Note: I’d been working on this post for a few days when this helpful discussion sprung up on John H’s blog. Though I’m echoing many of the remarks from that conversation in the words below, I figured I ought to post this if for no other purpose than to get it off of my chest.
In my four short years as a member of the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod, I have been perplexed by the way the church addresses questions of Christian practice, the day to day, living and breathing parts of Christianity. Though written on a completely different subject (postmodern philosophy), the following quote from Albert Borgmann’s book Crossing the Postmodern Divide, struck me as a appropriate to the subject:
The dominant discourse about the future of our society is composed of the vocables of prognoses, projections, extrapolations, scenarios, models, programs, stimulations, and incentives. It is as though we had taken ourselves out of reality and had left only objectified and disavowed versions of ourselves in the universe we are trying to understand and shape.
For many confessional Lutherans here in the US, something like this contemporary gnosticism dominates our thinking about Christian practice. When it comes to all the things that the scriptures say about living, we have a way of addressing ourselves at arms-length, reflecting on our behaviors, desires, passions and afflictions as if they weren’t our own. We read Christ’s words about loving our neighbors, but we clam up when someone wants to talk about actually cultivating love in our daily lives. We pray “create in us a clean heart, O God,” but discussions on holiness or discipline are received uncomfortably. I’m not going to go out of my way to provide evidence on this point, I’ve spent enough time reading Lutheran blogs and talking to Lutherans across the US to know that what I’m identifying is not unusual, and perhaps has even become the norm for some conservative churches (see the comments on the post I referenced in the note above if you’d like to read more on this).
This fracturing of faith from tangible practice (other than the Divine Service) appears to be the consequence of the habit to decontextualize and mechanically divide Law from Gospel, then use the Law only as a sort of pre-game commentary before the Gospel.
When practicing these habits, we read scripture and listen to sermons with scalpels in hand. One friend of mine, a lifelong LCMS member studying to serve in the church, explained how a particular pastor was his favorite because every phrase from that pastor’s mouth could be divided into equal portions Law and Gospel. Pastors who diverged from this formula, in my friends view, were out of line with the Confessions. I couldn’t help but wonder of Christ would pass my friend’s test.
This Law/Gospel slice-and-dice–and the way use of its associated language has become a litmus test for Lutheran orthodoxy–can be absolutely debilitating to a vibrant congregational life. The consequence is unintended, to be sure: Our desire to properly distinguish Law from Gospel is appropriate. We are cautious , lest we upend justification. Throughout mainline and modern evangelical churches, we’ve seen a misapplication of the Law kill vulnerable spirits and turn Christ into an afterthought. But rather than helpfully correct the missteps of other churches with a more nuanced and truthful articulation, we’ve tended to dodge the conversation entirely.
What we need to recover is a proper conception of Christian identity. A discourse on spiritual formation with its starting point in our identity in Christ has an entirely opposite trajectory to the failed project plans and task lists of the withering megachurch. Our identity cannot be documented in a Gantt chart: Though identity is wholly who I am, I cannot create it, build it, trade it, or buy it. It has been given to me.
The approach I want to illuminate is found again and again in Paul’s letters. Paul’s response in Romans 6 to the antinomian question “Since we’re saved, can’t we just keep in sinning,” isn’t to drag out the a set of rules or collection of self-improvement handbooks. No, Paul starts talking about baptism:
What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it? Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.
For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin. For one who has died has been set free from sin. Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. For the death he died he died to sin, once for all, but the life he lives he lives to God. So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.
Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body, to make you obey its passions. Do not present your members to sin as instruments for unrighteousness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and your members to God as instruments for righteousness. For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace.
That last paragraph is no attempt to sneak the Law in through the Gospel’s back door, but a pronouncement of absolute freedom–freedom founded in our new selves in Christ. “So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.” Christ’s work in baptism has fundamentally altered us. We have been struck down and raised up in Christ. This is not just new life someday, this is new life now. Some days, it doesn’t feel much different. But Jesus says it is, and he doesn’t lie.
There is no warning here, no curse, no hidden agenda. Paul does not follow his “Let not…” with an “Or else…”, the only concern he has is implied by the letter’s existence: He wants to make sure the readers believe it.
Our membership in Christ is not a depersonalized principle but a fundamental, tangible truth. Just as I am a member of my earthly family–proved all the way down to my DNA, tangible in every cell and follicle–so I also am a member of Christ. This is intensely personal and present.
In Ephesians, Paul’s language is even richer:
But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.
For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility. And he came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near. For through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father. So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit.
The Gospel, for Paul, is a fantastic expanse: A new world bursting forth from Christ and consuming us absolutely. By grace, through faith, we are swallowed up into God’s holy plan. What we so often sum up in the word “saved” is rich new humanity coming into full bloom in our own frail and afflicted bodies, in our own meager lives. Again, his concentration is on identity. This is not only a message about Christ, but membership in Christ.
The building/growing metaphors strike heads and set off sparks. Christ is cornerstone, and we the structure grow up in Him. And here God dwells. Church in Ephesus, he says, this is who you are.
Breathing deep of this new humanity in the bowels of a Roman prison, Paul then urges:
… walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call— one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all. But grace was given to each one of us according to the measure of Christ’s gift.
Notice something: Paul’s exhortation does not tiptoe, waffle, or skate. A poor use of the Law/Gospel hermeneutic may convince you that after all that glorious Gospel news, Paul has just brought out the Law, both barrels blazing (I can almost see a certain contingent of Lutheran seminarians ticking points off of his sermon score card). But for everyone hearing this letter as a whole, Paul decimated the Law miles ago. Taken in context, this is no interruption to the Gospel celebration. The soaring melody has not turned sour. And he has certainly not turned to religious moralizing. He has said, “You are alive in Christ,” and now he says again: “You are alive in Christ.”
There is no warning, no threat, no curse. No matter how much we want to read it this way, Paul is not saying “Welcome to Club Jesus, here is your list of responsibilities.” The passages that follow (“be imitators of God, as beloved children”,”husbands love your wives”,”put on the full armor of God”) are not a rehashing of the rules that Paul so strongly declared abolished at the beginning of the letter. They are reflection on lives hidden in Christ, and Christ hidden in every nook and cranny of those lives, in every sorrow and joy, in every time and place. Lives drenched and drowned in Christ.
It’s worth saying here: These passages could certainly be misused to pound out another Christless religious project, devoid of Gospel entirely. But that is not Paul’s use, and that is never a right use. Paul’s words here are a working out of Christian identity.
The Law and Gospel labels may have their place here, but they cannot be used poorly. Scripture doesn’t exist so we can sit around labeling it, Paul wants us to live inside it.
We can’t retreat to a basement-level reading and trade earth-shattering magnificence for comfortable familiarity. I say basement-level in order to propose an improved model, perhaps only for bettering my own scripture reading, perhaps for something more. I suggest we add another layer to the classic Lutheran movement from Law to Gospel: The movement from death to life.
Law and Gospel are grounding truths, foundational to a right understanding of scripture. But unpacked, they are too familiar and abstract. Death and life are immensely personal, intimate, and tangible. Both pairs of terms are Biblical. The movement of the former pair is called justification, the movement of the latter is called resurrection. Neither movement is ours, both are Christ’s. This two-dimensional model I propose provides firm doctrinal ground in its Law/Gospel component, firm footing when faced with the tides of a withering American consumer-Christianity. Yet Death/Life component gives us room to feed on scripture, breathe God’s truth, and be active in our new humanity. Without some sense of this resurrection life, some pockets have American Lutheranism have created a new brand new command of Law/Gospel score keeping.
The proper distinction of Law and Gospel is not a method for keeping God out of our lives, but for seeing how He has already gotten in. Even the finest doctrine, hermeneutic, or slogan can be misused to avoid vulnerability to the Word. The moment we’ve done so, we’ve turned a blessing to a curse.