Gospel Reductionism and Mission Reductionism, by Frederic W. Baue

Many in a previous generation of Missouri Synod theologians were persuaded by the blandishments of liberal scholars who argued that there was no Third Use of the Law. Lex semper accusat, they claimed. “The law always accuses.” The Christian is under no obligation to obey the law. Pastors should not preach sanctification. As long as you hold to the Gospel principle of love, you can do as you please.

John Warwick Montgomery called this “Gospel Reductionism.” Everything boiled down to one thing: the Gospel. Or at least the kind of Gospel where Jesus could say to the woman caught in adultery (John 8), “Neither do I condemn you,” but was forbidden to say, “Go and sin no more.”

This all coincided with Seminex and the Battle for the Bible. Praise God that battle was won, more or less, though no doubt a remnant of old Seminexers, like the graying hippies one still sees on California beaches, is still clinging to the principle of love, love, love.

But time marches on. Yesterday we fought the Battle for the Bible; today it is the Conflict over the Confessions.

Things were easier in the last war. People at least had heard of the Bible, even if they had never read it. So when Seminex came along and tried to take it away from them, they squawked. But many if not most of our laymen have never even heard of the Book of Concord, much less read it. Worse, many pastors who know what it is do not see it as normative for the daily life of the church. It was a book they had to study to graduate from seminary, but it’s no longer relevant. So it stays on the shelf, collecting dust.

What is relevant?


That is, some pragmatic, easy-to-use program in a three-ring binder, sold by a church consultant, that will measurably increase membership and attendance, even if it is not Lutheran, even if it is not consistent with the Confessions to which we bind ourselves by sacred ordination vows.

And why is this?

It is because the world is going to hell in a hand basket, because souls are being lost, because immorality is rampant. Therefore we must be all things to all men. We must be culturally relevant. We must make the music in church like the music people listen to outside of church. We have only fifteen minutes to grab the attention of a first-time visitor or they won’t come back. People have short attention spans, so we must engage them with entertainment, and with narrative preaching that appeals to felt needs. We must be market-driven, not product-driven. Lest anyone think that I am making this up, the comments above are all things fellow pastors have told me personally.

Hence it is not surprising to hear the current slogan, “Mission is job one.” Or, “There are sins of omission, sins of commission, and sins of no mission.” Clever. To which we may add, paraphrasing Vince Lombardi (whose talks to businessmen on leadership are no doubt being read by PLI students), “Mission is not the main thing, it is the only thing.” There it is. If mission is the only thing, here is what we have:

Mission Reductionism.

May we discern similarities between Gospel Reductionism and Mission Reductionism? Yes. Consider the following:

With Gospel Reductionism you could do as you liked as long as you adhered to, or at least gave lip service to, the first principle. With Mission Reductionism you can worship any way you like as long as you adhere to the first principle.

Gospel Reductionism was promoted by higher-ups in the church hierarchy who were not pastors and did not have to live with the consequences of immorality at the parish level. Mission Reductionism is being sold by upper-management Church Growth experts on the basis of theory, and keep their bureaucratic sinecures from one administration to the next no matter how many congregations and mission plants blow up as a result of their recommendations.

To illustrate, Ablaze! is being called a movement. But true movements start at the grass-roots level and move outward and upward. They develop organically, and their theoretical basis catches up with it later or, when the movement becomes established by the second generation. Ablaze is a top-down program that begins, like Communism or National Socialism, with a theoretical platform that is imposed mechanically upon followers.

Both Gospel Reductionism and Mission Reductionism aim at conformity to the world—the one in regard to individual conduct, the other in regard to parish life.

Both Gospel Reductionism and Mission Reductionism are reactive rather than proactive—the one over against the strictness of old German pastors and parents, the other over against the antinomianism that Gospel Mission Reductionism had brought about.

Neither Gospel Reductionism nor Mission Reductionism has much of a future. The first, part of the Battle for the Bible, was turned back in the 1970s by a lay-led movement that had a negative component—stopping the tide of liberalism in the LCMS—but more importantly a positive component, the restoration of the Bible as the sole source and norm of our doctrine and life. Thank God for the good work of those laymen! And subsequent developments in the poor ELCA, where the Battle for the Bible was never even fought, have shown what disaster results where Scripture is rejected.

Today, the  second part,  the Conflict over the Confessions, is being fought largely by clergy, especially the younger generation of parish pastors, many of whom have advanced degrees in theology but are happy in the pulpit. They have a negative component—to stop the tide of Baptist-style Evangelicalism in the LCMS—but more importantly a positive component, the restoration of the Lutheran Confessions as the norma normata, the defining articles of faith that make us distinctly and authentically Lutheran. Moreover, they are figuring out how to be authentic Lutherans in an English-speaking, American cultural context. This confessional renewal is a real movement. It began at the grass roots and is spreading outward and upward. Sooner or later it will make its mark politically, perhaps even as soon as the 2010 convention of Synod. Even if it does not, eventually it will, just as surely as the rising tide sweeps away all the castles built on sand—including Mission Reductionism—that were there and looked so promising only the day before.

 Rev. Frederic W. Baue, STS, Ph.D. is pastor of Bethany Lutheran Church, Fairview Heights, Illinois.

About Pastor Tim Rossow

Rev. Dr. Timothy Rossow is the Director of Development for Lutherans in Africa. He served Bethany Lutheran Church in Naperville, IL as the Sr. Pastor for 22 years (1994-2016) and was Sr. Pastor of Emmanuel Lutheran in Dearborn, MI prior to that. He is the founder of Brothers of John the Steadfast but handed off the Sr. Editor position to Rev. Joshua Scheer in 2015. He currently resides in Ocean Shores WA with his wife Phyllis. He regularly teaches in Africa. He also paints watercolors, reads philosophy and golfs. He is currently represented in two art galleries in the Pacific Northwest. His M Div is from Concordia, St. Louis and he has an MA in philosophy from St. Louis University and a D Min from Concordia, Fort Wayne.


Gospel Reductionism and Mission Reductionism, by Frederic W. Baue — 9 Comments

  1. Our enemy keeps dishing up the same leftovers.
    (Shuffling through a stack of old papers, I came across this article cut (including date and author’s name) from the end-of-the-19th century Northern Minnesota Luteranisches Pflappdudliches Nebelhorn. In a rare instance of Norwegian/Swede solidarity the Nebelhorn was scuttled and almost all copies subsequently disappeared. Nonetheless, where rare numbers can be found, it is clear that topics under discussion in both volumes were formative of theological trends; indeed, they are still vigorously propounded, and numerous citations in the respective translations from the original continue to surface in current publications. An excerpt from the Introduction):

    ..It may seem strange to us that the poignancy and pertinence of “The Lament for the Three Piglets”, so readily perceptible to even the average reader, has had the effect of closing the minds of many scholars to its extraordinary hermeneutical foundations and profound implications for our present-day situation. Beginning with the first verse:

    There was an old sow who had three little pigs,
    And three little piglets had she;
    And the old sow always said, “Hrpfougcch, hrpfougcch, hrpfougcch,”
    And the little pigs said, “Wee-wee-wee!”

    Now one day, one of these three little pigs
    To the other three piglets said he,
    “From now on let’s always say, “Hrpfougcch, hrpfougcch, hrpfougcch–
    It’s so childish to say, “Wee-wee-wee!”

    So these three piglets grew skinny and lean,
    As lean they might very well be;
    For they just couldn’t learn to say, “Hrpfougcch, hrpfougcch, hrpfougcch,”
    And they wouldn’t say, “Wee-wee-wee!”

    Then these three piglets, they up and died,
    A very sad sight to see.
    So don’t ever try to say, “Hrpfougcch, hrpfougcch, hrpfougcch,”
    When you only should say, “Wee-wee-wee-ee-ee!”
    (Translated from the original by F.Z.P. Traurigkeit, The Ministers’ Eisegetics, Vol. 44 p. 718)
    That this striking poetry with its vertical and horizontal parallelism and patent roots in the TH, U, and PF sources should have been excised from the canon is revealing in itself. Prophetic voices this caustic and pointed must ever be silenced! We may be sure the writing is very ancient since the Levitical prejudices have not yet come into play. Some have adduced a relation to precursors of the Code of Hammurabi in the “it’s so childish” (line 4) and “very sad sight”(line 14) phrases, as well as the transliteration of “Hrpfougcch” in some Masoretic papyri (Spinnenfaden, Heinz H., Das Gewebe von Ehemalig Pflappdudel, Schlaftrunk Buchdruckerkunst, Halbtot, 1871, p. 589). We, however, withhold judgment at this time. We are indebted to the pioneering scholarship of H. Bultfrau for illuminating the linguistic errors that led to rendering as “Wee-wee-wee!” the undoubted original “We-we-we!” with its wrenching call to irenic unity. (Bultfrau, Hildegard, “Disinterred Documents of the Pentateuch Period”, Verdammte Wortreich, Berlin,1863, p. 976) The ramifications thus elucidated are incalculable. What is this sow with her unpronounceable pronouncement but the personification of all in our churches that is selfish, stagnant, immovable, self-satisfied and gluttonous. Her imperviousness to every call to action, consideration, rational inquiry, open-mindedness and kindly conversation is the very image of an ecclesia nearly suffocated in fat and complacent in its bed of slime. The heart-breaking inability of the piglets successfully to imitate her impenetrable dicta renders this poem one of the most insightful and timeless writings of ancient literature. (In chap. 67 of this work the author will examine in detail the antitypes, or, we should say, the anti-antitypes of these pathetic little seekers of truth as found in Matt.8:28 ff., Mk 5:1 ff., and Luke 8:26 ff..) Let the moral be clear: we must re-examine our assumptions, we must look again at the scripture with a fresh attitude of inquiry and readiness to discard hide-bound indoctrination, we must NOT abandon the conversation. Think! For the children!

  2. I have quite a few reactions, but will refrain to just a couple.

    1) You claim at the beginning that “Liberal theologians” taught to ignore the 3rd use of the law. While I agree that the third use of the law should be taught and preached along with the whole Word of God, I have heard those statements from “conservative theologians” just as often. Claiming that only liberals hold that view does not hold water.

    2) Your statement that no one knows about the confessions also is misleading. Most in the LCMS know the Small Catechism (and when told of the Large Catechism automatically hold it up) and the three creeds. While the argument could be made about the Augsburg Confession, Apology, etc. the way to aproach this is on the basis of the books that people know well. Meaning: “We are defending the teachings you learned in the Catechism”, often as a youth, and the creeds and other key works that are all put together in a book. This would have more impact than repeating the refrain “be confessional.”

    3) You then go into a whole list of accusations which ‘those people’ all believe and follow. This ranting, then (according to your post) is the basis for your point. While the following point about mission to the exclusion of all else is good, you bring it forward on a very shaky list of wrongs by ‘those people.” It does little good to build up a straw man just to tear it down. The best argument to to build up the other point of view to it’s strongest position and then show where it is failing.

    4) Finally, you claim that only true movements start from the grassroots up. The reality is that they start and gain some momentum from people, but the real and lasting traction takes place when a true leader steps forward. Think of M. L. King (among others) and the Civil rights movement. People needed leaders around which to rally or it stalls. Think Martin Luther. The Reformation did not come out of nothing but a specific set of circumstances (put in place by our God) and the work done by previous men (John Huss comes to mind) which set the stage for Luther to be the leader around whom people could rally. While I have certain difficulties with Ablaze, the best construction, in my mind, is that President Kieschnick was taking what he saw as a positive emphasis around the world and bringing it together under the banner of Alaze.

    What is the biggest problem that this “confessional” movement has run into over the last 10 years or so? There has not arisen a leader to whom everyone could point and say, “That’s my man of God. Despite His faults (as MLK and Luther had) he is my man of God.”

  3. <> (Kevin, #2)

    An accurate observation, except I wouldn’t call it a problem…

    Having one worldly Leader, Program, Movement, etc., would be inherently contradictory to Confessional principles. The “Missional” movement has cast its lot with worldly leadership, which is perhaps adept at obtaining short-term results, but leaves serious doubt as to its long-term viability. Why must we “compete” on their terms? Having such a Confessional leader would likely do more harm than good.

    The Lutheran Church does not stand or fall on the basis of one man at the top (after all, isn’t the Pope the epitome of the practice of human leadership in the Church?), but on the Word of God and the Holy Sacraments, as it is preached and they are administered by many pastors in many congregations.

    For many of the faithful people of God, THEIR OWN PASTOR is their “man of God, despite his faults,” even if he hasn’t sold thousands of books, appeared on millions of TV screens, or is even known outside of his community. Toiling in obscurity, as the world likes to say, but faithful in the eyes of God. When the cults of personality fade away, as they must, the churches that gather around the Word that is proclaimed rather than the man who proclaims it will remain.

    God’s strength in human weakness, and all…

  4. With all respect to the original post, and the responses thereto, a few observations:

    1. Rev. Baue says, “With Mission Reductionism you can worship any way you like as long as you adhere to the first principle.” If by the “first principle,” Justification [by faith] is meant, Rev. Baue has missed the true character of MR: It has replaced the “first principle” has been replaced with “The Great Commission.” CNH Pres. Newton has cleverly redefined Great Commission as Gospel: “…our call to priesthood in Christ (obedient participation with Him in the Commission His Father gave Him) is purest Gospel.” (“Accountability and Faithfulness in Reaching the Lost”). This “Missio Dei” eisegesis pervades all of the BRTFSSG recommendations. It is not merely about worship, but about everything the LCMS is about. Detlev Schulz states that “The Church is missional, evangelical, confessional, and vocational.” (“Mission from the Cross”). Mission Reductionism (MR) its protestations and “confession-speak” notwithstanding, effectively ignores all but the first of these. I’ll leave the reader to chew on this theological mouthful, but the fact is, MR has replaced the first principle. Therein lies its danger, indeed its threat to our spiritual well-being.

    Rev. Baue continues: “Neither Gospel Reductionism nor Mission Reductionism has much of a future.” I disagree. Both have a bright future–just look what GR has done to the ELCA, the Episcopalians, the PCUSA, and so many others. It is alive and well. MR, is gaining ascendency in the LCMS–after all, who can be against missions? MR has framed the argument in its terms: “Mission is Job One.” And if you look around, with programs such as Transforming Churches growing in popularity, MR is, like GR, alive and well. Dangerous, yes. Futureless? Hardly. Becky (#1), has it right: “Our enemy keeps dishing up the same leftovers.” And, I would add, we keep eating them up.

    Kevn (#3) has also missed the point in his first objection to Rev. Baue’s argument. He correctly observes that the Third Use is abused by both Liberals and Conservative preachers. That’s not the point Rev. Baue was making–he was simply telling us the source of such teaching–that so-called conservative preachers ignore the law, as it were, proves Baue’s point. That stuff is all over the place. Perhaps we should pay more attention to the inroads that Pietism has made in the LCMS, as Klemet Preus has demonstrated. (“Mission Affirmations to Ablaze”).

    I believe Kevin also misses the point in his second objection. Fact is, being able to recite the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds hardly makes one familiar with the Confessions. Knowledge of the Small Catechism in the LCMS has fallen on hard times, as Dr. Kuhn has observed. Our laity cannot compare with those laypersons who led the fight for the Bible.

    Rev. Hojnacki has seen clearly the core of the problem–the Office of the Holy Ministry. It is here where meaningful change will begin, leadership issues notwithstanding.

  5. Gospel reductionism is still going on in “confessional” congregations. When was the last time one heard something about birth control from the pulpit? When have you heard anyone actually preach against taking out excessive loans? When have you heard any preaching about those who are well-to-do in a congregation supporting the education of those who are gifted yet poor? When was the last time one heard a sermon in which it was asserted that woman was made to be man’s helper? All of this would have been heard from the pulpit in an earlier time.

  6. “liberal scholars who argued that there was NO THIRD USE OF THE LAW. Lex semper accusat, they claimed. “THE LAW ALWAYS ACCUSES.” THE CHRISTIAN IS UNDER NO OBLIGATION TO OBEY THE LAW. Pastors should not PREACH SANCTIFICATION. As long as you hold to the Gospel principle of love, you can do as you please.

    John Warwick Montgomery called this “Gospel Reductionism.” Everything boiled down to one thing: the Gospel. Or at least the kind of Gospel where Jesus could say to the woman caught in adultery (John 8), “Neither do I condemn you,” but was forbidden to say, “Go and sin no more.” (EMPHASIS ADDED)

    It would be REALLY helpful for Lutherans to get their theology straight.

    What I THINK is being said here is that the ‘Third use of the LAW”=’preaching sanctification’

    This is not what the confessions teach at all. The confessions define sanctification as where the Holy Spirit puts a NEW man with a NEW will into us through the preaching of the Holy Gospel. This new man/will looks exactly like the will of christ in the incarnation. because it is the same identical Will of God. The ‘preaching’ that increases this all is called the “holy Gospel’ NOT the ‘preaching of the law.

    Indeed, the confessions (article VI on 3rd use) says that the fruit of sanctification that flows from this free will , INSOFAR AS we are regenerated/sanctified, happens automatically, sponaneously. exactly as the good works of our Lord flowed from him in the incarnation, as light flows from sun. what else would even be a possibility??!! The law could never make this be so, not in its first second or third use. further, this sanctification and its fruit are invisible. this is because this is about a heart change where the new man has a weak beginning of keeping the first and and second commandments. see article XVIII on free will to catch the flavor of exactly what this is and ‘looks’ like.

    and so here is exactly where this writer, along with so many Lutherans , is confused? what the writer is calling ‘sanctification’ is actually called, by Luther AND the confessors ‘mortification of the flesh.’ This IS a work of the Holy Spirit (maybe this is why it is confused as being sanctification?) and it involves the carrot and stick of the law. it IS pleasing to God and IS Gods will and he promises earthly blessings here. The actor here is the free will, reason and will power of the old adam both in pagans and christians identically.

    Lutherans havr tacitly absorbed reformed theology here that now calls mortification of the flesh sanctification (contrary to Luther, the confessions and st paul) and fantasized that will power can somehow be sanctified and harnessed, whereas Lutheranism says will power must die in baptism. there is no reform for it.

    Note that Luther says outward righteousness MUST look like love in the form of mortification of the flesh done soley to equip us to serve our neighbor. works turned vertically are always the sign of idolatry. working our way into Gods favor. God does not need our works. and TRUE outward righteousness requires zero faith. Gods will in the form of outward righteousness is the same identical thing whether done by pagan or christian. the SOLE difference is in the doer (connection to christ in faith) and not in the done in any way at all..

    The practical effect of this error is twofold a) we can now separate wheat/weed and sheep/goat. ‘christian discipline’ becomes a visible mark of being a christian. b) what separates christian from non christian becomes faith+ something more rather than faith alone.

    can we please all be clear on what the true Lutheran teaching is here?

    here is a sermon by Martin Luther that the lutheran confessors indicate as being THE basis for their understanding of the 3rd use of the law. It is Luthers sermon delivered in 1529 on the 9th sunday after trinity before the marburg coloquy. It is THE go to place to understand both the 3rd use of the law and what the christian life should look’ like. Indeed it is referenced in article VI of the solid declaration with just such apparent intent! the other recommended place is article XVIII on free will in the augustana.


    This post does not reflect the teachings of the Lutheran Confessions that I am here presenting and that are quite obvious even with a casual and cursory reading. we need to reclaim a Lutheran understanding of Sanctification!

    The Lords Peace be with you all.

  7. After reading the article and the comments to the article I am confused on a subject I didn’t even know was confusing- Law and Gospel.
    The primary difference between Arminians/Catholicism and the Lutheran confession, I thought was Sola Fide. This idea that I have to consciously fit works of the Law into my life is baffling. if the work of Christ saves me from my inability to satisfy the Law, what exactly did He accomplish if I now have to conform to it – It sounds like he forgave all my past sins and now the rest is up to me.
    How in the third use can the Law be a guide if I am unable to do it?

  8. Hi Ray,
    A layman myself, I understand the problem to be when we try to rely on following the Law to justify ourselves before God.

    — “For all who rely on works of the law are under a curse.” Gal. 3:10
    — Pursuing righteousness through the law fails. Romans 9:30-32
    — Our own righteousness is as “filthy rags”. Isaiah 64:6

    But the Law is good and holy. It was given to bless us. God’s children, followers of Jesus, saved from our own destruction, want to please God and enjoy the blessings that come from doing what he desires of us, as he himself gives us the grace.

    — “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation.” 2 Cor. 5:17
    — “Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God.” 1 John 4:7
    — “… the fruit of the Spirit is love….” Galatians 5:22
    — “Love is the fulfilling of the law.” Romans 13:10
    — “We uphold the law.” Romans 3:31

    The Law, as a guide, shows us how to please God and love others. But we are motivated not by anxiety about whether we are doing enough of the right things, as we if were still threatened with punishment under the law. Rather, we are motivated by gratitude because we are under grace, the punishment for our sin being endured by Christ:

    — “We love because he first loved us.” 1 John 4:19
    — The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. Galatians 2:20

    Not sure this is entirely responsive your question. Just some thoughts and Bible verses that I hope are helpful.

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