Dr. Gilbert Meilaender’s weighty contribution to the antinomianism debate

meilaenderThe Rev’d Dr. Gilbert C. Meilaender is kind of a big deal. He received a B.A. from Concordia Senior College in 1968, an M.Div from Concordia Seminary (St. Louis) in 1972, and a Ph.D. from Princeton University in 1976. Yes, he’s one of those guys who went from kindergarten to Ph.D without stopping. Here’s his faculty bio from Valparaiso’s website:

Before coming to Valparaiso in 1996 I taught at the University of Virginia (1976-78) and at Oberlin College (1978-96). I have served on the Editorial Board and as an Associate Editor of the Journal of Religious Ethics. I have also served as an Associate Editor for Religious Studies Review, on the Editorial Board of the Annual of the Society of Christian Ethics, and on the Editorial Advisory Board of First Things. My published work falls generally into the area of religious ethics. Most recently I have edited (together with William Werpehowski) The Oxford Handbook of Theological Ethics (2005). I have a special interest in bioethics, am a Fellow of the Hastings Center, and have been a member of the President’s Council on Bioethics since its inception in January, 2002.

Lest I forget to mention it— Dr. Meilaender is a Missouri-Synod Lutheran clergyman, rostered in the English District. He teaches at Valparaiso University, a “pan-Lutheran” institution of higher learning in Valparaiso, Indiana. The LCMS wishes Valpo were Lutheran, rather than pan-Lutheran; the ELCA et al are all about the pan, not so much the Lutheran. Gravity is on the side of the ELCA, which is still unable to distinguish plummeting from progressing. So it goes.

And lest I forget to mention this most important fact, Dr. Meilaender’s nephew is a friend of mine from college. That’s right, there are only two degrees of separation between me and Dr. Meilaender— of course, being that we’re so close, I usually just call him “Gil”, and he calls me “T-dog.” Just kidding— we’ve never met. Some friends of mine, however, have had Dr. Meilaender as a professor and assure me that he is a Christian gentleman, a scholar, and a fine teacher. My friend assures me that he’s a great uncle.

In keeping with a rather annoying trend (see previous post), I imagine that there are many Lutherans who, upon reading Dr. Meilaender’s article (excerpted below), will be made very uncomfortable by the candor with which he states that functional or practical antinomianism is the perennial temptation for us Lutherans— yes, even for us Confessional™ Lutherans! Not only that, but he seems to imply that we’ve only gotten worse at combatting it in recent decades— especially us Confessional™ Lutherans, who don’t have any excuse. The somewhat remarkable thing about Dr. Meilaender’s article is that he wrote it back in 2004, before Eminemgate had even happened.1 He also, by his own shameless admission, cares about “theological ethics”, which means that there is no way he truly appreciates the Gospel.2

I have a few thoughts regarding what I think is the real punch of his essay, but I’m going to share them in a separate post, as the main thing I want you to read today is Dr. Meilaender’s excellent essay, “Hearts Set to Obey.” Here are some selected quotations; there’s a link to the full essay at the end of this post.

On the decisiveness of our conversion to faith by the Holy Spirit in Baptism
  • “Romans 6 sets the terms for our discipleship. As we seek daily to creep ever more fully into our baptism, we struggle to distinguish between those actions that follow Christ and those that do not. When we encounter the will of God in the moral order of creation or in the commands of Torah, we quickly realize that— because we have not yet come to the end of the history of redemption or to the end of our own personal way as followers of Jesus— the new life into which we are baptized must sometimes be believed more than seen. Hence, the note of eschatological reservation, the sense that we are only on the way, in Romans 6: ‘For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.’ We remain both sinner and saint as long as we are in this life, but ours is not a static condition. The grace of God enables us, along the way, to make progress in the life of discipleship.
    “For something decisive has happened. ‘We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.’ We are no longer ‘enslaved’ to sin. In Christ Jesus we are ‘alive to God’— desiring to know his will and learning to delight in his commands. And, although as followers on the way we sin daily, we are no longer in bondage to that sin. Something has happened. There is movement in this story that is the history of redemption. ‘For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace.’ Our hearts are now set to obey the commandments of the God whose face we have seen in the crucified and risen One.
    “To be sure, it is also true that at any moment we may experience ourselves as caught between the continuing hold of sin and our liberation in Christ. We may experience our condition as both saint and sinner in a more static way. In those moments the history of redemption may seem to be less a story with movement and direction than a never-ending battle between the powerful grip of sin and the new life under grace into which we have been baptized. I would never wish to deny the importance of this recurring experience in the life of disciples. It is of enormous significance for pastoral care in ways to which I shall return below, but it should not be the chief structuring principle of Christian ethics— as if the only issue for theology were to understand the indefinitely repeated, momentary transition from fallen to new creation, or as if the whole of our theological attention should be focused on those who find themselves in situations of extreme temptation and anxiety. Rather, although theologians must be constantly alert to the possibility of such extremity of despair, they need not do their work under a kind of self-denying ordinance that forbids attention to anything other than the transition from sin to grace, from despair to faith.
    “How, then, should we respond in the face of that recurring experience of the power of sin? Part of the answer, of course, is that these are the moments in Christians’ lives when the language of faith is a necessity: we trust that the grace of God in Christ has pardoned our sin and set us free for discipleship even in those moments when we cannot experience it happening. But there is still more to be said. We not only trust that God has done this— as if we could simply rest content in simultaneously experiencing our enslavement to sin and our trust in a pardoning God, as if we could simply salute the grace of God and go on our way. We not only trust; we also pray. We pray that, by the grace of God, the new life in Christ— the new that has happened, whether it is for the moment apparent or not— would, day by day, take an increasingly firm hold upon our hearts, that they might be set to obey God’s commandments. It is in no way contrary to the life of discipleship that we should, and again, experience ourselves as simply caught in the tension between the reality of our sin and the reality of God’s forgiveness. What is contrary to the path of discipleship is that we should rest content in that static condition, that we should not in prayer strain against it as we ask Christ’s Spirit to make the history of redemption an ever more effective reality in what we think, say, and do. ‘Strive,’ says the Letter to the Hebrews, ‘for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord.’ To this also I will return below.”

On the (self-)caricature of a Lutheran “allergy to law”
  • “Lutheranism can be depicted as having a kind of allergy to law, and the characteristically Lutheran distinction between law and gospel can be presented not as a corrective to abuses that had arisen within the church but, rather, as the basis for an entirely new system of theology. Rather than being a distinction important for pastoral care of believers who are ‘on the way’ in the midst of the history of redemption, it becomes, as David Yeago observes, ‘the prime structuring principle’ of all Christian theology. We should note, in passing, the peculiarity of this tendency. After all, the Lutheran Confessional writings begin with the ecumenical creeds, and the first three articles of the Augsburg Confession simply reaffirm received Christian teaching about the Triune God, about sin, and about Christ. This does not suggest an attempt to develop a theology structured in an entirely novel way. Peculiar or not, however, the claim of novelty is dear to the hearts of many Lutherans, and it therefore needs our examination.”

On a pernicious misconstrual of “the simul”3
  • [Meilaender, describing Hampson’s view] “We accept— perhaps, in subtle ways, we even delight in— our condition as simultaneously saint and sinner. The only righteousness of concern to the Christian is extrinsic, the righteousness of Christ. Hence, the Lutheran understanding of righteousness is relational (rather than being a quality that inheres in a person). Grace is in no sense a power that enables us to become ‘more and more’ what God wills we should be; rather, grace is pardon that announces God’s acceptance of the sinner and thereby elicits the faith that puts sinners in right relation with God.
    “That grace having been announced, there is no more to be said— other than to say it ‘again and again.’ That is, any serious struggle to grow in righteousness, to obey God’s commands more fully, will be understood as sin, since it may direct one’s attention inward in a self-preoccupied way, rather than outward to the extrinsic righteousness of Christ. From such self-perfecting tendencies one must simply flee and Christians make no progress in righteousness; they simply return time and again to the word that announces pardon, a word that invites and elicits faith. They continually reclaim their starting point.
    “There can be no room here for ethical reflection. There is room for preaching, but perhaps not for catechesis. It is hard to know exactly how one who lived solely within this framework of thought could raise children or pass on the church’s way of life. According to this dialectical framework, the church must strictly separate faith from life. It should confine itself to preaching the gospel that frees us from self-preoccupation. Again and again. If it talks of God’s commandments, it does so in order to see how they condemn us and how we must— again and again— flee from that condemnation to the gospel’s announcement of pardon.
    “In short, the central element in Hampson’s analysis can be stated simply and clearly: For Luther or Lutheranism, righteousness is in no sense substantive; it is not a quality that— even by God’s grace— inheres in believers. Hence, there is no sense in which righteousness can grow, in which one can become more and more holy, in which the grace of God should be understood as a power that makes possible the Christian’s journey toward holiness. On the contrary, righteousness is entirely a relation. To have faith in Christ is to have his righteousness and, therefore, to be right with God. What more could be needed? Having that, there is no need for growth. There is need only to return and again to the promise that elicits faith in Christ as our righteousness. Christians are not on the way. The Christian life goes nowhere. Rather, it returns— again and again. It starts over. It is a constant return to the promise, a constant struggle to trust that Christ is indeed our righteousness. Moreover, serious attention to the moral life and to God’s commands, serious ethical reflection about the sort of acts we should do and the sort of persons we should be, must be renounced as temptation. Expressing a sinful preoccupation with self, such concern simply demonstrates that, in ourselves, we are indeed wholly and entirely slaves to sin.

Commenting on a problematic gloss of Johann Gerhard by the late Rev’d Dr. Robert Scharlemann which bifurcates all Christians into the categories of “complacent” and “despairing”
  • “The object of Gerhard’s theological attention— in characteristically dialectical fashion— ‘is not the whole picture of man as he is by nature and by grace, but the picture of man precisely at the point of transition between the two states.’ Consequently, what one should say theologically always depends on the state of the person to whom one speaks, and there seem to be only two such states that play a determinative role in a dialectical theology: the person addressed is either ‘complacent man’ or ‘despairing man.’ If complacent, he must be brought to if despairing, he is ready to hear the Gospel.
    “But are these the only two sorts of people whom we might address? Are there none who, neither complacent nor despairing, are simply baptized Christians who know that they are no longer in bondage to sin but are still sinners who need to grow in grace? How ought one speak to them? Or must we tacitly assume that they are really complacent and must be moved to despair before we have else to say to them? A theology that puts the language of ‘paradox’ front and center, once we start to press upon it, is likely to leave us with such questions.”

On the trading of the orthodox doctrine of creation for one in which all divine activity, in almost Islamic fashion, is subsumed under the category of “creation”
  • “Having been more or less trained in such an approach to Lutheran theology, I recall that I sensed there was something wrong with it long before I began to be able to say what that might be. I first thought that what was mistaken about this way of structuring a theological system was that it lacked a doctrine of creation. Unwilling to talk of a moral order embedded in the creation, it seemed unable to say that our action should conform to that order. I still think there is something to that first thought of mine; that is, there are moments when an incipient Marcionite tendency makes its presence felt in this version of Lutheran theology. But I now wonder whether something almost the opposite might not come even closer to the truth, whether it might not be more accurate to say that this approach has nothing but a doctrine of creation. It is creation and new creation ‘again and again.’ Nothing else ever happens. There is no movement, no history of redemption. There is only the moment of transition from sin to faith, returned to time and again. No person whom God has created is set on the way toward progress in the new life— only created again and again.”

On the failure of “dialectical Lutheranism” and its deficient recognition of the Christian as a new creation in Christ
  • “We need to do better than this dialectical Lutheranism. We need a theology that does not invite us to forget that ‘the grace of God has appeared for the salvation of all men, training us to renounce irreligion and worldly passions, and to live sober, upright, and godly lives in this world, awaiting our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, who gave himself to redeem us from all iniquity and to purify for himself a people of his own who are zealous for good deeds’ (Titus 2:11- 14). We need a theology that does not invite us to act as if the incarnation, cross, and empty tomb have done nothing new and transforming in human history. In short, we need to be able to say, as Luther does in Thesis 23 of the Heidelberg Disputation, ‘The law brings the wrath of God, kills, reviles, accuses, judges, and condemns everything that is not in Christ.'”

Quoting and commenting on the Apology of the Augsburg Confession, Article IV, Pars II, “Of Love and the Fulfilling of the Law”
  • “Christians ‘should daily practice the law of the Lord, as it is written in Psalms 1 and 119, “Blessed are those…whose delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law they meditate day and night”‘ (FC, SD, VI, 4). Acknowledging that, until the last day, the sinful flesh retains its hold even on renewed Christians, who will therefore feel the prodding of the law, Article VI nevertheless distinguishes between ‘two different kinds of people’ who may do what God requires (FC, SD, VI, 16). Those who have not been reborn are in bondage to the law and condemned by it even when they keep it in part. But those who have been born again and set free from bondage, do what God commands— moved not simply by the law’s prodding (or, even, by a sense of the majesty of the moral law) but by the power of Christ’s Spirit (FC, SD, VI, 16-17). These Christians are on the way toward the holiness God promises to work in them. Along the way, of course, they will often stumble— and, hence, will need to return time and again to the word of promise that constitutes their recurring starting point. But they are not like Sisyphus, and they do more than just begin again and again. Article VI is clear that the last truth about God’s promise is that he will bring them ever more fully— and substantively— into Christ’s righteousness ‘until the sinful flesh is completely stripped away and people are perfectly renewed in the resurrection’ (FC, SD, VI, 24). That is the end of the history of redemption, and movement toward that end has already begun in the lives of believers.

On the ominous consequences of “dialectical Lutheranism” vis-á-vis the doctrine of God, ethics, and the Two Kingdoms
  • “The deeper problem with terminological solutions is that they are likely to leave untouched the inability of dialectical Lutheranism to speak of the law as the law of that one God who simply is gracious. That is, they do not address the incipient Marcionism that turns the distinction between law and gospel into a division within God’s own being and thereby makes the normative will of God of purely passing significance. In practice, this dualism is tempted to treat the content of the moral life as a purely secular matter. So long, then, as the surrounding culture is relatively ‘Christianized,’ that culture does the work of carrying and transmitting Christian wisdom about how to live— thereby enabling the church to hide from herself the fact that she no longer has any moral guidance to offer. It is only when “times change” and the culture no longer seems reliable as a transmitter of Christian virtue that we suddenly realize the church has lost the ability to shape lives. This does not mean, of course, that the church ceases to speak about moral law; it means simply that what the church has to say increasingly mimics the secular sphere both in what it accepts and in what it rejects.”

On the “pastor’s art” of distinguishing between justification and sanctification
  • The terms ‘justification’ and ‘sanctification’ point not to different works of God but to two different angles— pardon and power— from which to describe the one work of God in Christ, reconciling the world to himself. These are different ways of describing how God’s Spirit draws our lives into the story of Jesus. The language of pardon addresses a truth of our experience— the continuing lure of sin. The language of power articulates the truth of reality— that God is at work, fulfilling his promise to turn sinners into saints. Our concern, therefore, should not be that justification must always precede sanctification, a word of pardon precede a word of power. The distinction between these works of the Holy Spirit lies not in their order but in the circumstances in which these different words of grace are needed and appropriate. To those who are troubled in their hearts and tempted to despair, God’s word of grace must be spoken as sheer pardon, free of any demand that might be heard as accusation. Only grace as pardon can draw the despairing out of themselves, teach them not to look inward (which is, after all, their problem), but outward to the righteousness of Christ. To those who trust that by God’s grace they are no longer in bondage to sin and who seek, however haltingly and imperfectly, to bring their lives into obedience to his will, the gift and guidance of God’s empowering grace should be offered. Thus, the distinction between justification and sanctification lies not in some wooden order of priority, but is a pastoral art, the skill of discerning whether grace as pardon or as power is needed. And the distinction between these languages is not the chief structuring principle of theology; it is, rather, the pastor’s art.(32)

On God’s fulfillment of His promises for us and in us in “the inn of His Church”4
  • “Christians may often experience their life as a daily return— again and again, new every morning— to the word of pardon that gives them hope. But the report of that experience, crucial as it is, must not subvert the truth of reality— that within the inn of his church, God is at work forming people whose hearts are set to obey. These are not people who suppose that they can ever face the judgment of God secure in their own deeds and character; rather, these are people in whom there has begun to be, as Paul Ramsey put it, ‘a combination of increasing humility and increasing achievement.’ The more God’s grace empowers their lives, the more they know their need of his pardon. And the word of pardon carries with it God’s commitment to make us people who will want to live in his presence— to make us what he says we are. Hence, God’s promise is embedded in his command: ‘You shall be holy.'”

On how we ought to pray for an end to the “simul5
  • “Until that day, of course, we continue to exist within the ‘simul’— as simultaneously saint and sinner. We dare not, however, contentedly accept this as our normal and appropriate condition— as if God did not intend one day to have done with the ‘simul’ and were not already at work on that project here and now.… We should pray God to put an end to the ‘simul’ that our hearts may be set to obey. The command of God, which calls for our obedience, comes to us day by day as the command of the One whose grace has been revealed in the face of Jesus Christ. And because that is true, because we can and must say ‘Amen’ to him, we should listen for the promise in the commands of the Decalogue: You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and mind. You shall become a child who loves the Father, a bride eager to greet her bridegroom, a creature who loves the Creator from whom comes life and every good thing, a lover of God in whose speech the praise of God resounds. All this…you shall be. And to trust that promise— the promise that we shall become people whose hearts are set to obey God’s commandments— is both our duty and our delight.”

Source: “Hearts Set to Obey,” by Gilbert Meilaender



  1. There are some who identify this as the opener of “the great sanctification debate”, insofar as this phenomenon has been traceable in the Lutheran blogosphere; that would put it at almost ten years old. The only way to access the blogposts cited in the footnotes of the linked piece is to right-click them, copy the link addresses, and then paste them one by one into the search tool at archive.org.
  2. This is a joke.
  3. This topic gets extensive treatment in Meilaender’s essay. Meilaender presents the view of Lutheranism expounded by one Daphne Hampson— a view which he does not accept, but understands the basis for. Though not a Lutheran nor even a Christian, Hampson provides a gloss on Lutheran theology which would likely be accepted as accurate by many Lutherans today, even among those who identify as Confessional.
  4. A beautiful turn of phrase for the week of Trinity 13, which in the One-Year Lectionary features the parable of The Good Samaritan
  5. We know that such an end will come only in death, yes, but we pray for it all the same, just as we still pray for the coming of God’s Kingdom, which comes by itself even without our prayer.

One Comment

  1. I just finished reading Meilaender’s essay. It’s good throughout, but in my opinion, the very best part of it is from the Luther quotation on page 10: “…Now, is he [the Christian] perfectly righteous? no, for he is at the same time both a sinner and a righteous man; a sinner in fact, but a righteous man by the sure imputation and promise of God that He will continue to deliver him from sin until He has completely cured him. And thus he is entirely healthy in hope, but in fact he is still a sinner; but he has the beginning of righteousness, so that he continues more and more always to seek it.” Here lies the nuance so many Lutherans miss when they talk about “the simul”: the continual, day-by-day deliverance from sin (not only by absolution but also by Spirit-empowered abstention), the beginning of righteousness, and the continuing more and more always to seek it. Luther also points out that the sick man who desires to be made well “believes the doctor who promises him a sure recovery and in the meantime obeys the doctor’s order in the hope of the promised recovery and abstains from those things which have been forbidden him, so that he may in no way hinder the promised return to health or increase his sickness until the doctor can fulfill his promise to him.” How different from the lenient, laissez-faire approach to sin that prevails in many Lutheran pulpits today, and consequently in our own attitudes. Not only should our recognition of our sins bring us to our knees in sincere contrition and repentance as we realize our utter dependence on God’s mercy and forgiveness and our need for Christ’s cloak of righteousness; even the “soft” or “semi” antinomians will preach that. But that same recognition of our sins and the pain it brings us to confess those sins as our own should lead us to fervent and ongoing repentance, in which we struggle actively to resist and slay the desires of our flesh. We should not cavalierly say, “Well, God will sanctify me, and at the end He’ll forgive me where I’ve fallen,” taking our medicine in a haphazard fashion as though it matters not whether we live or die; but rather we should strive to keep every word of our Great Physician’s orders, trusting not only His eschatological promises, but also His promise that His will, no matter how painful it is to follow, is best. God grant us the courage to do this.

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