Monday, November 30, 2009

The Gospel Is the Power of God for Sanctification

As Olivia and I have been deciding upon which church congregation to call our family and home here in Richmond, we've been met with a bit of a strange phenomenon as we've worshiped in the Presbyterian churches here (West End, Stony Point, and City Church): Every week's sermon dwells largely on a message of the complete sufficiency of Jesus' death and resurrection to atone for our sins and bring us new life, and the freedom of forgiveness and sonship we find in him. In like fashion we are also called to leave behind our vain idols and our self-made attempts at righteousness to embrace alone this Savior. It's not that in other churches the gospel was merely something that "got you saved," and then you got busy doing other stuff for God. The other churches were really good at helping wandering sheep learn what a sanctified life looks like and how to practically live a life transformed by the Holy Spirit.

At any rate, this apparent dichotomy--or, perhaps more accurately, this change in emphasis--has caused Olivia and me some consternation over how someone really grows as a disciple who learns from Christ and submits his whole life to the Lord's reign. But whatever steps and teaching might be necessary to guide us in putting off the old Adam and putting on the new, and knowledgeably walking in fear-of-the-Lord, the wind in our sails to move us down the path of discipleship is clear. "The gospel," says the apostle Paul, "is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes" (Romans 1:16). Paul doesn't say this Good News is just the power of God for justification; it's the power for all of salvation--our freedom from God's wrath over sin (justification), our freedom from shame and for sonship (adoption), and our freedom from the reign of sin in our lives so that we become more truly human and alive to God (sanctification).

I mention this because Confessing Evangelical, a British Lutheran blogger, has put up a wonderful post about love for Christ, not the law's demands, being the power to change us. He quotes from a well-worn book among Lutheran pastors, Bo Giertz's The Hammer of God. Please take the time to read it; it's excellent.


Ryan P.T. said...

Lutheran theologians are realizing that we aren't able to account for the life of discipleship within the law/gospel paradigm alone (though the "3rd use" of the Law [guide] provides some help). So it is that recent generations of Lutheran pastors are so easily parodied: "You can't try to live a sanctified life! You're earning salvation! The Law always accuses! Damn you to hell!"

This is not, I hasten to add, a faithful appropriation of Law & Gospel, but is more like the "gospel reductionism" that plagues more liberal-leaning Lutherans (ahem, ELCA)--namely, the Gospel utterly obliterates the Law (natural and revealed), and so only feel-good "gospel" prevails. Incidentally, this was the real issue precipitating the infamous "walk out" and Seminex crises of the 1970s, and what earns contemporary Lutherans an antinomian bad name.

So, what's the answer? In a number-and-two-letters: 2KR. (Rather than explain that, I'll simply whet your appetite.) If you're looking for a theology book you can dig your teeth into, pick up Arand & Kolb's "The Genius of Luther's Theology" ASAP. If you don't have time for that, however, read the articles in the April '07 Concordia Journal:

John H said...

Thanks for the link and the kind words. I hope you and your wife are able to find a church in which to settle soon.

As Ryan points out, the Lutheran approach can easily sink into self-parody ("You don't have to refrain from committing adultery, because Jesus has already perfectly refrained from committing adultery on your behalf!").

I think the heart of the matter is these two related aspects:

1. As my pastor likes to put it, it is not a matter of what the law says we have to do, as what faith wants to do. Faith wants to follow God's will as revealed in the ten commandments.

2. However, the "old Adam" still within us means that we will constantly fail to live up to what the "new person" freely desires. Hence our assurance of God's favour towards us can never be based even in the slightest degree on our obedience to the law.

As one Lutheran pastor put it to me, the Lutheran understanding of justification by faith amounts to nothing more and nothing less than being able to say, when confronted with the evidence of one's sin and failure, "I am baptised!"