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?

First chicken, then egg

You are not rightly distinguishing Law and Gospel in the Word of God if you first preach … sanctification and then justification, … or first good works and then grace.

C.F.W. Walther, Law and Gospel, Thesis VII

Beauty, not relevance

Cary, Good News for Anxious Christians

“Relevant” is another word to put in scare quotes when talking about sermons. For just as I think “practical” sermons do little practical good, I think the attempt to make the gospel “relevant” is irrelevant to someone who knows Christ. It’s boring, because it’s about an imaginary Christ designed for those who define themselves in consumerist terms. It doesn’t make much of an impression on those who are learning to understand themselves in light of the gospel’s account of who Christ really is.

The alternative to demanding “relevance” is the willingness to learn. It’s like when you really start to get a new kind of music, maybe classical or jazz, that at first seemed boring or intimidating or irrelevant. When you begin to see the beauty and power in it, you stop asking how it’s relevant to your life. Instead, you acquire a new ability to hear, new powers of perception, as you begin to understand more clearly what’s really there. Learning to perceive this reality enhances your life, makes you a richer person with a deeper understanding of the world. Similarly, the Holy Spirit teaches us to understand the gospel like a kind of divine music, not making Christ relevant to our lives, but reshaping our lives so taht we perceive the beauty of Christ, which captivates our hearts.

The underlying concept here is not relevance but beauty. If you’re a preacher or teacher, you don’t need to do anything to make beautiful things relevant to us. They wouldn’t be beautiful unless they already had the power to move our hearts, stirring us up to love. And from love comes eagerness and diligence in the works of love —all the things that sermons telling us what to do can’t give us.

Phillip Cary, Good News for Anxious Christians: 10 Pracitcal Things You Don’t Have to Do (Brazos, 2010), p. 164.

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