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.