Coram Deo

In the presence of God, faith is all that matters.

Friday, August 19, 2005

Division By Zero

The Lutheran confessions are, at times, the ultimate tightrope act. Nowhere is this more true than in the Formula of Concord's treatment of law and Gospel and the proper distinction between them.

Nevertheless, there's typically been a simple calculus for that division, one which states, in effect, "law = bad news; Gospel = good news." This is in keeping with the literal meaning of euaggelion, the Greek word we translate as "Gospel". An euaggelion is nothing more than a "good message" or "good report." The reformers noted, correctly, that the core of this "good news" is found in the proclamation of the forgiveness of sins through Christ. As the FC puts it,

For everything that comforts, that offers the favor and grace of God to transgressors of the Law, is, and is properly called, the Gospel, a good and joyful message that God will not punish sins, but forgive them for Christ's sake. [from the Solid Declaration]
Even the most unorthodox Christian--heck, the most unorthdox anything--would have to agree that the decision of God to forgive our sins instead of punishing them is a "good message" indeed. The very thought that such forgiveness is even possible should have us all running down the street, arms waving in the air, yelping with glee.

Certainly, we in Lutherland get this point. But there's something that I am not always sure that we do get, something that, quite frankly, I hadn't paid much attention to until recently, and that is the reality that the reformers unequivocally stated something about the Gospel which will ruffle feathers today. Namely, they stated that preaching repentance is mandatory--and that such preaching is not preaching the law, but preaching the Gospel:

[I]t is correctly said and written that the Gospel is a preaching of repentance and of the forgiveness of sins. [from the Epitome]

This is a point where the simple "law bad, Gospel good" calculus breaks down, at least as far as our current times are concerned. Because it seems these days that we see the cry of "Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand!" as being fundamentally bad news. It means we've sinned, and who wants to admit to that? It means that our conduct and our thoughts and our feelings are not God-pleasing. Moreover, it means that our trajectory is doomed and needs a correction. We might, after a time, recognize the call to repentance as a good thing--but our initial reaction is likely to be otherwise. For a heart given over to sin, even the most noble change doesn't come easily.

However, we have to note that the two elements of the Gospel are held in tension. Just as preachers can't forgive sinners without convicting them first, likewise, all preaching of repentance has to be based on the reality of forgiveness, not merely the fear of punishment.

And this, ultimately, is how the call to repentance can be understood as "good news." God intends not merely to forgive us, but to change us. Christ certainly meets us where we are, and that's good news. But he does not intend to leave us there--and that's better news!

A Gospel of sticky sentimentality can never grasp this truth. If the Gospel is only about how the good-intentioned are the true children of God, we've got nothing but cheap grace on our hands. If the Gospel is reduced to a universal rule that we're called to "err on the side of grace," we're still stuck erring. We cannot cling to the Gospel without realizing that, in the midst of offering us ultimate comfort and hope, it confronts error.


  • At 6:37 PM, Anonymous Harry said…

    I am assuming that Lutherans do not have confession in the Roman Catholic sense? Is this a ritual of some sort?

  • At 7:00 PM, Anonymous Mark Hasty said…

    Sorry. I should've explained "Lutheran confessions" a little better. In this case, what is being referred to is confessions of faith, not confessions of sin. We're big on being precise about what we mean when we speak about matters of faith.

    The founding confessions of faith of the Lutheran tradition are found in a book called the Book of Concord; you'll find a link to that book in the sidebar. I'd suggest starting with the Small Catechism if you'd like to know more, since it will be weeks before my overview of Lutheran confessional orthodoxy is ready . . . or even started.

  • At 9:23 PM, Blogger Andy said…

    I think what we have here is what Barth calls "grace in the form of a command." The way I think of it (and I'm not sure if Barth said this or if this is just what I got from reading Barth) is this: God said, "Let there be light," and there was light. God said, "Repent," and I repented.

    I think the good news/bad news thing still works because if I respond to God's call to repentance I have recognized my dire situation and flee to him for salvation. If I don't respond to God's call, I still hear it as Law.

    The opposite danger, of course, is that repentance is preached as an enumeration of sins which we must stop committing -- not because that commands too much but because it commands too little. Nothing less than turning our whole lives toward God will help. (Naturally, I'd invoke Thesis 1 of the 95 here.) This particular danger is the bugbear of generic American protestantism, I think, while Lutheranism tends to fall more into the pit you described.

  • At 3:10 PM, Blogger Elijah the Tishbite said…

    I think you left out the most important part of the quote from the Epitome, that is, "And in this sense the generalis definitio, that is, the description of the word Gospel, when employed in a wide sense and without the proper distinction between the Law and the Gospel is correct, when it is said that the Gospel is a preaching of repentance and the remission of sins."

    The preaching of Gospel, in its "pure" form never can or does include Law. It's all in the context.


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  • At 12:19 PM, Anonymous grace said…

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  • At 11:55 AM, Anonymous forgiveness said…

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