In a previous post I highlighted what some departed Evangelical theologians— Drs. Luther, Walther, and Marquart— have had to say regarding the homiletical use of God’s Law. The featured content seemed, at least to me, to be not only confessional (i.e., in line with the Book of Concord), but quite germane to the ongoing Lutheran sanctification debate. By the way, there’s an ongoing Lutheran sanctification debate.
Should pastors preach the Law specifically to foment an existential crisis among their hearers, or, generally speaking, should they preach in a different mode when addressing the baptized? That was the question. I also touched on the related “who uses the Law— God or man?” question, which I plan on giving some focused consideration in a separate post later on.
One of the theologians featured in the linked article, Dr. Kurt Marquart, had some memorable things to say about the homiletical sequencing of Law and Gospel during the Q & A portion of his 2004 Symposium address. I highly recommend reading and/or listening to the whole thing. For now, though, I’m going to zero in on his penultimate words:
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.
Thus spake Marquart. He states it so simply, so unambiguously. Yet there is anything but consensus on this point among Confessional™ Lutherans.
Ending with the Law
With the amount of heat this topic has generated over the last few years— over the last few months, even— we might well be able to power a fleet of LCMS blimps. (Who knows? Perhaps one already circles in the stratosphere above the Purple Palace, housing the scientists who created Lutherans. Farrakhan, you were right!) When I was a regular participant in/observer of Lutheran Facebook fracases, the question of whether it is permissible to end a sermon with the Law seemed more divisive than individual communion cups.1.Not the issue thereof— the cups themselves; see what I did there? Answer this one wrong, and you might well out yourself as a traitor to the Holy Gospel itself, conspiring with the Whore of Babylon to sneak the thin end of the pope’s wedge back into the Lutheran Church.
Somewhat ironically, though, the only legalists I have seen in this particular controversy are those whose Geboten Marquart paraphrases with the foregoing: “‘Never end with an admonition.'” Strangely, I have never seen or heard anyone say, “Always end with an admonition,” or even, “You really should end with an admonition.” Rather, the controversy is between (a) those who think it is intrinsically subversive of the Gospel to end a sermon with any sort of παραίνεσης (exhortation), and therefore verboten, and (b) those who think that there just plain isn’t a rule about ending sermons, so long as the Gospel is allowed to predominate in the proclamation.
What the Confessions Say
The fact that Blessed Martin frequently ended his sermons with admonitions (and at times excoriations) is certainly noteworthy. But the good doctor wasn’t infallible. What do the Lutheran Confessions have to say about the matter?
We should bear in mind that it’s not a given that the Lutheran Confessions do have something to say about this or that theological topic. They are pronouncements regarding certain controverted articles of the faith; they are not loci theologici or dogmatics texts covering every point of doctrinal minutiae— and it’s worth pointing out that the loci and dogmatics don’t answer all of our questions, either! The confessors were wise, and their writings are indeed capacious, but they were not clairvoyant.
However, it turns out that the Lutheran Confessions are not silent on the matter of what might be called the proper sequencing of Law and Gospel. “Now, when the grounds of this case have been understood, namely, the distinction between the Law and the promises, or the Gospel, it will be easy to resolve the objections of the adversaries,” Melanchthon (or the editorial committee— de gustibus) writes in the Apology of the Augsburg Confession, (V [IV II].62, “Of Love and the Fulfilling of the Law”). “For rightly to understand the benefit of Christ and the great treasure of the Gospel (which Paul extols so greatly), we must separate, on the one hand, the promise of God and the grace that is offered, and, on the other hand, the Law, as far as the heavens are from the earth.”
That’s the part we all know, right? The vital distinction between the Law and the Gospel. But let us read on:
[W]ithout Christ the Law cannot be truly observed, and although external works may be performed, still the person doing them does not please God outside of Christ… Hence we refer godly minds to the consideration of the promises, and we teach concerning the free remission of sins and concerning reconciliation, which occurs through faith in Christ. Afterwards we add also the doctrine of the Law [not that by the Law we merit the remission of sins, or that for the sake of the Law we are accepted with God, but because God requires good works]. And it is necessary to divide these things aright, as Paul says in 2 Tim. 2:15. We must see what Scripture ascribes to the Law and what to the promises. For it praises works in such a way as not to remove the free promise, but as to place the promise of God and the true treasure, Christ, a thousand leagues above it. (63b-65a, 67)
The bracketed portion comes from Justus Jonas’s German paraphrase; the original Latin is much more spare:
Postea addimus et doctrinam legis. Et haec oportet ὀρθοτομεῖν, ut ait Paulus 2 Tim. 2:25. Videndum est, quid legi, quid promissionibus Scriptura tribuat. Sic enim laudat opera, ut non tollat gratuitam promissionem.2.Triglotta, p.95
Look at the bolded text. Look at the Latin. There you have it— the Apology definitely says that a certain teaching of the Law very naturally comes after the Gospel— indeed, that such a use of the Law (by the Holy Ghost, through the preacher) can only follow the Gospel. Mind you, this doesn’t mean that the Gospel should be preached first in a sermon— it’s fairly obvious that this usually makes little sense, unless it’s a Gospel-only sermon, like St. John Chrysostom’s Easter Homily. It just means that a sermon might not always proceed “Law-half, Gospel-half, INJ, Amen,” for every pericope.
Is it not in our Confessions that because the Holy Spirit has called us by the Gospel and enlightened us with His gifts, the veil has been removed from our eyes (howbeit we still see through a glass, darkly), with the result being that we can delight in the Law according to the inward man? (Simul boyz, don’t even— you’re just wrong.)
As Lutherans, do we not believe that after the forgiveness of sins has been proclaimed and received, the Law can be understood aright as the good and gracious will of a loving Father?
“Accordingly, Paul says that the Law is established by faith, and not made void; because the Law can only then be thus kept when the Holy Ghost is given,” Melanchthon writes earlier in article V . In these and other passages we have indefatigable proof that the Lutheran fathers (and St. Paul) saw the Law not as belonging solely to a past sub-evangelical Aeon (pace Forde, Paulson, et al), but as the description of the life for which and unto which Christians have been redeemed.
A curious omission…
You wouldn’t necessarily get all of that crystal-clearly, though, if the only translation of the Apology you read is the Kolb-Wengert, which contains some pretty significant omissions. In the Kolb-Wengert translation, paragraphs 344-355 (V [IV II].223-234 in the Triglotta) of the editio princeps in quarto are entirely omitted (see footnote 221 on p. 169). So, for example, if you used the KW as your confessional standard, you wouldn’t ever come across this gem of a paragraph:
We are for this very end justified, that, being righteous, we may begin to do good works and to obey God’s Law. We are regenerated and receive the Holy Ghost for the very end that the new life may produce new works, new dispositions, the fear and love of God, hatred of concupiscence, etc. This faith of which we speak arises in repentance, and ought to be established and grow in the midst of good works, temptations, and dangers, so that we may continually be the more firmly persuaded that God for Christ’s sake cares for us, forgives us, hears us. (227)
UPDATE: Please read my retraction and correction, which pertain to the bracketed text: [As a company man, and someone who has a great deal of respect for Robert Kolb, I’m going to blame that editorial decision on Timothy “Bound Conscience” Wengert.] The Kolb-Wengert is a revision of the Tappert edition of the Book of Concord, yet the Tappert contains no such omission! (Thank you, Nils, for checking on that.) For this and other reasons, I would recommend sticking to the Dau-Bente English translation of the Triglotta. Or, if you don’t like things that are free and in the public domain, the Reader’s Edition. (Calm down, CPH!— our house has something like four Reader’s Editions, including the souvenir first-edition that made Matthew Becker so upset. I just like free things, OK?)
But I digress.
OBJECTION: “Walther says you shouldn’t end with Law.”
Maybe he did. Who knows? The proof for this opinion of Walther’s is often furnished in the form of a quote that Walther is purported to have said to a seminarist whose sermon he was vetting. A friend reported the following to me in a private conversation:
In Louis Lange’s “Die Abendschule” Vol. 57 No. 22b there is a story told by one F.W. Herzberger about reading his first sermon to Dr. Walther. Dr. Walther did not approve of the end of the sermon and said: “Jede Predigt muß mit dem Evangelium schließen.” “Every sermon must end with the Gospel.”
One wonders, in light of the fact that Walther did not always end his own sermons with the Gospel, whether this was an example of him speaking to a seminarian who needed to master the basics, or whether Walther, like many theologians, expressed different theologoumena throughout his life. This interesting bit of historical hearsay aside, we would do well to examine the text of something that came directly from Walther’s mouth. Let us turn, then, to the explanation of Thesis VII of Law & Gospel. Thesis VII reads thusly:
The Word of God is not rightly divided when the Gospel is preached first and then the Law; sanctification first and then justification; faith first and then repentance; good works first and then grace.
First off— make sure not to preach good works before you preach grace next time, eh? We could probably think about what that means for quite awhile, as, prima facie, it sounds like he’s contradicting himself: “Don’t preach good works (Law) before you preach grace (Gospel).” Huh? At the present time, however, I wish to direct the reader’s attention to the following excerpt from Walther’s explanation:
Let us pass on to the apostolic epistles, especially to that addressed to the Romans, which contains the Christian doctrine in its entirety. What do we find in the first three chapters? The sharpest preaching of the Law. This is followed, towards the end of the third chapter and in chapters 4 and 5, by the doctrine of justification— nothing but that. Beginning at chapter 6, the apostle treats of nothing else than sanctification. Here we have a true pattern of the correct sequence: first the Law, threatening men with the wrath of God. This is followed by an instruction regarding the things we are to do after we have become new men. The prophets, too, when they wished to convert people, began by preaching the Law to them. When the chastisings of the Law had taken effect, they comforted the poor sinners. As to the apostles, no sooner had their hearers shown that they were alarmed than they seemed to know nothing else to do for them than to comfort them and pronounce absolution to them. Not until that had been done, would they say to their people: “Now you must show your gratitude toward God.” They did not issue orders; they did not threaten when their orders were disregarded, but they pleaded and besought their hearers by the mercy of God to act like Christians.
Among other things, it’s noteworthy that Walther considers the structure of the apostolic epistles to be worthy of imitation when it comes to the pattern and sequence of Evangelical preaching; we will return to this point shortly. For now, however, let us not that according to Walther, “a true pattern”— notice he did not say “the true pattern”— “of the correct sequence” goes like this:
- The Law, threatening men with the wrath of God;
- An instruction regarding the things we are to do after we have become new men;
- In the wake of these “chastisings”, assurance, comfort, and absolution— that is, Gospel (Nota Bene: THIS PART PREDOMINATES.)
- Pleading and beseeching by the mercies of God to act like Christians.
What is number 4? Is it not Law? Perhaps Paul Althaus is right, and it’s not Law (Gesetz)…but Commandment! (Gebot; perhaps he’s right, but I very much doubt it.) Perhaps the answer is that, yes, it’s Law, and Walther is just wrong— you should end at number 3, every time, or you’ve betrayed the Gospel and robbed your hearers of comfort. It’s the Law of Lutheran Preaching! Again, though, that would mean that Walther is one Lutheran (and by no means the first or only Lutheran) who, with some regularity, did it wrong. That’s certainly a possibility, but for many reasons, I doubt it, not the least of which is the fact that the foregoing is indeed the pattern of apostolic proclamation, and St. Paul does in fact say to St. Timothy the bishop, “Hold fast the pattern of sound words which you have heard from me, in faith and love which are in Christ Jesus” (2 Tim 1:13). With all due respect to the objection “yes, but you are neither Jesus nor St. Paul” (rumored to have come from Norman Nagel, though I am not sure what context it was spoken in, if he is indeed the source), I don’t think it stands up. “The apostles followed up the Law with paraenesis sometimes, but you? You must never.” I don’t think so. Maybe Walther is right in Law & Gospel, Thesis VII. Maybe it is meet, right, and salutary to end a sermon with paraenesis sometimes.
OBJECTION: “The Epistles weren’t sermons.”
Wrong. They absolutely were sermons, when they needed to be.
In the sub-apostolic Church epistles were often read in their entirety in the midst of the assembly— think of that next time you grow impatient with a long pericope! Copies of the epistles were somewhat few and far between, so if your church had a copy of Philippians, and the church in the neighboring polis had a copy of Galatians, you might orchestrate a trade (quite possibly at great risk of life and limb) so that a new one could be read in your congregation the next Lord’s Day. Churches didn’t have a big black leather-bound codex up at the front of the catacomb that they could leaf through.
In addition to the historical use of epistles as sermons, we can note a formal similarity. “In many respects, the New Testament epistles are of the same genre as the sermon,” writes the Rev’d Dr. Burnell F. Eckardt in The New Testament In His Blood: A Study of the Holy Liturgy of the Christian Church.
They are commentaries on the life of Christ, as are sermons; they are explications of the (Old Testament) Scriptures, as are sermons; and they proclaim the Gospel, as do sermons. This is the meaning of St. Paul’s words to the Ephesians: “By revelation he made known unto me the mystery; (as I wrote afore in few words, whereby, when ye read, ye may understand my knowledge in the mystery of Christ) which in other ages was not made known unto the sons of men, as it is now revealed unto his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit” (Ephesians 3:3-5). Since this revelation has occurred, therefore, St. Paul continues, “I was made a minister…that I should preach among the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ (7-8)”.
A similarity is not a sameness, of course, and Eckardt is careful to make some needed distinctions:
There is a qualitative difference between Apostolic Epistles and the sermon. An epistle is the Word of God by virtue of its apostolicity as well as by its content. A sermon, on the other hand, is rightly called the Word of God is its content is consistent with the written revelation of God. The sermon is called the Word of God in a derived sense, whereas an Epistle is the Word in a primary sense.
That caveat having been made…
Yet even in spite of this difference, there is an essential unity with the apostolic mindset that the preacher should seek. To be sure, no preacher can claim apostolicity for himself, yet he is to see that his sermon preparation follows the same pattern of preparation we can ascertain the apostles followed in the writing of their Epistles.3.Burnell F. Eckardt, The New Testament in His Blood: A Study of the Holy Liturgy of the Christian Church; Gottensdienst, Kewanee, Illinois: 2010; p. 87
So far Eckardt.
With all of that having been clarified, let us take another look at the seemingly backwards statement of the Apology of the Augsburg Confession:
We refer godly minds to the consideration of the promises, and we teach concerning the free remission of sins and concerning reconciliation, which occurs through faith in Christ. Afterwards we add also the doctrine of the Law [not that by the Law we merit the remission of sins, or that for the sake of the Law we are accepted with God, but because God requires good works]. (Apol V [IV II], op. cit.)
OBJECTION: “That’s not talking about sermons.”
Well, it’s not not talking about sermons, either. And how do we know? It actually sounds like it probably is talking about sermons, given what else the Confessions say about true Evangelical preaching. Martin Luther, Johannes Bugenhagen, Urbanus Rhegius, Paul Gerhardt, C. F. W. Walther— all of them preached this way at times, when the the exigencies of the pericope text and their hearers’ needs occasioned it (also, the Large Catechism is itself a series of sermons). I’m working on getting my hands on an English translation of Polycarp Leyser’s selected sermons of Martin Chemnitz, because ich spreche keine Deutsch— I’ll bet you that “afterwards he adds also the doctrine of the Law” in his sermons, too.
No, the Lutheran fathers didn’t always “end with the Law.” But neither did they refuse to do so on principle.
A note on Gospel Reductionism + Conclusion
What is Gospel reductionism? This term gets thrown around a lot, but often without much of an explanation. It is not simply the teaching that the Gospel is to have the predominance in Christian proclamation, which is a good and orthodox doctrine. Frankly, it’s a bit complex. However, it is vital for us Lutherans— and indeed for all orthodox and Evangelical Christians of good will— to understand it, lest we fall into profound error. In the final estimation, it has little to do with the Biblically-revealed Gospel. I do my best to offer an explanation of Gospel reductionism in an upcoming post, but for now, I would direct the reader’s attention to this excerpt from the Rev’d Dr. Scott Murray’s excellent book, Law, Life, and the Living God: The Third Use of the Law in Modern American Lutheranism. Quick and dirty— does the Bible tell us what the Gospel is, or does “the Gospel” determine which parts of the Bible are really “the Word of God”? Dr. Murray’s explanation is very helpful; I will only be seeking to expand on certain parts of what he said and point to some contemporary examples.
Dear Christian friends, I am not a pastor. I am a vicar, which means that I am a layman. I do not at present do any kind of preaching in the parish I serve. I’ve listened to a lot of preaching, though. My current pastor, the Rev’d Charles L. McClean, is, in the opinion of many, a master of the homiletical arts. No, he’s not dynamic and emotive. He does not shout. He speaks the Word of God in a mystery, and in his delivery this Word is festooned and magnified through allusions to the Confessions, Luther, the Church fathers, literature, poetry, and history both civil and sacred. His homilies are compact, yet rich; eloquent, yet by no means florid. Above all, they are thoroughly Evangelical. I haven’t been counting, but I know that he usually ends his sermons on a Gospel note; with that said, since my wife and I arrived at Our Saviour Church in June, he has indeed ended some sermons on a note of Law. (We arrived before Trinity III, I started recording on Trinity VI, and we were absent for Trinity XIV, but the rest of his sermons since Trinity Sunday are here, so listen for yourself.) The predominance, and, moreover, the true comfort of the Gospel in such sermons was by no means undone by the paraenesis.
And do you know what follows every sermon preached at Our Saviour, regardless of what it ends with? The Blessed Sacrament of the Altar. And do you know what every Divine Service ends with? The Benediction— and as mentioned above, every sermon ends with a benediction, and that’s not nothing. And do you know what Father Charles will always make himself available for? Private Confession and Absolution. This is how it should be. More to the point, this is how we Christians need it to be.
One final point:
I can see how one who attends a Lutheran parish with active rationing— communion less frequently than every Lord’s Day— might be more sensitive to sermons that end with some kind of Law than someone who always has the Sacrament to run to after the sermon ends. To be honest, this is probably a much larger problem than I have here given thought. It is truly lamentable that many of our Lutheran parishes, for one reason or another, still do not make the Sacrament available every Sunday. Augsburg Confession XXIV, “Of the Mass”, 30-34, states the following:
But Christ commands us: “This do in remembrance of Me” (Luke 22:19); therefore the Mass was instituted that the faith of those who use the Sacrament should remember what benefits it receives through Christ, and cheer and comfort the anxious conscience. For to remember Christ is to remember His benefits, and to realize that they are truly offered unto us. Nor is it enough only to remember the history; for this also the Jews and the ungodly can remember. Wherefore the Mass is to be used to this end, that there the Sacrament may be administered to them that have need of consolation; as Ambrose says: “Because I always sin, I am always bound to take the medicine.”
Now, forasmuch as the Mass is such a giving of the Sacrament, we hold one communion every holy-day, and, if any desire the Sacrament, also on other days, when it is given to such as ask for it.
Paragraphs 33-34 (“Wherefore…ask for it.”) are especially poignant: the purpose of the Mass, the Divine Service, the assembling-together on the Lord’s Day, is “that there the Sacrament may be administered to them that have need of consolation.” It is hard to imagine a clearer statement of purpose. Of course, this is followed by the matter-of-fact statement that “the Mass is such a giving of the Sacrament, [so] we hold one communion every holy-day.” Dear friends, every Sunday is a high-holy day. Let God’s people eat; they are hungry.
When it was evening, His disciples came to Him, saying, “This is a deserted place, and the hour is already late. Send the multitudes away, that they may go into the villages and buy themselves food.”
But Jesus said to them, “They do not need to go away. You give them something to eat.” (Matthew 14:15-16)
References [ + ]
|1.||↑||Not the issue thereof— the cups themselves; see what I did there?|
|3.||↑||Burnell F. Eckardt, The New Testament in His Blood: A Study of the Holy Liturgy of the Christian Church; Gottensdienst, Kewanee, Illinois: 2010; p. 87|