10 January 2007

On Breaking the Rules

My wife and I have an ongoing dispute about the best way to play pinochle. I am rather convinced that the game is INFINITELY more fun if you allow passing to your partner four cards, after the partner names trump. My wife likes the boring way of just playing what you were dealt. Now, my wife's friends in this parish (on this question they are not MY friends) all agree with her: they call the passing game cheating, or breaking the rules.

We laugh about it and well we should - it's just a game, and the rules are made up. A totally different situation obtains when it is not "game" but God's holy law. You see, I think too often we've conceived of sin as "breaking a rule" - in other words, it violates the rules of the game set up by the Creator. What we miss is that sin doesn't just "break a rule" - sin "breaks" a person. Sin damages us. Damages our souls. Morphs us into what God never intended us to be; corrupts and distorts. In this morning's OT reading we had Ezekiel 18: "Repent and turn from your iniquities, lest iniquity be your ruin... Why will you die, O house of Israel? For I have no pleasure in the death of anyone, declares the Lord God, so turn and live!"

Why does God hate sin? Because He's ticked off that we would dare to disobey His rules? No! Because He hates this satanic damage inflicted upon the creatures He made to share in His life forever.

So, the Christian can never not be concerned about sin in his or her life. Even as the Christian can and must rejoice in the forgiveness that God has reached us in Jesus Christ, the wiping out of the accusation of the law against our violations of it; we recognize that God not only wants to forgive us, He also wants to heal us. He calls for us to fight against sin by the power of His Holy Spirit. The person who can rejoice in and celebrate the wounds that sin causes and say: "But I'm forgiven!" is a person who has missed the point that Christ came to forgive sin *so that He might free us from it.*

Does that mean that we will ever be free from sin in this life? You know the answer from St. John. If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. But He goes on to add that if we confess our sins, God, the Faithful and Just, will forgive our sins *AND* cleanse us from all unrighteousness. In the words of the Blessed Apostle Paul:

"Since we have these promises, let us cleanse ourselves from every defilement of body and spirit, bringing holiness to completion in the fear of God." 2 Cor. 7:1

Lord God, we praise you for the forgiveness of sins in Jesus Christ our Lord. Cleanse us and heal us as we live under Your pardon and celebrate Your boundless mercy and love. Amen!


Paul T. McCain said...

Well said Pastor Weedon. Very well said indeed. It is so tempting for all of us to think, "Oh, it's ok, I am forgiven in Christ. It doesn't hurt me to do this." How tempting it is to go down that road and become cavalier about sin and excuse sin. How tempting for us to say, "I'm free in Christ! I'm not bound by any law!" and thereby think that somehow Christians are free from carefully watching themselves and what they do. Antinomianism is alive and well among Lutherans who, like Luther said, are great Easter preachers, but have a hard time being Pentecost preachers! I still think Kurt Marquart's article "Aversion to Sanctification" was precisely just what the doctor ordered on these issues. Some Lutherans in their zeal to put distance between themselves and the lack of Gospel in Evangelicalism have gone to far in avoiding the subject of good works and third use of the law and sanctification. Thanks for your post.

Pastor Paul T. McCain

Susan said...

We were talking about these things in Bible class last week. Now that we're done with Gen, Ex, Lev, Pastor decided to jump to John. We were talking about the WORD and the Spirit, and that all things were made by the WORD. And he kept drawing in all these different aspects of creation, and life's being entirely rooted in the WORD. It kinda gives a person a new perspective on the third commandment. How can a person have life apart from the Word which gives life? The third commandment isn't simply a rule; it's how we stay alive.

I just don't understand how a Christian can (like you said) celebrate the sin that caused Jesus' wounds that save us. And yet, one of my kids has friends who do enjoy sinning and revel in that antinomianism. Totally boggles the mind that they still call themselves Christians.

What I struggle with, though, is the equation of "avoiding preaching third use" and "antinomianism." I think those are often very different things. (Not that Pr Weedon commented on that, but Pr McCain did.) I guess what I wonder about, Pr Weedon, is how you would say we "cleanse ourselves" (a la 2 Cor 7). By trying to be good? Or by confessing and being absolved? Or by a little of both?

William Weedon said...

Hi, Susan.

How do we "cleanse ourselves"? Confessing and being absolved; hearing and reading and meditating upon the Word of God; by the Spirit's power putting to death the old man with his impulses and rising daily to the new life of love; welcoming the gift of the cross when God sends it; praying and watching in prayer; preparing for and receiving the most holy Eucharist. So, it's not a little of both, but a LOT of both! The new will that cooperates in all the works of the Holy Spirit - and the Spirit's work through the faithful use of both Word and Sacraments.

Make sense?

ptmccain said...

The Gospel is the *only* cleansing that there is. It frees us for new life in Christ. That is life lived according to the Law of God. And we are to strive to be good.

Why must this all be so complicated for some Lutherans?

Why is the Third Use of the Law so frightening for some Lutherans?

Can't we just stick with our Catechism: "All for which it is our duty to thank and praise, serve and obey"

"That I may be [wholly] His own, and live under Him in His kingdom, and serve Him in everlasting righteousness, innocence, and blessedness."

"When the Word of God is taught in its truth and purity, and we as the children of God also lead holy lives in accordance with it."

"When our heavenly Father gives us His Holy Spirit, so that by His grace we believe His holy Word and lead a godly life here in time and yonder in eternity."

This isn't complicated. "lead a godly life" means "lead a godly life." Of course, we "daily sin much" but this doesn't mean that we do not strive to and work at and struggle and labor faithfully to "lead holy lives!"

Sanctification is not only receiving forgiveness. It is the actual living out of the holiness we are given in Christ, through Christ alone, in Christ alone, always coming from Christ. It is, as Luther says:

"Not righteousness, but growth in righteousness. Not health but healing. Not being but becoming. Not rest but exersie. We are not yet what we shall be but we are GROWING toward it. The process is not yet finished but it is going on, this is not the end, but it is the road. All does not gleam in glory but all is being purified."

We are called to do good works, and that does NOT mean simply running to confession or taking Holy Communion or attending Divine Service. It means...doing good works! "Works serve the neighbor and supply the proof that faith is living" as the great hymn "Salvation Unto Us Has Come" confesses!

I'm sorry, but I'm very puzzled why some Lutherans are so anxious to avoid the full meaning of sanctification and want to reduce everything to justification and the second use of the law.

It is not Biblical. It is not Confessional. It is therefore not Lutheran, but it sure seems popular among some to avoid, nearly at all costs, talking about the realities of our life in Christ. Weird, since St. Paul sure didn't hesitate to talk about the blessed fruits of justification in the actual lives of believers.

I am convinced that indeed, truly, there is an aversion to sanctification out there.

Susan, just to be clear, your pastor is also your husband, Gary, right? : )

Anonymous said...

Brother Bill,

I certainly do not disagree with anything you and Paul have said.

As a preacher, however, it does get to be a bit complicated for me. Good works are fruits of the Gospel. There is an organic connection between the Gospel received (Justification) and Sanctification. That organic connection SHOULD BE EVIDENT in the structure of our preaching. I remember reading somewhere that much of Lutheran preaching treates the Gospel's place in the sermon as if it were a pearl in an oyster. You can take the pearl out of the oyster and not change the oyster at all. The pearl is not really a part of it. That's the danger we face when preaching good works---that we not preach good works in such a way that they are not organically connected to the Gospel we preach. Maybe I'm making this too difficult, but I struggle with it. I want to make sure that I preach in such a way that there is a connection between the hearer's life of self-sacrifice and Christ's self-sacrifice for the hearer. I want to make sure that the Gospel is *central* to the sermon in the fullest sense of the word.

I hope this makes sense.

Relating to the excellent and much needed discussion of this matter on Brother Paul's website a few weeks ago, there are some scholars who believe that Walther's sermons didn't reflect his own teachings on the proper distinction of law and gospel. Whether or not that is a legitimate critique, I'm certainly not in a position to know. However, this is an important issue for Lutheranism and I'm glad you and Paul have brought it up for discussion on several occasions.

Sorry if I've gotten a bit off topic in my remarks. It's all Paul's fault!! :-)

Pastor Thomas E. Fast

William Weedon said...


It makes a great deal of sense - especially the part about blaming Paul! ; )

Seriously, though. The intimate connection makes a great deal of sense. We dare never confuse justification with sanctification, but just as surely we dare never separate what God has joined together. Our Lord's pardoning verdict makes it possible for His coming to us to be the advent of Life itself. But the pardoning verdict without His coming to us would be - well utter emptiness and futility! He comes, who has pardoned our sins and now gives Himself into us AS our life. This is sanctification: living in union with Him, partaking ever more of His life as our very life. Because we do this so, well, incipiently, in this life, we MUST live under God's pardoning verdict to the very end, but the even as we live under it, we learn to increasingly live more and more in union with Him. His joys become our joys. His sorrows become our sorrows. His will becomes our will, and so on. Thus there is a putting to death in us of all that is NOT Him and His life, and that putting to death is not viewed as "law" but as the very Gospel itself. Christ GIVES us the death to the old Adam, liberates us from his bull, his unbelief and his fears.

Does that make any sense????

Anonymous said...

Thanks Bill. That's helpful. I'll have to re-read what you've written several times and try to inwardly digest it. But what I gleaned from my first reading seemed to me to make a great deal of sense.

I know that, dogmatically, what you say is very true. The difficult part for me is in the preaching of it. So that the urging people on to good works is urging Christ to people. I do not want, by my preaching, to create antinomians. This is what Paul (McCain) seems to be concerned about. OTOH, neither do I, in the way I preach, wish to create the antinomian's kissing cousin, Mr. moralist. I would like to learn to preach good works in such a way that the hearer considers it an exercise of his faith in the gospel. I don't think I pull this off too well.

Preaching continues to be a struggle. Thank you for the opportunity to air out some personal "demons" I find in the details of my homiletical efforts. Perhaps others struggle the same way I do.

Tom Fast

William Weedon said...


Maybe the way to get at it in preaching is to recognize that actions flow from being. So in preaching, we have the joy of reminding people whom God has made them to be, and then calling upon them to act consistently with that. Or as St. Paul would say: "To walk worthy of the calling you have received."

You are a priest! Baptized into Christ Jesus! Priests offer sacrifices. They pray, they offer their very selves to Christ, they sacrifice their wills to the Lord, etc. See Walther's treatment in the Old Lutheran quote for today.

Susan said...

Pr Weedon,
what you said to me and to Pr Fast does make sense. At least, it makes sense to me. But somehow, it sounds different from what Pr McCain is saying. Maybe it's NOT different. But it SOUNDS different.

And Pr McCain,
the pastor to whom I was referring isn't Gary (who is my pastor), but my other pastor (who is my father-confessor).

Paul T. McCain said...

For the record, yes, I do take full personal responsibility for anything that is confused, confusing, or causing confusion in any part of worldwide Lutheranism.

Just so you know.

And, I'm sorry I sound different from Pastor Weedon. I'm sure however he is most relieved to hear it.

Susan, it was not me speaking to you so much as Martin Luther in the Small Catechism. I respectfully encourage you to reflect on the numerous texts in the New Testament and our Lutheran Confessions that do clearly urge us, as baptized Christians, to strive to do good works, to lead lives worthy of our calling. The law always accuses, but does not only accuse, or just accuse.

I don't see in how you are talking any recognition of the place of the law according to its third use. Maybe I'm misunderstanding you.


William Weedon said...


Ha! Glad to know where we should lay the blame for the mess. I will remember that. ; )


As to the difference in the way it comes across, I'm at a bit of a loss. I agree with everything Pastor McCain wrote on this topic. I think he agrees with all I've said on it. I suspect the difference is more style than anything else; I tend to be more verbose than he. He just says his piece.

ptmccain said...

What Weedon said. :)

ptmccain said...

Another thought:

All this hand-wringing over preaching about good works strikes me as, in at least one respect, so unnecessary. Let me explain.

While, of course, it is always a salutary thing to examine our lives and our doctrine closely, on the other hand, to keep wringing our hands over preaching good works finally strikes me as self-deception. OK, let me explain that.

We talk about how "concerned" we are about it and on, and on, and on, but in the end all I finally see happening is we are creating elaborately crafted theological constructs to excuse ourselves from preaching good works, from exhorting Christians to do them, etc. And to suggest that if we but preach the "LAW" in such a way as to be constantly informing Christians that they are poor, miserable, damned sinners, we come precipitously close to violating the 18th thesis of Law and Gospel by Walther, to preach to Christians in such a way that we leave them with the impression they are still damned sinners, etc.

Here is what helped the light bulb go on for me. I have spent extensive time reading and studying Luther's preaching and rhetoric. I have read extensively in Walther's sermons. I realized that these two men, whom I think it can be said fairly said more about the proper distinction between Law and Gospel than anyone else, themselves seemed to be improperly distinguishing between Law and Gospel, or so I arrogantly thought.

You see I had permitted speculations of a handful of 20th century American Missouri Synod Lutheran professors cloud my judgement terribly and lead me to believe that in fact "we" are the ones who "get it" and "they" do not get it.

But I'm realizing in fact we are the ones who are so desperately wrong here. We have allowed a bizarre extension of the proper distinction between Law and Gospel to move us to the point that in fact we are becoming Gospel reductionists and antinomians.

When I read Holy Scripture and the Lutheran Confessions I find none of this "we can only but read Scripture and see our sin and that all is lost for us." Yes, we see that, always, but we also read of the new life in Christ that is ours as a gift, a lifelong call to struggle with the old sinful flesh, but one in which we are in fact empowered to rise each day, according to the New Man and live in such a way that we do thank and praise, serve and obey.

Imperfectly, yes. Still sinners? Yes, but also very much saints called to the life of holiness in our Lord.

For what is worth. My, that was wordy. Bill, honestly, nobody has ever so kindly suggested I'm known for brevity. That must mean you are terribly long windeded person if you think I'm brief!

: )

Anonymous said...

Dear Pastor McCain,

In relation to your last comments, there's an old saying that goes like this: If you throw a rock into a herd of pigs, the one that squeals is the one that got hit.

I'm squealing a little bit right now.

I'm also getting a headache!

I agree with what you and Bill say, but I do have ongoing concerns about how best to preach. I'm quite sure my concerns aren't antinomian in nature. I'm fairly sure my concerns aren't "gospel reductionist" either. But I must admit that my concerns may well not be valid, either. I just want my preaching to leave people "in Christ" and not under the law. That's all. And, of course, Christ is our Justification AND Sanctification.

I'd better quit for awhile or I'll be up all night wrestling with this.


Tom Fast

William Weedon said...


Get the Walther book. It's really unbelievable. How's this for laying it out:

"A Christian who will not continually fight against sin, earnestly strive after the virtues that please God, faithfully watch over his heart and life, and always pray for new power and grace soon ceases to be a Christian.... Many are also lost when, after they have been converted by the grace of God, they do not cooperate with the Holy Ghost. They think that, having fought through the difficult battle of repentance, they immediately enter the harbor of peace. Believing that grace does everything, they are deceived into the sleep of security, although that thought of grace should fill them with a desire to be godly. They do not watch, fight, or pray. They do not work out their salvation with fear and trembling, and behold, they are lost." p. 259

Paul T. McCain said...

Tom, I have no reason to compare you to a herd of pigs! And I would not throw rocks at pigs. They are too cute, even when they are messy and muddy.

I think it is good you have ongoing concerns how best to preach. My respectful advice is don't sweat it. Read the sermons of Luther and Walther and then go for it.

Weedon's a good preacher too!

I have no idea how we got to the point that we are so slavishly wedded to a preaching "formula" that faithful and good pastors like you are tied in knots over this.

I think it is a general over-reaction to Evangelicalism.

I'm sounding the same tune here, but Marquart's "Aversion to Sanctification" article was so right.

If I have to endure reading one more formulaic "confessional" sermon that goes like this:

You are all sinners, but ....
Jesus loves you and forgives you.
Come take Holy Communion. Amen.

I'm going to scream.

Hang in there Tom. I was not singling you out with my comments, I am just concernd that some guys have so divorced themselves from sanctification preaching that they react as if mentioning the good works we are called to do, yes, even at the end of the sermon, is somehow a sin!

It just isn't.

Lots to think about, to be sure.

And, again, I do take full responsibility for all the concerns and troubles and confusions on these issues. I know it is all my fault.

: )

Paul T. McCain said...

By the way, that's a great quote. Walther just does not let people off the hook and give them a "Gospel" pat on the head and tell them what good boys and girls they are, he is simply preaching the very Word of God!

Does it convict me of sin? You damn well better believe it [literally!].

But does it also offer me the kind of direction and encouragement I desperately need? Yes, thanks be to God.

We Lutherans talk about how we are both old and new man, but it sure seems we can't ever talk about anything other than the old man. That's depressing.

Luther never hesitated to speak with such joy about the good works we were created for!

We have enslaved ourselves into our dogmatic cateogies and have become their servants, rather than their masters.

Ok, enough for tonight.

Paul T. McCain said...

Why is it that I and others can not even breathe a word about the good works we are called to do without this immediate reaction: But Christ is our sanctification!

Yes, of course He is. Who says He is not? But the point simply is that the New Testament, Christ Himself and the Blessed Apostles simply do not allow us to dismiss sanctification as OUR works and OUR cooperation with the sanctifying grace of the Holy Spirit?

This is just an assumption in our Confessions because it simply is what the Bible teaches!

We can keep justification and sanctification straight and properly distinguished, but it does not require us always to turn sanctification into justification. There is a proper distinction between justification and sanctification.

Of course it is all about Christ, but Christ at work in US and we are empowered to strive for, to work for and to do good work!

We are God's workmanship, created in Christ Jesus, to do those works prepared in advance for us to do. I just came up with that insight, by the way. I'm sure I didn't read it anywhere!

Blessings and peace!


Anonymous said...

Thanks, Bill and Paul, for your charitable and helpful comments. I will continue to think on these things. That Walther book looks good, too. FWIW, I just started reading this evening a book Rev. Ben Mayes turned me onto: "The Reformation of the Keys" by Ronald K. Rittgers. It looks to be a fascinating and helpful read. Howeveer, between all of your comments and the subject matter of this book, my head is spinning. I'd better go have a good beer and then hit the proverbial hay.

Thanks, brothers, for your time and efforts.