Let’s do some grammar…
John only eats.
John only eats apples.
Is there a difference between these two statements? Yes, indeed there is. In the first sentence, the verb “eats” is intransitive; that is, it lacks a direct object. It is a general absolute statement, describing the only thing that the subject “John” does. John eats, and it follows from the adverb “only” that John does not do anything else.
In the second statement, “eats” is transitive. It has a direct object. Thus it is a particular statement, describing not the only thing that John does, but the only thing that John eats—that is, “apples.” It does not follow from this statement that John only eats; it follows from this statement that when John eats, he eats apples.
Obviously, either statement could be hyperbolic. But that’s a post hoc contextual judgment which is not, strictly speaking, grammatical.
Here’s another set of statements:
The Law only accuses.
The Law only accuses and terrifies consciences. In these terrors our adversaries say nothing of faith; they present only the Word, which convicts of sin. When this is taught alone, it is the doctrine of the Law, not of the Gospel. By these griefs and terrors, they say, men merit grace, provided they love God. But how will men love God in true terrors when they feel the terrible and inexpressible wrath of God? What else than despair do those teach who, in these terrors, display only the Law?
The original analysis— the one about John and the apples— applies. Is the former statement a summary of the latter statement? No, it’s not. It is, in fact, a different statement. And— surprise, surprise!— the context matters.
The context, in case you were wondering, is The Apology of the Augsburg Confession Article XII: Of Repentance (Triglotta, Dau & Bente). “The Law only accuses and terrifies the conscience,” “Lex enim tantum accusat et terret conscientias” is a sentence that appears in section 34. But there’s a prior occurrence of this phrase in the Apology, several sections earlier. Here it is in context:
For it is evident that we are not justified by the Law. Otherwise, why would there be need of Christ or the Gospel, if the preaching of the Law alone would be sufficient? Thus in the preaching of repentance, the preaching of the Law, or the Word convicting of sin, is not sufficient, because the Law works wrath, and only accuses, only terrifies consciences, (quia lex iram operatur, tantum accusat, tantum terret conscientias) because consciences never are at rest, unless they hear the voice of God in which the remission of sins is clearly promised. Accordingly, the Gospel must be added, that for Christ’s sake sins are remitted, and that we obtain remission of sins by faith in Christ. If the adversaries exclude the Gospel of Christ from the preaching of repentance, they are judged aright to be blasphemers against Christ. (Apology, Article V: Of Love and the Fulfilling of the Law, 136)
But even that’s not all— a further explication of the accusation of the Law comes yet one article earlier in the Apology, in the titanic fourth article, “Of Justification”, the longest article in the Book of Concord:
Christ, in the last chapter of Luke 24:47, commands that repentance and remission of sins should be preached in His name. For the Gospel convicts all men that they are under sin, that they all are subject to eternal wrath and death, and offers, for Christ’s sake, remission of sin and justification, which is received by faith. The preaching of repentance, which accuses us, terrifies consciences with true and grave terrors. For the preaching of repentance— or this declaration of the Gospel: “Amend your lives! Repent!”— when it truly penetrates the heart, terrifies the conscience, and is no jest, but a great terror, in which the conscience feels its misery and sin, and the wrath of God. In these, hearts ought again to receive consolation. This happens if they believe the promise of Christ, that for His sake we have remission of sins. This faith, encouraging and consoling in these fears, receives remission of sins, justifies and quickens. (Apology IV: Of Justification, 62a)
Are you confused? “[T]he Gospel convicts all men that they are under sin”? “[T]his declaration of the Gospel: Amend your lives! Repent!”? At first blush it sounds like Melanchthon really needs to read some Walther. (Read Article V of the Formula of Concord to see how this gets cleared up.)
There is yet more fleshing out to be done. As we read through to the end of Article IV, we see that the statement “the Law terrifies” is an instance of metonymy, the linguistic use of “form for function” or “effect for cause”:
In the remission of sins, the terrors of sin and of eternal death in the heart must be overcome, as Paul testifies, (1 Cor. 15:56 sq.): “The sting of death is sin, and the strength of sin is the Law. But thanks be to God, which giveth us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.” That is, sin terrifies consciences, this occurs through the Law, which shows the wrath of God against sin; but we gain the victory through Christ. How? By faith, when we comfort ourselves by confidence in the mercy promised for Christ’s sake. (Apology IV.79b-80a)
This brings us more or less to the end of the semiotic chain. When you dial in on the sinner’s existential encounter with the Law, it is not the Law in its objectivity which terrifies him, but the knowledge of sin that it awakens in him. It’s certainly not wrong to say that “the Law terrifies,” but we should take care to think through the fully-developed meaning of the phrase, as the Apology leads us to do, lest we become tacitly Marcionite in our thinking: Christianity is not about “Gospel-God” saving us from “Law-God.” <— (this is hearsay, but I do believe that’s a David Scaerism)
This little excursus illustrates a few things (I hope). Firstly and most notably, it shows that you cannot take a phrase from the Confessions out of context— in the same way that you cannot take a phrase from Scripture out of context— and have it mean anything. I am reminded of St. Jerome’s memorable quip in his Dialogue Against the Luciferians:
Let them not flatter themselves if they think they have Scripture authority for their assertions, since the devil himself quoted Scripture, and the essence of the Scriptures is not the letter, but the meaning. Otherwise, if we follow the letter, we too can concoct a new dogma and assert that such persons as wear shoes and have two coats must not be received into the Church. (St. Jerome, “Dialogue Against the Luciferians,” Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Vol 6., The Principal Works of St. Jerome, p. 334)
I may as well start strutting around posting things like “The Gospel convicts all men… #TheLutheranConfessions.” It’s a declarative straight out of the Confessions, after all. So what would be the harm? The potential harm is obvious, so I’m not going to bother explaining. So, too, with the statement “The Law only accuses.”
Secondly, it shows in what context the Law is said to terrify: in the preaching of repentance which is preparatory to the proclamation of the Gospel in the proper sense, i.e., “the promise of the forgiveness of sins and of justification through Christ” (FC SD V.27). Yet if Dr. Luther is to be believed, not all Law-preaching is or should be a preaching of repentance in this strict sense. To wit:
Before justification the Law ruled and terrified all whom it touched. But the Law is not to be taught in such a way among the pious, so as to accuse and condemn, but so as to admonish to good. For I ought not to say or preach: “You are not under the remission of sins.” Likewise: “You will be condemned; God hates you,” etc. For these sayings do not pertain to those who have received Christ, but address the ruthless and wild. The Law then is to be attenuated for them and is to be taught them by way of exhortation: “Once you were Gentiles; now, however, you are sprinkled and washed by the blood of Christ” (cf. Eph. 2:11, 13; 1 Cor. 6:11). “Therefore now offer you bodies to obey righteousness, putting away the desires of the flesh, lest you become like this world” (cf. Rom. 12:12; 6:13; Eph. 4:22). “Be imitators of the righteousness of good works (cf. Tit. 2:14) and do not be unrighteous, condemned like Cain, etc.; you have Christ.” (Martin Luther, Antinomian Disputations, Argument 21)
The sainted Dr. Kurt Marquart concurs:
“[W]e should beware of all legalisms that want to confine preaching to some particular formula, like this ‘goal, malady, means,’ which is pure manipulation. Rather, the Christian preacher ought to present that in freedom, so that his sermons are basically unpredictable. People should not be able to see—look at their watch and say, ‘OK, he’s had ten minutes of Law, now he must be going to say—the next ten minutes, Gospel.’ That’s too predictable, too mechanical. Rather, Law and Gospel ought to be intertwined. They ought to be in dialogue constantly. And the second use of the Law basically will concentrate on our evil and our sins. But the third use of the Law should concentrate on the good things which are pleasing to God. So that’s how these ought to be handled differently. But, of course, the Holy Spirit will, in the preaching of the Law, will do both things at the same time. But pastors ought deliberately to have in mind to support the new creation in its struggles against the world, the devil, and the flesh. But there’s no particular formula, in other words, and, for example, some say, ‘Never end with an admonition.’ Why not? What’s wrong with, after a rich Gospel sermon, saying, ‘And so the Lord gave us these riches; let us go and do likewise.’ Nothing wrong with that…[T]he preacher needs to make the distinction, because otherwise the recipient will feel that he is just an unconverted sinner and needs converting every Sunday.”
It’s one thing to affirm the terrifying and accusing effect of the Law in the context of preaching repentance; it is quite another thing to say that terror and accusation exhaust the Law per se. In fact, to say that “the Law only accuses”— full stop— is, in a word, Manichaean. Notably, our Confessions do not make such a statement. The bifurcation of the Law into what a friend once termed “mere political order and sheer Elertian terror”, no remainder, results not only in a fundamentally mistaken conception of the Law, but in the destruction of the Gospel, as well. Quiet George explains why:
“If we say the Law only accuses, then we say that God only accuses. But it is the Love of God, that is, the Law of God, which effected our salvation. Therefore, we should rejoice in the Law always, for the Law is not something separate from God, a list of requirements; it is the essence of God made comprehensible to a created mind. It is for this reason that Luther can say ‘Only the Decalogue is Eternal’ for it is one with the Divinity. As long as we believe the Law to be something external to God, we will always fail to preach the Law properly.”
That’s about it, really.
Conclusion, or something like it…
Beware those who would say, imply, or verge on saying or implying that the Law of God is at its essence accusation, something inimical to mankind, etc. That is a doctrine of demons.
I am not a pastor, nor am I a teacher of theology (though I have been the latter— to schoolchildren ages nine to fourteen); I am a seminarian (UPDATE: I was a seminarian when I wrote this, and I hope to be one again in a few years). But I have been a layman sitting at the feet of good pastors and teachers, a perplexed soul craving counsel, and a penitent seeking absolution. And as such, I have learned this to be true:
Good theologians not only take care to differentiate truth and error; rather, they recognize the evil fecundity and infectiousness of error, that it is crouching at the door, and that its desire is for them and for the hearts and minds of those who listen to them. They do not simply drop a haphazard chalk-line between truth and error; they wall the error off. They take pains to ensure that it does not creep in and spawn. It is the difference between, “I didn’t mean to” and “I made sure not to.”
But all that is assuming that you’re not trying to norm truth with comfort. If this is your aim (starting, chiefly, with your own comfort), then you’ll deceive a lot of people, all under the auspices of “bringing them the comfort of the Gospel.” But these are false auspices, for the reductionistic melánge of hashtag faux-Lutheranism has as much semblance to the real comfort of the Gospel as a bowl of crystal-meth has to a nutritious meal. Those who ply in it are sham ministers, wolves in sheep’s clothing, and blind guides. Sadly, if social media comprise any sort of reliable barometer, then the harm inflicted by such men has not been merely potential, but actual.
But thanks be to God, for Christ the Good Shepherd will take care of His little lambs. He will not lose a single one. False shepherds, false pastors will not have their way in the end. The birds will come back home to roost— as St. Cyril of Alexandria soberingly attests in this sermon— and it will not be a joyful homecoming for such men when they do.
And that’s all I have to say about that.
- “God’s Last Word” by Rev’d Dr. Holger Sonntag