It seems like for several weeks now, the Christian blogosphere and social media services like Facebook and Twitter (at least, the distinctly Lutheran ones that is) have been talking incessantly about something called "Antinomianism" or a fancy-schmancy theological word that means "anti-Law"/"against the Law" or "anti-works" even.
Then, I learned that there's also a version of Antinomianism called "Soft Antinomianism" (I don't think there exists "Hard Antinomianism" but stayed tuned).
In addition, "Legalism" and "Pietism" can sometimes come up in these conversations and so they made a guest appearance too.
All of them might also live in a cave that no one wants to enter called "Radical Lutheranism" too (but I'm not entirely sure about that so please don't take my word for it yet).
Yes, it's enough to make this Newtheran's head spin! Worse is the fact that these debates that have been popping up all over the place online are taking place between Lutheran Pastors.
I say that it's "worse" only because I have witnessed these debates, disagreements, and divisions occurring quite publicly (and often with some rather "extreme" and "questionable" responses and a tone that is unbecoming of these men).
These debates, disagreements, and divisions are taking place between certain men of God who I have come to greatly admire and respect, or those who I have learned so much from about "the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints" (Jude 1:3) that it's confusing the heck out of me!
I was torn at first, because I could see Biblical support for both sides, but we all know that the Word of God does not contradict itself, and so any apparent contradictions are merely perceived on my end due to my ignorance and limited knowledge of the subject.
The more I read and studied, the more the good Lord granted me the grace and wisdom to better understand what all the fuss was about. No, I still don't understand it all, and probably couldn't explain it all that easily to a family member or a friend, but I'm still trying since I believe it's that important.
I will say that the more time I've spent with the topic, the more I'm starting to come around to seeing that one side is much more accurate and faithful to the Scriptures and our Confessions than the other side is. Furthermore, those protesting the loudest "doth protest too much" in my humble opinion and they give themselves away.
I know that Pastors are sinners just like we are, and that they need our forgiveness, mercy, and prayers too, but it's been shocking to see certain individuals respond they way they have.
It's not like this debate is anything new though. It's been going on since...forever! Still, I've been seeing it come up a lot lately, and I guess I just assumed that we were all in agreement even on the finer doctrinal points of preaching Law and Gospel (a.k.a. Antinomianism), and so I trusted that these preachers and teachers, who I have grown accustomed to listening to and reading to help me deprogram and learn "the whole counsel of God" (Acts 20:27) from a Lutheran perspective, were all "on the same team" so-to-speak.
However, I've recently learned that it's like they belong in the upcoming blockbusters "Captain America: Civil War" (where each superhero has to choose a side and then fight against other superheroes) or "Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice" even.
Please don't misunderstand me either.
I'm not suggesting that such unnamed Pastors have somehow reached a cult-like, superhero status in my mind (1 Corinthians 3), but up until now, I did sort of view each and every one of them as though they were all part of the same superhero group of faithful Lutheran Pastors like the Avengers or something.
To see such fierce disagreement over something that seems so cut-and-dry to me is concerning. I guess it's just because this is the first time since I've become a Confessional Lutheran that I've seen a division like this among those who I never would've guessed could be divided over anything doctrinal.
Speaking of doctrine, aren't we supposed to be united in doctrine, especially when it comes to a proper distinction of Law and Gospel? Look, I may be new to all of this, but I thought that was one of the hallmarks of being a Lutheran.
To quote John T. Pless from his book Handling The Word of Truth...
Only where the Law has crushed sinners does the Gospel do its gracious work of healing the broken-hearted. The Law must kill the old Adam if the Gospel is to resurrect a new man to walk before God in righteousness and holiness. The Law cannot be reasoned away be theological sleight of hand. That is why Gerhard Forde calls antinomianism a “fake theology.” It is a fake theology, “for if you want to remove the law, it is necessary to remove sin and death,” says Luther. Only Christ can to [sic] that! When antinomians ancient or modern try to make the Law go away by theological quackery, they only succeed in relocating the Law. They end up inserting it into the Gospel. That makes for a legalized Gospel, which is no comfort to sinners. It only encourages them to live in the fantasy that sin is not so lethal after all.
*- John T. Pless, Handling The Word of Truth: Law and Gospel in the Church Today, (St. Louis: CPH, 2004) 44-45.
Ok, but what's the truth of the matter then?
Simply put, think of it this way -- Antinomianism ("no Law"); "Soft Antinomianism" ("no preaching about 'new obedience'/'good works'"); Legalism ("all Law); Pietism ("I'm better/holier than you because of my 'good works' that earn me more approval/merit from God").
I hope I have all of that right. If not, please correct me in the Comments Section below.
To clarify though...
"Lutheranism is Biblically better, because it is just that, Biblical. We neither dismiss the Law nor do we try to be more religious than Jesus. We are about the proper distinction between Law and Gospel. The Law condemns and the Gospel saves. You cannot have one without the other and remain Biblical. The distinction between Law and Gospel is paramount to a Biblical theology, because it is the only way one can properly understand justification -- how we are made right with God."
Seems like it should be simple enough, shouldn't it? So what am I missing here? Why has this been an issue in recent weeks? Why is it an issue at all within contemporary Lutheran circles?
Anyway, I'm not really sure what the point of this piece is today. It's certainly not to call out and criticize these called and ordained ministers of God's Word and servants of His Holy Sacraments.
Maybe it's to simply communicate to anyone else out there who's like me and who's new to the Lutheran church that this sort of thing -- though discouraging and surprising at times -- is not that unexpected. After all, as previously mentioned, even Pastors struggle with sin just like we do.
Perhaps another intention with writing and publishing a piece like this is to express to those Pastors who have willingly engaged in the conversation and discussion about Antinomianism that they should keep on keepin' on. That is to say that I appreciate the debate and the desire to want to get this right, especially given my Evangelical background (so thank you for that).
Then again, maybe I merely want to try and help settle the debate in your mind by providing you with the very same resources that were used to help settle it in mine.
That being said, here's a quick primer on Antinomianism, the things often associated with it, and the main reasons behind the debate, disagreement, and discussion for your prayerful consideration.
Matthew Johnson wrote a phenomenal commentary on this topic (in response to the recent back-and-forth) and I cannot emphasize enough how similar his own experience was to my own as I've escaped American Evangelicalism to become a Confessional Lutheran.
It's really remarkable that he captured it so perfectly and then communicated it so clearly, eloquently, and succinctly. Do check it out to help put the exclamation point on today's entry.
So, what did you think? Whose side are you on? The "Pronomians" or the "Antinomians"? If this all sounds like "inside baseball" type of stuff right from the first pitch, then that's because it kinda is to most of us laymen. It reminded me of something another fellow layman, Tim Wood, wrote for Steadfast Lutherans back in March 2015...
Anecdotal evidence indicates that the average LCMS pew-dweller has a superficial grasp of Scripture and the Lutheran Confessions, mixed with a distaste for Synodical machinations. What happens to this half of the Synod membership when they are confused by the careless “cooperation in externals” by LCMS entities?
This is not a call to play to the lowest common denominator (our seminaries, synodocrats, and pastors have a duty to fix the catechism problem). It is a plea to take greater care lest we weaken or destroy the faith of others by ‘disappearing’ what is essential for repentance and the forgiveness of sins. Unfortunately, our leadership and institutions can be too casual in dismissing objections to their activities as the wailings of fragile pietists, or pharisaism, or a lack of education and sophistication, or the old favorite -- breaking the Eighth Commandment.
It is attractive to dwell on “Christian unity” where it focuses on areas of agreement whilst sweeping disagreements under the rug. The problem is that the disagreements invariably reduce to blaming doctrine, and the people who desire to uphold pure doctrine, as divisive. Pure doctrine becomes the problem rather than the solution it is.
To reiterate, that's why I don't mind seeing our Pastors debating this issue even if I am quickly becoming anti "Antinomian Debates" myself personally, because we all know that doctrine matters.
I guess it's just frustrating to see us continue to argue about a doctrine that was supposedly settled according to our Confessions, which accurately confess the truth already found in God's Word.
The Gospel must be protected as carefully against legalism as against antinomianism. An active pride is as dangerous for faith as the laziness that shirks every task. The merit-seeking efforts of a penitential suppression of the desires of the flesh can harden the heart as effectively as the desires of the flesh that are unrestrained. The battle against dead works is just as important as that against dead faith. If justification is continually exposed to the misunderstandings and dangers of quietism, so sanctification is endangered by the abyss of self-righteousness. A super-ethical, predestinarian monergism is as questionable as the moralizing of the Christian religion by Kant and Ritschl. A transformation of the world through sanctification, that would become a boundless union with general culture, is just as much to be avoided as a separation through justification that would lead to a world flight. Daily renewal of the baptismal covenant is indispensable for a life of faith, but the following devotion to the performance of God’s will is no less necessary. Justification robs all conduct of its appearance of holiness, sanctification guards men against sinning against grace. The promise of forgiveness gives the basis of action, direction and power to all conduct; the Christianity of action prevents “pure doctrine” from becoming mere talk. Each statement is only true in its antithesis, in the answer given by the other.
*- Adolf Köberle, The Quest for Holiness: A Biblical, Historical, and Systematic Investigation, Trans. John C. Mattes (Eugene: Wipf & Stock, 2004) 254.
Still confused? That's ok. See, the problem is that there's an argument going on in the Lutheran church today about whether or not a Pastor should or shouldn't exhort the sheep and give sermons that preach about "new obedience" and doing "good works" in their lives.
As I understand it, this is where things can get really tricky, because then you start hearing things about the proper "Third Use of the Law" and stuff.
A good way to think of it is to prayerfully consider what I found from 2012 by Rev. Eric J. Brown on this topic (who himself seems to dislike any mention of "new obedience" and/or "exhortation" unto "good works" in sermons from what I could tell from the comments I've read from him in response to several posts on this subject over the years, but I could be wrong about that).
From his perspective (and those like him), the thinking goes something like this...
I do find it entertaining that I am often called an antinomian, that I am looked down upon and told that I don't encourage enough works in my sermons, that I don't preach enough sanctification (sigh: as though you "preach" sanctification... you proclaim God's Word, both Law and Gospel, and the Holy Spirit will use it as He wills).
I have come to realize the complaint isn't really that I don't encourage works. Or even good works. Or that I don't exhort. It's that I'm a baker who gets yelled at by cake decorators.
Think about a wedding cake -- everyone will ooh and aah at the frosting, the decoration - the stuff that everyone sees. But you know what makes up the cake... the cake. The stuff you bake. The things that are hidden that no one sees, but when you eat the cake, that's the main thing.
You know what I exhort folks towards. Loving their neighbor. When no one can see. To be the wonderful treat that gives life and joy and "body" to the lives of your neighbor. Too many folks want frosting preachers, preachers who will add the nice finishing touch the decorations, who will make a pretty flower or add a lovely splash of color.
My wife likes cake decorating. I got her a kit for her birthday -- it came with a practice pad, a silicon sheet where you could work on your designs. That's what I find many of these rabble rousers to be... nicely decorated, but no cake. And empty piece of plastic with sugar on it to appeal to the world. Piety but no compassion, appearances that are well kept but lacking love, fingers more apt to wag than to be about making peace. Patience and kindness are absent, but there is a covering of self-righteousness for all to see and praise. Gentleness and goodness are not even thought of, unless it is the neighbor's lack of goodness.
Like Whitewashed tombs.
It is simple. We are sinners. We are forgiven. The Holy Spirit stirs up in us good works. He will point us that way through the Law. And you know what -- those works are directed at your neighbor. Anything else... well, show me your frosting and I'll show you my cake.
A reader then commented, "I don't think antinomianism has anything to do with preaching or not preaching good works" to which Rev. Brown replied, "But don't you know, Phillip, if I don't exhort people every week and list out things that they are to do, I'm a vile antinomian =o/ But you are spot on."
The problem appears to stem from some Pastors having issues with their fellow brothers for not preaching properly (or in the way they believe a sermon should be constructed and delivered). I think I have that right.
It's almost as if there's one side that says each and every sermon should only ever be "Law-Gospel" to the point where you hear the Law first and you hear the Gospel last and so you never want to end a sermon with even the slightest mention of anything that sounds like the Law.
Then it's almost as if there's another side that says each and every sermon should only ever be "Law-Gospel-Law" to the point where you hear the Law first, you hear the Gospel next, and they you always end a sermon with just a slight mention of a command, encouragement, and/or exhortation or something.
Naturally, those like me who have come to the Lutheran church from other Law-based and "Works Righteousness" confessions and denominations are definitely hesitant and suspicious of that sort of preaching (and naturally so).
Due to that reality, maybe it's not so much supposed to be a "Law-Gospel-Law" type of sermon we hear (where the "first" Law we hear exposes and convicts us of our sins), but a "Law-Gospel-law" type of sermon instead (where the "second" Law we hear doesn't expose and convict, but actually encourages and exhorts us instead).
Maybe it's a capital "L" for the first Law we hear and a lowercase "l" for the second Law we hear if that makes any sense whatsoever.
Bottom line? I'm not a Pastor so go talk to yours about this delicate though serious subject. In the meantime, that doesn't mean that this is something we cannot grasp and understand or shouldn't study ourselves as laymen.
Whose side are you on? I hope and pray it's the side that seems to parrot Sola Scriptura beautifully and better than the other.
Does God promise both temporal and eternal rewards to our good works? What! Are you kidding? I mean, if you believed that, you’d be a Gospel denying Romanist or a Fundy TV evangelist, right? Law driven! Bad! Or, then again, if you believed that maybe you’d be the greatest Lutheran theologian ever.
This teaching is set forth in our churches plainly and distinctly from the Word of God, namely, that the expiation of sins, or the propitiation for sins, must not be attributed to the merits of our works. For these things are part of the office which belongs to Christ the Mediator alone. Thus the remission of sins, reconciliation with God, adoption, salvation, and eternal life do not depend on our merits but are granted freely for the sake of the merit and obedience of the Son of God and are accepted by faith. Afterward, however, the good works in the reconciled, since they are acceptable through faith for the sake of the Mediator, have spiritual and bodily rewards in this life and after this life; they have these rewards through the gratuitous divine promise; not that God owes this because of the perfection and worthiness of our works, but because He, out of fatherly mercy and liberality, for the sake of Christ, has promised that He would honor with rewards the obedience of His children in this life, even though it is only begun and is weak, imperfect, and unclean. These promises should arouse in the regenerate a zeal for doing good works. For from this we understand how pleasing to the heavenly Father is that obedience of His children which they begin under the leading of the Holy Spirit in this life, while they are under this corruptible burden of the flesh, that He wants to adorn it out of grace and mercy for His Son’s sake with spiritual and temporal rewards which it does not merit by its own worthiness. And in this sense also our own people do not shrink back from the word “merit,” as it was used also by the fathers. For the rewards are promised by grace and mercy; nevertheless, they are not given to the idle or to those who do evil but to those who labor in the vineyard of the Lord.And so the word “merit” is used in the Apology of the Augsburg Confession, the Wuerttemberg Confession, and in other writings of our men. In this way and in this sense, we set forth the statements of Scripture in our churches about the rewards of good works. 1 Tim. 4:8: “Godliness is of value in every way, as it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come.” Luke 14:14: “You will be repaid at the resurrection of the just.” Matt. 5:12: “Your reward is great in heaven.” Matt. 10:42: “He shall not lose his reward.” Gal. 6:9: “Let us not grow weary in well-doing, for in due season we shall reap, if we do not lose heart.” Eph. 6:8: “Knowing that whatever good any one does, he will receive the same again from the Lord.” Heb. 6:10: “God is not so unjust as to overlook your work and the love which you showed for His sake in serving the saints.” 2 Thess. 1:6–7: “Since indeed God deems it just to repay with affliction those who afflict you and to grant rest with us to you who are afflicted, etc.” Scripture is full of such promises of spiritual and bodily rewards.
That’s Chemnitz, the Examen, vol 1, page 653ff.
That’s what Lutherans believe. If you don’t, you are an Antinomian.
That's good enough for me where I'm sitting and standing at the moment in my faith.
What about you? Still unsure? This might help...
The proper distinction of Law and Gospel has been recognized as a key theological insight by which the Gospel came clear in the Reformation. The role of the Law in convicting sinners and bringing them to repentance in preparation for the Gospel has become an axiomatic truth in the Lutheran Church.
In the same way, Article VI of the Formula of Concord left no doubt that the Law must be spoken to Christians. It was confessed there that the Law was given for three reasons:
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.
(FC Ep VI.1)
The Formula of Concord also stated clearly that in speaking the Law to Christians, the Lutherans admonished the people about living in godly ways and doing good works. As they affirmed in Epitome article IV:
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 VI.18).
In light of this background, one would expect that antinomianism would never be a problem in Lutheranism again.
Friends, that is precisely why I currently agree with the position that says there should be some "exhortation" given, and why I agree that Antinomianism does exist to varying degrees within the Lutheran church today.
Sure, we need to be collectively careful about how casually and often we throw that accusation around at Pastors, but we shouldn't ignore this reality and act like Antinomianism no longer exists, or that we can't succumb to an Antinomian way of thinking ourselves, because it quite clearly does, and we most certainly can.
My goodness, I sat in the pews of one LCMS church week-after-week for nearly three years where there was no Gospel, no grace, and only Law, Law, Law. I'd be a hypocrite if I was so vocal about the absence of one thing that should be present in preaching, but silent about the absence of another that should also be present.
Besides, we need to acknowledge that Scripture and our Confessions consistently speak the same language, and therefore, we would be wise to speak the same language today.
In closing, this resonated with me today...
The Formula of Concord does not consider the third use to be a hypothetical possibility, but rather something that the Spirit does. And so in turn it presumes that preachers will employ admonition and exhortation.
Practice that reflects the theology of the FC VI will use language that says what Scripture says. Scripture and the Lutheran Confessions teach us to address Christians with admonishment and exhortation to new obedience, for in this way the law serves to lead the Christian, who is old man and new man at the same time, to live in godly ways. The Gospel is the source of Christian living and the new man led by the Spirit freely engages in new obedience. Yet Paul’s language and the text of FC VI make clear that because of the continuing presence of the old man, preachers will also need to employ admonition and exhortation in order enable this new obedience to be carried out by Christians.
In a Lutheran layman's terms, while I completely recognize the value of talking about this issue to ensure we all get it right (James 3:1; Proverbs 27:17), I'm quickly becoming anti "Antinomian Debates," but only because I think this so-called "controversy" has already been settled by the Bible, our church fathers, and our Confessions a long time ago.
NOTE: Please understand that I'm not a called and ordained minister of God's Word and Sacraments. I'm a layman or just a regular Christian, Candy-Making, Husband, Father, Friend who lives in the "City of Good Neighbors" here on the East Coast. To be more specific, and relevant to the point I want to make with this disclaimer/note, please understand that I'm also a newly converted Confessional Lutheran who recently escaped American Evangelicalism almost 2 years ago now. That being said, please contact me ASAP if you believe that any of my "old beliefs" seem to have crept their way into any of the material you see published here, and especially if any of the content is inconsistent with our Confessions and Lutheran doctrine (in other words, if it's not consistent with God's Word, which our Confessions merely summarize and repeatedly point us back to over and over again) so that I can correct those errors immediately and not lead any of His little ones astray (James 3:1). Also, please be aware that you might also discover that some of the earlier pieces I wrote for this blog back in 2013 definitely fall into that "Old Evangelical Adam" category since I was a "Lutheran-In-Name-Only" at the time and was completely oblivious to the fact that a Christian "Book of Concord" even existed (Small/Large Catechism? What's that!?!). This knowledge of the Lutheran basics was completely foreign to me even though I was baptized, confirmed, and married in an LCMS church! So, there are some entries that are a little "out there" so-to-speak since the subject matter was also heavy influenced by those old beliefs of mine. I know that now and I'm still learning. Anyway, I decided to leave those published posts up on this website and in cyberspace only because they are not blasphemous/heretical, because we now have this disclaimer, and only to demonstrate the continuing work of Christ and the Holy Spirit in my life (Hebrews 12:2; Philippians 1:6). Most importantly, please know that any time I engage in commenting on and/or interpreting a specific portion of the holy Scriptures, it will always closely follow the verse-by-verse notes from my Lutheran Study Bible and/or include references to the Book of Concord unless otherwise noted. Typically, I defer to what other Lutheran Pastors both past and present have already preached and taught about such passages since they are the called and ordained shepherds of our souls here on earth. Finally, I'm going to apologize ahead of time for the length of most entries (this disclaimer/note is a perfect example of what I mean! haha!). I'm well aware that blogs should be short, sweet, and to the point, but I've never been one to follow the rules when it comes to writing. Besides, this website is more like a "Christian Dude's Diary" in the sense that everything I write about and share publicly isn't always what's "popular" or "#trending" at the time, but is instead all the things that I'm experiencing and/or studying myself at the moment. For better or for worse, these posts tend to be much longer than most blog entries you'll find elsewhere only because I try to pack as much info as possible into a single piece so that I can refer to it again and again over time if I need to (and so that it can be a valuable resource for others -- if possible, a "One-Stop-Shop" of sorts). Thank you for stopping by and thank you in advance for your time, help, and understanding. Feel free to comment/email me at any time. Grace and peace to you and yours!