The Issue, Part II

[Read the first part here.]

Why do all, or nearly all, of our (Lutheran–but a very convincing case can be made that the mainline denominations are simply further along the degeneration caused by a Law/Gospel polarity) problems stem from the central issue of failing properly to distinguish Law and Gospel? 

Think about your conversations on closed communion, women’s ordination, or any other issue where you (if you are orthodox) say something ought not to be done.  What does your conversation partner respond, sooner or later, depending on how much American Lutheranism they’ve absorbed?  “You can’t say ‘no’ to that.  That’s the Law.  We live in the Gospel.  You can’t exclude people from the Table–that’s Law.  You can’t say women can’t be ordained–that’s Law.  You can’t tell me not to use this heretical song in my service–that’s Law.  You can’t tell me to give money for the congregation and the poor–that’s Law.  You can’t tell me not to divorce my wife–that’s Law.  You can’t tell me not to have sex with my girlfriend–that’s Law.”  Etc., etc., etc.  In all of these things, Law is bad and Gospel is good.  Anything that sounds like Law–let’s be clear: is Law–is ruled out and you’re left muttering something incoherent because you know that we’re supposed to be under the Gospel and not the Law.  At this point, you’ve got absolutely no retort if you’ve been fully indoctrinated with the Law vs. Gospel paradigm.  They’ve won that and every other argument.  Why do you think it is that the heretical parties in all mainline denominations have been so successful?  It’s not because they’re more numerous.  It’s because they have “the Gospel” on their side, and all you’ve got is that stale, old Law.  The Law is not nice.  It’s not polite.  It’s not “open and accepting.”  Who wants to be on the side of the Law? 

And it’s the Law–God’s Law–that has become the problem, and the sinner is off the hook.  You see, we had it backwards in the ’70s.  We knew they couldn’t mess with the Bible.  We did not realize that it is only the proper distinction between Law and Gospel that will prevent the Bible from being lost.  If we had told them to get lost with their Law/Gospel reductionism, we would have been more likely to have kept the Scriptures as the prophetic and apostolic witnesses to Christ, and we also could have retained a strong foundation with which to fight anti-Christian attacks on the Office of the Holy Ministry and the Lord’s Supper. 

Thus, if we do not return to a Scriptural, Lutheran understanding of Law and Gospel, the altars will be open, the ministry will be open, marriage will be no more (that one’s pretty much gone anyway), and Christians will (continue to) live like pagans.  Those are the consequences.  Will we stem the tide soon enough?  Only God knows.  Perhaps the Gospel will, as Luther predicted (rightly) of Germany, move on from Missouri.


The Issue

The other day, Pr. Petersen asked what the next big issue would be in the LCMS.  On what would future generations, he wondered, look back and ask, “What could they have been thinking?”  He proposed infant communion. 

I am opposed to that practice for a few reasons.  One, I think that it is impossible for infants to recognize the Body of the Lord in the Supper.  Most of the arguments seem to revolve around paralleling the reception of the Supper by an infant to reception of baptism.  But Baptism and the Lord’s Supper are not the same.  We should not start from the premise that they are both “sacraments” and then elucidate the similarities.  We should treat them as what they are in themselves–related, to be sure, but not the same.  I am, however, in favor of a lowering of the age of first communion. 

But that’s not the point of this post.  I do not think infant communion will be the major issue of my or my children’s generation.  Whatever we decide about that particular practice pales in comparison to the faultline that is buried under the LCMS currently.  We’re simply waiting for the Big One to shake the whole thing to pieces.  Some other issues that people listed were women’s ordination and (closed) communion practice.  These are symptoms of what I think actually will be the issue, if the LCMS will survive as a vehicle of the Gospel.  (Churches survive past their usefulness all the time; it’s whether they remain Christian that’s important.) 

What will be the issue?  It will be Law and Gospel.  You would think that a church body which has as a primary text Walther’s  Proper Distinction would have no problem distinguishing them.  And yet, I see nearly all of our current problems and disagreements stemming from a fundamental failure to distinguish Law and Gospel correctly.  You can trace this problem back prior to Seminex.  We seem to have thought that kicking out those ungodly Bible-deniers would solve the problem.  I contend that we won a battle, but ultimately lost the war (or we will lose if we do not figure this out).

Here’s the issue as clearly as I can articulate it:  Simplistically, the Scriptures contain Law and Gospel.  The Gospel–that sinners are forgiven for Jesus’ sake–is, as everyone knows, an unquestionable good.  The Law is what condemns us (sinners) before God.  Therefore, in Christ, the Gospel overcomes the Law’s verdict about us.  Without much alteration, this outline became the Gospel overcomes the Law.  The dialogue became a polarity: Law vs. Gospel.  Thus my professors in college could utter nonsense like “God’s Gospel contradicts God’s Law.”  Even “the Gospel trumps the Law” is incorrect.  All of this makes the Law the problem.  It is the Law versus the Gospel.  Which side are you on?

Which is stupid.  I’m on God’s side.  Both are God’s Words.  The Gospel doesn’t trump the Law, as if there were some inner battle going on in God between His Law–which, in the reductionist’s schema, eventually stops being God’s at all–and His Gospel.  What happened to the sinner?  Basically irrelevant.  No, the Law kills the sinner and the Gospel raises him to life.  They work on the sinner, not each other.  Let’s put it clearly for the sake of the reductionists: Law=good; sinner=bad.

The Gospel is what puts us into the same relationship with the Father that the Son has.  In fact, here’s something to really get your reductionistic Lutheran knickers in a knot: it is the Gospel, not the Law, that will pass away at the eschaton.  We will rejoice fully in the Law for eternity, because the Law, broadly understood, is simply how God set things up.  It is how God made things to work in the beginning, and it is life in right relationship with God for which we were made and for which we wait in eager expectation.