In his March 2004 essay “Hearts Set to Obey” (featured in the March 2004 issue of Dialog), Dr. Gilbert C. Meiliaender describes what he calls “dialectical Lutheranism”, a distortion of the Evangelical faith with which he takes issue. Here he describes some of its discouraging assumptions:
[T]here 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.
So far Meilaender.
Surely, the perpetual newness of God’s mercy in Christ, full, free, and gratuitous, must predominate in Christian proclamation on the whole. All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God and justified by His grace as a gift through Jesus Christ. This is always true. There will never be a day in which you do not fall short of the glory of God, in which your works— even your Spirit-enabled works of love— will justify you before God. You are saved by mercy alone. To deny this is to deny the Gospel.
Yet there are other ways of denying the Gospel, or at least of verging on such a denial.
It is false to say that the only motion in the Christian life is the repeated transition from unbelief to faith.
It is doubly false to suggest that the daily remembrance of baptism is the same as the the once-undergone, Spirit-worked change from ‘unregenerate’ to ‘regenerate’ that happened to the believer in his Baptism, as though any sin, any doubt, puts him back into an unregenerate state.
In fine, if simul iustus et peccator is interpreted to mean “at the same time born-again and not born-again”, (a) it is not paradoxical, but nonsensical; (b) it is incapable of giving the comfort Luther intended for it to convey; (c) it obliterates the distinction between mortal and venial sins, which is upheld in the Lutheran Confessions1.Or as Walther put it in Thesis XVIII of The Proper Distinction Between Law and Gospel, “ruling” and “ruled” sins. The Rev’d Mark Preus hit the nail squarely on the head when he wrote that part of what is afoot in the neo-Lutheran practical antinomianism is a denial of this thesis.; and (d) it does violence to the New Testament, especially Romans 6, 2 Corinthians 5, Ephesians 4, and any other scripture which talks of Christians as new creatures that do grow and mature. We are not being forcefully and repetitiously re-birthed every time we hear the Word of God. Such an understanding of conversion and regeneration is alien to the Scriptures.
For reasons which should be obvious, the remembrance of baptism is not the same as baptism. Only a Christian can or would “remember his baptism”, in the sense of fleeing to the promise which God made to him in it. Yes, this cycle of daily— or even hourly!— remembrance of and return to baptism is the engine of the Christian life. A better metaphor is that it is the pulse, the very heartbeat of our new life of repentance in Christ.
Yes, some days it may feel like it’s the only thing that’s going on. But we have a sure and certain word from God that it is not the only thing that’s going on. Palsied limbs are growing hale and gaining in strength, slowly, and sometimes imperceptibly. But steps are being taken— following Jesus, yes. Imitating Him, yes. We are walking.
It is rightly denied that we are walking by our own natural powers— we are not.
It is rightly denied that our walking constitutes our justification in any way— it does not.
But to deny that we are walking? This is an equally pernicious denial of the power of the living and active Word of God which gives what it commands when He proclaims: “Rise! Pick up your bed, and walk.”
Or so it seems to me.
References [ + ]
|1.||↑||Or as Walther put it in Thesis XVIII of The Proper Distinction Between Law and Gospel, “ruling” and “ruled” sins. The Rev’d Mark Preus hit the nail squarely on the head when he wrote that part of what is afoot in the neo-Lutheran practical antinomianism is a denial of this thesis.|