Here is the Missing Title to the Post on Sanctification…Again…

Well, here it is. I’m indebted to Pr. Surburg for his taking up the work to define and defend this discussion. I’ve not had the time or, frankly, interest in doing so.

What is the whole issue about? There are some very vocal and well-known people in the LCMS who believe that there is no room for true Christian exhortation in sermons without it being “Law.” So their sermons do not exhort at all, or if they do, they use exhortation to show what a lousy sin-bag you are and how much Jesus works in you. They rightly preach the passive righteousness of Christ, that is, Christ’s righteousness is ours by His grace, without any merit or worthiness in us, but also tend to preach a passive sanctification–that sanctification just “happens” by Christ in you, and you better not worry or think about it at all. They confuse the divine monergism of justification with the synergism of sanctification. When this is pointed out to them, they nod in agreement, because the Confessions admit we cooperate with the Holy Spirit in sanctification. But as soon as they are finished nodding and affirming the Formula, they immediately say, “But it is so unequal working that it might as well be passive.” It is a theology of denial, of passivity, and of hedonism which masquerades as some kind of True Lutheranism. It is a prideful, inbred, cannabalistic kind of theology which only reads history and the Fathers with a critical eye of rejection. God only knows how they read Ephesians. Or Philippians. Or the Sermon on the Mount, for that matter.

Well then. My rant is over–and illustrates well why I don’t have the patience to argue about this appropriately or calmly enough. But Mark Surburg does. Here are some choice sections from his latest. If you have interest in Lutheran theology or preaching at all, read the entire article.

But at the same time we are told that the preacher can’t control how the law strikes the hearer. The law always accuses and so we must assume that it will function in its second use for some, if not most, hearers. And so practically speaking there really is no third use of the law that the preacher can intentionally employ because we can never know that it will be used by the Spirit in this way.  We are left with an “agnostic use of the law,” and so are told that we should just preach law – which means we should speak in ways that are most commonly associated with the second use.  The third use of the law is confessed in principle, but functionally it is denied.  Ultimately, the agnostic use of the law ends up being the second use of the law because it is assumed that this is what the law really does.

Yet in fact, this approach stands contrary to the apostolic practice in Scripture and the position confessed in Formula of Concord article VI.  In addition, it does not withstand examination as a theological argument.  It should not be allowed to determine how we think about the law in the preaching task as Lutherans….

Instead [the Formula of Concord] describes the purposes of the third use of the law as being: 1) To prevent Christians from making up their own works (FC Ep. VI.4; SD VI.3, 20) 2) To compel the old man against his will to follow the Spirit and be led by it (FC Ep. VI.4, 7; FC SD VI.6, 9, 12, 19, 24). It says that the reason this use of the law is needed with baptized Christians is because of the old man is still present and battles against the new man (FC SD VI.18-19, 23-24). Like Paul in Ephesians, the goal described by FC VI is for the Gospel to produce the results of new obedience in the lives of Christians – for Christians to do certain things and to avoid other things….

The argument says:
1. We can’t decide how the Spirit is going to use the Law.
2. The Spirit can use the statement of admonition to show a person his sin.
3. For this reason we must assume that all admonition is second use of the law that shows a person his sin.

Now the first two points are absolutely true. However, the third one does not necessarily follow and in fact it runs contrary to apostolic practice.

The error of this approach can be illustrated by asking a question about the Gospel. When the pastor says, “Jesus died on the cross for your sins,” is this Law or Gospel? One must admit that it can be either. While clearly it is a very common way to express the Gospel, the statement can also strike a person as Law: it could make him realize that he is so sinful that the Son of God had to die for him. If we follow the argument above we could say:

1. We can’t decide how the Spirit is going to use Gospel statements.
2. The Spirit can use Gospel statements to show people their sin.
3. For this reason we must assume that all Gospel statements show people their sin.

Reclaiming Ascension

The Feast of the Ascension of our Lord Jesus Christ. That’s a big name for a big feast that nobody thinks about. But here’s the deal with the Ascension: it is so unbelievably significant for us as Christians because it reminds us why Jesus ain’t here. He’s reigning. He’s ruling. He’s with the Father present everywhere and filling all things. A Man is ruling at the Right Hand of the Father. A God gives His Body and Blood to us and never runs dry. He is ordering History and Time and everything for us, His Body, His people. This is what the Ascension teaches and confesses and celebrates.


Why is it not a bigger deal in our churches? Maybe because it’s always on a Thursday (40 days after Easter Sunday is always a Thursday). Maybe because we don’t have any grand traditions associated with it, apart from moving the Paschal Candle back to the font. Perhaps we can do better with this–not in creating traditions (inconceivable!), but in finding those that we have lost? The Catholic Encyclopedia tells us some traditions:

Certain customs were connected with the liturgy of this feast, such as the blessing of beans and grapes after the Commemoration of the Dead in the Canon of the Mass, the blessing of first fruits, afterwards done on Rogation Days, the blessing of a candle, the wearing of mitres by deacon and subdeacon, the extinction of the paschal candle, and triumphal processions with torches and banners outside the churches to commemorate the entry of Christ into heavenRock records the English custom of carrying at the head of the procession the banner bearing the device of the lion and at the foot the banner of the dragon, to symbolize the triumph of Christ in His ascension over the evil one. In some churches the scene of the Ascension was vividly reproduced by elevating the figure of Christ above the altar through an opening in the roof of the church. In others, whilst the figure of Christ was made to ascend, that of the devil was made to descend.

Some of these might translate to our Churches. Blessing seeds or the first sample cuts of the wheat harvest, for instance. Perhaps the procession outside of the church?

Or we can keep on the same course Lutherans have charted generations ago, going the way of minimalism and forget all these papistic trappings and celebrations and maybe even skip the Feast. Remember, however, that what you do not mark and note and incorporate into your worship gets forgotten and lost. When we worship as gnostics without processions and objects and signs, decrying the physical, we become gnostics in religion and faith.

It’s All Descriptive

Fr. Larry Beane posts this brilliant essay on our Lutheran Confessions and the Mass. I won’t rehash what he has written, but I do what to expand on his observation that the entirety of the Lutheran Confessions are descriptive and not prescriptive. Every article describes the Evangelical Catholics, Lutherans, the Subscribers, Confessors or whatever you want to call them. They describe and denote what we believe, teach, and confess. They are not rule books or Commandments.

Subscribe or not.

Make them descriptive of you and your Church or not. We have freedom to do so.

But explaining them away is not an option if they are supposed to be describing you. And they, if you’re Lutheran.