There is an old story about a Lutheran pastor who, after a long ministry of rightly distinguishing law and gospel, announced on his death bed: “I shall most certainly go to heaven, as I cannot remember ever having done a good work.”
The story touches on the great fear we all have about the preaching of the gospel in the performative mode of unconditional promise—it seems to make good works and personal holiness irrelevant. During his lifetime Catholic apologists violently hurled the antinomian accusation against Martin Luther, and he struggled to express why it did not apply to the reforming doctrine. The problem is that the life in the Spirit that the gospel communicates does not fit into our metaphysical categories or scholastic schemas of salvation. It explodes our language. The mystics of the Church have always understood this. But hear these beautiful words of Luther:
Faith is a divine work in us. It changes us and makes us to be born anew of God (John 1). It kills the old Adam and makes altogether different people, in heart and spirit and mind and powers, and it brings with it the Holy Spirit.
Oh, it is a living, busy, active, mighty thing, this faith. And so it is impossible for it not to do good works incessantly. It does not ask whether there are good works to do, but before the question rises, it has already done them, and is always at the doing of them. He who does not these works is a faithless man. He gropes and looks about after faith and good works and knows neither what faith is nor what good works are, though he talks and talks, with many words about faith and good works.
Faith is a living, daring confidence in God’s grace, so sure and certain that a man would stake his life on it a thousand times. This confidence in God’s grace and knowledge of it makes men glad and bold and happy in dealing with God and all His creatures. And this is the work of the Holy Spirit in faith. Hence a man is ready and glad, without compulsion, to do good to everyone, to serve everyone, to suffer everything, in love and praise to God, who has shown him this grace. And thus it is impossible to separate works from faith, quite as impossible as to separate burning and shining from fire. Beware, therefore, of your own false notions and of the idle talkers, who would be wise enough to make decisions about faith and good works, and yet are the greatest fools.
Therefore, pray to God to work faith in you. Else you will remain forever without faith, whatever you think or do. (Preface to Commentary on Romans; cf. “On the Freedom of the Christian“)
Luther’s words only make sense when we properly ground them in the relationship between the gospel promise and the faith it creates and sustains. He is speaking of eschatological existence—”faith” names the mode of that existence.
But the threat and fear of antinomianism remains: immorality and sin do not really matter—God loves us anyway. If Jesus promises me that my destiny will be good, why not delay repentance? Why not enjoy my sin now? Or as Heinrich Heine is reported to have said on his deathbed: Bien sûr, il me pardonnera; c’est son métier: “Of course God will forgive me; that’s his job.” Even more cynical are the apocryphal lines often attributed to Voltaire, Oscar Wilde, George Bernard Shaw, W. H. Auden, and even Rasputin: “I love to sin; God loves to forgive; the world is admirably arranged.”
In my previous article I suggested that if the preacher is never accused of antinomianism, this probably means he is not preaching the authentic gospel at all. But who wants to be accused of antinomianism? Most preachers therefore prefer the carrot-stick approach, which is simply the way the world works. First tell the congregation that following Jesus is the good and right thing to do, with outstanding rewards in heaven and maybe some perks in the present; and then threaten them with punishment if they fail to comply (fire and brimstone works pretty well). In other words, preachers and congregations prefer the preaching of the law. It’s what comes natural because it is natural: law structures our fallen existence. The reward/punishment dynamic is present everywhere—in our homes, in our familial and marital relationships, in the workplace, in the international sphere between nations and military powers. Yet capitulation to the rhetorical structure of the world ultimately betrays the gospel itself. It doesn’t matter how many times we pepper our discourse with “Jesus,” “love, “grace,” “salvation.” If all we can do is speak conditional promise, we effectively condemn our congregations to life under the principalities and powers of the world. We worry about antinomianism, yet prevailing homiletical practice only confirms our hearers in their egocentricity, fear, and sin. Vigorous moralistic exhortation may keep our people in line for a while (but does it really?); but ultimately it fails to do the one thing needful—it fails to communicate the power and freedom of the Spirit; it fails to generate saving faith.
Proclaiming gospel in the performative mode of unconditional promise can be frightening, both for the preacher and the congregation. Exhortation is so much safer. It maintains the status quo. Even slaves can find their life of bondage comfortable. The temptation to put the rods back into the reactor and dampen the explosive power of the gospel can be overwhelming. While travelling in the wilderness, the children of Israel yearned for the flesh pots of Egypt. But truly, there is only one way forward—we preachers must find the courage and grace to speak the unconditional promise of the risen Jesus Christ and “do the deed.” Sunday after Sunday we must slay our congregations with the eschatological word of Christ so that they may be raised into the liberty of the Spirit. Only then will our people become willing—nay, eager—to heed the summons to unconditionally follow Christ, purify the passions, and joyfully obey the Torah of God.
When the love of the risen Nazarene renews our hearts of stone, life become permission. “The gospel’s specific morality,” Robert Jenson explains, “is a morality of freedom” (Story and Promise, p. 81). We love, not because we ought to, not because we fear God will withdraw his love if we fail to love, but because in Christ we may love. This is the liberty of the sons and daughters of the Father. This is what it means to live in the divine society of the Holy Trinity. In the words of St Augustine of Hippo: “Love and do what you will” (Homily 7 on 1st John).
Once we acquire the confidence that God wills our good and will, by grace, bring us to that final fulfillment for which we were created, then we truly become free for the life of Christ. Each day becomes patient listening to the Word for permission—for permission to repent, for permission to purify our passions, for permission to commit oneself to lifelong marital fidelity, for permission to give sacrificially to the ministry of the Church, for permission to work for political reform–ultimately and always, for permission to love. Some may find themselves called to embrace the ascetical way of St Antony the Great or St Benedict of Nursia. Some may find themselves called to follow the footsteps of Mother Teresa in service to the poor and oppressed. Some may find themselves called to offer themselves for ordination to the sacred priesthood. But for all it will mean putting to death the desires of the flesh and becoming little Christs and Temples of the Spirit. All of Christian living is comprehended in the undeserved grace of the risen Lord and the power of the Holy Spirit.
But how does the preacher properly communicate to the baptized the moral content of the gospel in the performative mode of promise? For the gospel does have content, decisively determined by the person, teachings, and character of Jesus Christ as depicted in the biblical narrative; it is this Jesus whom we await to return in glory.
Perhaps on occasion the preacher simply needs to say to his congregation: “Stop doing ____!” But I suggest he will usually find it far more productive to interpret the moral and ascetical life in terms of the resurrection and the coming kingdom:
Because Jesus has promised that your life is and will be fulfilled in his coming kingdom, you may give generously toward the feeding and sheltering of the poor.
Because Jesus was faithful to you unto death and beyond death, you may be faithful to your marital vows.
Because the cross of Jesus is the way of peace and life, you may stop abusing your spouse.
Because Jesus will provide for both you and your baby, no matter what hardship you may have to endure, you may unequivocally renounce the killing of your unborn child.
Because Christ is your food unto everlasting life, you may fast and embrace the ascetical disciplines
These are but poorly expressed intimations of how the preacher might begin to approach the proclamation of the ethics of the kingdom. It is easy to condemn sin. Our people expect us to do so. But to interpret sin through the lens of the resurrection of Christ is quite a different matter. This kind of eschatological preaching requires the preacher to reflect deeply and prayerfully about the fears and addictions, and evil, that bind his parishioners to the denial of their new humanity in Christ. Only then will he be able to speak that liberating Word that heals the blind and raises the dead.
Within the grace and unconditional promise of the risen Jesus Christ, law thus becomes Torah. In the words of the psalmist: “Thy word is a lamp unto my feet, and a light unto my path” (Ps 119:105).