with. The Ten Commandments are the Old Covenant. The Old Covenant contains three types of laws- Moral, Civil and Ceremonial. The Civil and Ceremonial laws for the nation of Israel have been abolished. The moral law remains. The command to forgive is obviously a moral law. It remains. The simple fact of the matter is that if a Christian refuses to forgive he has rejected his own forgiveness and faith. See the parable of the unforgiving servant.

  6. Should we avoid Dr Rosenbladt and Dr Montgomery? Their apologetics work brought me to a clear understanding of Christianity. I'm confused.

    1. Robin -- I think not, though it appears that many who've been influenced by them are falling into this kind of error. Rosenbladt in particular is so helpful for those who've been trapped in churchly legalism. As he protects against falling into one ditch, some of his followers are falling into the opposite ditch.

  7. Sijai: The review is very complete, thank you for sharing.

  8. Kitabijak This very helpful in order to change my mind set. Thankyou. Keep it up