My friend Will (author of the White Hall blog) recently raised the following question about Prescription:
"Also: what's the problem with something's being prescribed? Jesus prescribed all kinds of things. Preach the gospel, go in peace, sin no more, baptize, make disciples, fear not, do this, etc. etc. etc."
Here's my attempt at answering this question:
the short answer to your question on prescription usually runs along the following lines: Prescription does not provide a method for bringing about the thing it requires, but, rather (to quote Romans 7) it "increases the trespass," "making sin utterly sinful". It tells the car where to go, but it doesn't put any gas in the tank.
Where there is prescription, there immediately comes the opposite of the thing the prescription intended, and this is what it means for the will to be bound. Knowing better does not equal doing better according to Paul (foolishness to the Greeks), and, if anything, it increases the doing of worse, or, at a minimum, puts the doing of "worse" into the perspective of not being as good as the standard fulfilled.
So the Law (as prescription) brings rebellion and penitance. Paul calls this "the proper use of the law" in 1 Timothy 1: 8, 9. Jesus further clarifies the law in the Sermon on the Mount in his antitheses, by showing that prescription exposes an impossible angling of the heart, one that mere behavioral adherence cannot meet the standard of (i.e., suddenly adultery is not a behavior, but a motive, etc. That portion of the Sermon on the Mount climaxes with: be ye perfect therefore as your Father in heaven is perfect -- good luck!) -- This exact issue is currently being discussed on in the thread under the post called "An Insight from Jeff Dean"; it's a far from settled hermeneutical matter, but what I describing here is the basic sort of Luther 101 position on the matter. I hope those of you who are sympathetic to such a read, can help me to tighten this us if you think I've gone far astray here. Adherants of this position tend to think the bible must be interpreted and/or read through the lens of the Cross if sense is to be made of its text. You get the drift.
Anway, as a result of this awful conundrum known as the human condition post-Fall,...(drum roll) "thanks be to Jesus Christ" who died to on the behalf of us sinners who know ourselves as sinners in light of the fact that we cannot set the record straight in the way the Law demands through our own efforts (i.e., works based righteousness), and God cannot commune with anything less. According to this view, prescription is always basically a big set-up for "repent and believe the Gospel".
If Jesus' command, and any other commandments in the Bible (especially given the nature of human reception of any kind of command as illuminated by Paul in Romans 7 famously) could simply be followed in the way that their imperative nature requires, then why did Jesus have to die, and so brutally at that? In what sense is Grace really grace, and forgiveness really forgiveness and mercy really mercy and love really love if those qualities are not a response to something that requires them? In the same vein, tolerance and love are obviously not the same thing.
Furthermore, if the law can be fulfilled by us, then the Bible often starts to be interpreted as a rule book of some sort, a ladder for us to climb (rather than the story of one who came down and then climbed up on our behalf while we were busy doing our own thing).
Obviously, for those who buy into this read of prescription, the implications are pretty major for how you come to understand the Christian life; the Gospel has to do with a lot more than just conversion, it also has to do with sanctification. Salvation and sanctification become seemingly identical in the view of some. The message one preaches to the Christian is no different than the message one preaches to the non-Christian.
Some Christians try to draw different distinctions as to just how far-reaching the implications of this understanding travel. Does this relationship to the Law altar at the point of conversion? Calvin says yes. Most Christians say yes. Luther appears (at least in his notable Commentary on Galatians, which is the thing that Wesley was listening to when his heart was "strangely warmed") to basically say "No", though that's been well disputed. W. Elert argues strongly against any other interpretation of Luther, and makes for a pretty fun read. My favorite, shared by many, is Gerhard Forde's "On Being a Theologian of the Cross". It is short and really worth reading. I can't plug it enough. Others try to draw lines between different kinds of prescription, that some can be adhered to, while others can't. It's basically the history of Protestant denominational break-down.
The most commonly lobbed criticism of this view that Prescription only works in this strange back-handed manner is "antinomianism", which suggests that being set free from the Law's prescriptive quality through Christ's Cross results in dangerous anarchic freedom, and of the most immoral kind at that. This criticism was not stranger to Paul himself: "Should we sin more that grace may abound?"
For what it's worth, no Lutheran accepts this charge of anti-nomianism ("Certainly not!"), and there are many important and note-worthy arguments, Scriptural verses and passages, plus experiences and testimonies that suggest anti-nomian behavior is not a necessary consequence of such an understanding of the Cross in its relationship to the Law. Some even suggest that such anti-nomian behavior is an impossibility given the profound, heart-changing nature of Grace, that, to the extent it has sunk in, nothing but fruit can be born of it.
It is indeed the case that, to go all the way with such an interpretation of the Gospel is pretty radical; it puts a lot onto the shoulders of Jesus for sure! My father's tag line is: "Low Anthropology, High Christology". Personally, my leanings go pretty much all the way with this one, to the displeasure of many perhaps. Christians seem often to hate this understanding of Christianity. Non-Christians (to the extent they identify with the Prodigal son) tend to love it (i.e., it's irresistable)!
For what it's worth, I think Cranmer bought this view pretty whole-heartedly and my favorite Articles 9, 10, and 11 epitomize this type of thinking. They are especially note-worthy b/c they mention "sin that persists in the regenerate" in almost back-to-back succession with a will that is bound (i.e., not free), and justification by faith in Christ.
Obviously the whole issue gets me pretty excited. But I do hope this helps to lay out the "prescription" matter (as many like me see it anyway) in fairly clear terms.
Guess this isn't such a short answer after all. Maybe I'll post it. Yeah, I think I will, Will. Thanks for asking.