— by Mark Surburg
Editor's note: This article is a response to Rev. Lucas V. Woodford. The original article is linked in the first paragraph.
Last week LOGIA Online posted an article by Pastor Lucas Woodford entitled “Third Use of the Law and Sanctification.” He offered a descriptive analysis of a “debate going among conservative confessional Lutheran circles regarding the nature and use of the Law, particularly its Third Use, as well as the issue of antinomianism and the sanctified life under the Gospel.” He noted in conclusion:
Again, my aim has been to shed some collegial and pastoral light upon this ongoing debate. I mean no ill will, nor do I mean to antagonize or demonize anyone or any one position. If I have misspoken, I am open to correction and clarification.
While I appreciate the descriptive tone of his effort, I believe that Woodford has failed to understand key issues that are at stake. After engaging in this discussion for the last four years and coining the term “soft antinomianism” in describing what I have encountered, I believe that I am in a good position to respond to Pastor Woodford on behalf of the second group he describes. Following Woodford’s lead, I will pursue a descriptive course rather than providing specific argumentation in support of a position.
In Woodford’s estimation the two sides are each defending some specific theological truth, but in so doing they are also excluding “a corollary and very important truth” as they each fall off one side of Luther’s horse. Woodford describes the first group in the following manner:
For example, one group appears to be aiming to reach disaffected evangelicals who have been repeatedly bludgeoned by the law. They want to “liberate” them from the bonds of the law and teach them how to “hold fast” to Christ and the “radical” freedom the Gospel affords. Thus, they begin to speak in terms of limited categories.
He adds latter:
Though perhaps well intentioned, and maybe having a particular disaffected evangelical audience in mind, this tends to seem like a repetitious single note being played over and over again, and is often aided by the sensationalism of digital media, and corresponding bumper sticker-like slogans, complete with all kinds of catchy sound bites. It may be well received by the specific audience they desire to hear it, but the legs seem to be falling off the saddle for the rest of us.
While this description is an entirely accurate one of several prominent groups online and in social media, Woodford has focused too narrowly. Instead, this approach that sees only the accusing role of the law in revealing sin and emphasizes salvation by grace through faith in Christ apart from works is symptomatic of a far deeper problem in modern Lutheranism. It does not simply describe a small group seeking to reach out to disaffected former evangelicals. Instead it includes many Lutherans today and the debate that has gone on for the last four years has focused on how Lutheran pastors talk to Lutheran congregations.
The denial of the third use of the law that emerged after World War II (associated chiefly with Werner Elert, but involving others as well) has created an enduring theological outlook in which the law only delivers sin-revealing accusation, while the Gospel frees us from this apart from works. With the law limited in this way, the abundant New Testament paraenesis (exhortation to live a God-pleasing life in response to the Gospel) becomes intelligible only as more accusation intended to reveal sin. Lutheranism loses the ability to speak to Christians about living as Christians in the way of the New Testament and Luther’s postils (sermons), because this is viewed as just more accusing and condemning law.
When we turn to the second group Woodford describes, which I represent, I must confess that I am genuinely puzzled by his description. He focuses on “progressive sanctification” and uses this term to describe instances where “this position has a tendency to set forth quotes from the confessions that assert an increase in sanctification.” This becomes the centerpiece of his presentation as he critiques problems with the position and tells us, “However, the term ‘progressive sanctification’ is not in the Lutheran confessions.”
I am puzzled because I don’t know of anyone who uses the term “progressive sanctification” nor anyone who places the central emphasis on the need to see an ongoing increase in sanctification. Woodford has imported this concern and in doing so has missed the reason that I and others have cited biblical and confessional texts that speak of increase: it is because they substantiate the fact that according to Scripture and the Confessions, the work of the Holy Spirit actually makes a difference in the individual.
The position I represent has three basic points about which it is concerned. The first point is about what the Gospel really means. The Gospel does not provide merely a forensic declaration of change in status before God that leaves individuals basically unchanged in relation to how they live. Instead, the Gospel provides a forensic declaration of change in status before God, while the Holy Spirit also creates the new man who through the work of the Spirit is now able to live in ways that reflect God’s will (something the Confessions call “cooperation”).
The second point is that when we understand how the Sprit creates, sustains, and enables the new man through the Means of Grace, then we can understand how the Confessions teach about the third use. The law always accuses, but it doesn’t always do one thing as it accuses. God uses the law as it accuses to reveal sin (second use). He also uses the law as it accuses the old man to guide, teach, compel, and repress (third use).
In the third use the Spirit uses the Law so that the actual behavior of the Christian reflects God’s will. It is the Spirit who always supports the new man through the Gospel so that he can struggle against the old man (the Spirit is the source of any God-pleasing life). It is the new man who struggles against the old man. The Spirit applies the Law in its third use to the old man and the Spirit's use of the law to guide and repress the old man aids the new man in his struggle so that the new man determines what the individual actually does. In this way it is entirely correct to say that the Law helps the Christian live according to God’s will. To be clear, this is different from a Calvinistic view where the law itself is the means of producing obedience in the Christian.
The third point is that when we understand that God can use the law in this way, we are free to speak in the language of Scripture by exhorting and encouraging Christians in how they should live. Certainly we can’t determine how the Spirit will use the law. St. Paul couldn’t either. But we can be certain that the Spirit does use the law in this way and so we can follow the inspired model of Paul and the other biblical writers. Robust preaching of the Gospel present for the believer in the Means of Grace is complemented by robust exhortation, encouragement, and teaching about what it means for how they live. This is what one finds in Luther’s postils as well.
These three points are absent from the first group that Woodford describes (there is a range within this group and while most would not explicitly deny the first point, whether this happens functionally in their theology is a different matter). In addition, when he sets forth his “third perspective” that sanctification “is the result of Christ and his Spirit in action in the life of the believer,” he seems unaware that he has not in any way addressed these concerns. I presume he would affirm the first point. But what does his position have to say about the second and third? This is the real issue at hand. From what I have seen, since the idea of sanctification being “Christ in action” became widely discussed in the early 1990’s, it has generally had a very poor record on this. But perhaps Pastor Woodford deploys it in a new way.
I hope this is helpful in explaining why Pastor Woodford’s piece has for the most part failed to address the composition of the first group, and how his focus on “progressive sanctification” has not described the second group, which I represent. Hopefully it will also aid him and others in explaining how a “Christ in action” view deals with the concerns I have listed.
The Rev. Mark P. Surburg serves Good Shepherd Lutheran Church, Marion, IL and has published articles in the Concordia Journal, Concordia Theological Quarterly, and the American Lutheran Theological Journal.
As an extension of LOGIA, LOGIA Online understands itself to be a free conference in the blogosphere. As such, the views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of LOGIA’s editorial board or the Luther Academy.