Probably Because You Aren’t Preaching It

At least, that’s my best guess after reading Why Are You Asking For More Law?

In it, a Lutheran pastor briefly recounts a time when he was approached by some scare-quoted “pillars of the congregation” who were scare-quoted “very concerned” about his teaching. According to his account:

Even though I went through each of the ten commandments and told the congregation that they—each and every one—deserved nothing but hell and damnation, it was not enough law. Even though I pointed out that they were godless idolaters who didn’t love their God nor did they love their neighbors, it wasn’t enough.

It seems that I needed to pick a specific sin and address that one individually, especially a sin that is pertinent to this particular congregation this week. I was to call people out for looking at porn or downloading music illegally from the internet. I was supposed to tell people to mend their evil ways, or the wrath of God would be upon them for their evil doing!

So the members were dissatisfied with his preaching of the law. They said he didn’t preach it enough, they said he didn’t address specific sins, and they might have asked about God’s attitude towards sin. Although, unless Jonathan Edwards is a member at his church, I suspect some heavy-handed hyperbole by the end there, so its hard to discern whether that was actually their complaint or the writer’s straw man. I could be wrong, but I don’t get the rhetorical sense that he’s trying to fairly present their side of it.

Unfortunately, his written response appears typical of theological pietism—just call them self-righteous Pharisaical pietistic old adam doo-doo heads™ and go about your business.

This sort of interaction is not entirely uncommon for pastors to hear. As a matter of fact, if a pastor wants to hear outrage and howling from the masses, all they need to do is preach this one sentence: “You cannot out-sin God’s grace!” This sentence drives the Devil and Pharisees mad. It is too much to accept. The idea that eternal salvation is not dependent on your behavior is very worrisome indeed, after all if Jesus has done all of the work for me, then what is left for me to do? I MUST DO SOMETHING!

Here is the heart of what we theological geeks call “pietism.” Pietism is an inward looking faith. It is Christian navel-gazing at its worst. The idea that we can contribute anything to our salvation simply means that Jesus didn’t do enough FOR our salvation. His perfect life, His suffering, and crucifixion, His atoning sacrifice, His resurrection was not enough, because, after all, we must do something. Poor God needs our help.

Ascribing this particular motivation to his flock’s request seems like quite a bit of a leap. It would be truly shocking for pillars of a Lutheran congregation to voice such a thing, and he doesn’t actually report that they did, so I can only conclude that he’s playing at reading their hearts in an attempt to explain away their complaint. But is self-righteousness the only explanation for their request? Is it the best? Explanations are generally evaluated on how well they fit the facts and how much they explain, and by such reckoning (based on what was written,) I have a better one: this pastor is not preaching the law to his congregation very well.

By his own account, his preaching of the law is to list the 10 Commandments, tell everyone they’ve failed to keep them (along with Christ’s summary of the law,) and then tell them the justly deserved penalties for this failure. None of that is wrong, and every Christian needs to hear that on a regular basis. However, this is not preaching the law—this is preaching about the law. The determining factor for me is the way he sneers at specifics in favor of mere summary and conclusion. Unlike, for example, Luther, who goes into all sorts of specifics when he goes through the 10 Commandments in his catechisms, theological pietists hate mentioning specific sins. They prefer to focus on original sin because this doctrine teaches that all are guilty and so the whole congregation is laid low. Specifics of the law have this tendency to be followed by some Christians some of the time. In other words, guilty though we all are of breaking the law and forgiven as we all are in Christ, not every Christian has had an abortion, or divorced their husband, or beat their wives, etc. Theological pietists fear that if any Christian actually does part of what God says or avoids part of what He forbids, he might become self-righteous and begin thinking that he’s actually keeping the law on his own merits. Seeing a Pharisee around every corner, they therefore assume that anyone asking for more law is seeking to justify himself before God.

But God’s word is full of specifics—things that Christ and the apostles actually expected Christians to try and do. In their fear, theological pietists hide those parts of God’s word from their congregations. Forgetting that the three uses of the law are the Holy Spirit’s rather than the preacher’s, they attempt to tailor their message towards their preferred use—showing us our sins—just like classic pietists try to tailor their message toward guiding our lives. The end result for both pietists and theological pietists is that they preach a subset God’s word rather than all of it—an exclusion that God never authorized them to make. They pronounce God’s ultimate judgment and think they have taught the law. It would be no different than if a preacher mentioned that Jesus died for the sins of the world without any elaboration and then claimed he preached the Gospel to its fullest.

The person sitting in the pews who hears a steady diet of redacted law knows that something is wrong. Without concrete specifics, the law becomes wholly abstract. He knows that he is guilty of breaking God’s law, but not because he can actually recognize himself doing so every day of the week—he would need specifics for that. No, he only knows he’s guilty due to original sin, which—without the anchor of specifics—becomes some sort of celestial checkbox that was marked when he was conceived and unmarked when he was baptized. And so the gospel begins to become just as vague as the law in his heart—some metaphysical reclassification with no tangible connection to his life. He knows that this isn’t how its supposed to be—even without sermons. After all, he’s heard enough Bible passages that seem to pierce through this gray, almost nihilistic fog to know that there’s something else for us. But still, he doesn’t quite have the theological education to put it all together. So he seeks help from the person God appointed to help him—his pastor.

But God help him if he cannot articulate his plea with anything less than perfect theological precision.

If he asks for more third use, he gets condemned as a pietist. If he asks for more specifics, he’s condemned as a self-righteous legalist. If he phrases his plea as a request for more law and less gospel, he gets condemned for despising the gospel. What he doesn’t get is pastoral care.

Strictly speaking, there is some truth to each of those condemnations. The uses of the law do belong to the Holy Spirit rather than the preacher or the congregant who wants to do good works. Specifics can be used to condemn one’s neighbors and elevate oneself. Someone asking for less gospel doesn’t appreciate the gospel. Theological pietists take this part of the truth as license to dismiss the complaint altogether and double-down on what they were already doing.

And yet, it’s not the whole truth. The uses of the law don’t belong to the preacher either, but theological pietists edit God’s word as though they do. A steady diet of different specifics from God’s word will eventually condemn everyone specifically—not just that fellow’s neighbors. If a Christian doesn’t appreciate the Gospel, it’s usually because they don’t really understand the extent of the Law. So in each of these circumstances, the person asking for more law has a point as well. A pastor who puts the best construction on what his sheep tell him will recognize that and do his best to care for them—by preaching the whole counsel of God and helping them to understand it. A theological pietist, however, will just dismiss it as “itching ears” and go about his business. Meanwhile, the malnourished person in the pews will try to get comfortable with Lutheran nihilism, never succeed, and perhaps—God forbid—slowly drift away from the Church altogether.

Being a confessional Lutheran does not require being a theological pietist. My church has just begun holding a weekly “Night Out With Luther” event on Sunday evenings. Each time, we read and then discuss one of Luther’s Invocavit sermons—the ones he preached to the people of Wittenburg after he returned from hiding at the Wartburg. They preach the law, and they proclaim the gospel. The two are properly distinguished, but never separated; they are woven together throughout sermons that addresses the very specific issues of that congregation at that time. Neither law nor gospel lack depth or nuance. The sermons include plenty of exhortation, but nary an exhortation is given without having been grounded in the boundless grace we’ve been given in Christ. In short, he manages to do everything the theological pietists strive for as well as everything that they foolishly forgo.

If the plea for more law is truly “not entirely uncommon for pastors to hear,” then perhaps pastors should not immediately dismiss it out-of-hand. Take the time to listen to your flock and put the best construction on what they say. Then compare your own preaching to what God has asked of you in Scripture—all of it. Look at what other, theologically-sound pastors have preached at different points in history, (for every age and culture has its own blind spots.) If you find that you are preaching faithfully, then by all means continue no matter how much “outrage and howling” you hear. The world hates what Christ taught just as much. But also beware, for dissatisfaction with your preaching is not identical with hatred of Christ’s teachings, and despising the law is not the same as loving the gospel.

About Matt

Software engineer by trade; lay theologian by nature; Lutheran by grace.
This entry was posted in Gospel, Law, Lutheranism, Theological Pietism. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Probably Because You Aren’t Preaching It

  1. Pingback: Father Knows Best: Stupid is Evil is Stupid Edition | Patriactionary

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