Great Stuff — “Sanctification”? The issues in question and some final thoughts

Found on Pastor Mark Surburg’s blog:


When I first wrote something about the topic of “sanctification” at the beginning of March (“Would Paul want pastors to preach and teach about good works?“), I really had no idea about how much division was out there in the Lutheran blogosphere regarding this topic. I must confess that I was completely unaware about Pastor Jordan Cooper’s very fine blog “Just & Sinner” in which he had already dealt extensively with these issues. I have since learned that in many ways my work complements his. Pastor Jordan tends to focus on the issue from the view of dogmatic theology, and he has already done the heavy lifting in this area. My work focuses more on the exegesis of biblical texts and I have only marshaled additional biblical evidence that addresses the topic.

In the course of reading what others have written on blogs, and interacting with those authors on blogs and Facebook, I have come to understand that there are real divisions. To be sure some of these divisions have been caused by interlocutors speaking past each other because each is concerned to maintain some distinct, yet complementary focus. Some have been caused by personalities involved in the discussion (those who are willing to speak out on topic like this tend not to be wall flowers). But at the same time I have also become convinced that there are also some very substantive and important disagreements that find their source in correct and incorrect readings of Scripture and the Lutheran Confessions.

It has become clear to me that the discussion of this topic has now arrived at a stage where it is producing more heat than light. I think the time has come for people to take a break from public discussion in order to think about and study the topic more in light of what has been said thus far. I am going to do just that. Certainly I will revisit these topics again in the future, but only at a later date and in a gradual way. Before taking a break I want to pull together my observations about the differences that exist and why they matter. I would also like to provide clarification on some points where, perhaps, there has been misunderstanding.

I entered into this discussion because I kept seeing language that spoke negatively about preaching that urged and taught Christians to live in ways that reflect God’s will. As someone whose post-seminary graduate work focused on Paul’s letters, I found this particularly disturbing since this is the very thing that Paul (and the New Testament for that matter) do all the time. In addition I kept hearing three linked emphases: 1) People are utterly sinful 2) The law kills 3) There is only Christ. The preaching task amounted to using the law to kill sinners by showing them their sin so that in Christ they would receive forgiveness. Now this is certainly true. But it is not theonly thing that is true. In these discussions, I heard no real place for the new man and no real recognition that the Holy Spirit actually does something to us when he regenerates us. In addition, I did not hear a recognition that the Law is also is a tool the Spirit uses to help the Christian – who is both old man and new man at the same time – live in ways that reflect God’s will.

Naturally since I have been speaking for the balance found in the full biblical and Confessional view, I have been emphasizing how God uses the Law to help Christians to live in ways that are true to God’s will. I have also emphasized the fact that through the work of the Spirit the new man is able to live in this way. I have found that this immediately causes a strong reaction from some people. Because of the background of errors about the Law and works in Roman Catholic, Reformed and various versions of American evangelical theology, there are those who hear the full biblical and Confessional teaching as being a denial of Christ and the Gospel, and as being simply another version of these false teachings.

So let me first say that what I have written deals with matters that are a consequence and result of the Gospel and justification. The Gospel and justification stand at the center of what it is to be Lutheran. It is only on account of Christ through the work of the Spirit that a Christian can do anything that pleases God. The Spirit creates and sustains faith through the Means of Grace. It is through the Means of Grace that we receive forgiveness and our lives continually return to those Means of Grace because that is where Christ is present for us. Everything in the Christian life finds its source there and there can be no Christian life apart from it.

A. Sanctification, new obedience and “sanctification”

I realize now that some of the disagreement has been caused by confusion and concerns about nomenclature. Those with whom I have interacted have made the excellent point that in the Scriptures (1 Cor 6:11) and in the Confessions (such as the Small Catechism’s explanation to the Third Article of the Creed) the primary manner in which the word “sanctification” is used is to describe the way the Holy Spirit makes the believer holy in Christ by creating and sustaining faith. Justification has been provided on account of Christ. The Spirit applies this justification to the individual through the Means of Grace and through this work the believer stands forgiven and holy in Christ before God.

Now it is true that Scripture does use the word “sanctification” to describe the holy life that results from regeneration and faith (1 Thess 4:3). It is also true that the Lutheran dogmatic tradition has used the term this way. However, because this is not the main way that Scripture and the Confessions use the term, and because this is the term used by other Christian for an incorrect understanding it is best not to use the word to refer to Christian life that is produced by the Spirit in Christ. Instead, “new obedience” is the title given to this in Article VI of the Augsburg Confession and so it is a better choice.

B. Regeneration by the Spirit and cooperation in new obedience

The difference, however, runs far deeper and is more significant than mere nomenclature. Both sides in this discussion confess the divine monergism of justification (it is only God’s work in Christ that justifies and not human actions). Both sides confess the divine monergism of sanctification as defined above (it is only the Holy Spirit who works faith, regenerates the individual and in so doing applies Christ’s saving work). But in discussions it has become clear that there are many who then carry divine monergism into the new obedience of the life a Christian now lives. They only speak about what the Holy Spirit does in producing new obedience and do not allow for any cooperation by the new man of the regenerated believer. The individual Christian as an individual is completely lost and is swallowed up by the work of the Spirit (in fact in the discussion of new obedience those who speak in this way use language that is similar to some forms of mysticism where the individual is completely lost in God). Naturally this reveals that they have a very different understanding about what regeneration is and means.

The problem is that this stands in contradiction to Scripture, the Lutheran Confessions and the Lutheran dogmatic tradition. The Scriptures teach that the individual Christian is both new man and old man at the same time (Rom 7:13-23; Gal 5:16-17; Col 3:5-15). In Christ through the work of the Spirit the new man knows God’s will and lives according to it. Because they are individuals in whom the old man still exists, this new life does not occur perfectly and instead occurs in the midst of struggle and weakness. Naturally, the Lutheran Confessions also present this view of Christians as old man and new man at the same time (for example FC SD II.84-85; VI.6-8).

While it is true that we must always add all of the caveats about how the presence of the old man impacts the individual Christian, this does not change the fact that in regeneration the Spirit has actually done something to the individual and brought about a change. Paul writes in Rom 7:22-23, “For I delight in the law of God, according to my inner man (κατὰ τὸν ἔσω ἄνθρωπον), but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind (τῷ νόμῳ τοῦ νοός μου) and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members.” Paul goes on to say in Rom 8:5-6, “For those who are according to the flesh think the things of the flesh (τὰ τῆς σαρκὸς φρονοῦσιν), but those who are according to the Spirit think the things of the Spirit (τὰ τοῦ πνεύματος). For the mind of the flesh (τὸ γὰρ φρόνημα τῆς σαρκὸς) is death, but the mind of the Spirit (τὸ δὲ φρόνημα τοῦ πνεύματος) is life and peace” (Romans 8:5-6). The subject doing the thinking does not cease to be the individual. Paul says that “they think” (the φρονοῦσιν of 8:5a must be supplied in 8:5b). Regenerated by the Spirit the new man now is able to think in the ways of the Spirit, namely, the things that reflect God’s will. True, it is only through the continuing work of the Spirit that this is possible, because otherwise the old man, the mind of the flesh will gain complete control as he does in the non-Christian. Nevertheless, the existence of the individual as new man is not lost. Regenerated, sustained and led by the Spirit, the new man is able to begin to cooperate in the new obedience that faith produces.

This is the position of the Lutheran Confessions. The Formula of Concord states: “Indeed, if the faithful and elect children of God were perfectly renewed through the indwelling Spirit in this life, so that in their nature and all their powers they were completely free from sin, they would need no law and therefore no prodding. Instead, they would do in and of themselves, completely voluntarily, without any teaching, admonition, exhortation, or prodding of the law, what they are obligated to do according to God’s will, 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, apart from any admonition, exhortation, impulse, coercion, or compulsion. The holy angels perform their obedience completely and of their own free will” (FC SD VI.6).

For this reason, when it comes to new obedience the Lutheran Confessions say that the new man in the individual cooperates with the Spirit in new obedience. Justification is a result of divine monergism. Sanctification is a result of divine monergism. But new obedience takes placethrough synergism of the new man working with the Spirit. It is rather astonishing that there could be any disagreement on this point since the Formula of Concord explicitly uses the word cooperation:

“On the one hand, it is correct to say that in conversion God changes recalcitrant, unwilling people into willing people through the drawing power of the Holy Spirit, and that after this conversion the reborn human will is not idle (wiedergeborner Wille nicht müßig gehe) [endnote 1] in the daily exercise of repentance but cooperates (auch mitwirke) [endnote 2] in all the works of the Holy Spirit which he performs through us” (FC Ep II.17).

“For when the Holy Spirit has effected and accomplished new birth and conversion and has altered and renewed (aeändert und erneuert) [endnote 3] the human will solely through his divine power and activity, then the new human will is an instrument and tool of God the Holy Spirit, in that the will not only accepts grace but also cooperates (mitwirket) [endnote 4] with the Holy Spirit in the works that proceed from it” (FC Ep II.18).

“In follows from this, as has been said, that as soon as the Holy Spirit has begun his work of rebirth and renewal in us through the Word and the holy sacraments, it is certain that on the basis of the his power we can and should be cooperating with him (mitwirken können und sollen) [endnote 5], though still in great weakness. This occurs not on the basis of our fleshly, natural powers but on the basis of the new powers and gifts which the Holy Spirit initiated in us in conversion, as St. Paul specifically and earnestly admonished, that “as we work together with” the Holy Spirit “we urge you not to accept the grace of God in vain” [2 Cor. 6:1]” (FC SD II.65).

“It has been sufficiently explained above how God makes willing people (Willige) [endnote 6] out of rebellious and unwilling people through the drawing power of the Holy Spirit, and how after this conversion of the human being the reborn will is not idle (nicht müßig gehe) [endnote 7] in daily practice of repentance but cooperates (mitwerke) [endnote 8] in all the works of Holy Spirit that he accomplishes through us” (FC SD II.88).

The Formula speaks in this way because, as we have seen above, the new man in the regenerate person is able to live according to God’s will. The Formula says about believers, “This is true also because they act in a God-pleasing way – not because of the coercion of the law but because of the renewal of the Holy Spirit – without coercion, from a willing heart insofar as they are reborn in their inner person. At the same time they continually do battle against the old creature” (FC SD VI.23; see also FC Ep. VI.7).

Now there is no doubt that the new man is able to do this only because of the Spirit’s regeneration and because of the continuing work of the Spirit in the individual. It is also clear in the Confessions that it is the Spirit who leads the new man in doing these things. The Formula clarifies the language of “cooperation” by saying, “This should be understood in no other way than that the converted do good to the extent that God rules, leads, and guides them with his Holy Spirit. If God would withdraw his gracious hand from such people, they could not for one moment remain obedient to God. If this passage were understood as if the converted person cooperates alongside the Holy Spirit, the way two horses draw a wagon together, this interpretation could not be tolerated without damaging the divine truth” (FC SD II.66). It is also apparent in the Confessions that this cooperation is necessary because of the continuing presence of the old man (see FC SD VI.6 above). Nonetheless, because of the change that Spirit has worked and sustains in the new man the Confessions in unambiguous language say that the new man cooperates with the Spirit.

Because of these statements in the Book of Concord it should not surprise us to learn that, the standard teaching throughout the Lutheran dogmatic tradition maintains that new obedience occurs as a result of cooperation by the new man with the work of the Spirit. It is synergistic. The following are a mere sample:

Chemnitz: “But how can good works be done by us, when the devil stalks us with his snares, the world is full of offenses, and sin itself dwells in our flesh?

First of all it is necessary that the person be reconciled to God through faith for the sake of Christ. For thus the Holy Spirit is given in reconciliation itself (Gl 3:2, 14; Tts 3::5-6); He purifies and renews hearts (Acts 15:8-9; Ps 51:10; Eph 4:23; Eze 36:26); He will kindle new affections in [your] heart, that it submit itself to the Law and divine obedience (Ro 6:17; 7:22). For a tree must first be good, before goof fruits come forth from it (Mt 7:18; 12:33). But after the Holy Spirit has already begun in us that work of renewal, we also can and should add our effort, by following the leadership of the Holy Spirit and mortifying the works of the flesh through the Spirit (Rom 8:13; 12:2; 2 Ptr 1:5; 2 Ti 1:6). For through these exercises God wants to preserve and increase in us His gifts by the grace, power, and help of the Holy Spirit (1 Co 15:10; Mt 25:21, 29).” [endnote 9]

Gerhard: “In this way the question pertains to the reborn who, we do not deny, are coworkers [συνέργους] with God in good works, because the will, now freed from the yoke of sin, cooperates by virtue of new powers granted by the Holy Spirit.” [endnote 10]

Quenstedt: “The Holy Spirit produces in man, without human concurrence, the power to produce good works an the first act of sanctification; but man concurs in the second act of sanctification, or in the exercise and continuance of it, when once introduced by the Holy Spirit … The regenerate man co-operates with God in the work of sanctification, not by an equal action, but in subordination and dependence on the Holy Spirit, because he works, not with native but with granted powers.” [endnote 11]

Hollaz: “Good works are not actions free from the necessity of obligation or duty, but are said to be actions from the necessity of constraint (because they are not extorted by the threats of punishment, or externally, and in appearance, performed contrary to will), and of immutability (since the will is no longer determined to the constant thought and preparation of evil, as before conversion; but can freely choose and do good works by supernatural strength, received from the Holy Spirit; can likewise choose evil works by the remains of the flesh, still adhering to it, since it is not determined to good as the angels are); and are performed by the regenerate, freed from the servitude of sin by the Holy Spirit (John 8:36; Rom. 6:18; 2 Cor. 3:17”).” [endnote 12]

Schmid: “Finally, it is a work of God in man, yet of such a nature that there is a free co-operation on the part of man, who now in conversion has received new spiritual powers.” [endnote 13]

Pieper: “Good works are God’s work. He is the causa efficiens of them. While the new man of the Christian co-operates in performing them, this co-operation is so completely subordinate to God’s operation that the Christian does the good only so far and long as God works in and through him.” [endnote 14]

Those who wish to argue that there is no cooperation by the new man in new obedience need to be candid in acknowledging that they are proposing a reading of the Lutheran Confessions that contradicts the Lutheran dogmatic tradition. The great burden of proof falls on them because they are advancing a reading that contradicts the plain statements of the Confessions themselves, and of the way Lutherans have historically read them.

C. Growth and increase in new obedience

In the discussion about new obedience, I have called attention to texts in Paul that speak of both the wish that Christians will increase in new obedience and also the fact that Christians have indeed done this. This has drawn a reaction, both from those who hold the new position about new obedience/”sanctification” mentioned above, and also by those who believe and teach the Lutheran teaching as expressed in the Confessions and understood in the Lutheran dogmatic tradition.

The place to begin when considering this is Scripture which contains verses that explicitly indicate that an increase in new obedience is a goal in Christian life and that this also does in fact occur. As I have described in an earlier post (“Mark’s thoughts: Paul and love – evidence for deepening and growth in sanctification”) this is particularly evident in Paul’s discussion of love. For Paul is it axiomatic that love is the fulfillment of the law. He says this in both Romans 13:8-10 and Galatians 5:13-14 (naturally this goes back to our Lord, Matthew 22:34-40). It is not surprising then that Paul focuses upon love in 1 Corinthians 13:4-7 where he writes words that any Lutheran recognizes to be Law – they are saying what we must do. We find that Paul understands “love” to be not merely an emotion but instead an activity – activity directed primarily toward others.

Yet because of what Paul believes about what it means to be “in Christ” and to have the Holy Spirit at work in the individual, he explicitly expresses the expectation and wish that Christians will increase in love. Based on what Paul says about love in Romans 13:8-10 and Galatians 5:13-14, this will therefore also be an increase in the fulfillment of the Law.

Paul writes in Philippians 1:9-10:
“And it is my prayer that your love may abound more and more (ἵνα ἡ ἀγάπη ὑμῶν ἔτι μᾶλλον καὶ μᾶλλον περισσεύῃ), with knowledge and all discernment, so that you may approve what is excellent, and so be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God” (Philippians 1:9-11 ESV).

Paul’s prayer is that the Philippians will increase in love and this is linked to the desire that they be filled with “the fruit of righteousness” (meaning either “righteous fruit” or “the fruit which is righteousness”; cf. Galatians 5:22-23 and the fruit of the Spirit). We note also that this is described as occurring “through Jesus Christ” which grounds this increase in Jesus Christ and his saving work. We have clear evidence in this text that Paul’s hope is that Christians will increase in love, and so naturally this should be ours as well.

In a similar manner, Paul writes in Paul writes in 1 Thessalonians 4:9-12:
“Now concerning brotherly love you have no need for anyone to write to you, for you yourselves have been taught by God to love one another (Περὶ δὲ τῆς φιλαδελφίας οὐ χρείαν ἔχετε γράφειν ὑμῖν, αὐτοὶ γὰρ ὑμεῖς θεοδίδακτοί ἐστε εἰς τὸ ἀγαπᾶν ἀλλήλους), for that indeed is what you are doing to all the brothers throughout Macedonia (καὶ γὰρ ποιεῖτε αὐτὸ εἰς πάντας τοὺς ἀδελφοὺς [τοὺς] ἐν ὅλῃ τῇ Μακεδονίᾳ). But we urge you, brothers, to do this more and more (περισσεύειν μᾶλλον), and to aspire to live quietly, and to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands, as we instructed you, so that you may walk properly before outsiders and be dependent on no one.
(1 Thessalonians 4:9-12 ESV)

In this text Paul affirms that the Thessalonians are loving one another and the Christians in Macedonia, and he then expresses the desire that they do so more and more – that there be an increase in this manner of life. Here again we have clear evidence in this text that Paul’s hope is that Christians will increase in love, and so naturally this should be ours as well.

Paul writes in 1 Thessalonians 3:11-13:
“Now may our God and Father himself, and our Lord Jesus, direct our way to you, and may the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all, as we do for you (ὑμᾶς δὲ ὁ κύριος πλεονάσαι καὶ περισσεύσαι τῇ ἀγάπῃ εἰς ἀλλήλους καὶ εἰς πάντας, καθάπερ καὶ ἡμεῖς εἰς ὑμᾶς), so that he may establish your hearts blameless in holiness before our God and Father, at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints” (1 Thessalonians 3:11-13 ESV).

Again, this is explicit textual evidence for Paul’s hope that Christians increase in love (Paul’s desire for them expressed with an optative of wish). More importantly for our discussion, not only does Paul express the wish that this increase will happen for the Thessalonians, but he also states that it is true for him, Silvanus and Timothy. It is not a hypothetical possibility or wishful thinking, but something that is true for Paul and his companions.

Paul writes in 2 Thessalonians 1:3-4:
“We ought always to give thanks to God for you, brothers, as is right, because your faith is growing abundantly, and the love of every one of you for one another is increasing (ὅτι ὑπεραυξάνει ἡ πίστις ὑμῶν καὶ πλεονάζει ἡ ἀγάπη ἑνὸς ἑκάστου πάντων ὑμῶν εἰς ἀλλήλους). Therefore we ourselves boast about you in the churches of God for your steadfastness and faith in all your persecutions and in the afflictions that you are enduring” (2 Thessalonians 1:3-4 ESV).

In this text Paul not only speaks about increasing love, he also asserts that this is true of the Thessalonians. This is occurring among them and it is something that Paul can even boast about in the Churches of God. Here again is explicit biblical evidence that an increase of love (new obedience) does occur among Christians.

However, “love” is not the only way this is expressed. Paul writes in 1 Thessalonians 4:1-8:
“Finally, then, brothers, we ask and urge you in the Lord Jesus (ἐρωτῶμεν ὑμᾶς καὶ παρακαλοῦμεν ἐν κυρίῳ Ἰησοῦ), that as you received from us how you ought to walk and to please God, just as you are doing (καθὼς καὶ περιπατεῖτε), that you do so more and more (ἵνα περισσεύητε μᾶλλον). For you know what instructions we gave you through the Lord Jesus. For this is the will of God, your sanctification (τοῦτο γάρ ἐστιν θέλημα τοῦ θεοῦ, ὁ ἁγιασμὸς ὑμῶν): that you abstain from sexual immorality; that each one of you know how to control his own body in holiness and honor, not in the passion of lust like the Gentiles who do not know God; that no one transgress and wrong his brother in this matter, because the Lord is an avenger in all these things, as we told you beforehand and solemnly warned you. For God has not called us for impurity, but in holiness. Therefore whoever disregards this, disregards not man but God, who gives his Holy Spirit to you.”
(1 Thessalonians 4:1-8 ESV)

This is an important text for several reasons. First, Paul expresses that the Thessalonians are walking in the way they should and that this is pleasing to God. Naturally this does not mean they are perfect but it shows that those in Christ are able to live in ways that Scripture is willing to describe as the very thing they should be doing. Second, we must note that Paul exhorts them to do this more and more. This shows that it is entirely Scriptural to tell Christians that they should strive to live in God pleasing ways. Finally, we must observe that the life that is going to increase is described as sanctification, where the content of this word is explained by means of behaviors that they are and are not to do.

Finally, 2 Peter 1:5-8 says:
“For this very reason, make every effort to supplement (ἐπιχορηγήσατε) your faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with steadfastness, and steadfastness with godliness, and godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love. For if these qualities are yours and are increasing (ταῦτα γὰρ ὑμῖν ὑπάρχοντα καὶ πλεονάζοντα), they keep you from being ineffective or unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
(2 Peter 1:5-8 ESV)

In this text, Peter commands Christians to be growing in the qualities of new obedience in light of what God has done for them (1:3-4, 9). There is the explicit expectation that Christians will not only have these qualities such as love, but also that they will be increasing in them.

Because the Scriptures explicitly speak of increase in new obedience, the Confessions do as well. An obvious example to begin with is Apology IV.136 which states, “We openly confess, therefore, that the keeping of the law must begin in us and then increase more and more (quod necesse sit inchoari in nobis et subinde magis magisque fieri legem). And we include both simultaneously, namely the inner spiritual impulse and the outward good works.”

Statements like this are not rare in the Confessions. For example:

“Besides, we have sufficiently shown above that we maintain that good works must necessarily follow faith. 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” (Ap. XX.15) (emphasis mine).

“The Holy Spirit will remain with the holy community or Christian people until the Last Day. Through it he gathers us, using it to teach and preach the Word. By it he creates and increases holiness, causing it daily to grow and become strong in faith and in its fruits, which the Spirit produces” (LC II.53) (emphasis mine).

“Consequently, nothing is so necessary as to call upon God incessantly and to drum into his ears our prayer that he may give, preserve and increase in us faith and fulfillment of the Ten Commandments and remove all that stands in our way and hinders us in this regard” (LC III.2) (emphasis mine).

“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” (IV.67) (emphasis mine).

“The Holy Spirit will remain with the holy community or Christian people until the Last Day. Through it he gathers us, using it to teach and preach the Word. By it he creates and increases holiness, causing it daily to grow and become strong in faith and in its fruits, which the Spirit produces….” In these words the catechism makes no mention whatsoever of our free will or our contribution but ascribes everything to the Holy Spirit, namely, that through the ministry of preaching 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” (FC SD II.37-38) (emphasis mine).

“Although those born anew come even in this life to the point that they desire the good and delight in it and even do good deeds and grow in practicing them, this is not (as we mentioned above) a product of our own will or power; but the Holy Spirit, as Paul says himself, ‘is at work in us to will and work’ (Phil. 2[:13])” (FC SD II.39) (emphasis mine).

When we consider texts like these in the Scriptures and Confessions, we must bear several things in mind. First, they are the result of justification by grace through faith apart from works, and sanctification through the work of the Spirit. Because God has justified and sanctified Christians, they now live in new obedience. It is faith active in love (Gal 5:6) through the work of the Spirit and it has nothing to do with merit for salvation.

Second, these are not statements that lead to despair because they are spoken to Christians whose daily life is focused on Christ and the ways that he is present for us with forgiveness through his Means of Grace. When there is failure and sin, we return to the Word, to Holy Baptism, to Holy Absolution and to the Sacrament of the Altar. Christ and the Means of Grace are what make growth and increase possible and they provide forgiveness when we fail.

Third, these texts lead to a recognition that, yes, it is possible to see growth and increase in new obedience. It does happen and it can be seen. We see it in the lives of other Christians and in our own lives. If we are inclined to say that no we don’t, then we need to listen to what Scriptures says does happen. This is linked to a robust view of regeneration which believes that the Spirit actually does something to the believer. There is the expectation among some Lutherans that growth in new obedience will never be seen because of our sinful condition. This contradicts the text of Scripture. I would also argue that it contradicts our own experience as we observe the lives of others and ourselves. We do see failures and regression. But we also see growth and deepening as we continue to grow in faith toward Christ.

Fourth, striving to grow in new obedience is a good thing. It is what Scripture tells us to do and is what the Holy Spirit wants us to do. As stated above in the second point, this does not lead to despair because it is lived as part of a life that is daily centered on Christ and his Means of Grace.

Fifth, this new obedience takes place in the setting of vocation. The fruits of the Spirit and work of love occur in ordinary and unimpressive ways. Yet in these very acts of service, sacrifice and compassion we see the new obedience at work.

Finally, language about growth and increase does not mean that it is constant and uninterrupted. As Paul indicates there is struggle and the old man remains a powerful opponent (Galatians 5:16-17; Romans 7:13-25). The Formula acknowledges in the same article where it has just said that Christians “do good deeds and grow in practicing them” (FC SD II.39): “Because in this life we receive only the first fruits of the Spirit and our rebirth is not complete but rather only begun in us, the struggle and battle of the flesh against the Spirit continues even in the elect and truly reborn. For one can detect not only a great difference among Christians – one is weak, another strong in the Spirit – but within each Christian who is at one moment resolute in the Spirit and at another fearful and afraid, at one moment ardent in love, strong in faith and hope, and at another cold and weak” (FC SD II.68). It may even be that as the Christians grow in faith they become more perceptive of their sin and so while new obedience is growing they perceive the exact opposite in themselves. In the face of these kinds of situations, Scripture affirms what is really happening – a truth that may in fact seem contrary to the perceptions of the individual Christian.

D. Law and Gospel

A fundamental problem for some Lutherans in thinking about new obedience is that the dialectic of Law and Gospel takes an extreme form and is imposed on texts in such a way that the only movement acknowledged in every text is from the Law showing people their sin to the Gospel giving them forgiveness. I mentioned earlier that I have often heard three linked emphases: 1) People are utterly sinful 2) The law kills 3) There is only Christ. This threefold emphasis is then summarized by the concept “Law and Gospel” which is then imposed on every text. Every text is approached with the assumption that the readers/hearers are being addressed as sinners. In every text, the law kills the sinner by showing the sinner his or her own sin. Then the Gospel gives forgiveness to the now repentant sinner.

The problem is that exegetically, not every text moves in this specific way – in fact many do not. Such an exegetical approach often contradicts the movement and logic of the text itself. Titus chapters 2 and 3 provide an excellent illustration of this (I have provided a more extended discussion of these chapters in “Would Paul want pastors to preach and teach about good works?”). Titus is to set in order the newly founded churches on Crete by placing pastors (1:5). In the letter, Paul then provides instruction about what Titus and the pastors on Crete are to preach and teach.Within the section 2:1-10, Paul describes how different groups of Christians are to live. He wants this to be preached and taught to the new Christians.

Paul proceeds to give the reason why the Cretan Christians should live in this way – it is because of the Gospel. He introduces 2:11-14 with the word “for” (γὰρ in Greek) as he explicitly introduces the reason and says: “For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age, waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works.” They are to live this way because of what God has done for them in Christ.

After drawing the section 2:1-15 to a close with the inclusio at 2:15 (“speak these things”; cf. 2:1 “speak that which is fitting for sound teaching”), Paul then returns to the topic of living the Christian life in 3:1-2. This time he frames the discussion in terms of general instructions about living as a Christian in society by referring to being submissive to rulers. Like 2:6-10 and 2:11-14, in 3:3-8 Paul again provides the reason that Christians are to act in manner described in 3:1-2. The reason (introduced by “for’ [γάρ in Greek]) is the Gospel, and specifically the Gospel as it has been received in baptism. Paul says that Christians were once sinful and lost in every way (3:3). Then he goes on to say, “But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that being justified by his grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life” (3:4-7).

Throughout the letter as Paul has given instructions to Titus about what he and the pastors on Crete are to teach the people, he has repeatedly emphasized good works and Christian conduct (2:6-10, 12, 14; 3:1-2). Yet now he makes clear that we have not been saved on the basis of works that we have done in righteousness (3:5). Instead, it is on the basis of God’s mercy that he has saved us through baptism – a washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit (3:5). The saving action of God in Christ is the reason that the Christians on Crete are now to live in this way.

It’s important to recognize that this preaching and teaching on Crete is not going to be directed at unbelievers. Instead is directed at baptized Christians (3:5). Paul wants this preaching and teaching done, not in order to convict people of their sin. Instead his goal is that Christians will live in these ways. In fact, Paul wants them to live in these ways in order to achieve another purpose. He wants believers to do it because Christian conduct impacts how the Gospel is perceived and received. Young women need to live the ways taught by Titus so “that the word of God may not be reviled [literally “blasphemed]” (2:5). Titus is to serve as a model of this conduct “so that an opponent may be put to shame, having nothing evil to say about us” (2:8). Slaves are to act in this way “so that in everything they may adorn the doctrine of God our Savior” (2:10).

Paul’s own statements exhorting Christians to live in ways that reflect God’s will such as Romans 12-13, Galatians 5-6, Ephesians 4-6 and Colossians 3-4 all function in the same way as the instruction he gives to Titus about preaching and teaching. They are written to Christians and provide instruction about life that results from God’s salvation in Christ through the work of the Spirit.

Lutherans have frequently treated the text of these chapters as if their perlecutionary intent is to convict people of their sin (second use of the Law). However in the context of the Paul’s letters their goal is in fact to have Christians live in the ways described. It is certainly often the case that sinners hear these texts and the result is that they are convicted of their sin. However, we should not identify this as Paul’s primary purpose in texts like these. So for example, when Paul writes, “Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right” (Ephesians 6:1 ESV), his goal is not to make children realize that they break the Fourth Commandment. It is instead to lead Christian children to obey their parents because of what Christ has done for them.

E. Third use of the Law – the Law does help Christians to live according to God’s will

Everything thing we have discussed thus far comes together in the question of how pastors should address Christians in their preaching and teaching. Should pastors exhort and encourage Christians to engage in the life of new obedience – to live according to God’s will? The answer of Paul and the New Testament as a whole is clearly yes.

I do not know any Lutherans who would explicitly answer “no” to this question. The problem is that in the way they talk about the Law some Lutherans precede to do this very thing. This occurs in at least three distinct, yet similar ways. First, (as mentioned above) for some Lutherans the Law is exclusively a negative entity – the law kills. True, it serves an important purpose in dealing with the sinner, but its role remains entirely negative. By contrast, Christ and the Gospel are of course the ultimate positive things. This is the true focus of the Christian life. For this reason any language that exhorts and encourages Christians to live according to God’s will is rejected. It is regarded as the foolish act of “running to Mt. Sinai” when instead the Christian needs more Christ. We are told that they “need more Jesus,” not more Law.

Second, some Lutherans comment that only the Holy Spirit can determine how the Law is going to be applied to the individual. The pastor’s effort to decide whether a word of Law is intended to convict sin (second use of the law) or lead to new obedience (third use of the law) is irrelevant. Only the Holy Spirit can determine this. At the end of the day Law is Law, and pastors dare not leave their hearers with the Law.

Finally, because it is through the Gospel that the Holy Spirit regenerates and then supports the new man in faith and the new obedience it produces (Galatians 5:6), it is commonly said that if you want people to live in new obedience, you need to give them more Gospel – not Law. After all, the Law kills and it can’t give life. Only the Gospel does this and so only the Gospel can produce the life of new obedience.

All three of these approaches contain the truth that the Gospel in the Means of Grace is the only instrument the Holy Spirit uses to regenerate the individual. It is true that the Gospel is the only means by which the Spirit sustains faith and works new obedience in the Christian. It is also true that it is only through the Gospel as the individual is in Christ that person can do anything that God considers to be god.

Both sides of the discussion believe this. And it is for this reason that both sides have a theology that is squarely focused on Christ and his Means of Grace. We disingenuously create straw men to knock down if we think otherwise. The difference between the two positions is not to be found in the value placed on the Gospel and the means by which the Spirit delivers forgiveness and strengthens faith.

The difference is found in the fact that the traditional Lutheran view sees the Law as having apositive role in working new obedience. The Christian is new man and old man at the same time. The new man needs no instruction. As the Formula says, if “in their nature and all their powers they were completely free from sin they would need no law” (FC SD VI.6). However, the Christian still has the old man who hinders the new man and fights against him. The Formula comments, “Since, however, believers in this life are not perfectly, wholly, completive vel consummative [completely or entirely] renewed – even though their sin is completely covered by the perfect obedience of Christ so that this sin is not reckoned to them as damning, and even though the killing of the old creature and the renewal of their minds in the Spirit has begun – nonetheless, the old creature still continues to hang on in their nature and all of its inward and outward power” (FC SD VI.7).

As new man, the Christian is able to live according to God’s will, freely and joyously. The Formula states, “This is also true because they act in a God-pleasing way – not because of the coercion of the law but because of the renewal of the Holy Spirit – without coercion, from a willing heart insofar as they are reborn in their inner person. At the same time they continually do battle against the old creature” (FC SD VI.23).

The presence of the old man is the reason that the Law is needed in order to help the Christian live in new obedience. Now before proceeding, let me emphasize that we are talking about a Christian. The setting in which the Christian lives is that of the Gospel as it is received in the Means of Grace. Any analysis of what will now be said about the Law that loses sight of this fact has missed the key point altogether.

Because the baptized Christian still has the old man, that old man needs to be repressed and subdued so that the new man can live in ways that reflect God’s will. The Law is the instrument God has given to do this. The Solid Declarations observes, “Therefore, in this life, because of the desires of the flesh, the faithful, elect, reborn children of God need not only the law’s daily instruction and admonition, its warning and threatening. Often they also need its punishments, so that they may be incited by them and follow God’s Spirit, as it is written, ‘It is good for me that I was humbled, so that I might learn your statutes’ [Ps. 119:71]” (FC SD VI.9) (emphasis mine). Or as the Epitome puts it, “Likewise, it is necessary so that the old creature not act according to its own will but instead be compelled against its own will, not only through admonition and threats of the law but also with punishments and plagues, to follow the Spirit and let itself be made captive(1 Cor. 9[:27]; Rom. 6[:12]; Gal. 6[:14]; Ps. 119[:1]; Heb. 13[:21]” (FC Ep VI.4) (emphasis mine). The proper function of the law is reproof and so, “The Holy Spirit admonishes them to do these works, and where because of the flesh they are lazy, indolent, and recalcitrant, he reproves them through the law” (FC SD VI.12). Through the Law the Spirit also prevents the old man from creating his own good works and focuses the Christian on the life of service in vocation (FC Ep VI.4).

And so in reply to the first and third opinions noted above, the answer must be given that whendealing with a Christian who lives in the setting of the Means of Grace the exhortation of the Law is a good thing. It is God’s instrument that suppresses the old man so that the new man and all that it means to be in Christ can manifest itself in life. When dealing with the Christian in this situation(the Christian who lives life grounded in the Means of Grace) it is not true that the only thing they need in order to live in new obedience is “more Gospel.” Instead, because they still have the old man, the Christian will also need the suppressing power of the Law.

It is critical when considering the previous statement, that we recognize there is a difference between confessional Lutheran application of the Law for new obedience, and that of other Christian traditions like American evangelicalism. The Lutheran third use of the law has the Gospel and the Means of Grace as its foundation. This is the source of the new man and the means by which he is sustained. The Law is applied in order to suppress the old man, thereby assisting the new man in his struggle. This is very different from holding out the Law as the means to holiness which a person now achieves by their own power, will and struggles.

In answer to the second opinion, it must of course be granted that only the Holy Spirit determines how the Law will actually be applied to the individual. Yet this does remove the fact that the speaker or writer knows the goal he intends to achieve in the hearer or reader. The intent of the speaker is not in question, and when that intent is modeled on what Scripture does, one can scarcely question it. When Paul writes, Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” (Ephesians 5:25 ESV), there is no question about what Paul’s intent is. He wants husbands to live their wives in a sacrificial manner. If it is acceptable for the apostle to speak this way to Christians, then it must be acceptable for pastors today to speak this way too. More than that, if Paul spoke this way, then pastors should speak this way as well. If a particular understanding of Lutheran theology makes one hesitant to do this (or worse yet causes a person to be opposed to it), then that theology must be reexamined because it does not correspond to Scripture and what the Lutheran Confessions teach.

And so as I conclude, I have returned to the point at which I entered into this discussion. Paul and the New Testament provide frequent exhortation, encouragement and teaching about living in new obedience. If the arguments for the new Lutheran understanding of new obedience/“sanctification” are correct, then the writers of Scripture really don’t know what they are doing. Their practice contradicts the very things the new understanding asserts. On the contrary, Scripture instead provides the model for the way we are to preach and teach, and therefore exhortation to new obedience will be part of Lutheran preaching and teaching Because it is found in Scripture, this is also the position of the Lutheran Confessions. As the Epitome says, “For particularly in these last time it is no less necessary to admonish the people to Christian discipline and good works and to remind them how necessary it is that they practice good works as a demonstration of faith and their gratitude to God than it is to admonish them that works not be mingled with the article of justification” (FC Ep IV.18).



Endnotes —

[1] The Latin translation has “renati voluntas non sit otiosa.”

[2] The Latin translation has “etiam cooperetur.”

[3] The Latin translation has “immutavit atque renovavit.”

[4] The Latin translation has “cooperetur.”

[5] The Latin translation has “cooperari possimus ac debeamus.”

[6] The Latin translation has “volentes.”

[7] The Latin translation has “non sit otiosa.”

[8] The Latin translation has “cooperetur.”

[9] Martin Chemnitz, Ministry, Word and Sacraments: An Enchiridion (tr. Luther Poellot; St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1981), para. 199; pg. 101 (emphasis mine).


[11] Heinrich Schmid, The Doctrinal Theology of the Evangelical Lutheran Church (3d ed., rev.; trans. Charles A. Hay and Henry E. Jacobs; Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1899), 491(emphasis mine).

[12] Heinrich Schmid, The Doctrinal Theology of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, 498 (emphasis mine).

[13] Heinrich Schmid, The Doctrinal Theology of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, 487 (emphasis mine).

[14] Francis Pieper, Christian Dogmatics, vol. 3 (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1953), 60(emphasis mine).

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