Theological Pietism Part 4: The Vivisection of God’s Word

In Part 3, I wrote about one of the precepts that theological pietism foists on pastors: “avoid specifics.” But this is not the only man-made rule out there that ends up reaching the pulpit and trimming God’s Word at the fringes. Consider the classic 49% Law / 51% Gospel sermon. Rightly distinguishing Law and Gospel is, of course, essential to the task of preaching. However, is that because a pastor uses that principle to properly understand God’s Word so that he can pass it on to others, or is that because he must construct a sermon by combining a Law segment with a Gospel segment in which the latter ultimately overshadows the former?

Sermons, we are often told, should start with the Law to lay everyone low (in other words, 2nd use only) and end with the Gospel. We are told that if a pastor mentions or describes a new life in Christ after the Gospel segment, all it will do is leave people in crushing doubt over their salvation. We are also told that most preaching on Sanctification inadvertantly does this, so the topic should be avoided lest it take our eyes off of Christ.

Now, it is not the chronological order of the sermon that is really the important issue here. The issue is that this guideline betrays a mindset in which the Law must be entirely annihilated by the Gospel before the sermon ends for the safety of the congregation. Accordingly, talking about God’s expectations for the saved and forgiven Christian is seen as a confusion of Law and Gospel that snatches the latter away. With this mindset, it does not really matter when the Law segment of the sermon comes because its only purpose is to provoke an emotional reaction of fear so that the Gospel segment can bring an emotional reaction of relief. There is obviously a natural ordering of the two reactions, but regardless of which segment comes first, a congregation that has grown numb to emotional manipulation will always hear the Gospel as “ignore everything that I just said or ever will say about the Law because it has absolutely no relevence to you now anyway.”

Did I just say “emotional manipulation?” Yes; I did. Simply teaching God’s Word is, of course, not manipulative. However, engineering a sermon to be 49% Law (containing 2% or less of specifics) and 51% Gospel for the sake of a desired reaction from the audience is. God has authorized pastors to do the former, but I have seen nothing to indicate that He has authorized the latter.

Man-made rules and advice like this are perhaps why many Lutheran laypeople report that they virtually never hear an imperative verb from the pulpit. And yet the whole counsel of God contains many imperatives and specifics. Unfortunately, those who fall victim to theological pietism are not content to preach the whole counsel of God. They have to fix it first. Far better to teach people that they are always and only sinful—that they can never succeed in doing a good work, for good works arise spontaneously without any effort. In short, good works are not anything you can actually do, but are simply done… somehowwhatever they are. But in reality, if we speak of a Law that lays everyone low but does not also describe the shape of our new life in Christ, then we are speaking of an abridged Law.

In response to this, many Lutherans who know that they are not getting the whole story request more law from the pulpit. But these requests are often treated with deep suspicion unless they are made with a theological precision that most laity have never been trained to possess. Consider, for example, this response from an LCMS pastor to such complaints:

You know, it always either amuses or frustrates me when people complain about not hearing enough 3rd use of the Law. This is because we forget what the Third Use of the Law is. The 3rd use isn’t Christian advice. It isn’t a specific method of phrasing the Law. It’s not a style of Law.

It is a way in which the Holy Spirit uses and works any statement of Law.

For example – what “use” is this statement: If you are angry with your brother, you are liable to the council.

You know what – it could be all three.


So which is the “right” one. Whatever the Holy Spirit brings out and emphasizes. And you know what — the Holy Spirit may in fact make you aware of all three, as needed.

But you know what this means? If you aren’t “hearing enough 3rd Use” – you ought not complain about this to your pastor – it’s not his “use” of the law. That’s the Holy Spirit at work – you could take it up with him.

Or you might ponder what it means that you keep hearing 1st or 2nd use instead of 3rd. Maybe it means… you need to be hearing 1st and 2nd use.

Just saying. The Holy Spirit knows what He’s doing… and actually, if you are upset with this fact, you probably do in fact need the first 2 uses more than the 3rd at the moment.

It’s all great stuff until you reach “But you know what this means?” The responder is quite right in pointing out that such complaints are ill-formed because the three uses belong to the Holy Spirit. I have been beating that same drum for four posts now. He is, however, quite wrong in using that fact to deny any legitimacy to the complaint. He is even more wrong to use that fact to insinuate that the complaint is only being raised because the complainer is a self-righteous Pharisee. And if anyone thinks I am being unfair because I’m reading too much into a short and informal blog post, read the long conversation spawned in the comments and judge for yourselves whether these concerns are in any way ameliorated (be sure to note the way in which the imperative parts of God’s Word are treated.)  Unsurprisingly, the doctrine is all spot-on; confessional Lutherans do that well. What is lacking is in the way in which portions of our doctrine reach (or fail to reach) our practice.

So once again, there is not really a doctrinal error at the heart of these rules & guidelines. When pressed, almost any Lutheran will acknowledge that a sermon does not have to be that way, that God does have expectations for the Christian, and that Sanctification can be taught properly. The problem is one of practice—that too many Lutherans have to be pressed to acknowledge these things. It is even worse when pressing without drawing friendly fire requires a level of theological precision that (judging from the quality of our typical Bible study materials) laypeople are never expected to possess in any other context.

So what then can we conclude? The mistake of theological pietism is ultimately the same as that of moral pietism: the attitude that God’s Word needs to be fixed to bring about the best results; that if we preach it as-is, people are going to end up with bad doctrine. Whether its discarding specifics in favor of original sin, eschewing imperatives as overrated, or re-engineering every lectionary reading into a 49% Law / 51% Gospel sermon, the attitude is that God’s word cannot be trusted to condemn all of us as hopelessly sinful and incapable of making ourselves righteous before God on its own—imperatives and all. No, these overrated parts that provide instructions that Christians can and should accomplish need to be removed, glossed over, or otherwise minimized—all in the name of preaching the Law to its fullest and the Gospel to its sweetest.

But we still need to go further. I am not spending so much time on this topic for kicks; I am doing so because a steady diet of theological pietism brings about some very negative consequences which I will discuss in Part 5: Saint / Sinner Nestorianism.

About Matt

Software engineer by trade; lay theologian by nature; Lutheran by grace.
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