Who’s Doing the Good I Do?

Is it the case that the Christian does not repent but “is repented”?

Is it the case that the Christian does no good works, but that the only good works of the Christian are those of Christ?

This is what the Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church have to say on the matter:

9. Likewise Luther’s statement that man’s will in conversion behaves “altogether passively”5 (that is, that it does nothing at all) must be understood as referring to the action of divine grace in kindling new movements within the will, that is, when the Spirit of God through the Word that has been heard or through the use of the holy sacraments takes hold of man’s will and works the new birth and conversion. But after the Holy Spirit has performed and accomplished this and the will of man has been changed and renewed solely by God’s power and activity, man’s new will becomes an instrument and means of God the Holy Spirit, so that man not only lays hold on grace but also cooperates with the Holy Spirit in the works that follow.
Formula of Concord: Epitome, II

63 But after a man is converted, and thereby enlightened, and his will is renewed, then he wills that which is good, in so far as he is reborn or a new man, and he delights in the law of God according to his inmost self (Rom. 7:22). And immediately he does good, as much and as long as the Holy Spirit motivates him, as St. Paul says, “For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God.”8
64 This impulse of the Holy Spirit is no coercion or compulsion because the converted man spontaneously does that which is good, as David says, “Your people will offer themselves freely on the day you lead your host.”9 Nevertheless, the words of St. Paul apply also to the regenerated, “For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin which dwells in my members.” Again, “So then, I of myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh the law of sin” (Rom. 7:22, 23, 25). And again, “For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh; for these are opposed to each other, to prevent you from doing what you would” (Gal. 5:17).
65 From this it follows that as soon as the Holy Spirit has initiated his work of regeneration and renewal in us through the Word and the holy sacraments, it is certain that we can and must cooperate by the power of the Holy Spirit, even though we still do so in great weakness. Such cooperation does not proceed from our carnal and natural powers, but from the new powers and gifts which the Holy Spirit has begun in us in conversion,
66 as St. Paul expressly and earnestly reminds us, “Working together with him, then, we entreat you not to accept the grace of God in vain.”1 This is to be understood in no other way than that the converted man does good, as much and as long as God rules in him through his Holy Spirit, guides and leads him, but if God should withdraw his gracious hand man could not remain in obedience to God for one moment. But if this were to be understood as though the converted man cooperates alongside the Holy Spirit, the way two horses draw a wagon together, such a view could by no means be conceded without detriment to the divine truth.
67 There is therefore a great difference between baptized people and unbaptized people because, according to the teaching of St. Paul, “all who have been baptized have put on Christ” (Gal. 3:27), are thus truly born again, and now have a liberated will—that is, as Christ says, they have again been made free.2 As a result, they not only hear the Word of God but also are able to assent to it and accept it, even though it be in great weakness.
Formula of Concord: Solid Declaration, II

Theodore G. Tappert, ed., The Book of Concord the Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church. (Philadelphia: Mühlenberg Press, 1959), 472, 533–534.

Law and Gospel—Taxis or Praxis?

The proper distinction of the Law and the Gospel in God’s Word is, according to the Lutheran understanding, the mark of a true theologian. Confuse, mix, or otherwise mishandle them, and the Gospel will be lost. And when the Gospel is lost, faith is destroyed, and salvation is lost also. Plenty has been written on the subject, and C.F.W. Walther’s Law and Gospel remains a great work to go to (or Bo Giertz’s Hammer of God, if you prefer fiction to non-fiction, story to proposition).

Over the last couple of years, this topic has been the subject of renewed frenzy in the blogosphere, thanks both to a seeming controversy over the so-called third use of the Law, and also with the high-profile adoption of the Law-Gospel distinction by high-profile non-Lutherans. The most high-profile of this crop is probably Tullian Tchividjian, who has written several books on the topic, fallen out with The Gospel Coalition and started a whole new online ministry, Liberate [at the time of writing, Liberate.org is on a hiatus].

All of this has been very controversial, in the sense of stirring a controversy.

It seems to me that this controversy has in part been over mere words, with people talking past each other. Jargon is to blame for this, at least in part. When jargon and other shorthand is used, each speaker comes to the conversation with their pre-loaded semantic field for each term. If those terms are not unpacked in longhand, misunderstandings are inevitable.

However, there is more at stake, as Anthony Sacramone, Mark Surburg, Jordan Cooper and others have pointed out far better than I could.

There is a radical distinction between the Law and the Gospel in God’s word. The Law contains God’s demands on what we are to do, whereas the Gospel is God’s unconditional promise of grace through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. So much is uncontroversial (if you are a Lutheran, at least). What manner of distinction it is, however, is another matter. This is where we risk running into problems.

Continue reading Law and Gospel—Taxis or Praxis?

Eating and Eating

Listening to an outstanding sermon (mp3, in Finnish) by the Rev. Markus Pöyry, a very gifted young pastor serving a Luther Foundation congregation in Finland is to blame for the following:

I wrote this post quite some time ago about my misgivings concerning the term ‘spiritual eating’ to refer to the reception of the promise of Christ in faith. The Formula of Concord, the last of the Lutheran confessions, make this a key distinction, possibly following Martin Chemnitz (my education is patchy!). Luther refers to this, but as far as I know, it wasn’t a key idea in his system.

My problem with this kind of language is this: it creates far too much room for receptionism (both of the Anglican and the Lutheran types), and poses the danger of diminishing the importance of the physical eating of the physical sacrament.

Of course, there is a biblical root for the idea of spiritual eating: John 6. Jesus appears to use the language of eating as a metaphor for faith in him. And in the Lutheran exegetical tradition, the whole of John 6 has been understood as referring to faith in Christ rather than the sacrament, for a number of reasons which I won’t rehearse here.

However, there is a problem: the language of Jesus. For part of John 6, Jesus speaks of eating using the generic term esthiō. However, when the argument between Jesus and the Jews gets heated, he switches verbs to trōgō, which means to ‘chew, munch, masticate’. It’s physical, concrete, bodily activity.

52 The Jews then disputed among themselves, saying, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” 53 So Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat (esthiō) the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. 54 Whoever feeds on (trōgō) my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. 55 For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. 56 Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him. 57 As the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever feeds on me, he also will live because of me. 58  This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like the bread the fathers ate and died. Whoever feeds on this bread will live for ever.”

When things begin to fall apart and disciples begin to desert Him, Jesus has plenty of opportunities to correct the misunderstanding. “Hey, calm down, I was talking about spiritual eating.” But He doesn’t.

And the rule of thumb is: if Jesus says something, we should pay close attention. When the word is ‘munch’, teeth are involved.

(This is also why I have little time for the pious suggestion that it is irreverent to chew the host. Jesus didn’t seem to think so, and while I may be holier than thou, I don’t want to be holier than Him.)

Given that the notion of spiritual eating is a mainstay in classical Reformed teaching, and as such a method of writing out the spiritual benefit of the physical eating of the body and blood of the Lord, I really do think we do better to use more direct and unambiguous language.

I suppose I have arrived

… having appeared on Issues Etc. They interviewed me about Lutheranism in the United Kingdom. I wasn’t 100% happy with how it went on my part, but I hope it’s not entirely unhelpful. And if people know a little more about the joys and challenges of being a Lutheran in the UK as a result, that’s good enough.

The thing about Hermann Sasse…

… is that when he deals with the issues of his day, he could as well be writing for our day!

I have just finished reading Union and Confession (tr. Matt Harrison; LC-MS Office of the President, 1997). It’s written in response to the Barmen Declaration. Yet it could be written about the Lutheran churches of the Nordic countries, or the ELCA, or the LC-MS, today.

I suppose that’s what “timeless” means.