Monday, December 31, 2012

The Seduction of Legalism

Last week I was at my parent's church for Christmas and we had a Bible study on Sunday.  The Bible study essentially consisted in watching the LCMS's "Intersection of Church and State" video and then reacting to it via some study questions.  I found the reactions of the people there to be very interesting.  One major question that caused a lot of discussion was whether people believed that the Church was doing enough to oppose secularism in the public square.  The response from most people was fairly predictable: No, obviously not.  As usual, people insisted that if the Church would just apply more pressure on the secular culture, then the culture would be reformed and be more amenable to Christian values.  One older gentlemen even suggested that we create a Christian political party with a national charismatic leader.

Of course, all of this ignores what's happened since the late 60s.  Does anyone remember how conservative Protestants and Catholic have organized themselves over the last 40 years?  And what's the result?  Christianity is even more unpopular than it was before.  My wife rightly pointed out that a similar process has ensued in Europe: The formation of Christian political parties (think the Christian Democrats in Germany) usually means the waning of Christian influence over culture.

Nevertheless, the fantasy of the Church as a power organization that if it just asserted itself a bit more continues.  The fantasy is hardwired into human nature since the Fall.  It is the belief that the legalistic fantasy that the law can really change people through superior pressure.  The problem is of course that the law can only direct and channel what already exists.  It can't actually create anything new-only God's power of grace can do that through the proclamation of the word of justification can do that.  Unfortunately for the legalistic fantasy, the gospel is a weak thing by the standards of the world.  It can only grant freedom to the elect.  It cannot force people to use their free will correctly, since its mere existence destroys the illusion of free will and the opionio legis. 

I've observed a similar response to the specific problem of the Lutheran Church in America in the objective justification debate.  The debate isn't really about justification at all, but rather about discovering a master explanation for why the Lutheran Church is tanking.  The same-old-same-old explanation getting brought out: The Church needs to pressure people more with the law.  In other words, what Rydecki and Jackson, and the rest of them, really think is that OJ makes grace too free and because it's too free people aren't understanding that they really, really need to have faith and really, really need to repent.  If, they claim, people were to understand the conditions of justification, then they would be better Lutherans and the Church would be revived in America.

And of course this is represents a basic misunderstanding of Lutheran doctrine.  Once one understands that we are elected by God through the promise of unilateral grace, a lot of other things get cleared up.  Despite is significant flaws, one thing that Gerhard Forde got right was that we must preach under the presupposition of bondage.  We are not preaching to free subjects that can, in their rationality and autonomy, take or leave our proclamation.  Rather, our word is the Word of God which kills and makes alive.  It creates and destroys.  We suffer such a word passively and therefore the only thing the occupant of the preaching office can do is proclaim the Word and allow the chips fall where they may.  Placing conditions on the Word does very little to save the Church, rather it destroys it and distorts its mission.  It turns it into a power organization whose goal to to become glorious, rather than weak and oppressed like it's Lord.  In its zeal for worldly influence, it losing sight of the omnipotent word of grace- a word that hides in weakness.


  1. Very good little article on this subject.

  2. Good stuff Jack - thanks!


  3. Very good article.

    Pull quote: “…that OJ makes grace too free and because it's too free people aren't understanding that they really, really need to have faith and really, really need to repent. If, they claim, people were to understand the conditions of justification, then they would be better Lutherans and the Church would be revived in America”

    That’s similar to an issue I use to run into in my former Reformed Calvinistic circles, it just happen to swirl around (no surprise) election versus reprobation, assurance, and sacraments as Reformed see them. I had debate after debate on this and a number of times pointed out that they always seemed to get uncomfortable that any given person might actually believe with full and great assurance Jesus died for them in particular and forgave their sins, and be so fooled by this, only to find out in the end they were not elect. I was trying to figure out what they were trying to “protect them” from. So they keep faith, sacraments, Jesus, etc…up in the abstract and generalities, anything but the concrete and particular.

  4. Greg Jackson posted this Luther quote on his blog today. He thought it was descriptive of "other pastors." Sounds an awful lot like him, though...

    In the first place, because they secretly think so much of themselves and are so well pleased with themselves, they think that no one acts and thinks as well as they do, they are the most suspicious people on earth, full of unnecessary care and anxiety that no one does right, and they put the worst construction upon everything; and even when a deed is good, they nevertheless think the intention is evil. Then they search for and meditate closely upon the intention that a person may possibly have and are not satisfied until they have heard something bad about their neighbor. Oh! what respectable and honorable people are addicted to this vice; and it really seems at times as though it were only cautiousness with them and fear of being deceived. But cautiousness considers casual danger and protects itself from being degraded, speaks openly: I believe that you have no bad intentions, but we are all human, you may change and err as well as I, etc. But suspicion considers the present deed only, thinking nothing good of it, and not of the casual danger; it thinks that that is already wrong which caution regards as good and for which it provides means to save it from becoming bad.

    183. Secondly, when suspicion sees the neighbor’s evil deed secretly or hears of it, it is delighted, for it can now show how pious it is and how bad other people are, how it loves righteousness, propriety and honor. The poor publican must submit to the Pharisee; Noah must suffer to have his son Ham see his nakedness. Yea, we are accustomed to say, what an honorable, pious man this is; every one must now hear of this neighbor’s evil deed. Some take great pleasure in hearing and talking about the sins of others and say: Indeed it is true. This vice has assumed greater proportions than any one believes, especially among those who seem to be honorable and well bred people. Here there is no one who would conceal, who would reprove, who would amend, who would intercede; but everyone slanders and defames and yet they are holy and spiritual people.