Issue 27-2 Adiaphora, Antinomianism, & Legalism

Editor's Introduction

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In any serious discussion on the power and purpose of the law in the Christian life after baptism, certain questions have always remained the same: What power does the law have in the Christian life? Does the law only accuse? Do the righteous even need the law? What is the law’s relationship to sanctification and holy living? Should preachers use the law to motivate Christians to good works? Or do good works happen spontaneously from the gospel?

The recent publication of The Necessary Distinction: A Continuing Conversation on Law and Gospel (CPH, 2017), a collection of essays from The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod, North American Lutheran Church, and Lutheran Church—Canada theologians, takes up these questions and demonstrates once again that the distinction between law and gospel is still very much at the heart of Lutheran theology. Where the distinction becomes unnecessary, preachers and hearers fall into error on either one of two sides: either they hear the gospel and assume that they can ignore the power of sin that still remains in the Christian life, or else they turn to the law to correct what the gospel apparently could not accomplish on its own.

On the surface, the disagreements in the sixteenth century that required a Lutheran confession concerning the “third use of the law” in the Formula of Concord appear to be similar to those at present. Those who follow St. Paul’s warning in 1 Timothy 1:9, that the law is not laid down for the righteous but the ungodly, have argued (see the articles by Steven Paulson and William Cwirla in LOGIA, Reformation 2016, “Simul justus et peccator”) that the law should be preached only to sinners, to accuse them of sin and bring about repentance. Thus the Christian who is righteous by faith does not need the law to motivate him to good works, since works spring forth from faith in the gospel, freely and out of joy. To preach the law to the righteous is, according to this view, anachronistic, since the law does not apply to the new man, but only to the old. Insofar as the old man and sin remain, the law must constantly be preached among Christians. Others have argued, however, that, although the law must be preached to Christians, it must not only be preached to the old man. The new man also needs the law, to exhort him to good works, since good works do not happen spontaneously when one believes the gospel. According to this view, the Holy Spirit uses the law to increase sanctification by pushing and prodding the old nature against its will, while still exhorting the new nature to do the will of God.

This issue of LOGIA, “Adiaphora, Antinomianism, & Legalism,” is an effort on the part of the editors to give voice to these various concerns about the place and power of the law in the Christian life. Although all the authors in this issue are deeply concerned with the proper distinction of law and gospel, readers will undoubtedly be able to hear two voices emerge.

Mark Surburg’s article represents one voice. Surburg is rightly concerned with antinomianism infecting Lutheran pulpits. He challenges pastors to address the need for good works in the Christian life and to model their preaching after the apostolic model of paranesis, that is, exhortation to good works. He argues that it was the view of Luther and the Lutheran Confessions that the law must be preached to Christians, because the Holy Spirit uses the law to admonish Christians to good works (see, for example, FC SD VI, 12). Surburg’s concern that, because of sin, works do not happen automatically in the Christian by the powerful working of God through the gospel seems to echo similar concerns raised by Joel Biermann in his book A Case for Character: Towards a Lutheran Virtue Ethics (Concordia, 2014). Lucas Woodford, in his article, offers a response to Biermann’s call to virtue ethics. After a critique of Biermann’s virtue ethics as anthropocentric, Woodford argues that we should consider a Christocentric, “baptismal virtue ethic,” which places Christ and his gifts at the center of the Christian life. Wade Johnston’s article also offers a contrasting view to that of Surburg, in which a sharp distinction must be made between death and life. The law kills and the gospel alone makes alive. According to Johnston, the life-giving gospel is God’s only means to make sinners righteous and to sanctify them. Therefore, the gospel must be preached, since it can do what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not.

Bror Erickson’s article, though historical, is refreshingly contemporary in its application. He explores the theological influences of Bo Giertz, particularly the influence of Henric Schartau on Giertz’s view of the Christian life. Schartau’s gospel-filled sermon for Transfiguration Day, we may remember from The Hammer of God, helped liberate the young curate Fridfeldt from the condemnation of the law. Erickson compares specifically Schartau and Giertz on the order of salvation (ordo salutis) and demonstrates how Giertz was able to appropriate Schartau’s emphasis on Christian living while avoiding the legalism that was often inherent in Pietistic preaching on the Christian life. Harold Senkbeil’s timely article on sanctification in a sexual age urges pastors to cultivate a robust teaching and application of sanctification in their pastoral care. Senkbeil offers a case study on sins against the Sixth Commandment, the pandemic of pornography and sexual sins in our decadent twenty-first-century culture, and offers pastors some concrete ways to apply both law and gospel to those enslaved by sexual sins.

We believe these articles together will further discussions concerning the law in the Christian life and the application of the third use of the law in the church today. Since confessional pastors and congregations have promised to uphold the biblical doctrine of the Lutheran Confessions, we pray that reflection on these articles will lead readers back to a careful study of Article VI of the Formula of Concord, “Concerning the Third Use of the Law.”

Jason D. Lane
Mequon, Wisconsin

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