Our preaching needs to serve and communicate the three permanent witnesses on earth, the spirit (or the blessed Gospel words which are spirit and life, St. Jn. 6:63), the water of Holy Baptism, and the Blood of the New Testament, I John 5:8. It is through these blessed Gospel-channels that the divine life of faith is transmitted to us sinners.
This, however, does not imply indifference to sanctification. Our Confessions stress its importance everywhere. Indeed, they insist that sanctification, as the precious fruit of justifying faith, must grow and increase in us. The Apology teaches “that we ought to begin to keep the law and then keep it more and more” (IV,124, p. 140). Again: “For we do not abolish the law, Paul says [Rom. 3:31], but we establish it, because when we receive the Holy Spirit by faith the fulfillment of the law necessarily follows, through which love, patience, chastity, and other fruits of the Spirit continually grow” (XX,15, p. 237).
Luther’s Large Catechism teaches that the Holy Spirit through the Word “creates and increases holiness, causing it daily to grow and become strong in the faith and in its fruits.” Also: “holiness has begun and is growing daily.” Again: “All this, then, is the office and work of the Holy Spirit, to begin and daily increase holiness on earth through these two means, the Christian church and the forgiveness of sins” (Creed, pp. 438, 439).
Further: “Now, when we enter Christ’s kingdom, this corruption must daily decrease so that the longer we live the more gentle, patient, and meek we become, and the more we break away from greed, hatred, envy, and pride” (Baptism, p. 465). And the Formula of Concord teaches that the Holy Spirit “cleanses human beings and daily makes them more upright and holier.” Also: the Spirit “creates and increases holiness, causing it daily to grow and become strong in the faith and in the fruits which the Spirit produces. . . He brings us into the Christian community, in which he sanctifies us and brings about in us a daily increase in faith and good works” (II, p. 551).
Sometimes we are told that sanctification is best left to itself, that conscious attempts to please God lead to hypocrisy, and that if we just preach the Gospel, sanctification will happen automatically. No, we are not automata. We have a renewed will, which “is not idle in the daily practice of repentance but cooperates in all the works of the Holy Spirit that He accomplishes through us” (Formula of Concord, SD, II,88, p. 561).
If being branches in the True Vine (St. Jn. 15) means that like plants we have no conscious intentions, but simply produce fruit “automatically,” then the same applies to the Vine Himself. And that is as absurd as saying that since Christ is the Way and the Door, He is as indifferent as ways and doors are to who is passing over or through them!
This pseudo-biblical argument is exactly parallel to that of the old antinomians, who argued that Christians will do the right things “without any teaching, admonition, exhortation, or prodding of the law, . . . just as in and of themselves the sun, the moon, and all the stars follow unimpeded the regular course God gave them once and for all” (FC, SD,VI,6, p. 588).
Clearly the New Testament exhortations to love and good works require conscious effort, not unthinking, automatic compliance with inner instincts! Thus St. Paul begs the Roman Christians by the mercies of God (which he had expounded in the preceding 11 chapters) to present their bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, as their “reasonable worship” (Rom. 12:1). And of himself he writes: “Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus” (Phil.3:13,14, NIV). No automatism or somnambulism (sleepwalking) here!
Antinomianism is undoubtedly a temptation for the Lutheran flesh. But the great Reformer opposed it. He spoke of the antinomians of his day,
who are preaching beautifully and (as I cannot but think) with real sincerity about Christ’s grace, about the forgiveness of sin and whatever else can be said about the doctrine of redemption. But they flee as if it were the very devil the consequence that they should tell the people about the third article, of sanctification, that is, of the new life in Christ.
They think one should not frighten or trouble the people, but rather always preach comfortingly about grace and the forgiveness of sins in Christ, and under no circumstances use these or similar words, “Listen! You want to be a Christian and at the same time remain an adulterer, a whoremonger, a drunken swine, arrogant, covetous, a usurer, envious, vindictive, malicious, etc.!”
Instead they say, “Listen! Though you are an adulterer, a whoremonger, a miser, or other kind of sinner, if you but believe, you are saved, and you need not fear the law. Christ has fulfilled it all!” . . .
They may be fine Easter preachers, but they are very poor Pentecost preachers, for they do not preach. . . “about the sanctification by the Holy Spirit,” but solely about the redemption of Jesus Christ, although Christ (whom they extol so highly, and rightly so) is Christ, that is, he has purchased redemption from sin and death so that the Holy Spirit might transform us out of the old Adam into new men. . .
Christ did not earn only gratia, “grace,” for us, but also donum, “the gift of the Holy Spirit,” so that we might have not only forgiveness of, but also cessation of, sin. Now he who does not abstain from sin, but persists in his evil life, must have a different Christ, that of the Antinomians; the real Christ is not there, even if all the angels would cry, “Christ! Christ!” He must be damned with this, his new Christ (“On the Councils and the Church,” Luther’s Works, vol. 41, pp. 113-114).
The Apology claims that our Reformation churches are characterized by “practical and clear sermons,” which “hold an audience” (XXIV, p. 267). Just what that means is made crystal clear in Article XV:
. . . the chief worship of God is to preach the Gospel . . . . in our churches all the sermons deal with topics like these: repentance, fear of God, faith in Christ, the righteousness of faith, prayer. . . the cross, respect for the magistrates and all civil orders, the distinction between the kingdom of Christ (the spiritual kingdom) and political affairs, marriage, the education and instruction of children, chastity, and all the works of love (p. 229).
Sanctification and good works clearly do not dominate Reformation preaching, but they are equally clearly an important part of it. This is important because the new creation in us is under constant attack by the devil, the world, and our own flesh. This new creation in us needs encouragement and care. To ignore it, to preach as if we had no new creation in us, but only the wicked old flesh, is to break the bruised reed and to quench the smoldering wick, contrary to Isaiah 42:3, cited in St. Mt. 12:20.
We preachers need to encourage our hearers as they battle for what is good and right and God-pleasing in their daily lives. And we must remember our own chief duty: to proclaim the divine truths of God’s Law and Gospel with truth and integrity, without compromise. Luther reminds us, in connection with the First Petition:
See, then, what a great need there is for this kind of prayer! Because we see that the world is full of sects and false teachers, all of whom wear the holy name as a cloak and warrant for their devilish doctrine, we ought constantly to shout and cry out against all who preach and believe falsely and against those who want to attack, persecute, and suppress our gospel and pure doctrine, as the bishops, tyrants, fanatics, and others do. Likewise, this petition is for ourselves who have the Word of God but are ungrateful for it and fail to live according to it as we ought (Large Catechism, p. 446).
In our age of rampant bureaucratism and organisationalism, which creep also into the church, yes, even into the orthodox church, truth is perceived as the great disturber of the peace, as creating “divisiveness.” Against this superstition, we must refuse to be “dumb dogs” (Is. 56:10), but bear witness to the truth without fear or favor. The minister of the Gospel is there to serve God and His holy people with His truth. He is not there to flatter leaders and promote compromise, see Gal. 2:11-21.
But it is also vital to insist that the truth be spoken in love, so that it draws people rather than repelling them. The ancient church’s love towards the poor and the helpless was a great magnet that drew people to the alone-saving Gospel proclamation. Let us encourage our people to be conscious of our great missionary obligation, so that the church also in our day may draw the lost to the treasures of salvation.
Editor’s Note: This excerpt is taken from Dr. Marquart’s “The Third Use of The Law in The Formula of Concord”. All references from the Confessions are taken from the Kolb and Wengert edition.