Demanding the Gospel or a Gospel that Demands?

The hallmark for Lutheran preaching and teaching has long been the presence and proper distinction of law and Gospel. In short, it is the division of God’s Word that, on the one hand, declares what God demands of you, and on the other hand, proclaims what God has done for you in Jesus Christ.

In his classic work, Law and Gospel, C. F. W. Walther asserts that the “Law is anything that refers to what we are to do,” while “the Gospel, or the Creed, is any doctrine or word of God that does not require works from us and does not command us to do something but bids us simply to accept as a gift the gracious forgiveness of sins and the everlasting bliss offered us.” This division of law and Gospel has long been one of the defining characteristics that make Lutherans, and their theology, distinct in their understanding and application of God’s Word. Historically, it has been standard Lutheran operating procedure.

However, the current “missional” and “emergent” church debates have drawn this practice into question. In short, the movement’s stated goal is to return a wayward church to its original “mission” by unabashedly following the Great Commission and calling all Christians to obey Jesus’ command to make disciples of all nations. Consequently, it often critiques Christians, congregations, and whole denominations, for dismissing the need to seek and save the lost.

As Lutherans feel they have always maintained theological clarity regarding the nature and mission of the church, (AC VII) the movement is viewed with uncertainty by some, particularly when the Gospel is portrayed as a demand of obedience. Thus, when “traditional” Lutherans and “missional” Lutherans (for lack of better terms) debate the nature and mission of the Holy Christian Church, the issue often gets boiled down to the nature of what Jesus told us to do versus what Jesus has done for us. To be sure, Jesus did both. But how we speak about them (i.e. our preaching and teaching), as well as our (in)ability to talk collegially with one another, has become the issue.

On the one hand, there is the refrain, “Jesus commanded us to go and make disciples and we have to obey that command. Jesus demands it.” If we don’t, depending on the author or person speaking, the legitimacy and authenticity of our faith may be called into question. On the other hand, there is the simple exhortation, (as above) that the Gospel makes no demands.

True, Luther was unequivocal about the Gospel: “The Gospel, however, is a blessed word; it makes no demands on us but only proclaims everything that is good, namely, that God has given His only Son for us poor sinners. This good news also includes that He is to be our Shepherd, seeking us starving and scattered sheep, giving His life for us, redeeming us from sin, everlasting death, and the power of the devil.” Yet, Jesus did say, “Go and make disciples” (Matt. 28:19). What’s a Lutheran to do?

Maybe it comes down to letting all the words of Jesus be the words of Jesus, and not just our favorite few. And maybe it means duly noting and distinguishing all of His words (and actions) of law, and all his words (and actions) of Gospel. This way the law remains the law, and the Gospel remains the Gospel.

Historically, for a Lutheran to make the Gospel into a burden of obedience is a high offense. Lutherans have long cherished the claim that the Gospel frees. That is, it does not coerce, it does not force, and it does not insist. Rather, Lutherans have long held that it is the law that demands: “You shall do this” and “You shall not do that.”

What is more, not only does the law demand obedience, but it accuses us when we fail to fulfill it. But the Gospel makes no demands whatsoever! It is all gift. It is all love. It utterly frees. It frees us from our sins. It frees us to love others. Not because we “have” to, not because we “get” to, but simply because that is what Christ’s love for us and in us does to us.

Likewise, the Gospel frees us to share our faith and to give witness to others, not because we “have” to, not because we “need” to, but because (by the Holy Spirit) we are freed to. This is the proclamation of the Gospel. To make it a demand (i.e. following Jesus means you must sell your house, you must give to the poor, you must go on a mission trip, you must forget retirement, and you must work only for the Gospel), burdens the conscience, destroys the freedom of the Gospel, and no longer trusts the Holy Spirit to do what He says He will do. Sure, the law can demand things of us, but the Gospel does not “demand.” It does not burden. It frees.

Yes, the freedom of the Gospel permits us not to love others. But then we must deal with the law. For here is the right work of the law: it convicts and condemns us for our lack of love and drives us to repentance, back into the gift of the Gospel, and back to the freedom and power of the Gospel, wherein we go about doing the works (loving, serving, witnessing) God has prepared in advance for us to do.

It is a high art to rightly preach and teach law and Gospel. Lutherans have long held to this endeavor. Given the current church debates, and current confusion about the mission of the Church, I think it is worth revisiting.

What do you think? Am I making a mountain out of a mole hill? Does the recent mandate to be “missional” have tendencies to make the Gospel into law? Or is the desire for right doctrine (rightly dividing law and Gospel) promote hair splitting?

As always, I invite your collegial and constructive comments and reactions as we seek to dialogue about what it means to be a 21st century Lutheran who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Timothy 2:4).

Yours,

Rev. Woodford

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3 responses to “Demanding the Gospel or a Gospel that Demands?

  1. Rev. Kevin Jennings

    Pastor Woodford, you bring a very timely topic to the table.

    To demand the Gospel is not wrong but necessary and especially today. I teach my confirmands to ask questions when listening to sermons: Did Jesus have to die for this to be true? Where is His blood in this sermon? If it’s not there, why is it being preached?

    Recalling past posts on this list. the whole “missional” movement is suspect because, I believe, it does not have roots in the Bible. In short, the missional movement smacks of the monastery which Luther rightly raked over the coals numerous times. The Gospel is not something to do; it is a message to be believed. Again, with the confirmands, I teach them every year that the Gospel is 1 Corinthians 15:3ff (the first importance stuff of Paul). It’s the old bait and switch of, “Sure, we need the Gospel (in its proper sense) so we can get to the really important stuff we need to do.”

    The absolute worst thing the missional movement does in terms of the laity is delegitimate Christian vocation. The mission of the Church is carried out as Christians live out their vocations, testifying in word and deed to those around them in those vocations. The Church’s task, I believe, is to feed with the solid, rib-sticking food of the Gospel.

    I do not believe the proper distinction between Law and Gospel is splitting hairs, but I do believe Walther’s lectures and theses may in fact reveal the split tongue that calls itself missional.

  2. This, once again is a wonderful illustration of what is currently taking place inside Christianity. I would most assuredly say that this topic is in no way splitting hairs. We must not let the Gospel turn into work because we have destroyed the very reason why Christ came and died for us on the Cross. The purpose was not to give us another mission burdening our conscience with this idea of spreading the Gospel but to receive the Gospel, and whatever vocation we find ourselves in living out that faith that we received. In a recent conversation I had concerning this very issue of Christian vocation I asked “How does a person measure the amount of spreading they have done? Do we all need to go to a third world country and tell people about Christ, or stop people in the street to share Christ? How do I know that I’m doing enough “spreading of the Gospel”. Can I do to much? Can I do to little?” And it seems that these questions are not taken into account. This mission minded mentality is dangerous ground to be walking on, although well intended still dangerous. We can’t allow the determination of whether or not we are Christians lie with ourselves. In no way should we look to what we have done, did, or are going to do, to legitimize our status as a Christian. “Are you fulfilling the Great Commission?” I don’t think there is a way to answer that. Not only is this idea dangerous to the individual but it is dangerous to an entire congregation because even on a Sunday morning, when we should be coming together to hear God’s Word and be strengthened in faith, these mission minded Churches make it about a work. And at the end of the service its all about committing yourself to Christ. While the time we come together to hear God’s Word should be geared toward the Baptized Christian, in the emerging church it is geared toward the lost. People gasp with horror when you suggest that the service isn’t meant for the unbeliever but for the believer. In these services that gear themselves towards the lost, I’ve found from personal experience, that you feel like you haven’t done enough. “Why am I hearing about altar calls at the end of every service? Haven’t I already made my “decision”?” Honestly the guilt starts to pour in, if a person is honest with themselves because you have a pastor on a stage saying “You just need to make that decision and let God into your life”. Missional from the stage to the individual is creating a Church that isn’t looking out for the well being of the congregation but rather the lost, and how are we to be a light to the world if we are not constantly hearing about our forgiveness in Christ but rather how to live to please God, or what we are to do throughout the week to bring people to Church. Let the mission of the LCMS be, gathering to hear the Word preached and receive the Sacraments so that we can be strengthened in the true faith and live in the good works that God has prepared for us to do in advance.

    -Marcus Williams

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