Growth in Grace: Where Neuhaus is Right and Where he is Wrong

by Mark C. Mattes, Grand View University, Des Moines, Iowa


Richard Neuhaus, circa 1970

Richard John Neuhas was one of the most important commentators on the interrelationship of religion and democracy in America. We can especially be grateful for his critique of secular voices in higher education, law, social work, and politics as out of touch with the faith-based views held by most Americans. While respecting his erudition and gentle character, Evangelical-Lutherans will protest his decision to leave the faith of his birth for Rome: the truth of the gospel is not to be exchanged for the perception of security against inroads of secularism.

In the February 2009 issue of First Things Neuhaus defended a view of grace as not only pardon (forgiveness) but also power (transformation). It is interesting that as he was approaching death he wished to set the record straight with respect to the proper relationship between law and gospel. And, not to read too much into the matter, perhaps indirectly he was offering a defense of his entering fellowship in the Roman Catholic Church. It would seem that Neuhaus wanted to take a parting shot at the Lutheranism of his birth.

A Last Will and Testament

He begins his article with the reminiscence that as "a young Lutheran seminarian" he had been "struck by a professor's forceful declaration that the phrase growth in grace is a contradiction in terms." "The grace of the gospel of forgiveness is absolute, unqualified, perfect. It allows for no growth or improvement." Thereby, Lutheranism reduces the law to an enemy and the gospel to a friend. Ultimately, as an enemy, the law must go away, be vanquished, and disappear.

Of course, Neuhaus explains the common, and confessional, Lutheran distinctions of the law as a mirror, curb, and guide, noting that this latter use is in dispute, since it leads to ideas such as "growth in grace," "which end up denying grace altogether." Neuhaus appeals to Gilbert Meilaender's contention that in the gospel we receive not only forgiveness, but also with such pardon, the power to grow in godliness, fulfill the commandments, and better imitate Christ.

Neuhaus fails to say that not all versions of North American or European Lutheranism, especially those influenced by Pietism, Rationalism, Revivalism, Unionism (and thus the majority of Lutheran groups in North America and Europe!), would have even understood the terms of the discussion. The notion of a law-gospel dialectic is quite foreign to many churches and theologies that are under the umbrella of the name "Lutheranism." It was, in fact, the particular branch of Lutheranism in which Neuhaus was raised, the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod, with its theological heritage so firmly established in C. F. W. Walther's classic, The Proper Distinction between Law and Gospel, which brings Luther's own teaching into the late nineteenth through twenty-first centuries. According to Neuhaus, this perspective feeds antinomianism, particularly that of certain parties in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America with respect to sexuality. At its core, however, this law-gospel distinction, for Neuhaus, fails to uphold the conviction that the gospel is the power which transforms people. Neuhaus's reception into fellowship with Rome is a testimony against his unnamed seminary professor who was wrong to assert that since forgiveness is perfect there is no need to affirm growth in grace.

Neuhaus is quick to point out that Luther himself seemed to talk out of two sides of his mouth. On the one hand, Luther's greater Commentary on Galatians offers an "exhilarating display of uncompromised grace and faith;" however, the Small and Large Catechisms's explanations of the Ten Commandments seem to assume our capacity to honor each of these commandments, and thus grow in grace. Luther was, thus, inconsistent. But that holds out some hope for Luther himself as capable of being put on the right track, as opposed to his current followers, who undermine the faith. It is Lutherans, especially those who deny a "third use" of the law who jeopardize the faith.

Situating the Debate

In some respects the debate that both Neuhaus and Meilaender provoke is one which is long standing, particularly within Lutheranism. The discussion parallels the debate between freedom and responsibility between Flacians and Melanchthonians which helped forge confessional Lutheran identity in the sixteenth century. As Robert Kolb has so ably shown, this debate is best seen as parties seeking to correct the excesses of the other position. Surely the affirmation of freedom, as so forcefully expressed by the Flacians is not to be had at the expense of human responsibility. Likewise, the affirmation of responsibility, as ably represented by the Melanchthonians, is not to be had at the expense of freedom.

And that sense of correcting the oversights of opposed parties should help us uncover the core insights of the disputants behind this debate over freedom and responsibility even in today's world. No doubt, those who flee to Rome or wish to situate Lutheran identity within a wider Catholic ethos are greatly troubled with what appears to be the all-encompassing specter of a secularism that prioritizes the unencumbered individual's wishes, "provided no harm is done" to other such individuals. Apart from a common social framework about the common good and the chief end of humanity, our best efforts seem to do nothing other than work against our best intentions. In our quest for an ideal, or at least effective, society, we inadvertently reproduce nothing other than a Hobbesian "state of nature," a war of all against all. Even the quest for tolerance does not result in turning swords into plowshares but instead leads us to cover up our loaded weapons-pointing them at our enemies with the stated intention of détente.

Apart from an ultimate goal which can serve as our common end, the center doesn't hold. And, if that doesn't hold, perhaps we are on the verge of anarchy. No wonder we seek an authority to govern Christian consciences and foster Christian virtue. For Neuhaus, the law-gospel dialectic is misused: it is tantamount to an irresponsible freedom from authority, tradition, and order. It contributes to a lawless world, an environment not safe for rearing children or rectifying injustice or growth in truth, beauty, and goodness. It betrays a Christian alternative to the sanctioned violence of the modern world. We agree with Neuhaus: Christians need to work for social stability and well-being lest the quest for a common good be subverted and betrayed by individualism run amok.

Many who operate from the "law-gospel" dialectic share these concerns with "evangelical Catholics" and conservative Roman Catholics. If ELCA leaders examining sexuality concerns sidestep biblical and historic teachings about sexuality, it has little or nothing to do with any reading of law and gospel. Their minds are already made up and they are seeking any kind of legitimation for changing the standards set forth in Visions and Expectations. Certainly those theologians in the ELCA influenced by Gerhard O. Forde do not see the demands and threats of the law, whether with respect to sexuality or other matters, as having changed. Those seeking changes for Visions and Expectations are best understood as "decadent Pietists" and not practitioners of law and gospel.

The Lutheran Suspicion

What the unique Lutheran "dialectic" does is unmask the inevitable misuse of the law for self-justification in the hands of all sinners. The Lutheran insight into sinful human beings is that they are inherently self-legitimating or self-justifying, using God's law to eradicate their own insecurities, rather than honoring the Lord for his own sake-a suspicion that even unmasks the traditional "masters of suspicion" (Marx, Feuerbach, Freud), since even they affirm either human perfectibility or some kind of secularistic growth as "virtuous" humans.

While unmasking ethics and spirituality in the hands of the old Adam as simply another form of self-legitimation-specifically the one that nailed Jesus to the cross- seems to threaten ethical and spiritual endeavors, it is simply an exercise in truth, a necessary result of the law itself as always accusing. Even our attempt to grow in spirituality or ethics, when done by the old Adam, is nothing other than an expression of self-interest, the attempt to make oneself serve as one's own god for oneself. In this sense, Jesus' reaching out to the social rejects of his time is an expression of the Hebrew prophetic critique that God seeks justice and not sacrifice. In light of Jesus' death and resurrection, God's eternal right is to claim sinners as his own, for the sake of him who shed his blood on sinners' behalf.

The Lutheran insight is that there is no moral or spiritual reform for the old being. Christianity is no program for moral rearmament even in the face of our pressing moral needs. The old being, in truth, cannot be recycled. The old being can only be brought to an end; die. And, the Christian life shares in this death (the wages of sin) by which God is bringing down all old beings, whether they be Christian or not. The good news is that God in Christ is raising the dead, allowing new beings to emerge who live by faith, and through faith honor God's deity as truth, beauty, and goodness, and, as beings set free from their self-legitimating, self-centered ways, are able to begin to care for their neighbors, often from the heart.

Solving the World's Problems?

If our over-riding concern is, like Neuhaus, to provide an alternate path of Catholic authority and stability to the apparent chaos that seems to envelop us, a world bereft of civility, akin to Israel in the days of the Judges, when everyone did what was right in their own eyes, then we are bound to look at Christianity as a program for moral reform. Such a Christianity's advantage over deontological or utilitarian approaches to ethics is that through imitatio Christi it will lead us to ever greater vistas of conformity to and analogy with God's truth, beauty, and goodness. In this view, Christianity can offer a program for moral regeneration and social reform as an alternative to all secular visions which with their good intentions lead to a "culture of death." And, the evidence is clear: the world of its own accord is not able to solve its own problems.

Who then can solve the world's problems? Is that the job of Christianity? Or, is it not possible that God works through a variety of figures, both Christian and non-Christian, to bring about his will on earth. Ultimately, however, it is not clear that politics can solve the problems generated by politics or that the problems of ethics can be solved by the reflections of ethicists. Such problems reside in human nature itself: politics and ethics are themselves capable of becoming their own problems. Chances are, only partial solutions at best can be offered for entrenched problems in this world beset by sin. Christian faith offers the medicine of immortality, not an elixir for moral rearmament.

Perhaps a culture deeply influenced by Christianity offers the best hope for the world. But it is not as if the world can take on a Christian agenda apart from that specific agenda itself becoming an agent of the world. We must always remember: it is through the foolishness of preaching that God brings about a new creation. As foolish to the world, Christian faith in the crucified one will always encounter tension with the world, and vice versa. And, that tension will continue to exist even when Christian faith affirms everything that can be affirmed in the world as God's good creation.

In this light, we should be skeptical of Christianity's ability to offer an alternative political agenda for the world, either of the right or the left. Looking to God's commands and Christ's example, Christians must deal with political and ethical mattes as they arise on a case by case basis. Nevertheless, we can and should affirm Neuhaus' insightful critique that a truly secular approach to politics is an illusion: the public square can never be religion-free, "naked."

Christianity: A Program?

But when all is said and done we need to ask: is Christianity really, truly, and ultimately simply another program of moral reform? No doubt many Christians see it that way: Christianity offers a "purpose-driven life." As a program, it would have to complete with 12-step groups (which have reasonably successful outcomes), or Buddhism, or Stoicism, or Epicureanism, and many other such venues. Indeed, when Christianity does not have the upper hand in an environment, which it increasingly does not have in secular venues such as higher education, social work, business, and industry, it will offer an ethos as an alternative to such secularity (even as it did in the Roman world), and with much good. (Hopefully people today could say of us as was said of ancient Christians: "see how they love one another.")

It is true that the entire Christian message offers both God's commands and parenetic guidance. But, again, is the core of faith a program? Or, is it not rather, more than anything else, a promise? A promise was given first to Adam, renewed with Noah, made specific with Abraham and his descendents, and made incarnate in the earthly ministry of Jesus Christ? Is Jesus Christ not first primarily gift (sacramentum) and secondarily example (exemplum)? If Jesus Christ as the Word of God is primarily a promise, and not a directive, then the gospel cannot be configured within an overarching program of moral transformation. Just the opposite. Morality rather is relativized in light of the gospel. Morality as our best coram deo is annihilated. For faith (and faith alone), Christ is both the telos and even the finis of the law.

Does the gospel deliver us from structures by which the necessities and opportunities of social life are required? Of course not. What does happen as old beings die and new beings are brought forth is the strengthening (indeed growth) in faith, such that we become increasingly less defensive about life and the need to chronically justify ourselves, to the dishonor of God and at the expense of our neighbor. As new beings we are returned to this old world; in it, but not of it. We are called to be light, salt, and witnesses in word and deed. As Christians, we are to share mercy to those in need, and as citizens, we are to seek the common good for our nation, the world, and the environment.

But at its core, even our sanctification, ultimately, is not our doing, not a program, but the work of the Holy Spirit. In sanctification it is God who gets more of us and not so much we who get more of God. As we are being conformed more and more to the image of Christ, we are less and less concerned about our spiritual progress and more concerned about matters at hand: how can I honor God and serve neighbor in word and deed? Growth in grace: less of oneself and more of God, and all of this do finally to God's own doing! This is our pilgrimage, our itinerarium. And, the more sway that Christ has over me, and the less sway that the old Adam has over me, is there not more power, even more growth, in Christ-likeness...even if such growth defies calculation and measurement?

The last judgment has been rendered in Jesus' death and resurrection: God justifies the entire world for Jesus' sake. He justifies it because he loves it.

Going Up the Down Staircase?

What is problematic in the Roman Catholic "quantitative, linear" approach which lends itself to self- and other-evaluations of up/down, better/worse, is judgmentalism about where one stands in the hierarchy. And, ironically, such judgmentalism can never finally be justified in light of God's standards of purity in thought, word, and deed. It is not the hierarchy per se that is problematic. It is that the staircase is not for going up, but for going down. Christ comes down to us, "for us and for our salvation." And, in light of this gift, we can share his good gifts with others, especially forgiveness.

Our conformity with Christ is not to be found in the intentional aiming for an analogical imitation which could be evaluated and measured. Our "imitation" of Christ, Christ as our example, is in dying to self-righteousness of whatever stripe and living freely in faith. No doubt, where our culture errs, where it borders on fostering self-sabotaging chaos, we need to seek to correct it-not so as to build the kingdom of God on earth-but to build healthy community for the neighbor, especially those who are vulnerable.

It is not lawless antinomians who put an end to the law-it is the gospel-Jesus Christ himself who does that. No antinomian is capable of ridding the world of God's law. But God's law is quite capable of rendering death on every antinomian.

The law needs no defense from us, especially when it is being attacked by Christ himself. If the law attacks, as well it should, the defense is Christ himself who fights back and brings it to an end. More theoretically said, in the face of Christ, God as comforting us is against God as accusing us.

No Reductionism

Must "law-gospel dialecticians" (not a term that they themselves have adopted) reduce human experience to either indifference or terror, as Neuhaus contends? I think not. As Christians we live in the world through the lens of scripture. The scriptures alone divulge the meaning of nature and history. Scripture provides the code that allows us to see nature as testifying to God's glory, and history as running its course. Scripture is the way whereby the indifferent person is awakened in light of the law and the terrified conscience is comforted. But scripture also indicates that life can be unsettled not just by accusation but by insecurity: "where is God?" is a question asked by Job not especially as a sinner but as a human. Likewise, to humans, the scripture calls us to lamentation when we hurt, even as it calls us to joy and praise in God's goodness. It also calls us to acknowledge God's wisdom in the law and to "delight" in it. "Law-gospel dialecticians" need not be, and should not be, reductionistic. We encounter God in accusation, wrath, and consolation; but we also encounter God even when he seems hidden and when we are confident of his goodness. Surely, as redeemed, the new being can and does affirm God's ways. So, we can say with the Psalmist, "Thou dost show me the path of life; in thy presence there is fullness of joy, at thy right hand pleasures forevermore" (Psalm 16:11). We can be grateful for guidance found in God's commands and wisdom and learn from it.

Richard John Neuhaus left his Lutheran heritage for Rome because he saw it as a refuge and answer to rising secularism. Only Rome, from his perspective, has the authority to prevent hodge-podge theology in the church, rampant consumerist drives feeding contemporary congregationalism, and moral experimentation and adventure. But, is Rome true to the gospel? One can repeat over and over that Lutherans and Rome share a similar, if not the same, view of grace. But the issue between Rome and Lutheranism has never primarily been over grace. Instead it is over faith. Is faith enough? Is faith enough to save...and also conform us to Christ? If the gospel is promise, then faith alone is enough. Good works spring from a good source, like good fruit coming from a well-tended tree.


We can be grateful for the insights into democracy, secularization, and theology which Richard John Neuhaus had and shared. We share his concerns about secularization and we treasure his insights about democracy. But, the gospel we will not compromise. This world is God's world. We can and will challenge secularism, but Rome itself is no guarantee of theological safety. We can see that well enough in the plurality of theological trends which has beset Rome for over sixty years.

It is time to renew our commitment to the gospel, the promise which raises the dead.