Loving God’s Law After Lutheranism

Oh how I love your law! It is my meditation all the day.
Your commandment makes me wiser than my enemies, for it is ever with me.
I have more understanding than all my teachers, for your testimonies are my meditation.
I understand more than the aged, for I keep your precepts.
I hold back my feet from every evil way, in order to keep your word.
I do not turn aside from your rules, for you have taught me.
How sweet are your words to my taste, sweeter than honey to my mouth!
Through your precepts I get understanding, therefore I hate every false way.
-Psalm 119:97-104

Back when I was about to start seminary, the class I looked forward to the most for my first term was Theological Ethics. I had wandered off from the Church during high school and college–mainly due to my own failure to properly apply God’s Law to my life and circumstances. And it was certainly the conviction wrought by God’s Law over my sins that sent me running back to the Gospel I had learned in my youth (and then into studying apologetics to see whether that blessed assurance was really true. It is.)

Under the circumstances, it should be no surprise that, like the Psalmist, I love God’s Law and want to meditate on it. I love that it revealed my sin. I love that it’s restrained me from even greater wickedness. I love that God did not just save me only to abandon me, but actually wants me to do works that please Him and even teaches me how. Yes, the Law causes pain when I take it seriously, but that’s only because of my sins. And since there is no longer any condemnation for me because I am in Christ Jesus, that pain is fleeting in the face of learning God’s Wisdom.

So upon returning to the faith, I sought to learn more and more about God’s Word and Lutheran theology. But while I always count on Lutherans to expound wonderfully on many different matters of theology, I found myself having to read men from other traditions to deepen my understanding of the details of morality (and always having to tweak and adjust what I read to “Lutheranize” it.) While I went to seminary to ground myself in many different matters of doctrine, I was particularly looking forward to finally getting some of that missing ethical insight.

What I got in Theological Ethics was not exactly what I expected, to say the least. The majority of the class was devoted to making sure that ethics didn’t get in the way of understanding that we are saved by grace alone–something every Lutheran learns from the cradle. Even a class specifically about ethics couldn’t focus on equipping future pastors to understand God’s Law and apply it to the real-life circumstances they and their future congregants were likely to encounter.

As grateful as I am for my time in seminary (and even for Theological Ethics, in which I learned much, even if it wasn’t what I was expecting) it did serve to reinforce my gnawing suspicion that contemporary Lutherans have a serious Law problem. A kind of soft antinomianism is entrenched in our institutions. We treat the Law like those action movies where two officers have to get two keys and turn them clockwise simultaneously to unlock the nuclear weapons. In practice, far too many of our pastors and theologians see God’s moral instructions as something to break out only in the most dire and exceptional circumstances. They don’t (usually) go full antinomian and explicitly deny God’s Law, but they do passive-aggressively despise it to keep it out of anyone’s mind.

As is typical of passive-aggression, their techniques for Law-avoidance are legion. In many cases, they avoid it simply by sniping at other Christians. Though they’ll cite the 8th Commandment endlessly when it comes to those who object to public false teaching, they won’t give a second thought to accusing faithful men of works righteousness if they even express what they feel is “too much” interest in morality. Likewise, if you argue in favor of moral wisdom learned from Scripture, they’ll accuse you of adding to God’s Word instead. Ironically, they’ll invent rules as legalistically as any Pharisee if you (like Jesus, Paul, or Luther) make even the most obvious of inferences from God’s commands. The intended effect is to shame any pastor or layman who dares break their embargo on Biblical morality.

Another approach they take is to try and lock down God’s Law so that it only has the specific effects they desire. Lutherans teach that there are three uses of the Law: 1) to restrain our overt sinful actions and reduce the harm we do to ourselves and others, 2) to reveal that we are sinners by nature whose only hope of salvation is the grace of God in Christ Jesus, and 3) to teach forgiven Christians how to live in God-pleasing ways. Second use is the only reason soft antinomians tolerate God’s Law at all. Their occupation as pastors would dissolve without it along with their false piety, for without some abstract form of sin, no one would require forgiveness from them. But theologians like Gerhard Forde, Steven Paulson, and their many followers in the LCMS have made it their life’s work to reduce God’s Law to a mere technicality sufficient to justify their paychecks.

Third Use was the first to be rejected, based on a corruption of simul justus et peccator. This (true) teaching that Christians are simultaneously saints and sinners was perverted to claim that A) totally depraved sinners cannot be reformed by the Law and B) already perfect saints have no need to be reformed by the Law, therefore C) Christians ipso facto have nothing to learn from God’s Law except their identity as sinners. Of course, this legalistic sophistry not only ignores Scripture’s constant moral exhortations to believers, but also the obvious fact that even perfect humans still learn how to do good. Even Jesus Christ required such instruction according to his human nature.

But the matter didn’t stop at Third Use, for First Use is under assault now as well. This time, it’s Luther’s doctrine of the Two Kingdoms that’s perverted in service to the antinomians. Here, the teaching that the Church and civil government have two distinct sets of God-given responsibilities is recast into 20th Century “separation of church and state” in which government is required to be religiously neutral. Of course, that kind of religious neutrality is not only logically incoherent (for one cannot even serve two masters, let alone hundreds) but unbiblical as well. According to Scripture, civil government is established specifically to punish wrongdoers and commend right-doers–and God is still the one who defines that right and wrong.

Nevertheless, our soft antinomians willfully defy Scripture in order to support the post-WWII consensus that the only good society is one that’s both secular and pluralistic. Consider, for example, how the President of the LCMS recently condemned in the name of Christ any who would use the civil law to restrain the wickedness of sodomites as God Himself did in Israel. Or consider the broader reaction against Christian Nationalism by those who insist that God’s Law has no place in the way a nation governs itself. “That would be theocracy!” they wail, pearls clutched firmly in hand. Once again, the purpose is to keep God’s Law under lock and key, lest anyone actually hear it and perceive its wisdom.

And where good Lutheran doctrines cannot be perverted, they are simply forgotten. For example, Luther taught that there are two kinds of righteousness: righteousness before God (coram deo) and righteousness before the world (coram mundo). The former can only be received by faith in Christ, because none of us can keep the Law perfectly in God’s sight. The latter, however, can be achieved through basic virtue and decency, for imperfect humans cannot hold each other perfectly accountable. This is a good, proper, and useful theological distinction; and it is forgotten whenever Lutherans want to shut down uncomfortable conversations about morality.

The whole “debt-free virgins without tattoos” controversy made this deliberate oversight plain to many of us. When men acknowledged that they actually want wives with moral character (an obviously coram mundo judgment), many of them took fire from pastoral white knights. Some were accused of denying the forgiveness of sins for Christian women with a history of fornication. Others were called hypocrites for daring to care about a woman having slept with two dozen strangers when they themselves had lusted after women in their thoughts. Judgments like these, however, are plainly coram deo, dealing as they do with imputed righteousness and perfect adherence to God’s Law. In all these objections, apples are conflated with oranges to shut up those who want God’s Laws and values to govern their lives.

I could go on listing examples, and I have done so in the past–from “Saint/Sinner Nestorianism” to bizarre legalisms like “avoid moral specifics when preaching” to reducing Law & Gospel to a tool of emotional manipulation to produce shame and relief at will. As I said, their techniques are legion. One cannot observe this cavalcade of anti-Lutheran & anti-Christian stupidities coming from our highest profile leaders and fail to notice the pattern:  They are all an attempt to steal God’s Law away from faithful Christians.

These are not the actions of a church body with a bright future, for there can be neither Church nor Christianity without God’s Law. For one thing, of course, there is no Gospel of forgiveness if there is no sin. Even most soft antinomians would agree with that, though as I said, they think they can get away with second-use-only without turning the Law and Sin into a meaningless abstractions rather concrete wrongdoing.

There is also the practical matter that without God’s Law, neither family, nor congregation, nor society will actually survive. Sin isn’t just naughtiness–it is destruction and uncreation. When we disregard God’s Law and embrace open sin, providence will grind us into dust one way or another. And as I wrote last time, our refusal to learn wisdom from God’s Laws about sexual morality is the root of our terminal demographic decline.

But more to my point here, if we divide God’s Word into Law and Gospel, but consider preaching the former to be beneath us, we have absolutely no business being a church body anymore. The Law is God’s Word, and we don’t get to second-guess God about which of His words are valuable. Every Christian has parts of the Bible he doesn’t like simply by virtue of being a sinner, but faith and humility require us to acknowledge that we are in the wrong on such matters. How, then, ought we to regard something as beyond the pale as striving to categorically dismiss half of Scripture because you don’t like how it makes you feel? Do you really think a church can deliberately embrace and enforce faithlessness of that magnitude without our Lord removing its lampstand? When you consider that even our Synodical President openly treats the Law as something to be taught only as a matter of last resort, it should make it plain how unfirmly our denomination stands.

The Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod needs to wake up and realize that we have a severe Law problem on our hands. And it goes far deeper than simply having a bunch of fools in our midst who teach this antinomian garbage. This is deeply embedded in our institutions, in our leadership, and in our culture. We are actively and passively conforming ourselves to this error. Having attended one of our seminaries myself, I can attest that this is how our clergy are being trained. For all intents and purposes, neglect for the Law is part of the curriculum. Sometimes this is deliberate, as it was in Theological Ethics. Sometimes it is entirely absentminded. Either way, we have made soft antinomianism a matter of outward piety throughout our leadership. We have been trained to perceive contempt for God’s Law as love for the Gospel because that is how our prominent antinomians present themselves.

But here is the key point we all need to drive home in our own minds: If they truly believed the Gospel in the first place–that they are forgiven and redeemed from sin by Christ’s blood–then they would have no need to hide away from the Law. The Law always accuses, but there is no condemnation for those of us in Christ Jesus. There remains our own feelings of guilt and shame, but these are entirely healthy feelings for sinners to have, just as pain is a healthy sensation when one’s hand is to close to the flame. But like pain, guilt & shame are not pleasant.

Also like pain, we cannot leave guilt & shame behind in this life. At the very least, this is because we all continue to sin. We will always have new failures to be ashamed of. Other times, it will be because you cannot leave the consequences of your sin behind. If you’ve done things like mutilated your family through divorce or let your children grow up to be wantons, perverts, or pagans because you failed to raise them in the fear and admonition of the Lord, you will naturally be reminded of it until Christ returns. And of course, for those with besetting sins, it is a constant struggle even to leave the sin itself in your past because it continually stalks you.

As these circumstances have multiplied among us and among our leadership, we are therefore more and more subject to the sinful impulse to scream “DON’T JUDGE ME” whenever the Law written on our hearts is brought to our minds–the same impulse that has proliferated in Western culture at large. We are therefore commanded to be sensitive by refusing to mention the specifics of God’s Law that we most desperately need–the parts that will restrain our children from following us into sin, that will point us to the absolute need for a savior, and that will teach us how to live apart from that sin. And the more we neglect them, the more sensitive we will become to anyone else who mentions them. Thus, the vicious cycle continues as we desperately try to hide our shame behind fig leaves.

But that is not a cycle in which a Christian ought to live–especially a Lutheran who knows we are saved by divine Grace alone apart from our works. Forde taught that Law and Gospel were found in the provoked feelings of shame and relief respectively, leading many astray in a vain pursuit of the more pleasant feeling of the pair. Real Lutherans know better. We know that God’s assurance of our forgiveness in Christ is real no matter how we may feel about it, for God’s proclamations transcend emotion. When we receive the Sacrament while set on fire for the Lord and ready to take on the world, we are forgiven. When we have to reluctantly drag ourselves to church and the altar because we feel like sinful refuse, we are still forgiven. And when we hear God’s just statutes, we know them to be true and good no matter how anyone may feel about them, and so the faithful Christian seeks them out regardless.

So how do Lutherans overcome the contempt for the Law we’ve instilled in our hearts? Well for one thing, you know a lot of the antinomians’ tricks now, so don’t fall for those. But there is much more to be done.

Unfortunately, we cannot rely on our leadership or our institutions to help us in this matter, for that would be the blind leading the blind. Thankfully, we have not been left as orphans. If you need a perspective from outside contemporary culture, then the simplest solution is to read old books. And we are truly blessed in this regard. Holy Scripture is wide open to any of us who wish to learn what our leadership tries to hide. Likewise, the Lutherans Confessions and other works of the early Lutherans are available to anyone and readily demonstrate that they did not share our modern contempt for God’s Law. Once again, I can attest from personal experience that the more you read faithful writings, the more you will be able to recognize and overcome the antinomianism being foisted on you. This is especially necessary for pastors whose training has required them to face the most temptation in this regard.

But what starts with self-study does not end there. Share what you have learned with your brothers and sisters in Christ however you can, and learn from others who have taken up the same journey into the Faith. And if you find you need to resist some of them–even pastors and presidents–you can stand firm on God’s Word just as Luther and countless other Christians through the ages have done. And whenever you do find Lutheran pastors and teachers who have overcome the antinomian impulse, treat them as a precious treasure, for that’s what they are.

From the very beginning, Satan has used many and various ways of hiding whichever parts of God’s Word he finds most opportune to hide. And from the beginning, whatever heartache his efforts have caused, his designs have always failed as God’s Word is proclaimed again and again throughout the world. This age is no different in either respect. God’s Word will prevail with or without Lutherans. Let us therefore repent and pray that it would prevail with us.

About Matt

Software engineer by trade; lay theologian by nature; Lutheran by grace.
This entry was posted in Ethics, Heresy, Law, Lutheranism, Sanctification, The Modern Church, Theological Pietism, Theology, Tradition. Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to Loving God’s Law After Lutheranism

  1. jeff kondor says:

    My understanding is that in all cases where law is used negatively it is the ceremonial law and positively is the moral law. So when Paul says the law is spiritual or good he means moral law. When he says the law is the strength of sin he means ceremonial law. When he says the law is weak through the flesh he means the ceremonial law is carnal.

    • Matthew Etzell says:

      I do not recall Paul ever making a moral/civil ceremonial distinction, or even hinting at such a distinction. For that matter, I do not recall any such distinction even hinted at anywhere in God’s Word, so to treat Scripture as though it does make such a distinction is eisegesis. While the distinction might occasionally be useful in a ministerial sense, it must not be used magisterially.

  2. jeff kondor says:

    The simultaneously saint and sinner thing being used to justify flagrant sexual sin is the result of believing all sins are equal, of the rejection of a distinction between mortal and venial sin, or in other words to use more Pauline terminology rather than Johanine: excommunication worthy sins and sins not worthy of excommunication. Has nothing to do with Nestorius who is trotted out as a mere boogy man, which is part of how Catholicism, Eastern “Orthodoxy”, and Lutheranism use fear to turn people into liberals.

    • Matthew Etzell says:

      Nestorius denied God’s Word; therefore, he was a false teacher from whom we have nothing to learn. Romans 16:17-18

    • Matt says:

      No, it’s not what Nestorius taught. I’m just drawing a parallel to historic Nestorianism. Rather than recognizing that a Christian person has two distinct natures (saint & sinner), they try and separate the two natures into two distinct beings, like Nestorius did with Christ’s two natures.

      • george smith says:

        He was only distinguising that only Christ’s human nature derives from Mary because his divine nature is eternal, and therefore she is NOT the Mother of God but of Christ’s human nature. He wasn’t creating a saint and sinner at once view; Lutheranism’s boneheaded law vs gospel distinction did that.

  3. Debbie says:

    It looks like you, Matthew, are well equipped to write about ethics from a Lutheran perspective. Of course when you do you’ll have to look outside usual publishing channels which I know a bit about when you are ready.

    • Matt says:

      Thank you. I’m working on re-arranging my responsibilities to make enough time to write a full-length book again rather than just blog posts, but I’m not there yet.

  4. Susanne says:

    “And whenever you do find Lutheran pastors and teachers who have overcome the antinomian impulse, treat them as a precious treasure, for that’s what they are.”

    We finally landed in a church where there is such a pastor. God be praised, and may the Lord bless, strengthen and preserve him.

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