So what is the 1517 Legacy Project? If you send your youth to Higher Things you will definitely want to know because the 1517 Legacy Project contributors have been (Donovan Riley), are this year (Dan van Voorhis) and certainly will be speakers in the future. Now it can be a little confusing because some Christ Hold Fast contributors are also 1517 Legacy contributors (Donovan Riley and Chad Bird). 1517 Legacy Project contributors speak at Christ Hold Fast events (Donovan Riley, Chad Bird, Dan van Voorhis, Scott Keith) and Christ Hold Fast contributors will speak at the big Here We Still Stand conference (Daniel Price, Donovan Riley, Chad Bird, Matt Popovits, Elyse Fitzpatrik, Jessica Thompson). In fact it seems that they really have joint conferences. This is a Christ Hold Fast conference:
Here is the 1517 Legacy Project "Here We Still Stand" conference listed on the Christ Hold Fast website in the listing of Christ Hold Fast events.
To say that the two groups have very close ties is an understatement. But since Higher Things speakers from the 1517 Legacy Project will lead Google capable teens to Christ Hold Fast, and Higher Things speakers from Christ Host Fast will lead them to 1517 Legacy Project (this has already been case ever since Donovan Riley became a contributor to both), it does seem helpful to say something briefly about Christ Hold Fast. Christ Hold Fast says:
I am not entirely sure what a "Law & Gospel collective" is. But what is clear is that Christ Hold Fast wants to emphasize that salvation is God's free gift that can't be earned, and that American evangelical views about sanctification are wrong. They say:
We are a Law & Gospel collective of creative
contributors, dedicated to proclaiming to people how Christ remains faithful
even when we are faithless (2 Timothy 2:13). We provide a voice for Christians who are
both Sinner & Saint (Romans 7:15-25). We promote the bad news that you are a
greater sinner than you think (Isaiah 64:6-7) and the good news that Christ is a greater
savior than you can imagine (Romans 5:6-11).
We hold that
life is not about what we do for God, but about what God has done for us.
That sounds good. In fact it is good. But the first problem you are going to find is that Christ Hold Fast is mainly aimed at American evangelical Christians who have grown weary of the legalistic and moralistic view of sanctification. This also means that Christ Hold Fast is basically
incapable of speaking about how Christians should be encouraged and
exhorted to live in ways that reflect God's will and ordering of the world. They are a classic case of soft antinomianism. Yet let me hold off on that for now, because this blog post is about the 1517 Legacy Project and we will see the exact same thing there (which perhaps is why the two groups are so tight).
The second problem is that Christ Hold Fast is not Lutheran (remember, it's a "Law & Gospel collective"). That means that there are contributors from Christian traditions that reject the Lutheran teaching about Holy Baptism and the Sacrament of the Altar, among other things. So, if your youth gets to the the Christ Hold Fast website and starts reading an article by Paul Dunk they are hearing a pastor at a Presbyterian Church in America congregation. Of if they find something by Evan Welcher they are learning from the senior pastor at First Christian Church in Glenwood, Iowa.
We hold that
“Gospel” is not something you can live, but it is something you can believe.
We hold that
grace is freely offered to all, and we need it just as much as everyone else.
But now, back to the question at hand: What is the 1517 Legacy Project? They say:
1517 The Legacy Project serves churches and the world by
providing a message of hope for those broken by the church, supplying
theological resources that strengthen congregations, and modeling ways of
engaging the culture in a manner that is thoughtful, courageous, and
To be honest, I am not entirely sure what that means. "Broken by the church" is certainly an odd phrase. But if you read around a little it quickly becomes clear that it is code largely for people who have come out of American evangelicalism and have been "broken" by the legalistic and moralistic teaching about sanctification. And if this sounds familiar, it should. It is the same thing you find at Christ Hold Fast.
If you go to the page that answers the question "What is 1517" you will find Martin Luther. Immediately you will begin feeling good. After all, this must be Lutheran. The curious thing is that when you look around the main pages that explain 1517 and describe its resources, you almost never find the word "Lutheran." It does occur in the description of the blog The Jagged Word, which refers to "a distinctly Lutheran perspective." But otherwise it isn't present. I don't think I have missed any, but if I have missed one or two, we can at least say that it is not in any way emphasized. And that does seem odd, because after all this is the 1517 Legacy Project and Martin Luther is plastered all over their explanation.
The “You are forgiven!” spoken
to us every Sunday in church captures the essence of this free community. The
study of Scripture is a main component, and we want to encourage that (And we
have an embarrassment of riches compared to 500 years ago—it’s only gotten
better!), but so is education in general, and the gifts Jesus has given by
promise to His family, the church—physical means by which we might commune with
Him and be a part of His kingdom, the Lord’s Supper and Baptism.
These things are not listed
in order of importance; they are all important. Can you imagine if the whole
church was just about these things?
This sounds really good. Here we even have Baptism and the Lord's Supper mentioned, along with a reference to physical means. But when you keep reading, you soon run into something odd. Because it goes on to say:
And we want you to join us.
We’re not saying to leave your church or anything like that, but check out what
we have to offer and use it to your heart’s content. We pray that God will use
what we have to help you—to strengthen and edify and comfort and set you free.
I would think that the invitation to join the 1517 Legacy as defined by the 1580 Book of Concord would be inviting people to join us in a church that shares this confession. After all, does the 1517 Legacy say that justification by grace through faith apart from works is good enough if you reject the true body and blood of Christ in the Sacrament of the Altar? Martin Luther certainly didn't think so when he met with Zwingli at the Marburg Colloquy in 1529.
But perhaps you will say I am overstating the case. I might too, were it not for the piece "How to Choose Your Church" by Rod Rosenbladt. This piece is helpful for illustrating what the 1517 Legacy Project is about for several reasons. First, Rosenbladt is the legend at the 1517 Legacy Project (pictured here first and speaking here). Simply stated, when it comes to the 1517 Legacy, he's the man. Second, lest I be accused of cherry picking a post, the 1517 Legacy itself lists this post among "Featured blog posts from 1517 The Legacy Project & Christ Hold Fast." And there it is again - we see here on the 1517 Legacy website that the 1517 Legacy and Christ Hold Fast simply can't stay apart.
Rosenbladt begins by saying:
We’ve all been asked, “How do
I pick a church to attend?” And it is not a small question! In one way or
another, we at 1517legacy.com
are always attempting to answer that question—and in a Biblical way!
Wise laity will select a
parish by what it confesses.
Many of us long ago eliminated the Roman Catholic choice and did this on the
basis of what it confesses. Fewer of us have done the same with “evangelical”
parishes, but in days such as ours, that is important as well. What does my
“evangelical” parish confess… or does it? Rome’s answer is detailed, but many
“evangelical confessions” could be written on a postage stamp. But that is
important for us all to know, too (and to notice if eschatology is the center
of their confession) For a layman to choose on the basis of a church’s
confession requires that it actually has a confession.
Now certainly this is a great start as he leads a person to the Evangelical Lutheran Church that confesses the Book of Concord. Then Rosenbladt really kicks it into high gear as he extols Luther and the doctrine of justification:
During the time of the
Reformation, the Lutheran writers put major emphasis on the nature of our
plight (a view of sin that was “in-depth,” as well as emphasis on the nature of
the faith that saves). That meant an analysis of Christ’s claims about Himself,
as well as His claims regarding His death and what it would do for sinners. For
this Luther and his followers were charged with being “one trick ponies,” with
talking only about Christ as our Substitute, our Lamb and not much else. Were
there time in a blog to answer that charge, I’d attempt it—but time limits.
What Luther and his early
followers were doing was definitely hierarchical (“What is the most basic
message of the Bible?”) and their answer was, “For sinners, it is who Jesus was
and what His death did for sinners.” All other subjects—even Biblical
subjects—were subservient to an accurate view of the Person and work of Jesus
Christ for sinners.
Could they have erred in this? Sure, they could have. For example, the most
important theme of the Bible could be the “improvement of sinners?” Or an
“inside track on what is coming in the future,” or any of a hundred other
subjects. What a church confesses as to “what is the central message of the
Bible” is defining.
The 16th century was, as Dr. Roland
Bainton points out, a “theological century.” To attempt to grasp the 16th
from the categories of sin, of Christ’s Person and work, and of the nature of
saving faith is, according to Bainton, virtually hopeless (for example,
attempts to understand it via the growing nationalism, the decline of
feudalism, etc. will inevitably fail to “grasp” what was unique to that era.)
So what was unique about the Reformation’s answers to the central question of whether or how sinners could be
justified, given that God the Creator is perfectly holy, and that He demands of
His creatures a complete holiness—both outward and inward? Luther and his followers
attempted to answer that question in terms of Christ’s Person and work on
behalf of us sinners. And
they insisted that the Bible’s answer was certainly not (to use today’s
evangelical buzzword) a “transformation of sinners.” Rather, it was in terms of
who Jesus was and what His death accomplished for sinners.
Some of us have tried to get
this across by using “column ‘J.’” The message of the Reformers was that there
is one single
element in that column: Jesus Person and the effects of His substitutionary
death. To add anything else to that column is to vitiate, to lose what St. Paul says
that “justification” is [see Galatians throughout]. Many passages speak of “… a
righteousness of God apart from the law.” What in heaven’s name could such a
“righteousness” be? Is not all “righteousness” a matter of human obedience to
law? Answered the Reformers, saving righteousness inheres only in Christ’s
righteousness—and, wonder of wonders—He was and did this not for Himself, but
rather for us sinners! His righteousness is a righteousness that saves, while our supposed
“righteousness” is polluted top-to-bottom, is our problem and certainly not our
Rosenbladt is rolling with stuff we all agree is great, and he has prepared the reader for the church where he can find this and the Means of Grace by which this forgiveness and salvation is delivered: the Word, Holy Baptism,Holy Absolution and the Sacrament of the Altar.
But in the next paragraph, things get puzzling, for he writes:
So, back to our initial
question: “How do I select a church?” Luther would answer, “Only one with a
theology that centers on the Person and work of Christ for you!” If he was right
on this, 90% of American Protestant churches would fail to qualify (an “altar
call” at the end of the service is not the same as preaching Christ crucified
as sinner-saving!) Does a given parish have a liturgy? Does it force you to
confess your sins as genuine sins (“mistakes” is not enough!)? Does it present
Christ as the saving answer to your plight, viz., your need for a holiness
which you cannot possibly self-produce? (Lutherans would add words about
Baptism freely giving to sinners Christ and the benefits of His death, the same
for the Lord’s Supper.)
The initial part is great. Then we have liturgy and confession. But the last sentence is set off by parentheses and says, "Lutherans would add words about
Baptism freely giving to sinners Christ and the benefits of His death, the same
for the Lord’s Supper." Why is this in parentheses? It is somehow not essential? And what does it mean to say "Lutherans would add" words about Baptism and the Lord's Supper? This isn't just a "Lutheran" thing. Lutherans confess that this is a catholic and apostolic thing. It's an essential thing. I mean, he is supposed to be helping them to choose a church and Lutherans - confessional Lutherans - confess that, "The church is the assembly of all believers among whom the gospel is purely preached and the holy sacraments are administered according to the Gospel (Augsburg Confession VII.1).
Then he concludes with this paragraph:
If a parish presents Jesus
Christ as a sufficient cure for our malady (“justification” as a declaratory
righteousness that suffices in the face of God’s law), consider that parish.
Correlatively, if this theme is absent (or obscure), try another parish, go on
till you find one that does
preach, sings about, prays on the basis of, etc. that Christ. If the Reformers were right, all
other “Christs” are bogus. “Run away! Run away!”
And there you have it. Despite the window dressing language about Baptism and the Lord's Supper, that really isn't part of the goal. The goal is a church that has justification by grace through faith on account of Christ and apart from works. For it is such a church that will bring respite to those American evangelicals who have been "broken by the church." Rosenbladt probably considered Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church in Ft. Lauderdale, FL to be such a church when Tullian Tchividjian was pastor there and was a participant at Christ Hold Fast events with him.
But that is not the kind of church that confessional Lutherans consider to be the goal. And that is the problem with the 1517 Legacy Project. You hear about Luther there and find some familiar Lutheran theology, and people assume it is Lutheran. But it's not enough to be "Lutheran." After all, this is "Lutheran" too:
Higher Things and it's call to "Dare to be Lutheran" has always been about being confessional Lutherans. That is not the goal of the 1517 Legacy Project. Small wonder that the Lutheran Confessions are almost never mentioned.
You see this in the way that, like Christ Hold Fast, the 1517 Legacy Project is unable or unwilling to speak about how Christians should be encouraged and
exhorted to live in ways that reflect God's will and ordering of the world. Here too is classic soft anitnomianism. Something which is not confessional Lutheran.
On a previous occasion when I wrote about the involvement of Higher Things with Donovan Riley and his Christ Hold Fast ways I wrote words that apply equally well to the 1517 Legacy Project:
The 1517 Legacy Project is Lutheran - but it is not Lutheran in a 1580 Legacy way. It is not a confessional Lutheran organization (and of course, in its defense, it never claims to be). If you are a pastor or parent, the prospect of Higher Things leading your youth to the 1517 Legacy Project (or Christ Hold Fast) should be a great concern. The fact that the Higher Things leadership continues to involve more individuals from these organizations and to advertise the 1517 Legacy Project to the youth should be a great concern. This is a path that leads away from what Higher Things should be.
While I have focused specifically on soft antinomianism (or
the "new antinomianism" as Todd Wilken calls it), he has worked with
the broader framework within which it is a part. He has devised a list of
points that describe what has been called "radical
Lutheranism." I maintain that when you read Donovan Riley and Chad
Bird, it is almost as if Wilken was writing a description of them. They
are brilliant in the simplicity and brevity with which they summarize a
1. Sin is reduced to
2. The Christian's struggle against
sin is replaced with a struggle against feelings of guilt.
3. The Christian's struggle against
sin is described as futile, or as an attempt at self-justification.
4. Repentance is assumed, even in
5. The Holy Spirit's uses of the Law
are abandoned one by one (usually in the order of 3, 1, 2)
6. The distinction between
Justification and Sanctification is blurred in statements like
"Sanctification is simply the art of getting used to justification."
7. Christian cooperation in
Sanctification, clearly and carefully taught in the Lutheran Confessions, is
equated with cooperation in Justification.
8. The Gospel is often replaced with
"We're all sinners, who am I to judge?"
9. Scripture's warnings against
falling away from the faith are minimized of ignored.
10. Scripture is often searched to
find the sinner, rather than the Savior.
11. The sins of Biblical figures are
exaggerated or sensationalized.
12. Teaching is often guided by a
reaction to the errors of moralistic evangelicalism, rather than God's Word or
the Lutheran Confessions.
13. Man's sinful condition is
described as though a person's sin qualifies him to receive Grace, rather than
Grace being without qualification or condition in man.
14. Any encouragement or instruction
in Good Works is considered de facto legalism.
15. The Law itself is viewed as the
source of legalism, rather than man's sinful misuse of it.
All of these things contradict
Scripture and the Lutheran Confessions. As you read content written by
Lutheran authors, watch for these themes. They aren't hard to find. They
are always found mixed in with a very strong Gospel emphasis. But their
recurring presence ends up in a denial of God's Word and what it teaches about