Confessional Lutherans were tantalized by the idea of other denominations adopting Law/Gospel language in the expectation that it might lay a bridge across the Missouri. There were high hopes for former Presbyterian pastor Tullian Tchividjian to be the celebrity convert whose high profile would slipstream thousands of closeted Lutherans into the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod (LCMS).
Editor’s Note: Even the Brothers of John the Steadfast had high hopes for this and published an interview of Mr. Tchividjian. In hindsight this was a mistake as it introduced our readers to a false teacher and charlatan.
Tchividjian made Law and Gospel so central to his public identity that his own denomination became suspicious, and Lutherans became solicitous. Alas, he fell off the antinomian side of the horse with adulterous scandals that briefly interrupted his career as a pastor and celebrity speaker. He is now back in the pulpit in defiance of Titus 1:6-7.
Consequently, any bridge-building to other denominations via the Law/Gospel hermeneutic can be written off for a very long time.
Tchividjian’s critics crowed that his scandals proved that Law/Gospel distinctions are a deformed theology that rejects sanctification. They are more content than ever to see Calvinism as a necessary refinement of Lutheranism.
It does not help that Tchividjian’s comeback sermon at a synergistic church had a bold false teaching, “[God] loves us because we are bad and dirty.”
No, God loves us despite how bad and dirty we are – even the wicked are blessed with children, food, and material wealth. God has no desire to find us wallowing in our swill, so he provides the means of atonement and salvation through the birth, life, suffering, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus Christ. We are Christians only because of granted faith in the person and work of Christ, not because God has an affinity for dumpster diving to find us in our most sinful state.
Tchividjian’s statement was tagged onto a riff hinting at a more authentic justification for sinners whose depravity runs deepest in a nihilistic world.
“God meets us in messy places because messy places are all that there are. He comes to meet us in dark places because dark places are all that there are.”
That is a confusion of Law and Gospel, but it is hardly unique. It is symptomatic of the “grace alonely” movement and its obsession with “raw stories” of redemption. (Grace “alonely” is adapted from Pastor Brian Kachelmeier’s fantastic axioms about “grace alone” versus “grace only”, which he will develop when speaking on “The Grace of Justification vs. the Grace of Self-Justification” at the upcoming Steadfast Lutherans Conference).
We might fairly trace the growth of the audience for Tchividjian’s grace alonely ideas to the influence of the White Horse Inn (WHI). He is, arguably, an outgrowth of WHI’s pan-Protestant cry for a “Modern Reformation” as a corrective to the errors and excesses of American Evangelicalism.
The notion of a uniting “Reformation Theology” is anchored in the ecumenical setting for WHI’s broadcasts where doctrinal disputes are acknowledged, but glossed over. There is a persistent, if unspoken, declaration of a common confession that hints at a reconciliation between Luther and Zwingli.
The notion of a “Reformation Theology” is extremely seductive for Christians weary and wary of sectarian rivalries and strife. They are only too eager to embrace a statement of belief that reads something like, “We all preach, teach, and confess Jesus Christ crucified and risen for the sins of the world”.
It is a reductionist creed that is necessary, but not nearly sufficient. Yet that has not stopped its kudzu-like invasion of most denominations.
It was visible in Tchividjian’s Liberate network, and it is visible in its step-child, Christ Hold Fast (CHF). The ‘missional’ faction of the LCMS has certainly been seduced by the appeal to unity and common purpose as embodied by FiveTwo.
Tchividjian could eloquently expound on Law and Gospel in a way that made Lutherans swoon, but he never actually apprehended it because he publicly rejected the real presence in Holy Communion, and did not meet the requirements of the OHM. Yet, even his version of Law and Gospel was and is severely distorted because he rejects the Third Use of the Law, and treats any use of the Law in a Christian’s life as de facto legalism.
The White Horse Inn can talk movingly about the “greatest story ever told” in Law/Gospel terms, but even the brilliant Michael Horton, if he is consistent, is left with only the Law. Preston Sprinkle can communicate with skill about the Gospel at CHF, but he only has the Law because he rejects Word and Sacrament ministry, and the OHM – the very means through which God gives the gifts of the Gospel.
To speak about justification in an orthodox way is not the same thing as to practice its delivery and reception. Without the offices and mechanisms to distribute and receive God’s Grace, Law and Gospel is just Law. When the means of grace are abridged in any way, Law and Gospel is just Law. Without the OHM, Law and Gospel is just Law. When the OHM is modified in any way, Law and Gospel ends up being just Law.
The only “Reformation Theology” that exists is found in the steadfast, life-giving doctrines of the Evangelical Lutheran Church because they are faithful to Scripture. Let us be content and thankful, but unyielding.
“These [Lutheran] congregations are normally not very flashy, not very large, and not very exciting. They are humble churches with humble people and pastors whose treasure is the Pure Word of God, Law and Gospel, and the Sacraments.”