Monday, September 11, 2006

William Tyndale quote (on law and gospel):

"Here see ye the nature of the law, and the nature of the evangelion;
how the law is the key that bindeth and damneth all men, and the
evangelion [is the key that] looseth them again. The law goeth before,
and the evangelion followeth. When a preacher preacheth the law, he
bindeth all consciences; and when he preacheth the gospel, he looseth
them again. These two salves (I mean the law and the gospel) useth God
and his preacher, to heal and cure sinners withal. The law driveth out
the disease and maketh it appear, and is a sharp salve, and a fretting
corosy [corrosive], and killeth the dead flesh, and looseth and
draweth the sores out by the roots, and all corruption. It pulleth
from a man the trust and confidence that he hath in himself, and in
his own works, merits, deservings, and ceremonies, [and robbeth him of
all his righteousness, and maketh him poor.] It killeth him, sendeth
him down to hell, and bringeth him to utter desperation, and prepareth
the way of the Lord, as it is written of John the Baptist. For it is
not possible that Christ should come to a man, as long as he trusteth
in himself, or in any worldly thing, [or hath any righteousness of his
own, or riches of holy works.] Then cometh the evangelion, a more
gentle pastor, which suppleth and suageth the wounds of the
conscience, and bringeth health. It bringeth the Spirit of God; which
looseth the bonds of Satan, and coupleth us to God and his will,
through strong faith and fervent love, with bonds too strong for the
devil, the world, or any creature to loose them. And the poor and
wretched sinner feeleth so great mercy, love, and kindness in God,
that he is sure in himself how that it is not possible that God should
forsake him, or withdraw his mercy and love from him; and boldly
crieth out with Paul, saying, 'Who shall separate us from the love
that God loveth us withal?'"


mattie said...

John -

Thanks for posting this. It speaks to something I've been dealing with lately in my life. There is a (Roman Catholic) woman in my life who I have recently been in conflict with. When I attempted to approach her (as intructed in Matt 18) to both repent of my wrongdoing in the situation and to let her know how I felt that she had sinned against me. Her response was "Sin? I haven't sinned! You haven't either. We're just different people who do things different ways." I was floored. It was obvious to me that we had both hurt the other out of selfishness and fear and anger - ie. sin.

I'm sure you posted this to emphasize the importance of the "gentle pastor" of the gospel, and I agree that the grace and faith given in Christ to the sinner is the key to salvation. Nevertheless, the part of this passage that speaks to me right now is the importance of being told in our churches that we are sinners. We will disagree on how grace alters that state of sinfulness, but neither of us will deny we are "diseased." I wonder how many pastors and theologians and priests would diverge?

I think that this is one of the greatest struggles I have in my newfound Roman home. I seem to encounter many Catholics (and Christians of other traditions/denominations, of course, who am I kidding?) who don't think they sin. Or maybe think they sin once a week or something. Yikes! I wonder if the contemporary RCC (despite the likely disagreements from the non-Romans on this board) has failed to preach ENOUGH law. By that I mean, with Tyndale, that the law must go before the gospel to convict us of our need for salvation.

Just a thought I'm processing...


John Zahl said...

Dear Mattie, thank you for your comment. I agree totally with your concern here. As I view it, without the law (convicting us) we cannot come to appreciate the Gospel. I like what Bishop Maddock (sp?) used to say: "God meets us at our point of need." Without the law showing us our shortcomings, how can we meet God. I don't so much hold to the view that it is the third use of the law that needs to be extricated as I hold to the primary need we have for the law in this second use sense, that we might ever be able to connect with the God who meets us in the Gospel. Blessings, JAZ

Jeff Dean said...

One reason that all churches--not just Roman ones--are failing to teach the proper force of the law is because they are failing to teach the proper power of the Gospel.

Melancthon and Luther discussed this point at length: Melancthon insisted to Luther that the Gospel should always be preached BEFORE the Law, otherwise no one would be able to accept the absolute nature of the condemnation under which they stand.

No one ever takes the Antitheses as seriously as they are written precisely because they claim Jesus would be making righteousness impossible.

Go and listen to the chorus "All We Like Sheep" from the second movement of Handel's Messiah. Until the Savior is presented to us in his power and grace, we can only remain flippant about our wretchedness--what else can we do if we know we'll not overcome it?

Only when a Gospel that affords righteousness to the unworthy is preached can the unworthy admit they are so.

paul zahl said...

That is a wonderful comment, Jeff Dean!

John Zahl said...

Jeff, you seem to be suggesting that we must have a knowledge of that to which our life is surrendered, in order to surrender to it, or that, knowledge of Christ's victory frees us to admit our failure. IF this is what you mean, then I disagree, though I also respect my pops comment.

The idea sounds good, but I don't think it's true. Moments of collapse occur whether or not we are aware that we can collapse into something (i.e., God), and they are true in the sense that desperation is the only proper reaction we can have toward life when we face it on our own (lack of) power.

Desperation is the realization that anything "other than (my)self" is a better alternative. The law brings this to the fore, and rightly (i.e., truly) so. Yes, the reality is that God meets us in that place, or, rather, that it is in that place that He is found (only recognizably in the form of Christ, a God apparently defeated by the world). It is excellent (understatement) to find that the alternative is wonderful and not empty, but we do not _need_ to know this in order for us to find that out.

Maybe a knowledge of Christ before the fact can help to faciliate such a breaking, but it is not necessary. In this sense, the existential philosophers are right to diagnose, even if they provide little on the other side (i.e., that's where Christianity has the answers). But their diagnosis is still true.

Your angle suggests a reversal of law and gospel (gospel before law), and, of this, ultimately, I am sceptical (as was Elert profoundly in his "Law and Gospel" booklet, written in response to just such a reversal, as proposed by Barth). The Christian experience in this sense appears to be different than the conversion experience, for it is marked by our returning ever repeatedly to this source of sustinance found in the Gospel. But this is not true where evangelism is concerned, and especially in the place where worldly thinking butts up against justification by faith. We often find the good only by exploring the alternative, only to find it wanting. This is not because we know of a better alternative, but, rather, because our approach has proven to be dissappointing, or, actually, awful. Alcoholics often switch from drinking beer to wine for this exact reason, though they soon find that wine was actually no on and so forth, into collapse, which becomes sobriety, but feels like an end, not like a good.

Your comment seems to suggest that "ignorance is bliss", and while possibly true, that bliss is a lie and cannot answer to the reality of death. Would you prefer that people believe in themselves if they cannot hear the Gospel? Ultimately, I cannnot, as I value the truth even if it reaches only so far as that all of my own attempts to confront death are a farce, ...but mainly I hold this view because I know that, at that place of despair, there is a real (i.e., Christian) God to be found.

Think of a scenario where a girl is in a romantic relationship with a person who does not actually love her. A break-up is a good thing, even if nobody knows who will be there to love her after the fact, and even if she may remain single thereafter. Surely that is better than the continued pursuit of a delusion vis-a-vis her (supposed) man/bad dude. What do you think? --JAZ

mike burton said...


I think I agree with Jeff here.

In church I can see no place for preaching the Law.

The reason I believe this is, precisely, because I get Law in every single area of my life already. I am continually condemned by the Law, as a Chriatian, and before I was a Christian alike.

I did not need an exposition of the Law when I was not a believer. I may not have known what to call it, or even what it's purpose was, but it was there all along bringing me, ultimately, to my knees.

And then the Gospel was preached (acted out).

I don't need the Law to be "preached". I know (knew) what it is! And I recognized its power over me and my inability to change under it. And I was set free by the power of the Gospel, which was so radically different from the Law, that it was unmistakeable.

Am I coming across here or did I miss the point?


mattie said...


I agree with you here, for several reasons, not the least of which was my own conversion. And Augustine's conversion. And the countless others of us who have realized that something is missing, we can't do it alone, there has to be something to save us. But we don't (didn't) know what it is, or we are (were) angry at a caricature of God and/or Christianity, or we need (ed) to check out all the alternative "saviors" before we can (could) surrender into the embrace of Christ.

Yesterday was the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross. Amazing readings. The OT reading is the story of the Israelites in the desert. They've all been bitten by snakes and they're dying left and right. They don't know what they need to save them, but they know they need to be saved. And Moses makes a gold serpent and raises it up and if they look at it, they are healed. I'm sure they didn't expect that their savior from God would come in the form of the very thing that they hated and feared. As with Christ. The Gospel yesterday is when Jesus tells Nicodemus that the Son of Man would be raised up in order to be glorified. I'm sure Nicodemus couldn't have imagined that meant death on a cross. Both salvation sagas are about subversion. An unpredictable subversion not contingent on a prior preaching of good news.

Nevertheless, I know that others have been transformed by the power of the Gospel before or more radically than Law. I, however, am conviced that only a realization of our sinfulness and our powerlessness in the faith of certain death can bring us to a place to be redeemed. Another of my pet peeves at several Roman parishes that I've attended in Omaha is when the priest/deacon changes the words of the common confession at the start of mass. Instead of saying "Lord, we have sinned against you" and the congregration replying "Lord, have mercy." I hear many priests saying things like "Jesus, you are the light of the world" and the congregation replying "Lord, have mercy." Sometimes I just want to yell! Can't we allow the penetential rite to be penetential? Sometimes it IS about us.

Just my rant for the morning.


John Zahl said...

Dear Mattie and Mike,

I loved waking up this morning to read your comments! Mattie, you insight about the changing of the liturgy perfectly describes how I feel when I don't get Rite 1 from the Book of Common Prayer. The 1979 prayer book was an attempt to lighten the emphasis on sin found in Cranmer...same thing you described. Today in the BCP, there are, I think, at least three options of words that can be said when the bread and wine are administered at communion. One of them - the lamest most innocuous of the options - says: "The bread of heaven" and "the cup of salvation". Pure fluff, like the light-of-the-world adjustment you mentioned.

Mike, you misunderstood. Mattie originally asked if the absence of the law kept people from connecting with the Gospel, to which I said "yes". She described how many in church wrongly think themselves to be somewhat righteous, or, at least, not utterly sinful. I agreed with Mattie completely that what is needed for such a mind-set is the Law. I believe the law must precede the gospel in order for the Gospel to be heard. Jeff, possibly, suggested the opposite, to which I replied, no, Law before Gospel. What I really wrote was that if it's Law, or nothing, then give me Law. Ultimately this means that I would, in a tight pinch, line up more with a totally legalistic Christian than with a non-Christian, for I do believe that, ultimately I have more in common with any Christian than with any non-believer...but the legalist would sure get an ear-full from me.

But I agree with you that most people coming to the churches where I have worshipped and worked, have, like Leander Harding said recently in my Homeletics class, "walked over shards of broken glass to get to church". People who have "walked over shards of broken glass to get to church" certainly do not need the law, as they stand convicted by it. I think most people know and are bombarded by the Law all day long and that, for this reason, mostly all that needs to be preached is the Gospel. For the Gospel is the unique message that only the Christian church has to offer the world. But, where the Gospel has been preached apart from the law, or in a context where the true nature of the Law in its 120-proof-kill-you sense has been undercut by the minister or avoided, I think the Law is needed. This is a problem where liberalism is concerned, where tolerance has been inserted in place of love-for-sinner (i.e., grace), and the law is consequently avoided, slighted, minimized, diluted, etc.

I don't care if you get Law outside of church, in your own head or from the pulpit (probably the last place where most Protestant Christians need to hear it, as that's all they've most likely been given from day one after "conversion". So many sermons are just platitudes, "challenges",...awful!), but until you know your need, you can initially not connect with the Christian God, except maybe in some superficial sense. So I say Law and then Gospel, though I think all that's really needed in most protestant churches is just Gospel because people have been hammered with the Law, especially in church, probably 99% of the time, (except in the Eucharist, I might add, where they get the Gospel. No wonder so many Episcopalians want communion every week; they haven't heard the Gospel preached from the pulpit of their churches but maybe once in a blue moon, maybe on some "Evangelistic Sunday" where it was not actually meant for them anyway). But if Law is better than nothing, though there's no need to come to church to get it. Just get a job on wall street, join a gym, look at your financial savings. Ignorance is not bliss though. When non-believers start to suspect that they are not going to be "the secret of their own success", they are much much closer to the Christian God than before the fact, even if they don't know it. 2 Corinthians 7:10

My description of Protestant churches is that basically they take you back to the Law after they give you the Gospel. I am not down with that. Where Christians are concerned, if your going to start with Law, then not present the Gospel, or, if you're going to start with Law, then bring the Gospel, only to follow it again with Law,...I am not with you. To end in Law, where Christians are concerned, is initially to force them back into themselves for their answers, and, finally, it forces them out of the church, that they might move to NYC, San Fran, Boulder, Atlanta, New Hope, Asheville or Boone, Vermont or Minnesota, or Austin.

These ideas are beautifully presented in Walther's book, Proper Distinction b/w Law and Gospel. I love that we have brought the Law Gospel question back into the context of ministry, where it can truly be appreciated. Love to you both, JAZ

mike burton said...


Maybe I misunderstood a little.

The disconnect occured, I suppose, with the idea that the Law is EVER preached correctly nowadays.

Today the Law is TAGHT in church, not preached in relation to the Gospel. I agree that the Law proceeds the Gospel, but I tend to believe that the unbeliever can't simply be taught the relationship of Law and Gospel. It really has to be experienced, as PZ would say, by hitting your "brick wall."

Now, if the relation of Grace and Law has been correctly expounded from the pulpit, then the unbeliever will be able to define the two and understand them for what they are.

I guess what I'm saying is that I don't have to be diagnosed with cancer to know that I'm in pain. I simply need to know what the cure for my pain is. And if the Gospel is preached correctly, in relation to Law and Gospel, then I find the cure.

I'm wary about the idea of "teaching" Law from the pulpit.

Sure a sinner must know he's a sinner to be saved, I just think that reality comes when he's hit his wall. You have to hit the wall.

People rarely hit the wall from a church pew. They end up in a church pew because they've hit the wall.

John Zahl said...

Mike, I agree with you totally. Did I say "teach" the Law. Oh Gosh! the last thing I meant to suggest that this was about some kind of doctrinal correction from the pulpit (nothing is more pedantic and insulting). I don't want you, or people thinking that this is all about a kind of formula in a rigid sense. It's about the way Christians relate to God through Christ, that's all. I'm pretty dang existential in my leanings, and I'm viewing this stuff (i.e., preaching) from that lens. When I preach Law, you won't really know that's what I'm doing (i'm subtle and manipulative in my use of the Law. i.e., "I only want you to do the thing that you don't want to do."), but you'll feel it, if it is done rightly and the Holy Spirit connects the dots. People don't think of guilt in terms of its relationship to the Law when they read a fashion magazine, but that's what it is. Law and Gospel are terms that describe the Christian message. A single verse can be law one week and Gospel the next. This is not rigid in the legalistic sense, it's just the way it works. JZ

mike burton said...


John Zahl said...

I even want to push this idea a bit further. When Gospel and Law are reversed, or when the reality of God's love for us is told to us, without the Law's conviction (in any sense, not necessarily in the context of a sermon. see my last post.), I don't think people actually believe it.
We don't ever believe the Gospel, we find it to be true, in light of our need. "Yea of little faith," is more rightly understood to be: "Yea of no faith". Even when we have known God's goodness to us in our past experiences, when life really becomes real, we always doubt that he will bacome real this time, in the place where it really counts (i.e., the only place), but then we are proven wrong.

This is how the Gospel is totally foreign ("alien" to quote Luther) to us. Counter-intuitive! It's absurd, the idea that I could actually be loved in the place I have fallen short. No, we do not believe it, and cannot. We can know we should, but, when it counts, we can't connect with the truth. As Fitz Allison says: "A lot of nonsense is talked about our seeking after God, when actually the opposite is the case."

Same with the Law. We can know that we should repent, that our lives are far from righteous. Knowing that to be true, and actually connecting with that reality in one's heart is a totally different thing. The Law brings the heart's reality to the fore, as Tyndale says in another quote, it brings the "puss" to the surface. We know it's there, but the Law makes the sin "utterly sinful" and without it (in whatever sense it comes, be it a sermon, a billboard, TV, a friend's good grades, etc.), there is no (actual, heart-felt) sin, just the head-knowledge that we should be penitent. In other words, "We should repent" is a totally hollow statement unless we see the actual white-head and its location on our face, which only the Law (in its most conceptual sense) can bring about, a thing that enables us to connect with the deeper reality, that our whole face and body is infected. Likewise, apart from the Law, I won't actually be able to connect with the reality of God's goodness; it's just talk, unless real "need" enters the picture. JAZ

mike said...


I hear you... I just don't think that we as Christians need to go too far out of our way on the Law thing.

It's going to show up and it's going to do it's job. As long as we are alive, it will show up and it will crush us.

The Christian is thre to show grace when that happens.

I'm coming from a more pastoral angle still, I know.

I just don't think that we should fear, in real life terms, that the Law won't show up in each of our lives and bludgeon us to the point of despair.

- hershey

John Zahl said...

Yes Mike, I agree.

p.s., Is church with no Gospel better than no church at all? Hmm...still undecided, not that it matters, given the reality of my inability to do what is right apart from God's gracious intervention. But know that it is one question that I've wrestled with, just in terms of trying even to figure out the ideal scenario. For me, even if it's wrong, churches that don't preach the Gospel to Christians and non-believers alike, are not places that I am able to attend with any regularity. I go once, and then leave thinking, "well, I'll never go there again. I'm not missing anything for not going here." But that thinking may be more a rationalization than anything else, though it may be true. Conversely, when I find a church where the Gospel is being preached, I show up like clock-work, and I usually try to bring all my friends as well!

ever, JAZ

bpzahl said...

"Is church with no Gospel better than no church at all?"

No. I was miserable for a whole year in a church with no gospel and I think the only thing that kept me sane was by not going too often.

John Zahl said...

Hi Bonnie!!! (I hope you and Sim arrived safely in HOng Kong). Your experience is definitely relevant to the question, and your straightforward tone made me chuckle! Let me ask: to what extent do you think the question's answer relates to other people (i.e., members of the church and non-believers)?

Jeff Dean said...

Hey John,

I'm going to defer to Mike here and claim that we've ever-so-slightly mischaracterized our position.

If you read "Guilt, Anger, and God" or "Fear, Love, and Worship" by Fitz, you'll see that for many of us in this particular circle of Reformation Protestantism, the "Law" is preached to a person on a daily basis by everyone and everything in the culture--and in the person's own head!

Do I believe the Law should follow the Gospel? No. Why bind a free man?

The sermon SHOULD always begin with the Law INSOFAR AS the sermon attempts to characterize the true problem of identity as a problem of estrangement from God because of sin--i.e., the human condition, which the Law is meant to diagnose.

NEVERTHELESS, until a person knows he has a place to fall, he'll refuse to admit that he's teetering on the edge. (Listen to the Merle Haggard song, "If we make it to December"--or ANY blue-collar, working-class song!)

This might be the point where we have an actual disagreement. I believe that a person can be captured by the cross without a major catastrophe occuring. Perhaps you believe the catastrophe is the necessary prerequisite?

Perhaps my anthropology is still a notch too high...

Your thoughts?

John Zahl said...

Hi Jeff, great to be in contact with you again!

Here's what I think you're saying, which is different than what Mike is saying, though the three of us agree that there is not a huge need for more Law (given the nature of life in this fallen world) in church, though Mattie's point, and the content of most liberal churches puts that view helpfully in check -- on a side note: to lessen the nature of the Law (i.e., to make into into something achievable through our own efforts by slighting its demands, by drawing distinctions such a mortal and venial etc, to divide motivation from action, that kind of thing)...calls for a reassertion of the Law in its total weight, as the "dispensation of death" as Paul refers to it.

The traditional Lutheran idea is: Law, then Gospel.

Mike is basically suggesting (to which we all agree): in wake of the law-like nature of life, church only really needs to bring GOSPEL. I can handle that, fine.

You are positing something different, which is: Gospel, then Law, then Gospel.

I see your point, but don't think that Gospel before Law is necessary, though I also don't think it's harmful..., but maybe it actually is harmful, or, rather, unhelpful. Follow my train of though here, but know that, what I think is that your view on this one is, at best, un-necessary, and, at worst, actually a barrier to the hearing of the Gospel, instead of the other way around, as you have suggested.

I do not think that collapse is predicated on comfort. Sickness is not controlled by its relationship to a cure. In fact, knowledge of a cure often actually postpones collapse. People often think things like, "I'll go back to church when..., I'll stop drinking when", because they assume that the solution to there problem is real and awaits them (i..e, in the exact way that you are suggesting). I lost a filling when I arrived in England, and because of my awareness that the problem _can_ be fixed by a dentist, and because it didn't actually hurt, I am now two years into a gaping hole in my tooth, which is now much worse, starting to hurt, and will most likely require a root canal, instead of simply another filling. Do you see where I am going with this? (btw, I just made an appointment for late October, pathetically, with my mother's help even after 29 years).

But what usually happens when people know that there is comfort to be had? "I can eat ice cream tonight because I'm starting my diet on Monday." What happens? Not the thing you are suggesting. But there are counter-examples and so my exapample is not necessarily normative tendancies.
For example, when a man doesn't leave his wife, though he wants to, until he meets the "right" aerobics instructor...

But I don't think that there are counter-examples to the Law Gospel paradigm, at least, not where life is kicking a person's butt. People come to church services like the dinky little "healing" service that I helped lead last summer on thursdays at lunch at Calvary church, because their problems had gotten the better of them and they didn't know where else to turn, not because they were currently drinking from a fountain of cool water while they were on fire. They had completely lost contact with the Gospel. Their son had become a gangster. Their husband had died suddenly of a heart-attack and now they had come to church (immediately, on a Thursday) because they were desperate, not because they were actually connected with the comfort of God's grace found in Christ.

Some kind of preceding Gospel does in no way enable the law to better do its work, which is what you seem to be saying. Sounds good, but I remain un-persuaded.

I think, if I am honest, that the only God we can know before we know the Law is actually a God of judgement, the thing God has given us to drive us to the cross, yes, but not something we receive positively in the initial (re)experience.

The Gospel you are suggesting is like a vapor, grounded in the abstract but without any actual ability to bring me to the Law. We never get to the place where we like the Law, no never (unless you want to go the Third Use route, which I reject for the most part), and an implication of your idea seems to be that there is a way to make us like the law ("that stands opposed to us" to quote Collosians). There's no way to lighten the load of every jot and tittle of the Law before the Law has done its work. Even with the Gospel first.

I sat on a patio this summer with Anne Long and she asked me: "Do you think a person needs to know that God is loving before they will open up to you in a Christian counseling setting?" I don't think the answer is "yes", I think, to the extent that it really matters in ministry, the answer is "no", not that it's wrong, but that its hollow and unnecessary. The question comes from a place of pre-supposing that people act in a way that they do not actually act. If we know we are going to be forgiven, then we go anti-nomian, not to church. But if we doubt that we are actually loved in the reality of our mired failings (which is how we have to feel if the Law has properly done its work), then the Gospel can be heard, as the foreign word that, even as a Christian, we had forgotten, or had lost faith in. We forget how sinful we are. And likewise, we lose touch with the Gospel. It is only through re-connecting with the reality of our sin (i.e., "that persists even in the regenerate" to take from Cranmer), that we are able to find it again, and all of it goes against our inclinations, even after we've been a Christian for multiple years.

This is why, when ask: "Why do you preach the same thing every week?" Luther answered, "because you still haven't got it." This is why Forde says that sanctification is simply a kind of melting deeper and deeper into the implications of justification by faith. We find new ways to believe we can have control without it proving an afront, and then bang, same old story. Same old confession, same old Gospel, same old Eucharist.

I don't think Luther was swayed by Melancthon on this point. Was he? JZ

Jeff Dean said...


I must confess, I still don't feel entirely "heard" here.

I need to meditate on how to clarify my position, however. I can say this confidentally, however:

1) I do not agree that the church should only preach the Gospel. Generally, when this happens, it is not the "Gospel" that is proclaimed, but rather a watered-down liberal ethic of universal toleration. Unless the good news of salvation comes in response to the bad news of God's wrath against sinners, then there exists no necessity for the cross, and we're a hop, skip, and a jump from becoming unitarians.

2) I don't believe in preaching Law-Gospel-Law. Derek Webb explains this better than me in his song "I Want a New Law," but suffice it to say that human nature is to self-justify whenever possible. The power of the Gospel is to make us dependant not on the Law, but on Christ.

3) I don't believe that Gospel-Law-Gospel is the most accurate characterization of my position. As I determine better how I may express what I am attempting to say, I shall do so.

I'm praying for a kick-ass movie quote...

mattie said...

hey guys -

i have to admit i have only skimmed the last few posts, so i'll post something of more insight once i've meditated on your thoughtfulness. i have read up to bonnie's post and i wanted to point out a couple of things as we continue this discussion.

1. mike - i think we increasingly live in a society that DOES NOT offer us law. we are presented daily with excuses, rationalizations, insanity defenses, caveats, and shallow psychological explanations. we are told at every turn by the media, by our churches, by our therapists, and by our lawyers that we are NOT to blame. rather, we are misunderstood, complicated, damaged, ill, or reactionary. it isn't our fault. never is it our fault. when i say that we need to hear the law, i mean we need to hear that WE ARE TO BLAME. we are rebellious, angry, hateful, and culpable. i fundamentally disagree with you that "the world" convicts us. perhaps it did once upon a time, but i would argue that the bulk of our influences in our postmodern milleu do anything but convict us.

2. this begs the question: does then our culture offer us an abundance of grace? to that i answer an emphatic NO. a culture without law does not equal a culture with grace/gospel (and i'm speaking of both our secular and our "religious" cultures). to me the gospel, the good news, cannot be divorced from the law, in both its condemnatory and transformative powers. this may be where we're missing eachother in discussion. to me, the good news is that we are sinners! it seems to me awful news to hear that we are already alright and Jesus just came to make us more alright, which is the heresy that too many Christians lapse into, both now, and in the past. without Christ WE ARE NOT OKAY. i have a feeling that what happens WITH and IN Christ is where I will diverge from John. In my faith and my understanding of scripture, with Christ, in word and sacrament, we are becoming okay. it all comes back to the infusion/imputation debate we'll never resolve, but i'm not going to go there. the point i'm making is that the lack of law is not the same as the presence of gospel. salvation without something to be saved FROM (sin) and something to be saved FOR (love) is just a bunch of hollow and unnecessary promises.

3. so, what do people need to hear in church? i'm not sure. what i personally need to hear is this CONSTANTLY: hey, you suck. but god loves you so very much and he's transforming you and you may or may not make "progress" but, with his grace, just continue to allow him to touch your heart and mind and soul to grow in faith, hope, and love. how he will do that is a total mystery, but surrender to his love, daily, repeatedly, and allow yourself to be known. is that law? YES. is that gospel? YES.

that's all for now :)


bpzahl said...

Hi John,

I think you should be glad that you did not go to the dentist in England because they suck. Simeon and I both went about a month ago in Cambridge. I went a few days ago in Hong Kong to check up on my wisdom tooth with my regular dentist, and that was when she found two very dee[p cavities and I needed fillings right away. If you went to a dentist in England they would've told you you were fine, and you probably wouldn't have gone to the dentist in the US. So, it worked out well for you.

We are loving Hong Kong!! :) But I'm getting my wisdom tooth removed tomorrow. Eugh.


John Zahl said...

Hey Mattie,

thanks for sharing your reflections and thoughts. What a tremendous thread you started here! JZ

John Stamper said...

Hey John! You're right. What a great thread. I only just realized you were back in action, so it's nice to see all the Usual Suspects with you on your site.

Is this thread still open? Folks feel like talking a bit more? I ran into our beloved Jeff D yesterday and I think he and might be able to explain better where we are coming from (basically he and I are on the same page on this) if we had another day or two to reflect.

What I will say though is that Jeff and I have a huge amount of sympathy with folks on the "law first" side. I suspect that if both sides in the debate get our concerns fully "heard" we will realize that we are actually very close. (This is not always true --I am not making that as some saccharine generalization for all divisive issues in Christian thought! But in the case of this particular issue between these particular people I think it is.)

In the meantime, I'll also try to review some of my own thinking the last time this issue came up. I tried taking a shot at this back in mid-March of this year on your blog. I think I said:

".... It’s also in this scheme of Luther and Cranmer that we find the radically counterintuitive (but very Biblical and indeed Pauline) idea of forgiveness PRECEDING repentence. Our hearts are hardened – we need an inbreaking Word from without BEFORE we can see as we ought, and love as we ought. Not because we successfully repented first, but because we experience the Word of forgiveness first. THEN we are broken open raw and can admit to what we are. The woman with the oil is broken open by the complete acceptence of her by the man Jesus just as she is, a whore; THAT sovereign action of the electing forgiving Jesus reducing her to wordless grief and tears where all she can do is kiss His feet...."

Anyway, if you can give us a day or two, Jeff and I may be able to respond more clearly. :-)

Tom Becker said...

JZ - -
Good ? - Is church with no Gospel better than no church at all?

I’d qualify this and say I’m assuming that you mean is a church that does not have a minister that preaches the gospel (and you prob would also say – dynamically and relevantly preaches the gospel) better than no church at all?

Here are my thoughts on this one for what it’s worth. For a guy that doesn’t put a lot of weight into the importance of the office of the ministry, you’re sure putting a lot of weight on the office on the ministry (vis a vis preaching).

I think this gets to heart of the question of what is church? The reformers I believe would say where the word is preached (rightly divided) and the sacraments (properly) administered. On this I believe they were all agreed.

Personally, I can’t say I want to go to a church that does not preach the gospel from the pulpit, but having said that I have attended services at churches where I haven’t hear any preaching that remotely resembles the gospel.

I can’t say though that I haven’t heard the gospel during these services because I hear the gospel in the liturgy. Specifically, I hear that I’m a sinner and that my sins have been forgiven through confession/absolution/communion.

This was a revelation for me b/c I come from a non liturgical background and was very anti-liturgy for a long time because it made me feel uncomfortable. The more I listened to the words of what was actually being said the more I saw the gospel.

I wonder what I’d do if I didn’t live near a church that preached the gospel every Sunday? Since I have a big mouth, I’d probably be a real burr for the pastor. Shoot, when we had a guest preacher that was a little semi-pelagian I got fired up and talked with the pastor. If no one reaches up or out to the pastor then how can we rightly complain about what’s going on? If I ended up somewhere where I didn’t hear the gospel preached, I’d try to find some place where I could hear the gospel through the liturgy. The importance for me being on the ‘hearing’ – external breaking in of what a sinner I am and what Christ did for me - and on the receiving – of forgiveness of my sins – external breaking in – in absolution and through the communion meal.

I also need to hear God’s word. Even though I may get a crappy sermon, where God’s word is preached (even if it is poorly) God promises to act. He is the one who creates faith and I think that’s an important thing to remember in all this. Who does the creating? Us or God. God alone is the author and perfector of our faith. If we think that it’s our preaching that is the ultimate thing that we can just as easily get to be semi-peligian in that as well.

I’m 100% all about the Law-Gospel dynamic and the importance of preaching the gospel with guns blazing. Having said that, I don’t know what life has in store for me and whether I may find myself someplace where I don’t hear great preaching. (Though with the Internet today I doubt I will ever be at a loss to find good sermons). I heard once that there are no Lone Ranger Christians, and if I only did things that I liked or only loved those who loved me back then I’d be pretty lonely. I don’t think it’s ultimately about us and do feel (personally) like being part of a body is important even if it sucks. It’s like going to a bad AA meeting and speaking the truth – another opportunity to serve.

To John Stamper I say – forgiveness always precedes repentance – “For while we were still sinners, Jesus died for us”, all the OT examples of God rescuing the Israelites despite their lack of repentance, etc. . . However, forgiveness is required because we fail to meet the law’s demands - ie Jesus satisfies the Law’s demands. The Law-Gospel dynamic speaks to this, and which is why it doesn’t make any sense to tell someone who doesn’t think they need forgiveness to tell them that they have forgiveness. They’ll think you’re nuts.


colton said...

Oh my, what a wonderful thread! Just like the good old days, no?

Jeff D. and John S: I am tempted to respond to your position now, but I will wait for you to further clarify your position. For now, all I will say is that I don't think anyone here is claiming that repentance comes before forgiveness. The law doesn't make us repent; it brings us to our knees, and those are two very different things.

Mattie, allow me to respond to your last post. You argue that a culture without law does not offer grace. I would twist that statement and say: a culture without grace is necessarily giving us law. Now, I do understand totally what you are saying about post-modernism, excuses in place of responsibility, rationalization, "tolerance", etc. I think all of those things are superficial simulations of grace, but at the core they are law. There is either law or grace; there is no third option. So the "not law, but not grace either" situation you describe-- well, I would say that that situation does not truly exist. Those things that appear to you to be neither grace nor law are actually wolves (law) in sheep's (grace's) clothing. In our liberal, pc, post-modern culture (and in our liberal, pc, post-modern churches), the law is not made explicit as perhaps it used to be. (I think we agree on this point.) But the law is definitely there, implicitly, just beneath the surface, waiting to jump out anytime someone is "intolerant" or "bigotted" or "narrow-minded". The law condemns; grace loves the thing in its unloveliness.

Think about it for a second. Even in today's culture in which using the law explicitly is not en vogue, on what paradigm do you think these so-called liberals are living on a daily basis? The law paradigm! A counselor or a minister might say, "You are ok as you are", but the fashion magazines and tv commercials as well as the bank accounts, homes, cars, clothes, and degrees of everyone around us screams "You are not ok! You are inadequate!", "Work harder!" and "Your works are the measure of you loveliness." This is life under the law. When these people who supposedly are not using the law find out their spouse is having an affair, do they forgive as Christ forgave, or do they accuse on the basis of a trangsgression? I am guessing they accuse, and there can be no accusation without use of the law.

Though this cultural movement you describe may seem to have discounted the idea sin and done away with the law, in reality they have only redefined sin. It may no longer be "wrong" to have sex outside of marraige, but it is "wrong" to pollute the enviornment. It may not be "wrong" to bless same-sex marriages, but it is "wrong" to invade annother country and kill unarmed civilians.

I agree with you that the church is missing the boat if does not preach the law of God (any other law or leaving the law out altogether will not suffice) followed by the gospel. Always followed by the gospel. I just don't think that there can be any other fundamental message other than law or grace. If it is not true grace, then it will find a way to become law, even if the very thing it is trying to do is not be law.

John Zahl said...


I completely agree with you. Notice I did not answer the question. I think church where the Gospel is not preached is better than no church at all, because there are other people in the world, and christianity means that my life is no longer my own, i.e., what I can get out of life, etc. But that doesn't mean I will go, if there's no Gospel there. Probably I won't, (experience can atest to this), but the position is hardly defensible.

I place as much stock in the preaching as I do in the sacraments, and view them (as did the English Reformers) to be of the same substance. They all point to the Gospel, but are not in themselves the Gospel. To the extent that they bring the Gospel to connect with human life, they are significant, and that is where the Holy Spirit (rather than the technique) is crucial. On a side note: Do people think the Law's ability to convict people is contingent upon the Holy Spirit?

I do find the sermon to be the part that I am more interested in because I am headed in the direction of needing to shape a sermon once a week for the next 35 years. Also, truth be told, I prefer a good sermon to a "good eucharist" (whatever that is). I guess, to the extent that I'm into Cranmer's view of the Eucharist, I have found as "good" a "sermon" as I think one can find. That element (i.e., the theological substance of 1662/ 1928/ 1552 BCP) is fixed, whereas sermons and the thinking behind homeletics is subject to all kinds of change. Cranmer actually wanted things like his "Homily of Justification" to be the officially read sermon from the pulpit on Sundays. He really toyed with the idea of a fixed set of sermons (in keeping with the fixed prayers and service) as well. I'm glad he didn't go that route, especially as an evangelical. I think the evangelical tradition in the Anglican Communion tends to emphasize the sermon slightly above the sacraments (for evangelical reasons), and, if I'm honest, I'm probably there too. best, JAZ

colton said...

One more thing Mattie.

(I promise I am not out to be critical today; I guess I am more apt to speak up when I disagree than when I agree.)

You said: "to me the gospel, the good news, cannot be divorced from the law, in both its condemnatory and transformative powers. this may be where we're missing eachother in discussion. to me, the good news is that we are sinners!"

I couldn't agree more with the first part, that the gospel can't be divorced from the law, or else it is no longer gospel! I am totally with you there. But then you refer to the law's "transformative" powers. What are those? Do you just mean that the law breaks us down, allowing us to then be transformed by grace? Or something else?

The main bone I have, though, is the last sentence. The fact that we are sinners is terrible news! Just because current culture underemphasizes sin to the point of pretending it is not a reality, and just because the good news of the gospel means nothing without a realization of sin-- this does not mean that sin itself is good. The fact the today's culture avoids talk of sin is precisely because sin is such bad news. Sin is rebellion from God, it is pride, it is the rejection of faith in Him for faith in ourselves. It is a terrbile thing! The true realization of one's sin never brings a smile to one's face. Sin causes both God and us to grieve, it hurts those around us, and it kills us. Saying it is "good news" implies a lighter level of severity in our condition than is actually the case and, ultimately, cheapens God'd grace for us.

I think it is tempting to skip over the sin part and get to the good part, especially when we've heard the story and lived out the scenario a thousand times. But while in theory (i.e., not when we are in the trenches, in the hospital room, in an abusive relationship, alone, in pain, in depression) it may seem that sin is "good" in that it leads us to place where we experience real grace, the idea of sin as "good news" quickly dies when we actually experience it. As I said recently to Simeon, the Theology of the Cross sounds like a wonderful thing and is easy to ascribe to until you feel like your the one being nailed up and left to die.

Jeff Dean said...

"We are truly sheltered only when we are exposed before God"

Barth, Homiletics

Still meditating, but I'm curious about something with respect to Colton's first post.

Does the law have definitive content? That is, can the Law be listed on 615 lines or so? Or as the summary of the Law?

Or is "the Law" a more nebulous category to which we make appeal at all times and in all places, such that its content might change, but the right/wrong division will always exist irrespective of the standard used?

John Zahl said...

Yeah, Jeff, you're heading in the right direction with Barth, as your thinking on this one sounded much like some of his. Folks, for what it's worth, Jeff (and John S.?) position regarding the Law/Gospel or (Gospel)/Law/Gospel or Gospel/Law question is the one that most academics hold. The view is loudly voiced, though maybe not in an identicle fashion to what JEff is wanting to say (we await his description), by the New Perspective on Paul, but in terms of: "Solution precedes Plight". I don't know if you've thought about it in those terms Jeff? I think the reason many suggest this to be true is because it is possible to interpret the Christian experience post-conversion to one in which a greater realization of sin occurs (i.e., supposedly in wake of first having encountered the Gospel). I think this is a poor description of the transition that occurs, and that it is the Law, now rightly understood at its full and proper dose, that creates this experience. It is simul iustus rather than something progressive, I think, as well. The more I think about it, the more I think any precident of the Gospel before the Law (at least for already believing Christians who have known the Gospel) can lead only to anti-nomianism to the extent that it sinks in, though I don't necessarily think that holds true for non-believers, and, in that context, maybe Jeff has a point. ?.
I keep reflecting on when Rod Rosenbladt describes the Christian experience of being one where we (as Christians) realize that "we have used the gospel as an excuse for sin". That describes much of my mental thought life. This explains why so many Christians, when the are suddenly struck by justification by faith as it relates to the Law, stop going to Bible studies and/or church, does it not? Or they gain weight, or start smoking, or start drinking more heavily, etc. Am I the only one who sees this? They often say the reason for such behavior stems either from a freedom from the Law (note: in its 2nd use), or that it is in light of their finally coming to grips with the true nature of sin and its hold upon the will. Yet the behavior appears to be anti-nomian, does it not? Are these Christians (who reject the third use of the Law) simultaneously rejecting the 2nd Use of the Law as well? Is there a difference between sin and antinomianism, other than that the two exist on opposite sides of the cross? I'm mainly just raising questions.

Furthermore, what about the experience of Isaiah's Call described in Isaiah 6. It seems that could be used to support Jeff's side of things, or of mine. Is Isaiah initially struck by God's goodness, and is that what causes him to unravel as a man "of unclean lips" or is it a different understanding of God that precedes his utterance of these words. It seems that the sense Isaiah has of "being a man of unclean lips" is exactly the reaction that we all think of as proper repentance. Is it brought on by the Law, or by Grace? Or by grace, followed by the Law, but before Grace is then presented again? Mabye the eschaton informs the second preaching of the Gospel, but not the one that precedes the Law? ...

I think Colton's point is a good one as well, that there is probably a difference from Law offered from the pulpit and understood to be the 2nd Use, than from when we receive it in the world when someone tells us about a recent success of their's, which is different again for the 3rd use that we encounter in the world when someone tries to "lovingly straighten us out"...

Also please consider whether or not that there is no difference between the third use and the second use and the second use if the Christian experience of a persistently bound will is the case post-conversion, in other words, the third use turns into the second use though it is mis-understood by the person offering it. Does the understanding of the one who utters the Law in any way affect its efficacy to achieve some particular end (i.e., conviction of sin)? Is the Law like the Gospel not dependant upon the Holy Spirit's involvement in order to have an effect? These are some of the questions that have come to mind as I've reflected upon these earlier posts. Thanks for coming along for the ride. Love, JAZ

simeon zahl said...

Again, great discussion! It is particularly cool that we may have actually found something about which there is real disagreement within this particular theological camp. Still not sure that Jeff is saying what John thinks he is saying (Jeff, the sentence that needs fleshing out is the one about not being willing to fall off the rope until you know there is a net beneath you—that certainly sounds like Gospel/ Law/ Gospel, so if it isn’t, or if that isn’t what you intended to communicate, then that’s what you need to flesh out I think), but in any case I know that there are indeed a lot of people in the world who fall into the camp John is arguing against, so the point remains interesting regardless. For myself, I initially agreed with “Jeff”, i.e. with the G/ L/ G sequence, and then changed my mind when I read John’s points (especially the analogy about how a sick person doesn’t need to know there is a cure in order to feel, and be, sick). Now I think JZ is exactly right on, and that the point is an extremely profound and important one, though very subtle. The Law must not be minimized in any way whatsoever (cannot be, actually; it stands and it kills us regardless of what we think about it), and it must, and always does, precede Gospel.

A couple of thoughts, though I admit I don’t feel I have worked all this out yet at all. First, Grace (Gospel) cannot precede Law on a purely logical level: its meaning is predicated on the fact that Law comes first. Even love is not really grace, unless it is in light of unlovableness. Otherwise, it would be an earned result of works, of our own righteousness, which can never be the case, at least not for us. Such thinking leads to questions like, “Does the Father give grace to the Son, who was perfect?” Personally, I think those are largely meaningless questions, theologically, and are the kind of thing that gets people worrying about the Trinity in a false way (as an excuse not actually to face up to the Law). What matters is whether grace is given to ME. Jesus is not the one with the problem, and Jesus is not the one in the pew. Anyway, in specifically the pastoral context, the Grace/ Law/ Grace paradigm doesn’t actually exist; the initial Grace is only Grace if there was already Law preceding it.

There is indeed something true about how we feel the Law more, and know our sin more, AFTER we experience grace initially, but JZ is exactly right that that is just a further function of the law at work, not a function of a preceding grace. I was very helped by what Criz said: “I don't think anyone here is claiming that repentance comes before forgiveness. The law doesn't make us repent; it brings us to our knees, and those are two very different things.” So, there is an experience that is real and true that can be mistaken for a G/ L/ G dynamic, as I mistook it before John got me to rethink my position, but really what’s going on there is that there it’s actually more like L/ G/ L/ G. We just aren’t as conscious of the “L” as “L” that first time-- not until the second time around. But the dynamic is identical, and just continues ad infinitum, in a sense, in the simul iustus et peccator existence we live. I’m not really saying anything new, just fleshing out what John and Criz have already said. Or perhaps just saying it in a more confusing manner…

simeon zahl said...

One final thing, and on this I am genuinely asking, haven’t figured it out yet: a lot of people, like Barth and like a lot of New Perspective people, as well as “biblical theology” folks, would justify what is basically a G/ L/ G dynamic on the basis of what they would call theology of covenant. They would say it all started with grace, with Abraham at the very least (perhaps with Adam and Eve even?), with the covenant that God made with us that we did not deserve. They could even make a good case for G/ L/ G like this: Covenant with Abraham/ Moses/ Jesus. This particularly makes sense from a Reformed/ Presbyterian perspective, because in such theology the election of the Elect (the historical manifestation of which more or less is the covenant) precedes everything, even Creation (supralapsarianism, I think it’s called—- someone can correct me on this). A really heavy doctrine of predestination/ election leads you to G/ L/ G logic. From what I understand, this is what is going on in Barth (it’s also what leads him to functional universalism). I agree with JZ on this, not Barth, so am asking: how does one argue against this “biblical” logic, against covenant theology (in the G/ L/ G sense) and so on?

One point perhaps is that such theology has the effect of reducing the Cross and the Atonement to a purely functional place in a larger system—it lowers what Jesus did, and his death in particular, from the center of the universe to just one step in a sequence. This is way bad, and underestimates both the gravity of God himself dying and the gravity of our situation that only God’s death could save us. It's tidy, but it's wrong. But what does one make of the covenant with Abraham? Where was the Law before Moses? (Incidentally, this question is closely related to Jeff’s very good question from earlier, I think, about whether the Law actually has content, and if so, in what way. Jeff, I’m still ruminating on that one)

simeon zahl said...

(am off to Beijing in a few hours, so will not be able to participate for a couple of days, sadly)

bpzahl said...

Hey peoples,

In response to the covenant thing: if G/L/G is analogous to Abraham/Moses/Jesus, then I think we've missed something: the Fall.

I think it is Law Grace Law Grace, as Simeon says, because it is Adam Abraham Moses Jesus.

Adam and Eve were the only two people who were given grace WITHOUT Law first. And look what happened?! Grace preceded Law at the beginning, and it failed. Miserably.

But the beginning of our salvation history is at the point of departure from Eden. When God, in his righteous judgement, had every right to desert us (Law). But he didn't. And so followed his covenant with Abraham (and even before that, with Noah), and then Moses, and through Jesus, and so on.

So I think it's L/G/L/G.

BUT I do sympathize and agree with, in part, the G/L/G position, because that's often how it _feels_. If one did not even feel _some_ grace and safety (even in the midst of the pain), then one would only be lost in hopelessness no? I mean, if you lose hope in the fact that God will be there to catch you, then there's nothing left. Soooo...I agree that grace does motivate us to let go, always at the right time. BUT Law does precede grace, always, because without Law how do we know we even need the grace which then allows us to be honest with ourselves?

I think the Adam/Abraham/Moses/Jesus paradigm matches L/G/L/G perfectly in terms of our salvation (and our continuous need for salvation as experienced.) Our salvation history began with being banned, not (in my view) with being created. Creation's perfection is a moot point (in my view) because there wasn't anyone who _did_ avoid the Fall. If Adam or Eve (just one) did not sin, then I would buy the possibility of G/L/G. But then there wouldn't be any point of Law, right? (there would be no sin to be judged). I do not think Grace, as a starting point, works. And if we're saying that God was graceful so that we would sin, then experience his grace, then I think that's heresy.

Off to China after watching one more episode of Lost!


colton said...


Moving on...

In my systematic theology class, we just finished a section on creation theology, in which it was posited and widely agreed upon (myself included) that creation was God's first act of grace. This conversation, however, is causing me to rethink that claim. While creation is certainly a free act of God, done in love, I don't think it can be called "graceful" by our definition of grace. As Simeon said, grace's meaning "is predicated on the fact that Law comes first." So, without Law coming before it, there is no such thing as grace (or mercy, for that matter.) This thinking eliminates the G/L/G scenario for those who think that the act of creation itself is an act of grace.

Bonnie was right to bring up the Fall. The Fall was preceded by what? A law given. (Also notice that Satan did not enter the picture until a law was given. It's as if the law is his vehicle for entering into and infesting our hearts.) So, law comes first, then grace (then law, then grace, then law, then grace, etc.)

So Bonnie, while I don't agree with you that Adam and Eve were given grace before they were given law (I would say that they were given just love, because grace is love in spite of sin, and sin can exist only when a law comes before it.), I do agree with the bottom line of your post: L/G/L/G...

Simeon, hopefully this will answer your question: "Where was the law before Moses?" In the Garden of Eden!

Lastly, I found it amusing (though appropriate) when Simeon asked the question, with relation to Barth and the so-called "covenant theologians": "I agree with JZ on this, not Barth, so am asking: how does one argue against this “biblical” logic, against covenant theology (in the G/ L/ G sense) and so on?" It's funny that, in theological arguments, we all know which side we're on even when we can't explain it or don't know exactly how the other side is off. It's the exact opposite of scientific inquiry! We want the evidence after we've made our minds up. But I think we are this way because we must look at all these ideas in the light off Christ's atonement, which Simeon is doing explicitly. If a theology is in some way at odds with our knowledge and experience of Christ's sacrificial death for us, then we reject it first, seeking specific arguments later. All theological thinking starts with Christ. To quote PZ, "theology is christology."

This is what St. Anslem (it was he, wasn't it, Jeff Dean?) meant when he referred to theology as "faith seeking understanding." Augustine was big on this idea too, that we believe in order that we might understand, NOT that we seek to understand in order that we might believe.

John Zahl said...

I want to reclarify an important point:

Grace does not breed trust/faith, grace is God's response to our deficient ability to have those kinds of qualities in any sufficient sense.

There's a saying in AA: "Nobody ever let go of anything that didn't have claw marks on it!"

According to any basic doctrine of original sin / total depravity, apart from God's gracious intervention, no person is capable of, and therefore, doesn't ever "let go" of anything. This is crucial and foundational to Protestant thinking. Grace _is_ god's response to the fact that we cannot and don't and won't "let go" of anything. I equate "letting go" with repenting, btw.

Our sin demands that we hold on to our own frivilous, though genuinely heart-felt, (worldly, Pelagian) ideas of hope, while the Fallen world cruelly strips the dream from our tightly embedded talons. We know this to be true when we laugh at the joke: "If you wanna make God laugh, tell him your plans."

Similarly, the law then comes onto our screen only to reveal that we don't in fact have enough muscles to be able to hold on to the beloved idea/hope/dream/person/carreer path/etc., forcing us to plummit into the nothingness of our crushed hopes...and there, in that place, the Gospel is appreciated. That is why Jesus asks of God: "Have you forsaken me?!" This is the cry of every Christian on Good Friday before Easter.

Before there can be surrender, there has to be a battle. The Law, the Devil, and the Fallen world bring this battle to the fore of our experience. Without need, love is vacuous, abstract and hypothetical at best, and, at worst, it encourages in us the continued delusion that we can indeed hold onto, defend, and rationalize our sin, further distancing the individual from inevitable repentance. The Law enables us to see our need for a Savior (i.e., from ourselves, and from having to be our own God). When need is present, the Gospel speaks volumes, giving us confidence in something other than ourselves for our own success, something eternally solid and guarenteed unconditionally.

But without the need for it, we are bound only to ourselves, like the Norman Rockwell, where he shows a stream of New Yorkers, marching busily down 5th Ave past a church. None of them notice the words posted just outside the door: "Lift up thine eyes" because they're focussed entirely on their own footsteps and the place (they think) they are going.

p.s, as far as Jeff's question about the Law's seemingly amorphous nature, I think he has a real point. The Holy spirit has to be fit into that picture somewhere, no? It makes sense to me that Jesus both reemphasizes the total, impossible and unbending nature of the Law in the Sermon and the Mount, and then summarizes the Law as Love (as does Paul in Romans 13). 1 Tim 1: 8-11.

mike burton said...

Hey John,

Just some thoughts on something you posted earlier, specifically in regards to behavior as it pertains to Grace and the Law.

You asked if we haven't seen those Christians who get fat or drink to much or start smoking again and it seems like antinomian behavior then you asked if these Christians were rejecting the 2nd use of the Law. Then you asked if sin and antinomianism weren't perhaps the same thing on opposite ends of the spectrum.

Anyway, the thoughts I'm having are:

I'm certain I'm wrong here, but just in case I'm not, it sounds like you're talking about "sins" as behavior and not "sin" as a state.

If you're talking about sin as a state, antinomianism or fundamentalism of liberal protestantism or orthodoxy or neo-orthodoxy or evangelicalism all fit the bill, as we just CAN'T get it right.

But when you start talking behavior, that's a thin line to walk. I don't really know why my fellow Christian has let herself go or is drinking too heavily or smoking too much...and it's not my place to question. I think we'd do well to not try to draw distinctions between good and bad behavior, at least in this current argument.

i personally don't know of any Christians indulging in bad behavior because they feel freedom from the Law. The ones I know are doing the opposite...trying to fulfill it.

colton said...

I had a conversation with PZ on this very point, because I DO know a good many Christians who seem to be "indulging in bad behavior because they feel freedom from the Law."

What we agreed upon was that it is never human nature to commit a sin (yes, I am referring to sin as an act, not a condition, which I usually don't do, but bear with me here) for the primary purpose of experiencing God's grace. In other words, the knowledge and experience of grace does not cause us to want to sin in order that we may experience more of that grace. That's just not how it works.

What I think is going on, rather, is that, as thoroughly infested sinners, we use God's grace to justify our own sinful desires. Those things which we once held off from because we felt under the Law about them (and which, really, we couldn't have had a very strong desire to do, else we would have done them anyway), we begin to do, telling ourselves along the way that we are no longer under the law, and God loves us no matter what, so it is ok. But obviously we are missing the point. It is NOT ok to do those things, even if it is true that God HAS ALREADY forgiven us for them and loves us in spite of them. I think this all goes to show just how thoroughly permeated our beings are with worldly wisdom and how totally alien God's wisdom is to us. The world says, "If it is loved, it must be good" and conversely, "If it is rejected, it must be bad" whereas God says "It is bad, yet it is loved."

This situation is such a classic case of "simul justus et peccator"! We are experince God's grace and are justified before Him, then we turn around and use His grace to justify our own sin.

Also, this reminds me a fantastic quote (I can't remember who told it to me or who is responsible for it, but JAZ, JDD, and SMZ have all heard me say it): The will chooses what the heart desires, while the mind justifies.

colton said...

Ok, so that thing I just posted? Now I kind of disagree with myself.

When we become Christians, we ARE free from the law. We are no longer living under it; Paul makes this very clear. Also, if Christ's righteousness is imputed to us, then don't we believe that God no longer sees us in our sin, but in Christ's righteousness? So isn't it inaccurate to say that God loves us in our sinfulness? No, it can't be. That is what grace is...

I am confused! Maybe this whole "simul justus et peccator" thing is a deeper paradox than I realized! it's like we're freed from the law but living under it at the same time, know what I mean?

Perhaps the answer to this quandry lies partially in the quote I love so much: The will chooses what the heart desires, while the mind justifies. I suppose it is possible to comprehend grace mentally without feeling it in the heart. In that case, we use our mind (the knowledge of grace) to justify our sinful desires. This manifests seemingly anti-nomian activity. However, when we truly _experience_ grace (i.e, we have "heart knowledge" of grace), then our desire is transformed, which changes our action. This is living in the new covenant of grace. A true experience of grace will never lead to sin.

mike burton said...


I wish that a true experience of grace did not lead to sin.

But, it does. Which is precisely why its L/G/L/G. If grace eradicated sin, we who have experienced it wouldn't sin anymore. But I do.

I think what you're saying is that a true experience of Grace can break the desire to sin (as an act) in any given area of our lives, with that I agree wholeheartedly.

I think I've found myself believing that L/G/L/G is how it works (thanks JZ, SZ, BZ) or at least how we perceive it works. The only thing I'm a little fuzzy on is the "timing".

I can go with the Adam/Abraham/Moses/Jesus thing as a historical understanding of L/G/L/G.
What I'm having a hard time with, being born in 1974 AD, is that Grace seems to have preceded Law in the case of anyone born after the resurrection. Does or does not Christ love me, who is unlovable from the time I poked my head out of the womb? I did not experience the Law, that I can remember, before Christ loved me. He loved me and loves me, regardless of my recognition of the fact, right? So L/G/L/G or G/L or L/G works only in as much as I can recognize that it works in any of those ways. See what I'm saying?

Does God love us first in our sin, i.e. unlovableness, or not. Does he show Grace, has he shown Grace, by the death of His Son for us, or does this love only come when we recognize the need for it, i.e. repent?

So, does Grace exist for us, in the 21st Century, when we recognize the need for it or before?

I have no idea.

mattie said...

Wow. There are so many things going on in this post now that I don't know where to start. That's what I get for taking a day off from the blog.

I'm certainly not going to hit it all, but I want to address Colton's refutation of my position on the absence of law not being the equivalent of grace. CPH - you made some great points and they may convice me to reconsider my position. I think that why I think the way I do about law and grace is somewhat with the political philosophy background I come out of. I need to evaluate if the Hobbesian/Lockean framework I'm so used to thinking through is compatible with my current understanding of theological anthropology... something I need more time with.

I do want to make an important distinction about the "cultural" observations I was making. I think you're right that there is a sort of implicit legalism in the "do better, try harder, look hotter" mentality we live in, but I also think that we live in a culture of blame and victimization. When people fail in our culture, rarely do they think it is their fault. It is the fault of their parents or their boss or their genes. Or, it's the fault of the liberals or the terrorists or Rush Limbaugh. Whoever. All I'm saying is that rarely do I hear people say: "Wow. I screwed that one up." Instead, I hear "I could do better if I had had more support, time, resources, encouragement, etc." You might see that as the implicit presence of law (the desire to try harder to attain adherence to a standard), but I see it as the absence of either law or grace.

CPH - I do however, get your inside-out paradigm of "sin" just changing shapes (moving from adultery to driving an SUV, say) and I think you're on to something there. I want to think more about that... the important question this begs is: does sin change? do cultural/wordly circumstances change what does and does not constitute a sin? I've been thinking about this quite a bit lately, in two distinct areas of my life. One: vegetarianism. I'm assisting a professor on a project on early Christian perspectives on the environment and I've been surprised at how many early Christians were vegetarians. They thought that the new coventant of life in Christ applied to all of creation, including animals. Some of them even felt that since Jesus was "the lamb of God" it was reflective that animal "sacrifice" including for eating had come to an end. Now, couple this with all of the recent research that a vegetarian diet is not only healthier, but better for the environment, more sustainable, and more cost-effective, I'm wondering. Is eating meat sinful? I know most of you will immediately say no, but I'm starting to wonder. Two: sex. We all agree the bible is pretty clear that adultery is immoral and that debauchery is sin. But, then again, even in the time of Christ, we're talking about a culture that bethrothed ten year old girls to forty year old men. We're talking about a culture in which women married their dead husband's brothers, not out of love but out of survival. We're talking about a culture in which new Christians thought Jesus was coming back tomorrow and, in turn, there was absolutely no reason to reproduce. Augustine was bethrothed to a 12 year old girl, even after he became a catechumen and no one seemed to have a problem with it. In fact, he broke off the engagement not because he felt it morally wrong, but because he felt he was marrying her for money and his greed offended God. So what, you're probably thinking... Well, how can we look at sex and love and marriage in our times, understanding Christ's commands, and knowing that we are under grace, not law? I can't figure it out, and trust me, I'm trying. One day I think I'm supposed to be celibate my entire life to truly committ myself to following Christ and his example, but most days I can't imagine being without, well, you know, for my whole life. Other days I think marriage is the pinnacle of Christian example, providing a crucible of sanctification and an earthly image of the Trinity. How can we be honest to the ways our culture has shifted and the realities of our world (for example, the fact that a 25 year old professional un-married woman in 2005 has completely different desires than a betrothed 10 year old peasant in 50AD)?

Okay, so that was kind of a digression. But I think it is relevant. If we can't understand sin and what it is and how it may or may not evolve, we can't understand what the law is or is not asking of us. I think the content of the law is absolutely relevant to whether or not the preaching of "the law" must precede or follow preaching of "grace." In our little bloggy club we can talk about "THE LAW" but I don't think you hear that in most churches (aside from the ones you all will preach at :)). Even growing up LCMS I don't remember hearing much about "THE LAW" though that might be selective memory.

Anyway. I have to go to work and so I'll try to write tomorrow.


mattie said...

Colton -

Perhaps this thread is dying, but I finally had time to go back and read your second post to me and I want to write a few things.

I did not mean to say that sin is good. What I meant is that the message that we are sinners is such a consistuitive part of the gospel for me, that it is, in a very real way, good news. I go to a liberal church that I love for very many reasons, but I do not often hear that I am a sinner. In fact, I don't once remember my priest telling the congregation during a homily that we are sinful. We have a half hour before mass each week for confession/reconcilliation and I don't know that I've ever seen another person there. Honestly. (Which is kind of nice because I never have to wait in line, but NO! People need that sacrament!)

The ironic thing, and the thing most relevant to this dialogue, however, is that my parish is known around the city for having the largest RCIA classes - that is the greatest number of people becoming Catholics each year. Are they/we "converting" into a church not preaching the true gospel because we are not hearing the depth of our sinfulness? I don't think so. And this hearkens back to the point made earlier by someone (Tom, perhaps) about the liturgy. Fortunately, to us Catholics, the homily is very likely the least important part of the mass. The proclamation of the gospel and the liturgy of the Eucharist are WAY more important, and I'm super happy about that. That's why I'm grateful that there are no different "rites" in the Catholic church (well, as long as you ignore the crazy-schism-Latin-Mel Gibsons among us). The liturgy has very little wiggle room in my tradition. The only place that pastors are free to tweak the wording is at the confession of sin, which, like I pointed out at the beginning, IS a a problem.

Second - the transformative power of the law. We'll disagree here, I know. I'm not worried about fixing labels onto different "uses" of the law - we don't do that in Catholic theology, as far as I can tell - but what I am worried about is when folks see moral precepts and ethical behavior as some "law" that Christ has abolished or fulfilled. Yes, it is true that our actions do not justify. Yes it is true that God loves us even though we don't do what is right. However, I do think that God's desire for our lives is health and wholeness, "life abundant," as it were, which cannot happen when one is engrossed in lawlessness/sinfulness.

Do I know precisely how this works? No. But I do know that God is present in the struggle. I know that my striving to be holy is not an attempt to justify myself, but an attempt to live a life that takes seriously the grace-filled promise of my baptism. Do I know that God will love and forgive me when I sin? Yes. The question, then is, not do I sin which is of course, but do I desire to sin? I genuinely think I desire sin less than I once did, and I take that as a tangible sign of God transforming my heart by His grace. I do think some sort of sanctification is real, and more than just a deepening into an understanding of justification by faith, as Forde would say. So, yes, and gasp all you want, but I think the Holy Spirit uses "the law" to discipline us. I always think of 1 Thess 5 when I understand this. As "children of the light" we are called to not be "asleep" but "alert and self-controlled" (v. 6).

Hope that clarifies my position,


bpzahl said...

Criz, I think you're right - what I was thinking about (possibly) grace preceding law in creation was that the act of creation itself is an act of grace. But I think you nailed it when you said it's Love. So....I think it's LLGLG - Love (ie Creation), Law (ie help for us to live properly), Grace (love when we fail such that we can at least own up to it, i.e. feel ok to talk about it), Law (for proper recognition of sin), Grace (love again in full recognition of our failure). And I think all of that happens together and in cycles like Brownian motion.

We are back from China and getting Lost again! (hehehe)