Theological Pietism Part 3: Theological Pietism in the Pulpit

As unfortunate and ridiculous as moralistic incidents like those recorded in Part 2 are, they remain only the shallow disapproval of men. The biggest dangers of theological pietism only become apparent when it makes its way into preaching and theological instruction. As I wrote last time, theological pietism seeks to engineer God’s word to produce the 2nd use of the law, but the three uses of the Law belong to the Holy Spirit. Preachers don’t get to choose whether He curbs our behavior, shows us our sin, and/or provides us with guidance when He tells us, for example, to be chaste. Trying to do so only results in a stilted and incomplete proclamation of God’s Word—regardless of whether the intended bent is theological or moral.  But what does this look like in practice?

Consider the subject of “Life Sunday,” a contemporary thematic choice for a church service that focuses on God’s proclamations against abortion and other violations of the 5th commandment that are the subject of popular political controversy. This event makes some Lutherans uncomfortable, and I read a blog post to this effect not too long ago. I write this with all respect due to the author, because his discomfort is not bad in itself. The church’s purpose is not political advocacy—even on a subject as serious as the ongoing murder of millions of innocent children—and pastors must always be wary about how they use their pulpits lest they displace Law & Gospel. Nevertheless, theological pietism is an error of practice, and I must take issue with the way in which this wariness is carried out:

Preachers this Sunday will have to deal with the temptation to preach against specific actual sins while not making sure that all hearers are cut to the quick rather than pinning medals on one another’s chests for being “pro-life”. By this I mean that this Sunday still needs to be about sin and grace, and yes there are specific “anti-life” sins that are out there, but the problem with specifics is that someone who has not done them will not feel guilt from it, but actually may begin building their ladder into heaven on their works. There should be always a good dose of Original Sin so that all may be laid low.

Let me be completely blunt here: Preachers are not capable of making sure that all hearers are cut to the quick. That is always and only the job of the Holy Spirit. In this objection, we see the seeds of what happens when preachers do try the impossible, and the casualty is the specifics of God’s instruction.

The reasoning, which I’ve seen in many places, is basically this: If you preach against abortion, that’s only going to trouble the consciences of those involved in abortion; only they will be driven to the Gospel. Worse yet, those who haven’t been involved in abortions may think to pat themselves on the back for being better than those who have. The same is true if you preach against premarital sex, gossip, or theft. If you tell someone not to sleep around, he might actually refrain from it and think himself a good person. Even if you put a few of these specifics together in one sermon, there are going to be some people who slip through the cracks. What then shall we do? Preach original sin. After all, original sin affects us all—we’re all guilty in Adam without exception. The conclusion is therefore that a good preacher doesn’t waste much time on specifics or imperatives, but focuses mainly on original sin so that everyone is covered.

There is, however, one catastrophic problem with this approach. Preaching original sin is not preaching the Law—it is preaching about the Law. To simply preach that we are by nature sinful and unclean is like skipping to the end of the book. You intellectually know what happens, but it is entirely abstract because you know nothing tangible about any of the characters or the significance of what has transpired. Likewise, when you tell someone that they have a sinful nature which they inherited from Adam, even if they believe you, it’s only an intellectual belief. Original sin becomes an abstract checkbox on some divine birth certificate. Futhermore, as soon as the Gospel part of the sermon is reached, it is brought to our recollection that the mark in the checkbox is already unchecked in baptism. So not only is original sin abstract, it was also irrelevant even before the sermon began.

There is only one reason that hearing about original sin can cut me to the quick: I see it rearing it’s ugly head in everything that I do. I do not sacrifice myself for my wife. I have not honored my parents. I find myself wishing evil on those who wrong me. I lust after other women. I’ve been lazy. I’ve been irritable. I’ve neglected my most basic responsibilities time and again. I’ve hurt those closest to me. What kind of preson am I? Well, I’m a person whose very nature is sinful and unclean! But it is only through the specifics that I understand that in any tangible way. If no one ever bothered to remind me that I’m supposed to honor my parents, or love my wife, or avoid impurity, or return good for good—if no one ever preached the Law to me—then original sin would mean nothing to me. Unless a person understands his specific guilt on some Sundays, he’ll never understand his sinful nature every Sunday.

Nevertheless, many Lutherans are handing out manmade recommendations to not spend much time on specifcs and to not bother with “overrated imperatives.” We are quick to teach that all have sinned and fallen short. We are quick to point out that we have not loved God with our whole heart nor loved our neighbors as ourselves. We are slow to point out what any of that actually means. In my adult life, I cannot remember having heard a sermon that specifically denounced things like divorce, gossip, or fornication. Consider the world around us for a moment compared to what God teaches in Scripture and reflect on these conspicuous absences.

Unfortunately, it seems we Lutherans do not actually trust what we confess. Specifics cannot cut everyone to the quick? Preaching against, say, theft does apply to all of us precisely because all of us have broken the 7th commandment! Unpacking it as Luther does in his Large Catechism makes this plain. The vast majority of the Large Catechism’s section on the 10 commandments is specifics, and yet I’ve come away from that far more cut than I have from any sermon I’ve heard in the last decade specifically because, by any reasonable measure, I overtly fail half of those specifics. This, in turn, leads me to realize that I probably covertly fail the rest even when I seem to succeed. And yet, it is precisely these convicting specifics that theological pietism warns against lest we fall victim to “Life Righteousness” or any other kind of works righteousness.

Once again, this advice is given out with the best of intentions, and agreement on sound doctrine is hiding just beneath the surface.  But we need to ask ourselves what a steady diet of this kind of reaction to moralism sounds like because “no specifics” is not the only man-made rule that has become ubiquitous in Confessional Lutheranism.  In Part 4, we will talk about the classic 49% Law, 51% Gospel sermon.

About Matt

Software engineer by trade; lay theologian by nature; Lutheran by grace.
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One Response to Theological Pietism Part 3: Theological Pietism in the Pulpit

  1. Pingback: When Devotionals Attack | The 96th Thesis

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