Over the last year or so, there has been an unending debate about sanctification and good works in LCMS blog and FB lands. In fact, recently I have read certain individuals claiming that there is an "antinomian crisis" in the LCMS. Also, there seems to be a lot of confusion about what sanctification is, and how per se one maintains the simul of Christian existence while also talking about sanctification. Up to this point, I have stayed out of these discussion. This was both to maintain my own sanity, and my desire not to be sidetracked when I had other theological projects. Here, I hope to make a positive contribution to the debate and sum up where I stand on these important issues.
1. Is there an antinomian crisis in the LCMS? My answer would be basically no and yes. When people who claim there is one, they generally mean that there isn't enough law-based preaching and this leads to people into being loosey-goosey about their moral efforts. Beyond the rather bizarre and un-Lutheran assumptions that go into this diagnosis, there's also the fact that I see absolutely no empirical evidence of it. I don't really think you could actually empirically measure any decline in morality among LCMS members in recent years. If people were actually honest about what they did in private, my guess (and just a guess mind you!) would be that there would be little difference between people's behavior at any time in the history of the synod until now. Moreover, I think that in terms of the quality of preaching, these proponent of the "antinomian crisis" have nothing to fear. Though I have been blessed with three very good parishes where the gospel is preached in its purity over the last half-decade, whenever I go to another LCMS congregation, I am pretty consistently treated to a moralizing and legalistic tirade- something those worried about antinomianism are concerned that there isn't enough of. This legalistic tirade may be a subtle one- nice law, to make nice people- or it may take less subtle forms- mean law to get people (particularly those having the wrong sorts of sex, which often appears to be the only sin people commit) to stop doing what they're doing. Nonetheless, in essence it's all the same. At the end of the sermon, often the gospel will be tacked on, since basically the preacher didn't really want to preach the gospel in the first place, but rather give an exhortation to "really get things done." But he does remember back in seminary that Walther said something about preaching law and gospel, so he's got to tack it on at the end. It's obligatory. Sigh!
2. Basically, this sort of preaching or the worry that we're not being sufficiently legalistic reveals a fundamental misperception about what true antinominianism is, and what the relationship between antinomianism and legalism actually is. First, since the legalistic tirade at one's average LCMS parish is usually focused on some sort of hot-button cultural issue (sex! sex! sex!), it does little good to the congregation. They're on board with the preacher- after all, none of them are gay! So it doesn't affect them. But they hold the right opinions about homosexuality or sex outside of marriage, and so, they feel good about having those correct opinions. They're not like those terrible young people. And so, through their own legalism they become antinomians. They escape the office of the law and its condemning effects. Ironically then, by hitting people hard with the law, often times preachers are only reinforcing people's antinomian tendencies. Therefore, if there is an antinomian crisis in the LCMS, it's that. Not that we don't have enough tiraids about about sexual sins, or some such thing- but that when we preach in this manner we give congregations too many tools to self-justify. On one last side note, least I be misunderstood, I am by no means saying that the Church should not witness to all of God's truth, part of which is indeed proper sexual relationships. Neither am I saying that that at this particular moment in history when God's truth about proper sexual relationships is being ignored, that the Church does not have a special obligation to witness to the truth of God's law in these respects. Rather, what I am saying is that our preaching too often focuses exclusively on these topics and not on the actual sins that people in the congregation are committing. The unfortunate consequence of this is that it reinforces their smugness and does not drive them to Christ.
3. Part of the reason that people think that legalistic tirades are a "way to get things done" is that there are many fundamental misunderstandings of what sanctification is, and what the purpose of the third use of the law is. The popular account in the LCMS of these things seems to be as follows: The gospel is the imputation of righteousness and the promise of eternal life (so far so good!). It is a sort of bare forensic word and people receive it by faith (still good!). Because it is just a word that says "not guilty," it does nothing. People left with this word will just sit around. Hence, for people to be "sanctified" the preacher must "preach sanctification" which means "preaching good works." Preaching good works makes up for the fact that as a bare forensic judgment, the gospel does nothing. Over time, because the preacher preaches good works to you, you get better and better at doing good works, and therefore become more and more sanctified.
4. This account seems to be believed in many and various ways by people worried about the "antinomian crisis" in the LCMS. If this misrepresents their thinking, I apologize, but it's the definite impression that I get from what they say. To respond to this, I need to make a couple points of clarification. First of all, one of Luther's major targets in beginning the Reformation was the idea one finds in Aristotle that "doing is being." For Aristotle, one is a good person because they do good things. And more one does good things, the easier it becomes and the better a person you are. In adapting Aristotle, Catholic theology (broadly speaking) thought that people get righteous by doing good works. God in his grace gives a kind of potential for goodness and you build-up that goodness by repeatedly doing good works. Luther's idea was rather different. Jesus said that a "good tree bears good fruits." Through the gospel, God sanctifies the inner person and makes them a good tree that bears good fruit. Faith fulfills the law and therefore the gospel, and not the law, is the agent of sanctification. Melanchthon reflects this definition of how sanctification takes place in the Apology when he describes justification either meaning God's forensic judgment of salvation, or the renewing of the inner person through the Holy Spirit (what the Formula would later define as "sanctification"). All of this, of course, follows from Paul's use of the language of the new covenant, which he takes from Jeremiah. Prodding Israel to obey the Sinaitic covenant was something of a bust for the OT prophets. YHWH promises Jeremiah (in chapter 31) that he will give them a new covenant, wherein he will communicate to the people the forgiveness of sin and then sanctification, whereby he will write the law on their hearts. As Paul notes, this does not come by the preaching of the letter which "kills", but through the Spirit at work in the gospel (2 Cor. 3). Jesus also spoke in John 17 about being sanctified by himself and communicating sanctification through the preaching of the gospel. Through the gospel, the Holy Spirit creates faith and sanctifies the inner person. This inner person under the influence of the Spirit gives the impulse to do good works, which are only done out of faith. Hence, beating on people to do good works may actually change their empirical behavior. But because doing is not being, it doesn't do a lick to get them sanctified. Sanctification is a change of the heart that colors the works that people do. It is not the works themselves.
5. This reveals of the confusion over the issue of "sanctification." One of my friends, working with the notion of sanctification as inner renewal through the gospel has been repeatedly accused of being against sanctification. Why? Because there is a tendency in popular LCMS teaching (though you will not find this in major theologians, such as David Scaer who says the very opposite!), of identifying sanctification as something we do (i.e., the uptick of good works) and not what God does through the Spirit and the Word. This is why the phrase "preaching sanctification" a way of saying "preaching good works" is so problematic. There is of course nothing wrong with preaching good works (I will address this issue below). Nevertheless, the phrase "preaching sanctification" seems to assume that good fruit make a good tree, rather than a good tree makes good fruit. Part of the problem as well is that we are all very much aware that people without the Spirit can improve their external behavior (go to an AA meeting and see!). And likewise, people prior to coming to have faith may have a goodly amount of civil righteousness. In fact, their civil righteousness may be so good that it may be difficult to detect any difference between their pre-conversion behavior and their post-conversion behavior. For example, does anyone seriously think that Cornelius in the book of Acts did anything much differently in his day-to-day life after receiving the Holy Spirit? In other cases, one of course can see real differences. Pimps and prostitutes who receive the gospel will no long pimp others or prostitute themselves. Regarding that which is below us, we are always free and so we are free to do good works in a merely human way. The problem is the heart and Jesus tells us that this is what needs to be changed by faith, because that which is within us makes us unclean. People can be like "white-washed tombs"- that is, good in their external behavior and rotten on the inside.
6. So then, can one speak of progressive sanctification? The term in and of itself is not objectionable, indeed, many Lutheran theologians (including Luther himself!) do speak in this manner. The difficulty with the term is that it has taken on a sort of different meaning in other forms in Protestantism than it has in Lutheranism. Again, at the risk of caricature, I would say that the general impression I get in reading Reformed and Evangelical authors when the subject of "progressive sanctification" comes up is this basic account: One is converted by the Holy Spirit and then, overtime, sin gradually is removed from you as Luther puts it "like paint striped from a wall." And every day and every way you become less and less of a sinner until, after death, you are perfect. Moreover, this is how ones know that their faith is really real, because it produces fruits. Now what is correct about this account is, as we have seen earlier, is that becoming a Christian does mean rejecting evil that one has previous engaged in. Also, having faith does indeed mean producing fruits as well.
7. What is objectionable about this account though is that it misapprehends that Christ is the true reality of sanctification. In this account, the person is a sort of subject who has greater and greater predicates built up in him over time- like drug building up in your system as you take more of it. What this account lacks the consciousness of is that Christ is sanctified in himself and shares his sanctifying reality with us. Therefore, our unity with him in baptism is the the reality of sanctification. One does not progress beyond baptism as a sort of jumping off point (incidentally, this is why the description of baptism as the "Christian rite of initiation" is so incredibly annoying. It assumes baptism is stage 1., rather than the whole of the Christian life!). Because all our good works are rooted in faith and the work of the Holy Spirit enacted in baptism, we never move beyond it. In baptism, our new self "in Christ" is actualized. For this reason, any progress that we may indeed speak about is rather a sort of regress to that original reality. It is regress to what we already are in Christ. We are two selves, the self that persists under sin and death in the old age, and a new self, outside of us in Christ, which already stands within the kingdom of God.
8. This way of thinking about sanctification is rather difficult for people to understand because human beings in their fallen state usually conceptualize themselves as a centered subjects that persists over time. That subject may gain new predicates, but it remains centered in itself. Hence, the subject "sinner" adds the predicate "righteousness" onto it. When sanctification is thought of as "progressing" then it means more and more predicates are added onto the subject. Of course, from a Lutheran perspective this is problematic in at least two ways. First, it compromises the "simul" of Christian existence. It leaves us with a person who is "partially righteous" and "partially a sinner." And although Luther actually does speak this way sometimes, it tends to be from the perspective of one's actions in the kingdom of the world, where I do many good things based on my faith, and where I do many bad things because I am still corrupted flesh. Before God, things are different. I am a totality, that is, I am seen either from perspective of the totalizing judgment of the law or the totalizing righteousness that is to be found in Christ. From this perspective, any partial righteousness is non-compliance with the law, and therefore is sin. Any sin is also totally covered by the righteousness of Christ received by faith. Secondly, the other major problem with thinking in terms of a subject that builds up its predicates is that assumes that as the Christian life progresses, the less one needs Jesus. Jesus is for sinners, and if you have less sin in you, presumably you need Jesus less. But if sanctification is rooted in faith, and progress means a strengthening of faith, then quite the opposite will be the case. The flesh will rage more against the Spirit- Christ does after all give rise to Anti-Christ! We sin every day, and our regrets about our sin in our later life are greater than those in our younger life. So we need Jesus more, and not less. (Anyone who doubts any of this, sit down and talk with a pastor who has worked in the nursing home!). As sanctification grows, sin grows too!
9. How do we talk about progress then? Is our account of the Christian life that people get faith and then that makes them free to lie in their own vomit? That account doesn't much work with what Scripture or the Confessions say, and so we need to have a different paradigm for understanding the human self. Luther often speaks about how through faith we live outside of ourselves. Part of the problem of sin is the fact that, to use Augustine famous phrase, we are "curved in on ourselves." Human beings were created by God's creative Word and therefore were intended to live through faith in a state of receptivity to that gracious Word. They therefore were meant to live on the basis of something outside of themselves, not what was within themselves. In the Fall, humans removed themselves from a trusting and receptive relationship with God, thereby becoming centered on themselves. Paul tells us in the NT that a new creative Word has been manifested through Jesus. Our new life isn't inside of us, Paul says, but is outside of us "hidden in God in Christ" (Colossians 3:3). Paul says that he "no longer lives" but "Christ lives in " him, that is to say, he "lives by faith in the Son of God" (Galatians). Hence, faith and sanctification are not about the self getting other qualities added onto it, but rather it is about breaking the self's centered existence and taking on the new existence of faith, which one might call "ecstatic." We live ecstatically live "in Christ by faith, and in our neighbour by love" (Freedom of a Christian). This means then, that we are two selves. We remain something in ourselves, i.e., sinners. And we are another self "in Christ," outside of ourselves. Consciousness of what we are in ourselves (sinners) drives us every day more and more to recognize and rely upon what we are outside of ourselves (righteous in Christ). Therefore, if we speak of "progress" that is progress that we should be primarily talking about.
10. But how does this work? A good illustration (used by N.T. Wright, of all people), is a room with a view. A room with a view is an interesting thing, because it isn't defined by it's content. Rather, it's defined by something outside the room, namely, the view. The view itself makes the room, even though it is in no way a property of the room, or even something in the room. Let's go beyond Wright and give the analogy some more depth. We might say that a sinful person in a state of unbelief is rather like a hotel room that could have a view, but it perhaps has no windows. Christ has of course died and forgiven the sins of the whole world, much as there is a fantastic view behind the wall of the hotel room. But alas, bricks block the windows and therefore make this impossible. In baptism though, the walls are knocked down and the view can be seen. The room becomes something entirely new, but not because of anything inside of it, but because of the view of that which is outside of it. Indeed, the room over time may age, it's furniture may become more ugly. In fact, the hotel may use the room as a place to store ugly or old furniture. In the same manner, we sin every day and as the Spirit sanctifies the flesh, our flesh revolts all the more. Nevertheless, as time goes on, this ugliness of the room is only all the more reason for the guest to not pay any attention to how the room is furnished and to instead look out the windows to glories of the view. The more they do this, the more their life in the room will be defined by the view and not by the contents of the room.
11. Now for a couple of other thorny questions: Why do you keep on talking about Christ sanctifying us? Don't we cooperate in our sanctification? And then, also, what about the third use of the law? Don't we get sanctified by getting the third use of the law preached to us? These concerns I think are based on a couple of misunderstandings of what Lutherans have historically meant by "cooperate in sanctification" and "the third use of the law." First, this issue of cooperation in sanctification. Certainly this is a way of speaking that is adopted by both our Confessions (notably, the FC) and by many of our greatest theologians (Pieper). Luther talks also in Bondage of the Will of us "cooperating" with God after we are regenerated. What many people misunderstand at this point is how the term "cooperate" is being used. Most Americans, when they hear the words "cooperation" think in terms of what philosophers call "libertarian free will." In this view, the human will can in an undetermined way will whatever it so chooses. The difficulty with all this is that it assumes that the human will is something neutral. But if our will exists, as Luther points out in Bondage of the Will, it must have qualities and something with qualities is not neutral, but determined. A good will has good qualities and therefore does good things, just as a bad will does bad things because it has bad qualities. This is all based on a boilerplate Augustinian account of what Luther calls the "necessity of immutability." God or external forces do not somehow manhandle the human will into doing what it does (the "necessity of compulsion"). Nevertheless, the will can only do what it desires and humans are not the authors of their own desires. This clarifies what Luther (and indeed the FC and Pieper!) meant when they speak of human "cooperating with God." It does not mean, as I think many in the "antinomian crisis" group thinks that it does, that humans with their libertarian free will decide to be responsive to God or not once they have the Spirit. Rather, what it means, is that because the Spirit writes the law on the person's heart through faith, that they do what they want to do, namely, they desire to obey the law. In this, God's action does not somehow replace human agency, but rather supervenes on it by shaping and directing it. Human beings act, but because God has given them the impulse to act through the power of the Spirit. Luther describes this as being like a horse ridden by its rider (an image he took from Medieval theology). The horse really does go faster or slower. The horse himself really does change directions. But only because he is directed by the rider. The rider shapes the horse and its behavior. Nevertheless, it is the horse that runs, and not the rider. And so, in this sense, they cooperate together.
12. This places the third use of the law in a new perspective. The third use of the law is not a means of making people want to do good works. Only the gospel can do that. Rather, according to our Confessions, it is a negatively and positively tool for believers. First, as the FC states, the third use is primarily aimed at our old nature. And our old nature has all sort of impulses that that remain contrary to those of our renewed inner person. The third use gives the person of faith knowledge of what impulses are evil and need to be beaten back. It also gives the renewed mind a knowledge of what specific actions God wants, so as to be a curb on the sinful nature's tendency to invent self-chosen and "childish" (Augustana) works. Lastly, it positively serves as a "channel" (Luther, Large Catechism) for impulses of the renewed person of faith. As is evident and as the FC makes explicit and clear, the third use therefore is not aimed at sanctifying the person or giving them impulse to do the law. Rather, it is, as the FC puts it, primarily aimed at the old nature which frustrates the new nature. It is a recognition of the simul of Christian existence. Insofar as we remain under sin, law, and in midst of creation, we need the law in order to live out our Christian existence. Of course, it should be observed that the law serves multiple functions all at once. The preacher is not the agent of the uses of the law, but rather the Holy Spirit is. The Holy Spirit uses the law in multiple ways when it is preached. So, it is irrelevant that the preacher only intends to instruct believers in the vein of the third use of the law; he will also always condemn his hearers with the second as he does so (Melanchthon is quite clear about this in the Apology). I recently read a Luther pastor claim that because Luther and Paul obviously intend that their preaching of the law be used as instruction in certain cases, the law in those cases did not really condemn and so, in our preaching, we should think that the law does not always condemn as well. And the point that I would make (along with many modern literary theorists) is that we cannot even control how Robinson Crusoe is experienced and that is merely a human book. So, we how much more is it the case that we cannot control how our sermons and proclamation of the Scriptures (which are both instrumentals of the Holy Spirit) are heard? For this reason, the minister must always make certain that any moral instruction that he undertakes be make in the larger context of gospel proclamation. Any law a pastor proclaims will in one way or another condemn. That being said, the law also always contains ethical information. Hence, as I often point out to Fordeites, just as one cannot prevent the law from always accusing, one also cannot prevent it from instructing as well! Contrary to what many people seem to think, there's no reason it cannot do both at once! So, if proper preaching is taking place, insofar as the believer is condemned by the proclamation of the law, they will be driven to Christ and sanctified by the Spirit present in the gospel. And, insofar as they receive new impulses from the work of the Spirit in the gospel, they will use that same law that condemned them as a channel and a tool to suppress the old nature and live out their faith through specifically proscribed actions.