Is there anything for a Christian to do in this life?
It’s an odd question, but one I greatly struggled with in the past as I imbibed a peculiar corruption of Lutheranism.
Certainly, there is nothing for us to do when it comes to our Justification. Salvation is by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone–not through any of our works. Unfortunately, Radical Lutherans and their sympathizers–in their zeal to extinguish works-righteousness–try to make this the totality of the Christian’s story and expunge any kind of activity from his new identity in Christ. In other words, they seek to remove works from Sanctification as well as from Justification. Within such false teaching, nothing we do actually matters to God beyond simply hearing the Gospel and receiving the Sacraments as we wait for death to finally release us from this faux-Lutheran Nihilism.
Sanctification, they often say, is just a matter of getting used to Justification. Anything we try to “do” either gets in God’s way or at least takes our eyes off of Christ. As for the Law–all those things God has explicitly told Christians to do? Well… they say it reminds us that we’re still sinners and therefore that we still need the Gospel, but that’s it. In short, these Fake Lutherans deny the Third Use of the Law–that it’s a guide to instruct Christians on how God wants us to live.
After all, as they will quickly point out, the Old Man–our old sinful nature–cannot be reformed or improved. It can only die along with us before we are raised to life again without it in the New Creation. In contrast, the New Man–our new nature in Christ–is perfect and blameless before God already. It does good works naturally and spontaneously without being compelled by the Law. From this, they erroneously conclude that any Christian who is actually learning, struggling, or trying to do good works can only be wallowing in self-righteousness.
Now that more Lutherans are waking up to the dangers of these false teachers, I thought it would be appropriate to write a followup to a decade-old blog post of mine called Sanctification is not the Think System that I’ve seen passed around social media recently. In it, I addressed the misappropriation of the Formula of Concord’s confession that a Christian’s good works are spontaneous in order to teach that the Christian is actually inert with respect to works. As I explained then:
“Spontaneously” does not mean “without effort” for a creature whose God-given nature is to work. “Naturally” does not mean “without instruction” for a creature whose God-given nature is to learn. The sanctified life is not a semi-human life that excludes all sorts of basic steps of living…
Sanctification does end up involving my own real effort–not because my efforts are achieving sanctification, but because my efforts (along with the rest of the real me) are what is being sanctified by God. Humans are creatures that try. When Christ sanctifies us, he therefore sanctifies our trying, and so we try to do good. Humans are creatures that learn. When Christ sanctifies us, he sanctifies our learning, and so we learn to do good. Humans are creatures that want. When Christ sanctifies us, he therefore sanctifies our wanting, and so we want to do good. Humans are self-disciplined creatures. When Christ sanctifies us, he therefore sanctifies our self-discipline as well, and so we discipline ourselves to do good. We do these things because we already are being sanctified.
Because of this, the Law does play a role in the life of the New Man–an instructive one. It carries no threat because the New Man is free from the threat of the Law. It provides no motivation because the New Man is already fully oriented towards loving God and neighbor. It does not redirect our will because the New Man’s will is already perfectly aligned with God’s. It does, however, give form and shape to the already good movements of that will. In short, it helps train us to be skilled in doing good. It shows us the practical details of what loving God and neighbor actually mean from day to day. And as we grow and assimilate what God has to tell us about goodness through his Law, even the New Man struggles and expends effort in order to put it into practice.
In a sense, this struggle to do good even entails the possibility of failure. For example, had Adam and Eve not sinned, I greatly suspect that their babies would have still tried to roll over a few times before they finally made it all the way–and that their parents would have found that just as endearing as we do today as they encouraged their babes. I suspect their toddlers would have stumbled at their first steps rather than walking perfectly right out of the gate, and that their parents would still have held their arms out and said “come here.” I suspect that when they imitated mom and dad by making breakfast for the first time, they might have overcooked the fruit–its taste and presentation would have not lived up to what they had seen mom and dad do before.
But none of that would entail any sin. Any failure at the particular tasks in which their goodness was temporally enfleshed would be utterly blameless.
I also believe that we’ll experience failure of this sort in heaven as well–just without the embarrassment, shame, and disappointment that usually accompany failure in this life. We will still enjoy the thrill of overcoming a challenge after putting in a lot of practice and effort while we learn from our mistakes. And all the while, we will get to see the smiles of our heavenly Father as he enjoys watching us learn, grow, and succeed.
But we need not merely speculate based on an Eden and a New Creation about which we know little. We can actually see this dynamic in the life of Christ. As Luke tells us, Jesus grew not only in stature, but also in wisdom and favor with God and man. In other words, the already perfect and sinless Son of God nevertheless learned and grew more accomplished in doing good according to his perfect human nature.
You can also see him learning in the story that immediately precedes Luke’s summary: when Jesus stays behind at the Temple unbeknownst to his parents. There are two key items that Luke reveals when they finally find him three days later. First, Jesus seems genuinely surprised that he had caused a fuss, saying “Why were you looking for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” Second, Jesus submitted to his parents and left with them instead of remaining at his Father’s house. He never broke the Fourth Commandment, but he did learn more about the details of keeping it and adjusted his behavior accordingly. He was instructed and trained in doing good.
It’s somewhat different for Christians in this life, of course. We have not only our new nature in Christ, but our old sinful nature as well. We can never perfectly delineate our blameless failures from our sinful failures. The old nature does no good, and the new nature does no evil, but the single person in whom those two natures are united does some measure of both in everything. And in that same person, even as the Law restrains his wickedness and condemns him, the same Law also teaches him the details of doing good. Like our perfect Savior, the New Man grows and is instructed in the nature of the good which he naturally and spontaneously tries to do. That reality is part of what we experience when the Holy Spirit Sanctifies us.
If Sanctification necessarily entails our efforts, what then does that mean for divine monergism therein? It really depends on how you use the term. If you mean it in the subject/object sense (i.e. that God alone is the one who sanctifies us), then this view of Sanctification remains monergistic. Our growth and efforts are the fruits of God’s work in us, not our means of helping God accomplish His work. But if you mean divine monergism in the sense that God alone is taking action, then it’s clearly not, for both God and Man are acting in Sanctification–even though God alone is the one accomplishing the Sanctifying.
We must also ask what it means for those false teachers who reject the Third Use of the Law and contend that it only accuses us. It is most certainly not the New Man who rejects it. On the contrary, he loves the Law and rejoices in the loving instruction of his Heavenly Father. He always wants to learn more and more about doing good–not because of any threat or desire for self-righteousness, but simply because he loves his Father. It is, rather, the old man–our sinful nature–which sees God’s Law as only accusatory. It is no coincidence that those Radical Lutherans who reject Third Use also tend to reject anything inherently or eternally Good about the Law. In the end, that rejection is nothing more than the old man trying to Nerf God’s righteous statutes in order to avoid their accusation, for they have no real trust in the Gospel to relieve the guilt they experience.
To be sure, each one of us still carries that sinful nature in this life. The Law will always accuse us for we always violate it to some extent. But we also have a living and active perfect nature which ensures that the Law will not only accuse the Christian. For those who steadfastly insist that accusation is the entirety of the matter, there are really only two options: Either they’re actively suppressing every natural God-given response in their minds and souls besides accusation, or there is no perfect nature in them to receive anything else. And I greatly fear for how many people fall into the latter by stubbornly insisting on the former.
Your link “a peculiar corruption of Lutheranism” just takes me to the blog home page.
I double-checked the link, and it is going to the category archive for “Theological Pietism.” It should say that on the first line between the menu and the first post in the category.
I’m not a Lutheran, but I think you pinpoint an issue that’s very relevant to both Lutheranism and Calvinism. If salvation is by grace only, and can be pointed to a point in time, and if anything beyond that point is considered “works” that do not have any impact (on salvation), the exhortations to live a holy life become virtual pointless. It might be true, but it does not resonate with all the commands and warnings given in the NT that talk about people who were once Christians, but have shipwrecked their faith. “Once saved always saved” does not seem to properly address these texts. Talking about an event in the future when you can look back and THEN discern who the “real” Christians actually were, does not satisfactory solve this problem either.
Good point, Paul.
I think the ultimate difficultly on that issue is a conflation of the temporal and the eternal. Eternally speaking, your name is either in the Book of Life or it’s not. Temporally speaking, you come to faith at a certain point, maybe abandon your faith at a certain point, maybe return to faith at a certain point, etc. The Bible speaks in both those senses at different times, and it’s not exactly easy for temporal creatures like ourselves to satisfactorily reconcile the two. So some Christians unfortunately try to pick their favorite subset of those verses rather than holding them together despite the tension.
When it comes to the Calvinist slogan of “Once saved, always saved,” it’s simply false from a temporal perspective. And from an eternal perspective, it’s meaningless–either the word “once” can’t be applied to that context or it’s indistinguishable from “always” and becomes an unhelpful tautology.
When questions of salvation are raised, Lutherans tend to try and avoid trying to completely reconcile them philosophically, but instead look to places where time and eternity meet–the Cross, the Sacraments, the Church, and so forth.
Very helpful, thanks.