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The Law, the Gospel, and Law and Gospel: A Theology for Sinners (and Saints)

The Law, the Gospel, and Law and Gospel: A Theology for Sinners (and Saints)

I probably heard the gospel many times during my childhood, but it didn’t register until I was a junior in college. When it finally grabbed my attention one fall night outside Gorin’s ice cream shop in the Five Points South neighborhood of Birmingham, Alabama, I saw my need to be rescued from my sin. I was with a friend who was a Christian when all of the puzzle pieces fit together. She prayed for me and with me after I acknowledged the fact that my efforts to perform and get my act together would never meet God’s expectations of holiness….

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A Gracious Misdirection: Humor as a Fruit of the Gospel

The following is excerpted from the “Fruits of the Gospel” chapter in Mockingbird’s Law & Gospel: A Theology for Sinners and Saints, available on Amazon or through our own store, here

trying-to-keep-it-together-on-the-californians

If the Gospel is ever experienced for the ridiculous good news that it is, then laughter is soon to follow it. And this is mostly because humor is, in part, an expression of relief. Steve Brown describes it perfectly in his story about a woman who, after years of hiding a moment of infidelity from her husband, suddenly feels the (spontaneous!) need to admit it to him. Though nervous, she decides to do it.

“I saw her the next day, and she looked fifteen years younger. ‘What happened?’ I asked. ‘When I told him,’ she exclaimed, ‘he replied that he had known about the incident for twenty years and was just waiting for me to tell him so he could tell me how much he loved me!’ And then she started to laugh. ‘He forgave me twenty years ago, and I’ve been needlessly carrying all this guilt for all these years!’ Perhaps you are like this woman who had been forgiven and didn’t know it.”[1]

Her laughter is the laughter of the forgiven. It stems from a simultaneous flood of relief (“He forgave me twenty years ago!”) and a corresponding lack of self-seriousness (“How ridiculous that I carried this around for so long?”). A sense of humor comes from the ridiculousness of your happy outcome, and the fact that it had nothing to do with you.

Humor and hyperbole are, then, delicate ministers of God’s good relief. In various ways, either through satire or self-deprecation, humor is a way of uncoupling the truth from its sting. It is a way of including oneself on the wrong side of the righteousness equation. It is a delightful willingness to be wrong, because you can afford to be. It also allows us the privilege of disarming the stings against us, to find humor in things around us that might have offended or wounded us before.

Humor can also be used as a form of gracious misdirection. It is a chance for the forgiven to put on a clown suit in love, for the sake of deflecting another’s judgment. This is precisely what Christ does for the woman caught in adultery, lining out a distracting drawing in the sand for her team of accusers (Jn 8:6). If we are so lucky, we experience the same willingness to play the fool, to feel the great pricelessness of God’s wonderful gift, and thus to ham it up at no cost to anyone.

In the realm of the Law, we must keep face. In the realm of the Gospel, we can laugh at our own faces in the mirror. In the realm of the Law, we must tediously craft emails with the right balance of seriousness and brevity. In the realm of the Gospel, we’re free to say precisely the ridiculous thing that comes to mind, without fear of what brand of trouble our words may bring. While the Law incites us to point our fingers at others in blame, the Gospel provokes us to return the pointing finger back to our chest, and shrug our shoulders, and laugh at the absurdity.[2]

[1] “The Laughter of God,” When Being Good Isn’t Good Enough (Keylife, 2014).

[2] Surely humor is part of what is meant by the meaning of pure love “casting out fear” (1 Jn 4:18). When we are out of the realm of fear, we are into the realm where self-ridicule is easy.

Buy your copy of Law & Gospel here!

What About Antinomianism?

What About Antinomianism?

The second appendix to our Law and Gospel: A Theology for Sinners (and Saints) book addresses a popular (religious) objection to its contents:

There’s an accusation which sometimes gets leveled against those who stress Christian freedom and forgiveness in lieu of behavior-modification, and who downplay ‘spiritual progress’ as a burdensome distraction from the indiscriminate compassion of grace. The charge is that such people denigrate God’s law, or cast it as ‘bad.’ The formal name for this charge is ‘antinomianism’ (anti=against, nomos=law). The common picture of the antinomian is someone who thinks that, because of Christ’s forgiveness, they can (and will) do…

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Fight, Flight, and Appeasement (in Little League): A Legal Interlude

Fight, Flight, and Appeasement (in Little League): A Legal Interlude

Check out the “Interlude” from Mockingbird’s latest resource, Law and Gospel: A Theology for Sinners (and Saints), available here!

The Law, on most every occasion, draws a line of distinction between the is of life and the ought. The Law is the demarcation of the life we should have—the life we long for—and our own obstructions preventing us from getting there. It is for this reason that our response to the Law is almost always counterproductive.[1]

Imagine you are twelve years old again, and you love baseball. All your heroes are baseball players, all your extracurricular time is spent either with a ballglove…

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Law & Gospel: News from Across the Sea

Law & Gospel: News from Across the Sea

The following is excerpted from Mockingbird’s newest resource, Law and Gospel: A Theology for Sinners (and Saints), which is available here. This comes from the beginning of the Gospel section:

‘News’ expresses something different from ‘knowledge.’ We live in a time of unprecedented knowledge: a day’s worth of new data now would, in terms of raw amount of information, be the envy of entire centuries past. Knowledge equips us to better live in the world around us: The scientist must be in control in the lab, and the factory manager needs good data on her employees’ output, the cost of raw…

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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!

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.