Monthly Archives: July 2015

Capon on The Unjust Steward

In my opinion, the Holy Gospel for the Ninth Sunday after Trinity is the most difficult to preach in the Church Year. Robert Farrar Capon’s take on the Unjust Steward is a good one and worthy of consideration.

[T]he unjust steward is nothing less than the Christ-figure in this parable, a dead ringer for Jesus himself. First of all, he dies and rises, like Jesus. Second, by his death and resurrection, he raises others, like Jesus. But third and most important of all, the unjust steward is the Christ-figure because he is a crook, like Jesus. The unique contribution of this parable to our understanding of Jesus is its insistence that grace cannot come to the world through respectability. Respectability regards only life, success, winning; it will have no truck with the grace that works by death and losing – which is the only kind of grace there is.

This parable, therefore, says in story form what Jesus himself said by his life. He was not respectable. He broke the sabbath. He consorted with crooks. And he died as a criminal. Now at last, in the light of this parable, we see why he refused to be respectable; he did it to catch a world that respectability could only terrify and condemn. He became sin for us sinners, weak for us weaklings, lost for us losers, and dead for us dead. Crux muscipulum diaboli, St. Augustine said: the cross is the devil’s mousetrap, baited with Jesus’ disreputable death. And it is a mousetrap for us, too. Jesus baits us criminals with his own criminality: as the shabby debtors in the parable were willing to deal only with the crooked steward and not with the upright lord, so we find ourselves drawn by the bait of a Jesus who winks at iniquity and makes friends of sinners – of us crooks, that is – and of all the losers who would never in a million years go near a God who knew what was expected of himself and insisted on what he expected of others.

You don’t like that? You think it lowers standards and threatens good order? You bet it does! And if you will cast your mind back, you will recall that is exactly why the forces of righteousness got rid of Jesus. Unfortunately, though, the church has never been able for very long to leave Jesus looking like the attractively crummy character he is: it can hardly resist the temptation to gussy him up into a respectable citizen. Even more unfortunately, it can almost never resist the temptation to gussy itself up into a bunch of supposedly perfect peaches, too good for the riffraff to sink their teeth into. But for all that, Jesus remains the only real peach – too fuzzy on the outside, nowhere near as sweet as we expected on the inside, and with the jawbreaking stone of his death right smack in the middle. And therefore he is the only mediator and advocate the likes of us will ever be able to trust, because like the unjust steward, he is no less a loser than we are – and like the steward, he is the only one who has even a chance of getting the Lord God to give us a kind word.

Kingdom, Grace, Judgment, pages 307-308

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Shunning the Vice of Greed

It is necessary that in order for man to be a faithful pastor and preacher he must also personally be a diligent listener of the Word of God and learn to shun this vice called greed. For more than anything else, it hinders the Gospel when either the pastor or the listener is greedy. A greedy pastor does not preach the Word sincerely; by the same token parishoners do not listen to it earnestly either. The former preaches for no other purpose than to profit from it and have a good life; the latter do not pay attention to it as they should. That is why, when greed is in control, the Gospel wanes and founders. A greedy peasant or burgher says, “I must attend to my farm, to my business; I cannot take time to listen to preaching.” A greedy preacher says, “I cannot preach any more, for it brings nothing into the larder for me.” As a result, therefore, so many preachers and hearers today are such pathetic Christians and have such a low opinion of the Gospel because they are such greedy tightwads.

– Martin Luther, Second House Postil for the Ninth Sunday after Trinity (Luke 16:1-9)

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Eighth Sunday after Trinity – Matthew 7:15-23

“If it ain’t broken, don’t fix it.” “What was wrong with the way we were doing it before?” “I like the old way better.” If you speak German, “Bleiben beim Alt!” You’ve spoken these phrases before. I know you have because I’ve heard them at our Voters Meetings. They’ve come out of my mouth as well. These phrases can be a pain in the rear end if you’re trying to accomplish something good that involves positive change. However, these phrases also are salutary to say when false prophets appear on the scene ready to preach false doctrine and steer you clear from Holy Scripture.

The Christian church has God’s pure Word. The devil can’t stand it. So he ushers in all kinds of false preachers who have new things to say about Baptism, the Lord’s Supper, even about Jesus Himself, in order to confuse you and lead you astray. Wherever false preachers are found, we, as incurable and inquisitive people, have the bad habit, really a plague, that as soon as we hear something new, we fall away from the Word and stare like a deer caught in headlights after these fools who steal in among us. It’s like a bad car accident on the expressway in Chicago. Not only is traffic backed up in one direction, but also the other direction because of “gaper’s block.” Everyone wants a look at what happened.

Everyone wants a look at novel teaching in the church. Don’t believe me? Drive by church buildings where the parking lot is ten times bigger than our church building. This is not to say that God’s Word isn’t present inside that church. But what are they teaching from God’s Word? Do they preach, Baptism now saves you, but withhold baptism from infants and young children because they don’t know any better? Do they teach, This is My Body, this is My blood, given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins, then deny what Jesus says by saying Jesus isn’t truly present in the Lord’s Supper? Do they preach Christ and Him crucified, or is Jesus’ death and resurrection chiefly the power plant that drives an upright, moral life before God and man that is your only hope for salvation?

What’s wrong with taking the Scriptures at face value and teaching what they say? One way to answer this question is saying, “Well, the Bible doesn’t say what I mean.” In other words, the Law of God is good and wise, but only when it condemns everyone else but me. You shall not murder is a good thing when someone else shoots people, but it’s not a good thing when it condemns my tongue when I kill someone with my words and thoughts. The Gospel shows the Father’s grace, but why can’t that grace be limited to those who really mean it? I mean, what about that guy over there who shows up here every week, but I see him around town and, let me tell you, I don’t know how he can sleep at night.

Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount are as much for you as they are for pastors. Consider how you easily fall into the trap of twisting Scripture to suit your personal idea of the Christian faith. Consider how you wish pastors would stop preaching Jesus Christ for a few Sundays and start preaching morals, ethics, or current events. Those Bible stories are thousands of years old. I went to Sunday School. I know those now. Same for that Catechism. I went through confirmation instruction. Pastor So-and-So put me through the wringer having to learn all those Bible passages and memorize the Six Chief Parts. That’s over. I know those now. Can’t pastor move on now and get to other topics? Who knows, the pews might start to fill up here if he stops being a Lutheran and starts being a Christian.

Lutherans aren’t merely a school of thought or a particular strain of the Christian church. Lutherans are Christians of the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church. You could make the argument that Martin Luther broke fellowship with the Pope and brought about a big mess in worldwide Christianity. Good luck with that argument because it doesn’t hold water. Martin Luther was God’s instrument in rediscovering what had been covered under centuries of philosophy and false understanding. What is taught from this pulpit and confessed by this congregation is not novel. We confess what Christians have confessed through the centuries. Nothing devised by man to be reasonable or popular is allowed to be taught in this congregation. Christ’s dear sheep will not be led astray. If, God forbid, they would be led astray, He will find a way to gather His sheep around the pure milk of the Word in spite of a false preacher.

The trouble is whether the sheep will actually be able to spot true or false doctrine from true or false preachers. Jesus gives you the way to do it: You will recognize them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? So, every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit…. Thus you will recognize them by their fruits.

The devil can quote the truth and extol God’s Word just as well as a pious Christian. If you don’t learn this, you will be easily deceived and let astray. If you who allows yourself to be fooled by sheep’s clothing, the wolf will tear you to pieces. That is why you need to say, “I want gladly to hear God’s Word and the truth; but before I rely too much on what I hear, I want to see whether it rhymes with my catechism and the preaching which I have heard up till now.” When you are on your toes and not naively gullible, but search the Word, you are a diligent sheep. But when you are lackadaisical about your catechism and the doctrine you have previously learned, with ears only for every smooth operator, the jig is up. You have fallen for the wolf in sheep’s clothing.

The pure milk of the Word proclaims Jesus only. The Word gives you Jesus and all He does for your salvation. There’s no need to make it reasonable or palatable. The Holy Spirit works in the Word when and where He wills. All that is necessary is the breath of preachers to make it plain and simple for the sheep, for how shall they hear [the Word] without a preacher?

The fruits of faithful preachers do not necessarily have to be large church buildings with seven digit budgets and meetings every night of the week. The fruits of faithful preachers are sheep who hear the voice of their Master, rejoice in their baptismal grace of forgiveness of sins and eternal life, eat and drink the Body and Blood of Jesus for the forgiveness of sins, and live in their God-given callings in life to love and serve their neighbor. Whether there are ten-thousand sheep, or two or three sheep, Jesus is there, giving His gifts, using the hands and mouth of men to proclaim the favorable season of the Lord.

Let him who has my word speak my word faithfully.

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Does It Rhyme with My Catechism?

A Christian, you see, has to learn that the devil can quote the truth and extol God’s Word just as well as pious Christians. Whoever does not learn this is easily deceived and let astray, and then it is all over with him. For the person who allows himself to be fooled by sheep’s clothing, him the wolf tears to pieces. That is why we need to say, I want gladly to hear God’s Word and the truth; but before I rely too much on what I hear, I want to see whether it rhymes with my catechism and the preaching which I have heard up till now. The person, therefore, who is on his toes and not naively gullible, but searches the Word, that person has no problem. But the person who is lackadaisical about his catechism and the doctrine he has previously learned, with ears only for every whimsical fanatic, that person is done for.

Martin Luther, Second House Postil for Trinity 8 (Matthew 7:15-23)

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Martin Luther on True and False Teaching

For where a Christian is diligent, possessing nothing more than the catechism, the Ten Commandments, the Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, and the words of our Lord about baptism and the Sacrament of the Altar, he could defend himself very nicely with them and hold his own against all heresies. No better word or doctrine will arise than what has been summed up in the catechism from Holy Scripture. Therefore, we ought faithfully cling to it so that when a heretic or fanatic appears with his contrary teaching, we can counter it and say that it is not true teaching, for it is not in harmony with my catechism.

But when we do not listen diligently and allow our hearts to wander away from the Word, there the devil has free access and incites a person to the extent that he falls into flagrant, manifest errors. Against this the Lord wants to warn us most earnestly, not to allow our hearts to become indecisive, but contemplate how strongly and firmly we ought cling to God’s Word. For he does not send us among angels but among wolves, where attentiveness is required. If we want to be sure of our ground here and not go astray, Christ says, hold to my Word, the true light which I have kindled for you, and the true armor with which you can parry the devil’s thrusts and ward him off, even though he comes to you in sheep’s clothing.

– Second House Postil for Trinity 8 (Matthew 7:15-23)

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Steven Hein on The Experience of Maturity

The more the New Self grows into the maturity of the full stature of Christ, the more intense our spiritual warfare. Christ sees our corrupt colors perfectly and hates them with a righteous hatred. The more we grow in the mind and heart of Christ, the more we will see of the depths of our sinfulness and hate them. This has a profound effect on how we experience growth in Christ.

The experience of Christian maturity is not unlike growing in knowledge. The more we know, the more through that knowledge we are able to see the vast horizons of our ignorance. The smarter we get, the dumber we feel. Real growth in knowledge brings a sense of humility produced by a greater vision and experience of the magnitude of our ignorance. We all realize that the know-it-all has much to learn. Growth and maturity in the grace of Christ brings with it a parallel experience. The more we grow and live in the righteousness of Christ, the better we see our own sinfulness. It is with this expanded vision and experience that St. Paul could confess that he was chief of sinners. It is exactly how he felt. Moreover, this is precisely the awareness that God also seeks to produce in us. Here is the dry bones vision that brings a thirst for the Word of God that we might live (Ezekiel 37:4). And it sends us back again and again to drink the living water that flows from the Gospel in Word and Sacrament.

The fruit of the Spirit grow in our hearts from that living water: love, joy, peace, patience, and all the others that Paul mentions in Galatians 5:22-33. The experience of these in Christian life does not remove the turmoil of Romans 7. Rather, they exist in, with, and under it. God blesses us with a peace that passes all our awareness of this turmoil, but it does not replace it. Christians are those who become progressively more disturbed about themselves, but they sleep real well. We walk by faith and we rest in grace.

We shall indeed win some battles, but they will only bring us greater and more challenging ones to fight. The fleshly self will be a part of us throughout our earthly life. It will not surrender and it cannot be reformed. It must be beaten down and ultimately killed. Moreover, we need to remember that we are not simply contending with flesh and blood; but, as Paul explained, with the powers and principalities of Satan himself (Ephesians 6:12). There is no final victory or triumph for us in human history except what we claim in faith and hope in the cross and resurrection of Christ.

Beware of those who promise a sweet, calm, tranquility in this life from God by perfecting your commitment to spiritual exercises. They did not work for Luther in the monastery and they will not work for us. Do not believe that we can reach a lofty level of sanctification where we can be free of the battles that rage in our minds and hearts in this life. We walk by faith hope for the better day that is coming when eternity blesses us with the full fruits of Christ’s victory at His Heavenly Banquet. For now, we join Christ in His battle against the powers of darkness within and without as very much a junior partner. This is His mission and ministry. His resources and work have come packaged to us in the form of two ministries, Law and Gospel. Through these, His work of sanctification in us and the extension of His Kingdom through us in the world are carried out.

The Christian Life: Cross or Glory?, pages 99-100

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Seventh Sunday after Trinity – Romans 6:19-23

The genius of Saint Paul’s words written under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit is that he gets what it means to live in a two-fold slavery. The natural man, the Old Adam, wants to lead his life according to the words of Pharaoh in Exodus chapter five: Who is the LORD, that I should obey His voice? The natural man is not a free man. He is a slave to sin and the prince of darkness, in whose secret service he stands.

No one can serve two masters. Either you serve God, your rightful Lord, or the devil, sin, or self-righteousness. To whom are you devoted? Saint Paul’s words in Romans chapter six warn you against slavery to sin, but also encourage you in your slavery to righteousness…the alien righteousness imputed to you by Jesus Christ.

Those outside of Christ serve sin. They are slaves to uncleanliness and unrighteousness. They cannot help it. Sin rules over them. They do sin’s will in all things. Those in Christ are free from sin. You serve God and present your body as a living sacrifice in slavery to righteousness. You seek to fulfill the good, perfect, pleasing will of God.

Here’s the thing: this two-fold slavery to sin and slavery to righteousness happens within you every day. You belong to Christ by virtue of your Baptism. You are called out of darkness into His marvelous light. Even though the good and wise Law of God is abolished in Christ’s perfect righteousness in which you are clothed, the Law nevertheless remains to show you just how dead you are to sin. You make a beginning to keep the Law, but that beginning is weak and far from being perfect. All the more you cling to Christ as your perfect Lawkeeper for you.

The Old Adam wants to be free from the imputed righteousness of Jesus Christ. He wants to live as a free man who has no concern for what God says, wills, or commands. This so-called freedom smells like death. It is death. This sort of freedom is an illusion. It is actually oppressive bondage. When you serve sin, you are a slave to sin. You can’t get away from sin. When you avoid one sin, you fall into another sin. You go from one injustice to another injustice. It’s a vicious cycle of sin and death.

The New Man in Christ doesn’t mind being a slave to righteousness. He is safely clothed in the baptismal garment of righteousness. He is all wet in Jesus and everything that Jesus has given him as a gift. Slavery, for the new man, is freedom. You are free from the bondage of sin. This is living as it was meant to be, living as it was for our first parents in the Garden. They were free, happy, and blessed to serve and live for God. So are you because you are free in Jesus.

The Old Adam sees this freedom and hates it. Old Adam is ashamed of Jesus and His gifts. He wants to hold up before God all those good works and nice things the New Man does and say that this is what saves him. Even worse, the Old Adam considers the works of the flesh to be good works, things like sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, and divisions.

Fits of anger and strife feel really good sometimes. You feel cleansed after a good knock-down drag-out fight. All the anger leaves you and is thrown on someone else. Think of how your neighbor feels after he is on the receiving end of your tirade. Think of how you feel when someone blows their stack in your direction. You don’t consider therapeutic yelling to be a good work. Neither does God.

Instead you seek to do good to your neighbor. These look like love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law as Saint Paul says in Galatians chapter five. Seeking to do good to your neighbor is actually Christ in you, the hope of glory, Who seeks to do good to your neighbor. These are the fruits of the Holy Spirit, proof that you live in the sufficient imputation of the perfect righteousness of Jesus Christ.

God doesn’t need your good works, but your neighbor does. Rather than worrying about whether or not you are doing enough of them, they are done, sometimes without you even knowing that you have done them or are now doing them. Consider the sheep divided from the goats in our Lord’s parable in Matthew chapter 25. Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?” And the King will answer them, “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.”

Slavery to sin leads to death: death in the fullest sense of the word. You not only assume room temperature, but you also have a place waiting for you in the burning lake of fire, where there is no relief from the heat. This is your reward for slavery to sin. This is what you earn serving death.

Slavery to righteousness, living as a baptized child of God, rejoicing in your freedom in Christ, means there is more to life than physical death. Eternal life is yours as a free gift of grace that Jesus earned for you. For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.

You are His workmanship. You are created in Christ Jesus to do good to your neighbor, not for gain or bean counting, but for the joy that is set before you because of Jesus. The Old Adam hates it. The New Man revels in it. This two-fold slavery, this existential battle, continues until death. Only then, in the Resurrection, will the Old Adam be destroyed and the New Man, the me you were meant to be and the me you are in Jesus, will be recreated into a perfect New Creation. Believe it for Jesus’ sake.

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Trinity 6 – Matthew 5:20-26

If there is one word in Holy Scripture that causes anger in some, but joy in others, it is the word “righteousness”. Martin Luther at one time hated the word because, in his words, I had been taught to understand philosophically regarding the formal or active righteousness, as they called it, with which God is righteous and punishes the unrighteous sinner… I did not love, yes, I hated the righteous God who punishes sinners, and secretly, if not blasphemously, certainly murmuring greatly, I was angry with God… Thus I raged with a fierce and troubled conscience.

Luther’s confusion, perhaps your confusion, is because Scripture uses the word “righteousness” in three senses. First of all, it denotes an attribute of God. Second, the pious life of a human being. Third, the merit of Christ or the righteousness of faith. If you are confused as to what sense of the word “righteousness” is used in Scripture, you will either go with Luther to the brink of despair, or you will be lost through false confidence. The latter danger is greater because you are by nature under the delusion that a righteous life saves.

Jesus, however, demands a higher, better, more perfect righteousness than your righteousness, or even the righteousness of the scribes and the Pharisees. Jesus demands His righteousness. You cannot enter into the kingdom of heaven unless you have the righteousness of Jesus Christ.

Pharisaical righteousness is a two-faced lie before God and man. The Pharisees were the hypocrite’s hypocrite. They feigned external piety. Recall Jesus’ parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector that we’ll hear more about next month, Lord willing. The Pharisee stands before all beating his breast and making a big show of how pious he is. Yet inwardly the Pharisee hated the Tax Collector and, frankly, hated everyone who wasn’t just like him.

What’s worse, the Pharisees were only considering about the act and not about the condition of the heart. You sinned by killing someone, but the anger and hatred that fueled the murder were not considered. They were zealous about the Law, but mostly about the deed and not so much about the thoughts and words. Jesus did not tolerate their hypocrisy. He gives seven woes to the scribes and Pharisees as hypocrites in Matthew chapter 23.

There are Pharisees in the Christian Church. These are the people who go to church and partake of the Lord’s Supper, yet they still live here in gross sins. They hate, they are angry, envious, and dishonest. That’s you. That’s me too. We all put on the mask of piety, yet easily rip it off to reveal the me that nobody should know. All too easily the trap is laid that if you do something just so, if you are really, really, really pious about something, even more so than your spouse or your neighbor, that is why you are a Christian. That is why God will spare you from eternal condemnation.

External piety is a good thing that can go wrong when you pin your hope for salvation on it. External righteousness is still only external. It is a highly imperfect fulfillment of divine Law. True fulfillment of the Law, true righteousness, true holiness, must be done with the heart. Jesus says, You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire.

You don’t want to go before the judge. If you go before the judge, you know a decision will be rendered…and it may not be the decision you want. You won’t be happy and your adversary won’t be happy. It’s best to resolve the matter outside of court. That way you will have won your brother back and kept the matter from a final decision that could lead to bigger problems.

Every transgression of the Law, even in the heart, all other good works, even worship and prayer, is reprehensible before God when you put all these things before His face and expect Him to give you justice for them. No wonder Luther hated the word “righteousness” so much. All he did for a long time was try to please an angry God with his outward works and piety, thinking God would be pleased by them. All Luther did was stoke the reprehensible fire of God’s heart.

Then came his rediscovery of the Gospel. Luther writes, At last, by the mercy of God, meditating day and night, I gave heed to the context of the words, namely, “In it the righteousness of God is revealed, as it is written, ‘He who through faith is righteous shall live.’ ” There I began to understand that the righteousness of God is that by which the righteous lives by a gift of God, namely by faith. And this is the meaning: the righteousness of God is revealed by the gospel, namely, the passive righteousness with which merciful God justifies us by faith, as it is written, “He who through faith is righteous shall live.” Here I felt that I was altogether born again and had entered paradise itself through open gates. There a totally other face of the entire Scripture showed itself to me. Thereupon I ran through the Scriptures from memory. I also found in other terms an analogy, as, the work of God, that is, what God does in us, the power of God, with which he makes us strong, the wisdom of God, with which he makes us wise, the strength of God, the salvation of God, the glory of God.

If someone could perfectly fulfill the Law, then he could be saved through the righteousness of the Law. This is impossible. Luther saw it. You see it, too. You are a transgressor of the Law from birth. So you must look somewhere else, to someone else, for perfect righteousness. You, like Luther, look to Jesus Christ, Who actively, actually, perfectly fulfilled the Law for you, in your place. Jesus also satisfies divine righteousness in His suffering, His passive, obedience. He passes away for you, carrying your debt of sin into the tomb where it is buried forever.

You receive this righteousness when it is preached and offered in the Gospel. You can’t have it forced down your throat. It is a gift of God, of which no man can boast. The Holy Spirit appropriates this gift in the preaching of the Gospel, in your Baptism, in the Lord’s Supper, and in Absolution. These gifts create and sustain faith. These gifts give you what you are looking for: righteousness that exceeds the scribes and Pharisees.

Luther then continues, I extolled my sweetest word with a love as great as the hatred with which I had before hated the word “righteousness of God.” If you’ve read even one thing Luther has written, and you’ve read the Small Catechism so that’s at least one, you’ve learned how much Luther loved the phrase “righteousness of God”. You love that phrase too, for your salvation is built on it. Someone, Jesus, is righteous for you, in order that you are righteous before God Almighty. Standing before Him, robed in Jesus Christ and His glorious work on your behalf, the kingdom of heaven is yours for Jesus’ sake.

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David P. Scaer on The Ticklish Question of The Third Use of the Law

Confusion on the what is meant by the third use [of the law] has lead to its rejection by certain Lutheran theologians (See the Braaten-Jenson “Christian Dogmatics”, 2:275). This is somewhat of an internal embarrassment, since the third use of the law is entitled to a separate article in the Formula of Concord, the definitive confessional document for Lutherans. For others the third use of the law has been interpreted simply to mean that the first and second uses of the law remain in force. Such a view is not the Lutheran one, even though some Lutherans have claimed this definition. The introduction of the law into the life of the Christian seems a legalistic intrusion denying the freedom of the gospel or turning the gospel into law because the gospel requires or demands certain types of behavior. In answering this ticklish question for Lutherans, I would like to make reference to Luther’s understanding of the Ten Commandments in his Small Catechism as a way out of this dilemma. The reformer’s explanations of the commandments, with the exception of the first and sixth, have two parts: negative prohibitions and positive requirements. Thus the one on killing prohibits bodily harm to our neighbor and requires providing for his physical needs. The one on stealing prohibits any attempt, even if it legal, to obtain the neighbor’s property. Rather he is required to help the neighbor improve it. Luther by not mentioning outward robbery and murder assumes that the Christian simply will not do these things. Gross immorality is out of range for the Christian, but refraining from it does not even begin to fulfill the commandments. Any harm to the neighbor breaks the commandments. You may not rob the neighbor, but if you manipulate law or contract to deprive him of his property, you stand condemned. Perhaps Luther’s delineation of the law of God to less than blatant transgressions is acceptable by all. But Luther reverses the negative prohibition into the positive requirement of helping the neighbor, especially in his distress. The prohibition against cursing God becomes a requirement to pray. Instead of saying foul things about our neighbor, even if they are true, we are to put the best construction on everything. Luther’s explanation of the first and sixth commandments have no prohibitions whatsoever. He turns the first commandment around so that the prohibition against idolatry becomes an invitation to faith. What was law is now gospel. About the sixth commandment Luther makes no mention of adultery, but says that spouses should honor and love one another.

In my estimation Luther’s positive intensification of the commandments is the work of theological genius. His explanation of the commandments are addressed to Christians, not non-Christians. They have nothing to say to civil law. Rather they are addressed to Christians as sinners and saints. Man as a sinner cannot escape the negative prohibitions of the law, but at the same time the Christian is addressed as a saint, taken back to that original paradise situation in which he loves God and his neighbor. The Christian, since he is in Christ and Christ in him, even before he becomes aware of the possibility of fulfilling the law, is actually fulfilling the law.

Has Luther manipulated the Ten Commandments beyond their recognition by following the negative prohibitions with positive suggestions? Here is the law in its pristine sense as positive requirement as it was known before the fall into sin. Here is the law as it was fulfilled in Christ. All of the positive descriptions of the law in the Christian’s life are really only Christological statements, things which Jesus did and which reached their perfection in him. The fulfilled law is Christological, as it is the account of the life and death of Jesus. He loved God with his whole heart, he prayed to God, he heard the word of God and kept it, he honored his parents, he helped those in bodily distress, he lived a life of pure thoughts, he provided for those in financial distress, he spoke well of others, he had no evil desires. Christ is the fulfillment of the law not only in the sense that all the Old Testament prophets spoke of him, but he is the positive affirmation of what God requires of us and what God is in himself. In Christ the tension of the law and the gospel is resolved.

Luther’s understanding of the commandments as positive Christological affirmations are similar to the parable of the Good Samaritan, though I could hardly demonstrate any influence this pericope was on the reformer’s mind. The commandments are not really fulfilled by refraining from the prohibited evil, but helping the stricken traveler. Thus Christians should be embarrassed into making any unwarranted claim to moral perfection for themselves. They should be so engaged in positive good that they have no time to think about their personal morality or holiness.

How did Luther come to such a radical contradiction which required that the Christian think of himself as total sinner and as a person who accomplished only the good things which Christ did? He took the first commandment with its prohibition against idolatry and turned it into an invitation to faith: “We should fear, love, and trust in God above all things.” The first commandment is transformed into a statement of the gospel. But the reformer was not playing fast and free with the commandments, as in Exodus the commandments really begin with a statement of redemption: “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the land of bondage.”

– David P. Scaer, “The Law and the Gospel in Lutheran Theology”

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David P. Scaer on Law and Gospel As A Homiletical Device

Law and gospel must also be understood as the basic homiletical device in the church. The sermon must reflect the tension created by the God who condemns and redeems the Christian at the same time. The hearer must never be allowed to fall back on the laurels of his own morality or spiritual accomplishments. The listener is pummeled continuously by the law and the gospel. Testimonies of spiritual greatness must be replaced by the proclamation of God’s fulfilling of his own law in Christ and the freedom which is now given the Christian in Christ. The law and the gospel should be seen as the key to man’s existential self-dilemma in understanding himself and his relationship to God. If the universal atonement means anything, it means that God had satisfied all of the law’s requirements, its demands and penalties, in the person of God’s Son, Jesus Christ. The law no longer can describe how God views man. The gospel can never be nullified. The gospel is never conditional, since incarnation and atonement are permanent realities with God. Our moral and spiritual failures do not trigger a negative response in God so that he returns to the old covenant. The former agenda of penalty is not reinstated. This has been satisfied once and for all. For what reason is anyone now condemned, if the law is not in effect? A great condemnation awaits those who reject God’s free gift in Christ. Under the covenant of the law, we failed to do what God required. Those who reject the gospel have not failed to fulfill a requirement, that would make the gospel only another law, they have rejected what God has freely done. Sinners are accepted by Christ. Those who reject him are not.

Two sayings are attributed to Luther. He promised a doctor’s cap to any one who could rightly distinguish between the law and the gospel. Even theologians who can dogmatically distinguish between them cannot preach it. The other has to do with good works. The Christian does not need the motivation of the law simply because he is so busy doing good works. Still the motivation of the law is there, but not law as demand, punishment, and reward, but law as fulfilled in Christ. In spite of the terrible spiritual agony Luther experienced as long as he lived, he was not a dour, gloomy or sullen person, as some other reformers were reputed to be. Quite to the contrary he never overcame some of his crude peasant speech, which today would be looked upon by some as signs of an unsanctified life. When faced with his own greatness, he said that God brought about the Reformation while he and Melanchthon drank beer. He was annoyed with Melanchthon’s obsession with minor sins and urged him to do something really sinful: “sin boldly.” As a hymn writer, where the brine of the middle ages merged with the sweet waters of the Reformation, Luther was unmatched. He spoke about the Christian merrily going about his business and doing good. The law and the gospel is the secret to understanding Luther. No longer is my chief concern restraining from moral evil and then coming to the conclusion that I have lived a sanctified life and thus triumphed. Christians are never free from sin, but they are so busy doing good, that even when they fall into sin as they do good, this is all covered by grace.

David P. Scaer, “The Law and the Gospel in Lutheran Theology

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