Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Law as Gospel?

Law as Gospel: Covert Antinomianism

by Dave Spotts



Many churches erroneously present Law as if it were Gospel. This example of covert antinomianism is particularly harmful to the Church and to our attempts to bring a biblical message of sin and salvation to our culture. Yet our attempts to be clear about Law and Gospel are often unintelligible to leaders within broader Protestantism. Through careful presentation of a distinctly Lutheran understanding of Law and Gospel we can make headway in this difficult situation.


As we recall, a concise definition of Law is that which we are required to do. A concise definition of Gospel is that which God has done on our behalf. Unfortunately many churches in many denominations, particularly within the broadly evangelical church growth movement, do not have an adequate working understanding of Law or Gospel. They may view Law as the Old Testament or as some of the particular books in the Old Testament and Gospel as the New Testament, all of Jesus' teachings, or the contents of the four Gospels. Some pastors and churches go so far as to say this distinction is irrelevant, that they preach whatever they find in the Bible, as it is either all God's Law or God's promises. The particular error I wish to address here, though, is the situation where a church looks at God's Law and presents it as if it is Gospel. Picture with me a conversation between myself and a minister. I ask what the Gospel is. This pastor may respond by telling me that it is God's will that everyone should repent and live a holy life. I can further define the Gospel as good news and ask how that statement is Gospel. The pastor may tell me that people who are dedicated to living a holy life will find that God blesses them. He has promised that all who call on his name and walk according to his promises will be blessed. At this point, the pastor is genuinely convinced that he has explaiend the Gospel to me. I may ask him to be specific about what he means by calling on the name of God. He may respond that this means asking Jesus for forgiveness. Finally, I think, the pastor has approached the Gospel, at least obliquely. At least Jesus and forgiveness are present. However, the pastor may well go on to tell me that this way, if we hold fast to Jesus and live like the sheep of his pasture who follow him and do what he tells us, then we will be remembered in his kingdom.


This misunderstanding of the true nature of the Law is a form of antinomianism, as oddly as it sounds. It denies the true crushing burden of God's Law. It makes the Law into something that we are capable of keeping. If we slip up once in a while, we can ask Jesus' forgiveness, but really we are going to be justified by the Law. The good news, the Gospel, becomes the fact, we are told, that we are given the spiritual power to keep God's Law. After all, God really just wants our best. He's given us ways to earn a great life of blessing by following him, and on the rare occasion that we fail he really doesn't think the worse of us. He forgives and forgets, just like we should. The teachers who say God's Law is really the Gospel are antinomians. They have denied the content and nature of God's Law.


Why is this so harmful to the Church in our culture? We find that our culture, including the churches which have become imbued with this misunderstanding of Law and Gospel, finds our message unintelligible. We insist that nobody can keep God's Law. They insist that there are lots of laws people keep perfectly well. We insist that the Law requires perfect and heartfelt obedience all the time. They insist that the Law doesn't mean what it says, that God is really forgiving, that Jesus overlooks our mistakes. We insist that outside of Christ nobody is able to do any good works. They insist that there are lots of good works going on. We insist that good works don't earn any merit. They counter that our opinion must be wrong. If God is good he accepts even our imperfect good works. A conversation like this will leave both participants thoroughly bewildered. The Christian with the historic Law/Gospel paradigm thinks he communicated God's demands clearly. The person who has confused Law for Gospel thinks he has just had an encounter with some sort of curmudgeonly killjoy who can't see something good for what it is and certainly doesn't represent the kind and loving God of the New Testament.


The crux of the matter is that our culture, including broad evangelicalism, and sometimes sadly more reformational groups, including many Lutheran congregations, have forgotten the distinction between Law and Gospel. They have a kind of a "Law-lite" view of God's demands. We are told to keep the Law so we must be able to do so. Any other message seems like an odd anachronism at best. Yet when a right distinction between Law and Gospel is carefully taught people are able to see how crushing the demands of God's Law are and therefore how glorious the Gospel is. The Gospel is seen clearly for a liberating message when we see the Law clearly as that which crushes and kills. Most believers who are at all biblically astute can grasp this distinction. But as long as it is assumed and not explained we will find ourselves communicating with people who have denied the crushing power of the Law and wonder what we are talking about.


To combat this type of antinomianism I suggest we approach it slowly, gently, carefully, not assuming anything, and yet patiently insisting that Law and Gospel be rightly divided in all situations. Over a period of time we may be able to rebuild some historic understanding of the righteous wrath of God against sin and the wonders of Jesus' atonement on our behalf.


Dave Spotts
blogging at http://capnsaltyslongvoyage.blogspot.com and http://alex-kirk.blogspot.com

Saturday, April 24, 2010

What a week!

After a very frenzied Tuesday through Saturday I've managed to come up with answers for an extensive questionnaire and other application materials packet to deliver to the AALC Clergy Commission.  It looks like that deadline is done.  I was going to write a sermon and post it here but I think I'll have to pass on that this week.  Maybe next week I can start being consistent about it.

Now I'll get on to the assignments from my seminary class from Monday night so I can allegedly be ready for this coming Monday's class.

Dave Spotts
blogging at http://capnsaltyslongvoyage.blogspot.com and http://alex-kirk.blogspot.com

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Cap'n Salty Models Underwear!


Sunday, April 18, 2010

Acts 9

If I'm looking at the possibility of serving as a pastor of a church while doing all the other things I do I thought it would be a good idea to work on weekly sermon preparation a bit.  So here it goes.

Pray with me, please.  Our merciful Lord, God of all power and majesty, grant us ears to hear and a heart to believe what You tell us today from Your Word, through Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen.

"Attention!  We must defend this castle!"  With cries like this we prepare to defend our territory.  Not only do we desire to defend our territory, but we also strive to overcome the enemy.  We carefully evade the flaming arrows of our invaders, shooting back at them, felling them as they approach the walls.   Our intention is to drive them back from the walls, make an assault against them, eventually re-establish the security of our surrounding territories.  We plan to fight to the end – their end, not ours.  And this is a reasonable expectation.  We're trained, we're well supplied, we have every conceivable advantage over our enemies.

Likewise in today's reading we see a crusader, a defender of the right,making a defense of the true faith.  You might wonder, then, did I read the same passage you read?  Is this really about Acts 9?  It is, most definitely.

God has given his leaders a responsibility to watch over his people.  These leaders of God's flock are to guard purity, purity of doctrine, purity of practice.  They, we, are to strive by our life and service to defend God's people.  We are to fight for what is right, what is biblical.  We are to serve our Lord so as to present God's people to him.  We are to enable God's people to be holy as God is holy.  This is our responsibility.  It is the same responsibility which Saul of Tarsus, the scholar of the Pharisees, carried with him.  It is this responsibility which compels us to strive against those who would come in bringing the poison of false doctrine.  It is this responsibility which drives us in our conflict with inconsistent practice.  Caring for God's flock as a shepherd cares for his sheep involves laying our lives down for the sake of the sheep, protecting them from the enemies they see and from the enemies they don't see.

So we see Saul of Tarsus headed for Damascus, prepared to arrest those who have been teaching and practicing falsehood.  His plan is to bring them to Jerusalem where they can have a hearing, where they can be persuaded that their doctrine is false, and where they can repent and be restored.  He's acting in a gentle manner, really.  It seems Saul would personally prefer to go with a band of armed men, make invasions, make arrests, and take care of the executions then and there.  No fuss, no muss, no problems of feeding prisoners on a trip, just do away with the heretics.  But rather, he is following the orders he received from his authorities in Jerusalem.

We do want to remember, after all, that purity of the faith is a pretty straightforward matter.  God is holy.  He accepts no rivals.  We are to have no gods before him.  There is no substitute for God.  Truth is truth.  There is no room for compromise when we are talking about revealed truth of God.  So it isn't that difficult a decision for Saul to make.  He will travel wherever he can find falsehood with the specific goal of eliminating that poison.

Is this what we do?  Do we go into our society, prayerfully, faithfully, expecting our Lord to work in and through us?  Do we expect to find and confront false doctrine?  Do we expect that God's Word will work in and through us to change people's hearts, to call them to repentance, to create faith in their hearts?  Do we expect that the Lord will do his will?  And deep down inside, don't we believe that the person who refuses to hear and believe is condemned?  So out we go into our world, wielding the Word of God, praying that the Holy Spirit will use it to convict and slay the enemies of the true faith.

What happens when we step out in faith?  We look again at Saul and his journey.  Like Saul, we meet challenges.  Saul wanted to accomplish something, but he was a man under authority.  He had to get permission to do what he was doing.  We also have to learn the fine art of asking our authorities and waiting for their answer.  We find that sometimes the answer is what we want but sometimes it isn't quite what we had planned or hoped.  But we receive the authority given to us and follow through with it.

Like Saul, we see confrontations.  Sometimes the confrontations are those we expect, but sometimes they are quite different than what we are looking for.  We may go out into our society planning to take on those who don't believe like we do.  We may end up seeing that we are frail and those who are unbelieving are even more frail.  We may have all the answers prepared and be confronted with a different question.  We may find ourselves confronted by the glory and power of God.  We may see that our Lord is working in and through us but not according to our plan.  We may see that our confrontation is not with those we have set out to convince but with ourselves.  We may see that our confrontation is not with unbelievers but with God.  We may go looking for everyone else's sin and be confronted with our own sin.

As with Saul, so also it is with us.  We seek to protect our doctrine.  We strive to explain it well and make sure we understand it thoroughly.  We go to disprove something and find that we prove it to ourselves.  We go to prove something we believe and find that we prove something else.

As with Saul, so it is with us.  We intend to guard orthodox practice and we find that the practice of the Church is more widely varied throughout history than we imagined.  We plan to protect something we think is solid orthodox practice and we start asking why we do things as we do.  We look at what we think is well reasoned and find its flaws.  We look at what we did not understand and find it bears tremendous value.

As with Saul, so with us.  We seek to remove the pretenders to the faith.  In doing so we find that our life is full of pretense.  We seek to convict people of sin and unbelief.  We find that we are full of sin and unbelief.  We condemn unrighteousness and we see that we are all unrighteousness.

As with Saul, so with us.  We seek to point people to God's glory.  We then come face to face with the God of glory.  We see him in his majesty and we are undone.  We consider the majesty of our Lord and we see the terror of his perfection.

What are we to do?  What indeed?  Is there any wonder that Saul falls to the ground when he is confronted by his Lord?  "Lord, you have revealed your glory to me.  I am undone!"  The Lord then asks, "Why do you persecute me?"  And the God of the universe waits for an answer. 

As with Saul, so with us.  We see our folly.  We see our failure.  We see that we have not depended on our Lord's Word and his gifts but on our own ability.  We see that we are full of false doctrine, full of evil deeds, full of everything but righteousness.  And our Lord asks us, "Why do you persecute me?" 

What answer do we have?  What answer does Saul have?  "Lord, who are you?"  We believe, but as yet we don't see the Lord clearly.  We know our sin.  We know our failings.  We know we are without hope.  Yet we cannot have hope because we don't know the one who has come to us.  We know his power but that is not all his character.  We know his terror.  We know his force.  We have confronted our God and found that he is like an avalanche, like a tidal wave, like a volcanic eruption.  We cannot stand before him.  "Lord, who are you?"

What does our Lord say to Saul?  "I am Jesus.  Get up."  As Saul arises, as we arise, we see we are absolutely guilty.  We are those who persecute our Lord.  We are those who allow our false doctrine to stand.  We are those who allow our practice to be disobedient to our Lord.  We are those who proclaim sinless perfection and live lives that are full of sin.  What can we do, though?  "I am Jesus.  Get up." 

As with Saul, so also with us.  We get up.  "Go on.  I've taken care of it."  What excuse will we give?  We have no excuses.  All those were stripped away when we realized the presence of the Lord and fell before him.  There are no excuses.  We know that we have persecuted our Lord Jesus Christ, that he was put to death by our testimony, that he bore the wrath of God for our sin, that he gave his life as an atonement for us.  "Lord, what can I say?"  His response?  "I am Jesus. Get up. Go on.  I've taken care of it." 

"But Lord, I'm the one who put you to death on the cross."

"Are you forgiven?  Get up.  Go on.  I've taken care of it."

"But Lord, I'm a sinful man."

"Are you forgiven?  Get up.  Go on.  I've taken care of it."



(Read Psalm 30 – chant responsively?) http://www.biblegateway.com/passage/index.php?search=Psalm%2030&version=ESV&interface=print

Psalm 30

Joy Comes with the Morning

A Psalm of David. A song at the dedication of the temple.

 1I will extol you, O LORD, for you have drawn me up
   and have not let my foes rejoice over me.
2O LORD my God, I cried to you for help,
   and you have healed me.
3O LORD, you have brought up my soul from Sheol;
   you restored me to life from among those who go down to the pit.

 4Sing praises to the LORD, O you his saints,
   and give thanks to his holy name.
5 For his anger is but for a moment,
   and his favor is for a lifetime.
 Weeping may tarry for the night,
   but joy comes with the morning.

 6As for me, I said in my prosperity,
   "I shall never be moved."
7By your favor, O LORD,
   you made my mountain stand strong;
you hid your face;
   I was dismayed.

 8To you, O LORD, I cry,
   and to the Lord I plead for mercy:
9"What profit is there in my death,
   if I go down to the pit?
Will the dust praise you?
   Will it tell of your faithfulness?
10 Hear, O LORD, and be merciful to me!
   O LORD, be my helper!"

 11You have turned for me my mourning into dancing;
   you have loosed my sackcloth
   and clothed me with gladness,
12that my glory may sing your praise and not be silent.
   O LORD my God, I will give thanks to you forever!


"But Lord, I'm a sinful man."

"Are you forgiven?  Get up.  Go on.  I've taken care of it."




In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.


Saturday, April 17, 2010

Oratio, Meditatio, Tentatio

Here's a brief paper I prepared for the class I'm taking.  It was encouraging to me to think through the issue and write it up, so I thought it might be encouraging to anyone reading my blog too.
Dave Spotts

Oratio, Meditatio, Tentatio: A Brief Reflection

A Paper for the MTS Law and Gospel Course

D. Spotts, April, 2010


                The task before me is to provide a brief summary of one of the three disciplines: oratio, meditatio, or tentatio as outlined by Luther most notably in the preface to the 1539 Wittenberg Edition of his works.  Following a summary of Luther's view of tentatio I will attempt to place the concept into its proper context in the whole of Lutheran theology.  Finally, I will give some brief comments about the theology as applied in experience. 

                Luther essentially says that our development as theologians takes place as we first pray for the illumination of the Holy Spirit, then seek theology as revealed in the Scripture.  This constitutes the first two parts of our tripartite task.  Counter to mysticism (Kleinig, 263), we would anticipate not an ascent into a divine contemplative life but rather an attack of Satan when we meditate on Scripture appropriately.    This attack, which Luther called tentatio or Anfechtung, is not necessarily the kind of attack that modern evangelicals would expect.  Luther seems to think of the tentatio as an insidious, frequently internal kind of temptation.  He doesn't look at it as a temptation toward overt sin.  Luther views Satan as altogether too smart to tempt us that way most of the time.  Rather, Satan tempts us to trust in our own intellect, to depend on our own plans, to govern our lives and ministry in the way which would seem wise to our world.  We walk in our own power rather than in the power of the Holy Spirit.  Our temptation is to take that divine insight the Holy Spirit gave us in prayer, shove it into a drawer, and carry on in our own power.  This type of temptation is very deceptive because we can give in to it at the very time we are trying to find the best possible way to minister to our community.  We hardly realize we are enduring that temptation before we have succumbed.  Luther suggests that the realization that we are undergoing tentatio should drive us to move back to our prayer (oratio) and further study of Scripture (meditatio).

                How does this idea of tentatio relate to the whole of Lutheran theology?  In a nutshell I observe that throughout the history of Lutheran faith and practice we see many instances of godly people falling prey to this kind of temptation.  We may see it in the tendency of the earliest Lutherans to compromise on important doctrines with the Zwinglians and later the Calvinists.  Maybe by practicing unity we can increase the kingdom.  After all, we are on the same team.    What about the numerous lapses into Pietism that we have seen in Lutheran congregations?  All these bear, at their heart, a desire to accomplish the things of the Gospel through human means, albeit cloaked in the guise of divine command.  We further see liberalism fall to this temptation.  This philosophy has reacted against a dependence on the sufficiency of God's self-revelation in Scripture.  This in turn leads to all manner of harm, including the embrace of a feminist agenda and human-centered ideas of what will make the church "relevant."  Ultimately the Gospel is masked and the Church is no more a biblical church when it succumbs to this temptation.

                This road we have laid out is further complicated in our day-to-day life.  We see what the Scripture says.  We desire to depend on what God has revealed, yet in our desire to do God's will we start to fall into Pietism.  We react against Pietism and have a tendency to become antinomian.  We see the Scripture talk about effective proclamation of the Gospel, evangelism, and reaching out in works of mercy.  So we start to become Pietists again, pursuing our good works.  In our reaction to this we end up with a quietism which melts into the woodwork and makes the Gospel we bear disappear from sight.  We finally realize that in all this we are depending on our own wisdom, our own devices, our own sense of balance.  We are victims of the tentatio of Satan.  We desire the kingdom of God to come and the will of God to be done on earth as it is in heaven.  Sadly, we desire it according to our own plans, on our own timetable, in accordance with our crazy concept of prudence.  This must never be!  It is what has driven us down the path to destruction.  It is what has shackled the Church time after time.  It is what has caused the Gospel to be obscured in this world.  Rather, let us turn again to our Lord in prayer, asking for the enlightenment of the Holy Spirit.  Let us turn our attention to the Scriptures rather than to our ideas about the Scriptures.  There we will see how our Lord would have us live and work as His redeemed people.  There we will find the forgiveness we so desperately need.  There we will be able to look to our Lord and Savior, Jesus, the living Word of God.  There we will find the message our world must hear to receive pardon and life from God.

Sources Consulted

Luther, Martin. D. Martin Luthers Werke (Weimar, 1914), 50.657-661


Kleinig, John. "Oratio, Meditatio, Tentatio: What Makes a Theologian?" Theological Quarterly 66.3 (July 2002): 225-267  


Thursday, April 8, 2010

Law, Gospel, Hamlet, and Claudius

After our daughter reads a Shakespeare play in her literature studies we often pick up a movie version of the play and watch it together, sort of as a celebration of a job well done, sort of as a way to see the play produced rather than just reading it.  Last night as we were watching Hamlet together I was struck by the struggle of both Hamlet and Claudius.  

Claudius has killed his brother, married his brother's wife, and taken the throne.  He is dogged by a guilty conscience.  Seeking refuge in drunkenness, debauchery, and sending his detractors to foreign countries to be killed there is not proving to be adequate.  The situation comes to a head for him when he is confronted by a dramatic depiction of his murder of his brother.  We find him praying for forgiveness.  He knows that it is his sin which consigned Jesus to death, and that Jesus died in his behalf so he might live.

Enter Hamlet, who overhears his uncle/stepfather praying.  Hamlet has bound himself by an oath that he will kill Claudius and avenge his father's death.  But upon hearing Claudius pray Hamlet does not go through with his plan to kill him.  After all, does it make sense to dispatch Claudius from his earthly turmoils and send him to heavenly bliss?  Is this appropriate vengeance?

I think both Hamlet and Claudius are significant in their portrayal of the sinful human conscience.  Hamlet binds himself by an oath which will bring harm on someone else and will not actually do anything for himself.  He knows that mortal life is not everything there is.  He knows it is a terrible thing to kill someone.  Yet this is exactly what he agrees to do.  By breaking his oath or by fulfilling his oath he will bring grief.  Claudius knows the gravity of his situation.  He knows how wrong he is.  Yet even after his prayer and confession he immediately returns to his evil.  He realizes he is willfully walking back into his sinful pattern.  But this is just what we do.

What's the solution?  Well, Hamlet is a tragedy after all, so there isn't a solution in the play.  Sadly that seems to be where most of us leave it, where most of us leave ourselves, most of the time.  We confess the promises of Christ, we confess the full and free forgiveness of sin to everyone who repents of sin, then we immediately act as if there is no hope and we return into our sin.  The Bible, unlike Shakespeare, gives us a future promise.  We see in the resurrection of Christ the hope of salvation.  We see that all who believe will be raised into the resurrection of life.  At some time all our sin will be stripped away from us forever.  In the meantime we see our sin brings grief to God's spirit and we turn to our Lord in repentance, though we know we will grieve him again.