Lutheran Free Conference–Stephen Paulson’s paper
I’m probably really never going to get back to writing about this conference until after Christmas, when no one will care.
Anyway, this weekend Prof. John Pless graced us by preaching for Populus Zion and showing a full bible class a little of his work in Africa. (I was proud to have bible class so full. I have to say thank you to St. Peter and to God that attendance at Bible Class has increased so much over the past couple of years.)
John told me he thought Steven Paulson’s paper in response to Dr. Brug was a highlight of the conference. Looking at it, I can see why he felt that way. I only caught the tail end of it because I showed up late that morning. But here are a couple of quotes from it, which are useful just for preaching and pastoral work, never mind his diagnosis of the ELCA.
” Luther clarifies this subtle, but crucial, point in the Antinomian Disputations against Agricola’s musing question: “I wonder whether the law is necessary for justification? “ Luther’s answer initially worries us: “the law is by no means necessary for justification.” (p. 75 1st Disputation, 14th Argument).
1. The law does not justify, but constitutes us as sinners. It does not vivify, but mortifies and kills. There is no teleology or common goal that law and gospel are moving toward together.
2. When Agricola heard Luther speak like this, he ended up defending the law’s place in God’s plan of justification—against Luther—saying that If you don’t humble people, then they can’t be justified! That’s Agricola!
3. Luther’s answer: “No, He who is made humble by the law is far from reaching grace; he rather goes farther away from it.” Preaching law is necessary, but it does not help, it does not point you in the right direction, or get you started or even guide you. To the contrary, The law causes you to run from God’s wrath—but in the wrong direction!
4. If there is not a preacher sent who runs to get such a person, the person is lost. But even when such a preacher arrives, the law did not contribute to his righteousness at all, but simply destroys.”
Those are just footnotes! The rest of the paper is here, and also Prof. Brug’s paper, which I am still reading:
I kind of wonder whether I haven’t been guilty of teaching, implicitly or explicitly, that the Law somehow helps save us, if nothing else by preparing us for the Gospel.
Interestingly, Luther has this to say in the Church Postil for this Sunday:
“22. Despair follows when man becomes conscious of his evil motives, and realizes that it is impossible for him to love the law of God, finding nothing good in himself; but only hatred of the good and delight in doing evil. Now he realizes that the law can not be kept only by works hence he despairs of his works and does not rely upon them. He should have love; but he finds none, nor can have any through his own efforts or out of his own heart. Now he must be a poor, miserable and humiliated spirit whose conscience is burdened and in anguish because of the law, commanding and demanding payment in full when he does not possess even a farthing with which to pay. Only to such persons is the law beneficial, because it has been given for the purpose of working such knowledge and humiliation; that is its real mission. These persons well know how to judge the works of hypocrites and fraudulent saints, namely, as nothing but lies and deception. David refered to this when he said, “I said in my haste, all men are liars,” Ps. 116, 11.
23. For this reason Paul calls the law a law unto death, saying, “And the commandment, which was unto life, this I found to be unto death,” Rom. 7, 10; and a power of sin. I Cor. 15. 56: “And the power of sin is the law,” and in 2 Cor. 3, 6 he says, “For the letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life.” All this means, if the law and human nature be brought into a right relation, the one to the other, then will sin and a troubled conscience first become manifest. Man, then, sees how desperately wicked his heart is, how great his sins are, even as to things he formerly considered good works and no sin. He now is compelled to confess that by and of himself he is a child of perdition, a child of God’s wrath and of hell. Then there is only fear and trembling, all self-conceit vanishes, while fear and despair fill his heart. Thus man is crushed and put to naught, and truly humbled.
Inasmuch as all this is caused only by the law, St. Paul truly says, that it is a law unto death and a letter that killeth, and that through the commandment sin becomes exceedingly sinful, Rom. 7, 13, provoking God’s wrath. For the law gives and helps us in no way whatever; it only demands and drives and shows us our misery and depravity.”
Luther says both here: the law humbles us, but also does nothing whatsoever to help us. It “drives us”–in other words, it hounds us and impels us to further sin, because we flee from God and His judgment. Definitely I think it’s easy to give people the impression that the Law helps save us, or to forget that when you are preaching the law you are taking a sword in your hand against the old Adam who hates God. So if you aim to just stab people a little bit in a fleshy area instead of cutting their throat or stabbing them in the heart, you’re going to be in deep doo doo.
A little more from the body of Paulson’s paper:
“7. The problem is deeper than inerrancy. The chief article is confused here since we are justified by faith, not by love.
a. Once love becomes the chief article, the gospel is confused for a law. For love is the fulfillment of the law.
b. In order to disentangle this Gordian knot, we need the proper distinction between the two words of God, law and gospel. Walther is of much more use to us here, even than Calov, or Pieper. That is why Luther said, “When I discovered the distinction between law and gospel, I broke through.” This is the nuclear core of the evangelical teaching, and what various Lutheran institutions routinely get wrong.
8. So let me conclude with two observations:
a. We object to the Calvinist notion that if “Christ is the Word” then there really is only One Word of God, whose necessary form is the law, but whose content is grace; Instead, we say: there are two words of God, not one—This is why, as Dr. Brug noted, Luther is careful to deal with John’s very special language: in the beginning was the Word….”
i. Further, the relation of Christ to the two words of proclamation are decisive—Christ is the end of the law (and nothing else is), and he is the mercy seat, by whose blood, at great cost, we have been redeemed.
ii. Law and gospel do not work together toward a common end—the law is not pointing out the problem, and the gospel giving the solution. Fanaticism wants to align law and gospel as two steps in a process, or as two mules pulling in the same direction.
iii. But the two words don’t work together—they oppose one another, and yet they are necessarily both divine—from the one and only true God.
iv. We must let the letter of Scripture kill. Then the Spirit will give life—but not as an addition to Scripture or an adjustment of the law from wrath to love.
v. But of course this then means we must teach the proper distinction for all theology: that distinction between unpreached God and a preached God. [And you know that means also teaching correctly about election or predestination].
b.i. The devil always wants you to think that the law, in some new form, will free you.
ii. The only answer to this bewitchment is to divide the words rightly, and so adhere to the chief article, justification by faith alone—apart from works of the law, specifically of love.
9. Lutherans everywhere are confused about unconditional love , and so they have made of themselves churches of the law either in its conservative or progressive forms as if that were the fulfillment of Christ’s mercy and grace. So our first assignment is to so “no” to love, and give faith alone its proper place. But this is deeply offensive to piety and the Zeitgeist. As offensive as it was in Luther’s Day when love was dethroned as the highest Christian “virtue.” ”
I feel strangely warmed by Dr. Paulson’s high regard for the proper distinction between law and gospel. It was a sad thing for me when I went to Fort Wayne to hear so many people speak snidely about Walther and his famous book. For me, Law and Gospel was also what caused me to begin to understand the Gospel and have a conscience that was not terrified. It was why I became a Lutheran and ultimately a pastor. I agree with Paulson completely that the proper distinction is vital. The point that Walther makes–that the distinction must be learned by experience from the Holy Spirit–is itself the corrective to the common criticism of Lutheran orthodoxy–that it becomes a matter of memorizing the right doctrinal formulae. That can only happen when the proper distinction becomes theoretical instead of practical: when Lutherans say: “we’re all sinners and can’t keep the law, Jesus died to take away sins,” but meanwhile never go to church and hear the word or do go but never believe that their sins are surely forgiven. It’s easy to talk about the proper distinction and to talk about Walther and love the book and still completely fail to make the proper distinction. Anyway, yes to Dr. Paulson on this.
With regard to Calvinist/Barthian understanding of the Word, Dr. Paulson makes a good point and causes me to think about some ways in which I may have not have properly handled the Word:
God does not have one Word which is always law in form but grace in content. Rather, he speaks two words, law and gospel. If I am understanding Paulson correctly, when we say that Christ is the Word/Logos, we have to be careful that we don’t imply that Christ is both law and Gospel…Christ is the fulfillment of the law or the end of the law. The law also works at cross purposes with the Gospel. The two do not work hand in hand, both working together for the salvation of sinners. Instead the law works wrath, condemnation, and increases sin.
It is easy enough to see that the Zeitgeist in general, and the ELCA and other liberal protestant churches in particular, confuse “unconditional love” with the Gospel. In other words, what people expect to hear (in my experience also in Missouri Synod churches) is non-killing law. Forgiveness of sins, no. Telling me that I have not really sinned enough to be condemned–yes. As Paulson says, this makes the gospel into law. People like the law. I like the law. I just want a law that justifies me. People also like it when you condemn in strong terms someone else’s sin. Some people in the pews want you to say that the times have changed and now we should be gracious to those who cohabitate or engage in homosexuality. Others want you to lambast the sins that secular society has approved. Either way, we don’t want to be the damned sinners who need to be released from the law.
This reminds me of when I first got to my congregation–I had some people tell me a couple of years in that I preached too much law, but before that I had somebody say “You preach forgiveness of sins too much. I already know I’m forgiven! Quit preaching that every week!” Then I got mad about it. I didn’t realize that it was quite possibly true that hearing “Your sins are forgiven” made them realize that they were indeed truly captives of sin, since nothing except forgiveness was going to free them.
Finally, it seems to me that Paulson affirms inerrancy in this paper–maybe I missed something–but emphasizes something that I think is vitally important for Lutherans to get straight again. To stick with the words and letters the Holy Spirit has given is tied to rightly distinguishing law and gospel. Certain of my professors criticized the proper distinction because it has, in their opinion, been misused and become an exegetical straitjacket which prevents us from actually adhering to the words of Scripture. Maybe they’re right about its having been misused. But it seems to me that when some students at Fort Wayne run around mocking the proper distinction, it shows that they have not yet experienced that the law kills and damns. Anyone who has experienced terrors of conscience understands why the distinction is so important–unless the person has relapsed again into slavery and no longer has the Holy Spirit.
If Luther says we learn theology through oratio, meditatio, and tentatio, and that the person who can properly distinguish law and gospel gets an automatic doctorate in theology, then it follows that a Lutheran cannot discount the importance of what Walther lectured about.
When I think back, I had several friends at seminary who had a problem with the proper distinction. Some mocked it. Others privately asked me, “Where is the proof for this distinction in Scripture?” I tried to point to some proof texts that I knew from Walther, but obviously made no impression on them. So of these friends–some have gone East, some have embraced church growth methodology (and, while they still believe that the sacraments “do” something, their theology seems to revolve around sanctification and union with Christ); still others have gone to the Atlantic District. And in spite of myself, I think I’ve done more than my share of attempting to “reform” my congregation by means of law or legalism. So, Satan is sneaky, and he hates the proper distinction between law and gospel. Pless was right. This paper is good.