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Bayer on Law, Gospel, and Justification

From Oswald Bayer’s interpretation of Martin Luther’s Theology, pages 228-9:

“The effect that the law creates is not surprising. One has no trouble understanding what it means to rely on oneself and on one’s own deeds; the action-consequences relationship has its own logic. But the gospel is absolutely, completely incomprehensible. That God rescues one from, and brings one safely through, the deserved judgment is a miracle. Law and gospel cannot be plausibly intertwined together; their existence is hard and fast in opposition to each other. The gospel is literally a paradox: it stands against that which the sinner can reasonably expect; it stands against damnation.

It is thus not surprising that the communion between the sinning human being and the God who justifies through Jesus Christ by the Holy Spirit is incomprehensible; it is stupefying – astonishing – which does not lead one to be calm and at peace. Rather, it is described by Luther as a ‘stupendumduellum – as a  duel that arouses astonishment, as a duel like the one Jacob engaged in at Jabbok (Gen. 32). That this deadly confrontation between God and humanity is a ‘happy exchange,’ is a miracle. The one who has escaped from judgment and death cannot be sufficiently astounded about this.

‘The love of God does not find one worthy of its love to be present already, but [first] creates it.’ In this sense God is ‘God and no mortal’ (Hos. 11:9). For: ‘human love comes for the one who holds another worthy of love [already].’ (Luther, WA 1:354.35f). By contrast, the justification of the ungodly  (Rom 4:5) is nothing less than the resurrection of the dead and the creation out of nothing (4:17).”

Distinguishing Between Law and Gospel: A Brief Guide

This handy guide comes from the first appendix to our newest book, Law and Gospel: A Theology for Sinners (and Saints), coauthored by Will McDavid, Ethan Richardson, and David Zahl. Hope you enjoy:

The distinction between law and gospel is the highest art in Christendom
–Martin Luther

Mbird LAW AND GOSPEL Cover options4A strong belief of Luther, and those who follow in his footsteps, is that people should not be enticed to church by the Gospel and then, after believing, turn toward self-improvement. The Law always kills, and the Spirit always gives life. This death and resurrection of the believer is not a one-time event, but must be repeated continually: It is the shape of the Christian life. On Sundays, therefore, some form of the Law is ideally preached to kill, and the Gospel to vivify—“the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life” (2 Cor 3:6). But in many situations, the Law is mistakenly preached to give life, on the assumption that the believer, unlike the new Christian, has the moral strength to follow the guidelines. This leads to burnout, often producing agnostics or converts to Eastern Orthodoxy. Words like ‘accountability’ or ‘intentionality,’ for example, are sure signs that the letter, rather than the Spirit, is being looked to for life. To help distinguish this form of misguided Law from the Gospel, here’s a handy guide:

1. Listen for a distortion of the commandment: Anytime a hard commandment is softened, such as “Be perfect” (Mt 5:48) to “just do your best,” we’re looking to the Law, not the Gospel, for life.

2. Discern the balance of agency: If you’re in charge of making it happen, it’s misguided Law. If God’s in charge, it’s Gospel. If it’s a mixture, it’s Law.

3. Look for honesty: If you or others either seem ‘A-okay’ or ‘struggling, but…,’ then likely it’s because the Old Adam is alive and well (there will also be a horrible scandal in the next three months). If people are open and honest about their problems, such freedom shows the Gospel is at work.

4. Watch for exhaustion: If the yoke is hard and the burden heavy week after week, then the letter’s probably overpowering the Spirit.

5. Examine the language: If you hear ‘If… then,’ ‘Wouldn’t it be nice…,’ ‘We should all…,’ or anything else that smacks of the imperative voice, it’s implicit works-salvation. If you hear the indicative voice—‘God is…,’ ‘We are…,’ or ‘God will…’—then it’s probably Gospel.

6. Watch for the view of human nature, or anthropology: If human willpower, strength, or effort are being lauded or appealed to, it’s Law. High anthropology means low Christology, and vice-versa.

7. Finally, keep an eye out for the ‘Galatians effect,’ summarized by St. Paul:

Did you receive the Spirit by doing the works of the law or by believing what you heard? Are you so foolish? Having started with the Spirit, are you now ending with the flesh? Did you experience so much for nothing?—if it really was for nothing. Well then, does God supply you with the Spirit and work miracles among you by your doing the works of the law, or by your believing what you heard? (Gal 3:2-5)

If how you’re approaching or being told to approach Christianity now feels different from “believing what you heard,” we’re in Galatians territory. Christianity is Good News, and it never ceases to be Good News.

Grab your copy of L&G today!

All the Lonely Virtues, Where Do They All Belong?

All the Lonely Virtues, Where Do They All Belong?

There’s this funny revival of Aristotelian virtue ethics going on in the Church today, typified by N. T. Wright. The Nicomachean Ethics, while more approachable than most Greek philosophy, is as dry as the Metaphysics, so I’m going to pass over my due diligence here and throw out an interesting anomaly.

The virtues we like to take up from the Greeks are not quite the same ones they would have clung to. Wright’s After You Believe (Virtue Reborn, before they decided to market it to Americans) is a little choosy about its use of virtue ethics. After deploying Hamlet’s suggestion that we put on virtue…

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Now Available! Law and Gospel: A Theology for Sinners (and Saints)

Mockingbird couldn’t be more excited to announce a new book, Law and Gospel. A collaboration between Will McDavid, Ethan Richardson, and David Zahl, this theology for sinners (and saints) is a short primer on a subject near and dear to us, the distinction between–you guessed it–Law and Gospel. From the back cover:

Mbird LAW AND GOSPEL Cover options4There’s a big difference between judgment and love, obligation and freedom, a wage and a gift. The difference characterizes an extraordinary amount of our day-to-day experience, often dividing fear from hope, and death from life. At the heart of Christianity lies a similar and related dynamic: between the Law and the Gospel. Far from being a reductive or antiquated distinction, understanding where one ends and the other begins allows a person to see both the Bible and themselves – indeed, the whole world! – in a fresh and enlivening way. Written with the non-theologian in mind, this short volume unpacks the good news of God’s grace with practicality, humor, and a whole lot of heart.

We open the book by turning a critical eye on American optimism, then look at the roles of the Law – command, measure, accusation, means of control, and death – then break for a short autobiographical imaginative reflection on baseball failure. The Gospel section includes a look at Christ as Good News, as a Person, and as a divine Gift. From there we talk about possible ‘fruits’ of the Gospel, and close on the Gospel as objective comfort.

Bonuses, in the appendices, include a short guide to distinguishing between Law and Gospel, especially from the pulpit; a spirited defense against charges of antinomianism; and a look at how demands and forgiveness in human relationships relate to God’s Law and Gospel, respectively.

We mean for the book to serve as an introduction to Mockingbird and/or Martin Luther’s Law/Gospel paradigm for new readers, to let people know “Where We’re Calling From” (Carver). For old readers, it’s a more precise, clear, and frankly better-written version of ideas we haven’t explicitly developed on the site for a few years. For pastors and churches, it can work as a thematic handbook to Law and Gospel. For laypeople, it’s an extremely accessible entry point into a rich theological tradition. And at 91 pages, its burden errs on the light side.

Early reviews have been great, and we mean the book to serve as a primer, a gift, or fresh material for Sunday School. To that end, you can pick it up on Amazon for $11, or email us for bulk-order discounts (10+ copies = $7/per). Finally, we have a “conference version” that differs in page numbering and a few typos, but is identical in content – for $5, also available via email (info@mbird.com). Thanks for the support, and hope you enjoy!

P.S. Anything you can do to help us spread the word about this exciting project (sharing on social media, reviewing on Amazon, etc), we’d sure appreciate it.

Mining Netflix: Frasier and Niles Try to Magically Change Everything

Mining Netflix: Frasier and Niles Try to Magically Change Everything

A bit of a nostalgic, I’ve been finding myself vegging out lately to old episodes of Frasier. (Thank goodness for Netflix!). Perhaps you remember the premise. Always trying hard to be people who are well-recognized in society, Frasier and Niles are a restless duo: members of gentlemen’s clubs, wine-tasting societies, country clubs… the elite of the elite. Naturally this leads to sibling rivalry as they try to outdo each other and fail miserably every time. They are portrayals of all of us living under… well, the law. As with all scenarios in which the self remains front and center, the…

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What Plato and Aristotle Did Not Know (But Luther Did)

Two more remarkable passages from Steven Paulson’s Luther for Armchair Theologians:

51N4yVb4VNL._SY445_Faith in Christ’s promise, not works of the law, alone saves. But we will have to be very careful, since the word “faith” is one of the most abused words in our vocabulary. It does not mean for Luther “accepting,” or “deciding for,” or “committing oneself for Christ,” or any of the misuses this word has received. Faith is perfect passivity for Luther–being done unto by God, or simply suffering God. It is literally being put to death as a sinner and raised as a saint, which is decidedly God’s own act through preached words. This is a teaching that Plato and Aristotle did not know… (pg. 51-52)

Salvation is not the progress of a spiritual athlete for whom practice in the law makes perfect. It is not even like a sick person getting well on the medicine of grace, for those pictures of Christian living leave Christ on the sidelines while human free will takes center stage. Such notions leave Christ idle, displacing him by the star of that drama, the free will that dreams of becoming ever more holy under the law. Why then the cross? Did Christ come simply to remind people of the law that Moses already gave, or even to give an improved version of the tablets of stone? Is Christ to be patient while you try to solve the puzzle of God’s law? The story of scripture, Luther begins to understand, is not how we make our way up the mountain by getting grace and then topping it off with love and works. Scripture is the story of how God came down to meet us–while we were yet sinners. Christ is the mover and the shaker, the active subject, the star of the show. And when Christ comes the law ends. Luther coined a phrase–crux sola nostra theologia (the cross alone is our theology)–and put it in capital letters to stand out boldly as the chief truth he found while lecturing on Psalms for the first time. (pg. 62-63)

Silencing the Messy Conscience

Silencing the Messy Conscience

This post originally appeared on LaurenRELarkin.com.

Whenever the devil harasses you, seek the company of men or drink more, or joke and talk nonsense, or do some other merry thing. Sometimes we must drink more, sport, recreate ourselves, and even sin a little to spite the devil, so that we leave him no place for troubling our consciences with trifles. We are conquered if we try too conscientiously not to sin at all. So when the devil says to you: do not drink, answer him: I will drink, and right freely, just because you tell me not to.

― Martin Luther “The Life…

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Two Notes, Not One

Another quote from Steven Paulson’s Luther for Armchair Theologians:

“When a tone-deaf person sings, it can be painful to hear. But if you have to listen to theologians who know only the one note of the law, it is not only painful but deadly. They like to describe the big picture of God’s plan as a test to see whether you will pass. They explain God’s mind or the order of God’s plan for salvation and how you can fit in if you follow the rules of the game that God plays. Then the church and its leaders act as referees deciding who is in and who is out of salvation by passing some test. Thinking this way makes it impossible to grasp what Luther is saying when he distinguishes law and gospel as what is old and done for and what is newly arriving with Jesus Christ…[Law and Gospel are] two notes, not one.”

The Tune Stuck in Luther’s Head

A great passage from Steven Paulson’s Luther for Armchair Theologians

Luther said “I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. “Bound by the Scriptures” with a conscience “captive to the Word of God” hardly sounds like freedom. But scripture’s freedom has never been an isolated, individualistic, lonely and ultimately death-dealing notion like the ones that capture our imagination today. True freedom is being captivated by Christ’s promise for forgiveness of sins. It is like getting a tune stuck in your head that you can’t get rid of, only this time instead of a legal refrain, “Have you done enough?” it repeats a promise: “God is pleased with you, on account of Christ.”

Reformation Wives and Friday Night Lights: On Being a Clergy Wife

Reformation Wives and Friday Night Lights: On Being a Clergy Wife

Since Reformation Day is kind of a big deal around here, I’d like to take a moment to remember those largely unsung heroes of the time: clergy wives. It is a role that many of us take for granted. History tells us that these women were treated horribly. Among other “fun facts,” they were called harlots and were often denied midwives in childbirth. An archbishop of the time recorded a visitation to a church by writing: “all the married priests in England are knaves and their wives are very whores.” As a priest wife myself, I am hoping no one…

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Happy Reformation Day From Philip Melanchthon!

This one comes from Melanchthon’s Apology of the Augsburg Confession, Article IV, 164A, 172B, ht SMZ:

Philipp_Melanchthon_monument“[I]f we had to believe that after our renewal we must become acceptable not by faith on account of Christ but on account of our keeping of the law, our conscience would never find rest. Instead, it would be driven to despair. For the law always accuses since we never satisfy the law… For who loves or fears God enough? Who endures patiently the afflictions imposed by God? Who does not often doubt whether human affairs are ruled by the counsel of God? Who does not often doubt whether one is heard by God? Who is not often angry that the wicked enjoy a better lot than the pious and that the godly are oppressed by the wicked? Who is not often enraged by the judgment of God when he seems to abandon us? How many live up to their calling? How many love their neighbor as themselves? Who is not incited by concupiscence? About these sins the psalms says [Ps. 32:6], ‘Therefore let all who are the saints offer prayer to you.’ Here he says that the saints pray for the forgiveness of sins.’ … Only faith brings [peace to consciences] – faith which is confident that on account of Christ the high priest we have a gracious God… Faith justifies in this way: that it simultaneously makes alive, that is, it cheers and consoles consciences and produces eternal life and joy in the heart.”

Martin Luther Opens the Book (and Finds the Gift)

In honor of Reformation Day, another quote from the Great Reformer’s “A Brief Instruction on What to Look for and Expect in the Gospels” (1521):

IMG_6341“When you open the book containing the Gospels and read or hear how Christ comes here or there, or how someone is brought to him, you should therein perceive the sermon or the Gospel through which he is coming to you, or you are being brought to him. When you see how he works, however, and how he helps everyone to whom he comes or who is brought to him, then rest assured that faith is accomplishing this in you and that he is offering your soul exactly the same sort of help and favor through the gospel. If you pause here and let him do you good, that is, if you believe he benefits and helps you, then you really have it. Then Christ is yours, presented to you as a gift.”