by Matthew Johnson
I first must confess that I am no scholarly theologian. I am just a simple layperson attempting to make sense of theology. I’m not here to point fingers or sort anyone out. A brief warning: I will use words like “experience” and “feeling” in this post.
Before I found Lutheranism, I found Tullian Tchvidjian. Now what I state here may not be exactly what he intended to teach, but on a practical level this is how I lived out such theology. I heard in sermon after sermon that everything in the New Testament could be broken down to indicatives and imperatives. This is best illustrated for me here:
Colossians 1:21-23 (NIV):
INDICATIVE: “Once you were alienated from God and were enemies in your minds because of[g] your evil behavior. But now he has reconciled you by Christ’s physical body through death to present you holy in His sight, without blemish and free from accusation…”
IMPERATIVE: “…if you continue in your faith, established and firm, and do not move from the hope held out in the gospel.”
I was trained in the law-heavy “Puritan” brand of the Reformed movement to focus only on “the imperative”, to try my hardest to live in “the imperative” as proof or evidence of “the indicative” being true for me. I was terrified on a nightly basis that I had a false faith and was going to be eternally condemned. Along came Tullian Tchvidjian who unveiled the Gospel to my dying spirit. The imperatives could now be easily dismissed because the indicative was all that mattered. I had no assurance through Word and Sacrament. I had no doctrine of baptismal regeneration. I believed what I was being taught about “the indicatives” out of necessity and desperation, not because I had any real assurance that they were actually true. It was like a psychological trick I played on myself to calm myself down.
I became enraged at any Christian who would even mention words like obedience, sanctification, good works, or fruit. I would sling the theological insults “Pharisee”, “Legalist “, “Judaizer”, and many others. How dare they tread on my freedom and Christian liberty?
You see, something very interesting was happening. Something I wasn’t aware of at the time and can only see now in hindsight: in leaving one form of legalism I embraced another. It is often said that antinomianism and legalism are two ditches one can fall into, with confessional orthodox Christianity being the middle path. However this analogy is incomplete if it isn’t mentioned that the two streams flow out of and into the same body of water.
So I continued on in my lawlessness. I tried “just resting in the Gospel” and “doing what felt right” because I had the “Holy Spirit guiding my conscience” and “everything was permissible but not beneficial.”
I fell into worldliness. I started listening to gangster rap, watching television that glorified sin, and using profane language. Of course my initial response to being uncomfortable was that it was the devil assaulting my conscience and I just needed to “rest more in the Gospel.” It got to a point where I consciously knew I was about to sin on purpose and told myself, “Well, I’m alright with God coram Deo anyways, so why not? He’ll forgive me.” Yes, I consciously used grace as a license to sin.
Even before I got to that point, I suffered real temporal spiritual consequences. A logical inconsistency of soft antinomianism is that we need to only look outward to Word and Sacrament for gauging our spiritual condition and never look inward, while at the same time encouraging the use of the Holy Spirit to discern what is good, right, and holy. I mean, where else are we to look if we are to take the exhortations in Scripture seriously? Collapsing the Law into the Gospel causes a believer to become a law unto himself and evict the Holy Spirit from his conscience.
I began to resent being a Christian as “holding me back” from what was to me attractive worldly pleasure. I paid lip service to the third use of the Law, because I knew if I didn’t I’d be accused of being an antinomian. I had reduced Paul’s exhortations to being “great suggestions” but that could be easily dismissed. Whenever I studied the Bible I would skip over the exhortations (imperatives) and focus only on the indicatives, and if you told me otherwise I’d bite your head off.
I only repented when I reached the point where the Holy Spirit was no longer convicting me of my sin, as paradoxical as that sounds. I must tell you that when sin was no longer bothering my conscience it was much more frightening than when it was eating my conscience alive as a law-heavy Puritan.
A logical inconsistency of soft antinomianism is that we need to only look outward to Word and Sacrament for gauging our spiritual condition and never look inward…
I’m not going to endlessly quote “Of Love and Fulfilling the Law” or the parts of our Lutheran Confessions pertaining to the third use of the Law. Read them for yourself. We seem to forget that as Lutherans we need not fear any talk of obedience or cooperation with the Holy Spirit in sanctification. The problem with the Pietists is that they minimized and at times discarded the importance of the sacraments in our relationship with God coram Deo. As Confessional Lutherans we joyfully focus on the forgiveness of sins and the promises of God in Word and Sacrament. Secure in God’s grace and mercy we should not fear the exhortations in Scripture but love and embrace them as gifts from God to guide us as new creations. At least that’s how I see it today, and that’s how I feel.