Grace and Peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ! Now why would we take a perfectly good Jewish prayer and add Jesus Christ to God? So the fear of God has an end. That is, we have not only God’s law, but his heart as bestowed to sinners in Christ Jesus. After all, as Paul said, you don’t change someone’s will after it has been ratified. Moses’ law came 430 years after the Last Will and Testament of Christ was given to Abraham, so Jesus Christ is no addition to God, the law is.
Well then why add grace to peace? To get shalom, we must be “delivered from the present evil age.” For this Christ cannot remain a mere example of the righteous life for you to imitate, but became a sacrament, that is, “he gave himself to us for our sins.”
This is the way Paul begins most every letter, with a declaration of the Gospel and the way that is distinguished from the law. After doing this, and declaring Christ Jesus the deliverer, Paul then immediately has to clear the decks of all foreign furniture accumulated in addition to Christ: “I am astounded that you are so quickly deserting Him! —turning to a different gospel. Not that there is another gospel!
So, I have been asked to do two things, neither of them possible in our short time, but the times demand addressing both the new ELCA document that asks the church to read Galatians (Free to Serve the Neighbor), and our Lutheran teaching regarding Scripture. In this light I consider the new ELCA document a cry for help. It needs to be put out of its misery as it searches for some meaning in Galatians for our present situation, and we ought to help supply it.
One would think that the discussion in the new document would be about vocations. So we would learn how to distinguish in matters of vocation and Christian life what it means to speak of moral deliberation using reason under the first use of the law. We would also expect a discussion of the particular responsibility of Christians (in their vocations) to remind the world of what it already knows regarding what makes for the procreation and preservation of life in the world. Once that had been done, we would learn the way to speak specifically about the Christian life and so the fruits of faith in such a way not to confuse it with what it means to be a good tree. We would expect to be reminded, as Lutherans should do, that fruits (what comes after) and what comes before justification in the preservation of life are in need of clear distinctions from what actually makes us righteous. So, when it comes to matters of controversy over what we are called to do for the sake of the neighbor, we would look for a description of the first use of the law. There we would learn reason rules. That Christians have no special moral code by which to run the country or world. That Christians nevertheless have a special responsibility to remind the present evil age about its own well being—written in their own hearts, but not often enough consulted. And we would learn that all people work this out primarily in their callings in life, not in shabby church basement meetings called for the purpose of moral deliberation. Then we would also expect a discussion about Christians specifically, and so the matter of the fruits of the Spirit. Here we would learn again that the Christian life is hid with Christ (Colossians). Here the Christian in the specific, eschatological sense functions lawlessly, freely. But this does not mean making one’s flesh the basis of Satan’s operation, or as Paul says, an opportunity for the Flesh. The freedom is freely to suffer—for the neighbor’s need, not their wild desires. With this comes a peace that passes understanding in the old evil world. Now if you can’t keep what precedes justification and what follows it away from what justifies, then all sorts of problems results. A good tree produces good fruit, good fruit does not produce a good tree. Preparations for the gospel may be a good thing, but do not justify. Much could come of a discussion like this.
Instead, we find in the ELCA document that all these careful distinctions (that we usually call “Lutheran”)—vocation, first use of the law, fruits of faith, living the Christian life-- are constantly confused just like they are in the general conversations regarding sexuality and the like. So this blue ribbon committee serves to prime the pump for our latest neologism: “moral deliberation” in every church and congregation. And for this purpose they decided to teach us all the discarded anthropological principles of cultural relativity—all species develop somewhat differently in different habitats. Then they ask us to believe that using the Bible is like putting on different pairs of glasses (lenses), that give you a different view each time you look. They, depending upon which glasses you have on (traditional or progressive) you can then ask the Bible any question you want to pose. Thus they teach us that the Bible is like the old magic eighth ball that you shake up and receive an answer to your query: Do you have anything to say about sex? Not likely! Can you help me with my neighbor? Ask again later! The conclusion of this mess that they imply we ought to draw, is that differences over secondary matters (ethics) are never such that the church can be divided over them. Thus, first they teach us diversity, then they teach us unity—all in one fantastic breath.
Who has bewitched you? Diversity is not the Gospel. Neither is Unity. Christ alone is, and he cannot be made into a culture or a lens or an experience or an idea. So there is a much more pressing problem than dealing with current ethical tangles, and we have the document committee to thank for at least bringing the main matter to light when they put their conversation in terms of reading Paul’s letter to the Galatians. Before we can talk about using human reason and speaking of the fruits of faith in matters of our daily lives we have to take up the problem of what the Gospel is since this is now up for grabs.
Who thought this would be an issue for Lutherans? But Paul thought the same thing about the Galatians: Who has bewitched you! Who would have thought, having been given the freedom of the gospel you would so quickly go back to the law? This issue we are having to deal with now is not what this document leads you to believe that differences of opinion are all about secondary problems. We just have a slight difference in hermeneutics, perhaps different lenses, and so some say this, some say that. Would that the current matters regarding Scripture and sexuality remained secondary problems, but they have a habit of pushing up into the conscience where they don’t belong. Paul laid the problem bare in the churches of Galatia when he said, the real problem is not a disagreement about different initiation styles, or for that matter on how you stay in the group of Christians once you have entered, the real problem is coming under sway of a cosmic power bigger than your little free will can handle. Paul call this power Flesh, and the only way out is by The Spirit (Gal 5). This committee writing its responses to various experiences of law in the world on behalf of the whole ELCA has gotten itself in over, and they have the whirlwind to reap now. The Flesh is a cosmic power ruling over you and me in this evil word. It is an “above” problem, not an “in” problem. The Spirit is a cosmic power as well, but of a brand new kingdom, and when this Spirit rules the old has come to an end.
The question is how do you get the Spirit to overcome the Flesh? Can you coax the Spirit, entice or even demand the Spirit on the basis of righteous deeds of the law? Can you transport yourself from one kingdom to the other as if switching teams? Can you get out of a bad community into a good one by follow the higher principles of the law, say the law of tolerance or unity? Can you just put on a different pair of lenses? Or perhaps expand your cultural horizons to include people unlike yourselves? Can you get it by coaxing out righteous deeds for a whole community rather than dealing only with individuals? Can you get Spirit by building a better spirit-led community? By getting a gift which you then must accept or receive? Or by a justification that is the beginning of a process that you need to complete, with grace no doubt?
The answer is not to all of these. You get the Spirit the same way Abraham got it, that is by a promise in the form of an external word that comes to us by a preacher sent by God. True spirit does not come by human tradition or culture, but by divine institution, that is through preaching the two words of law and gospel.
For now, we are placed under a custodian, guardian or disciplinarian. We may not like it, but this harsh teacher keeps us alive and in readiness for the hearing of the Gospel. Even though the law treats you as a slave for now, you are an heir nevertheless. Paul tells us that regarding the new kingdom of Christ and your inheritance in it, it is as if you are under age and can’t yet get the inheritance yet --except in the form of a definite, specific, certain promise. That is, until God sent forth his Son, born of a woman, born under the law. Then he sent an apostle, and finally the preacher of the apostolic promise that we call the gospel—and this preacher gives faith! So Galatians 3 distinguishes between two times for you: “Before faith came….[and] Now that faith has come…” This is no less than a change of Lords, of Rulers and so of Kingdoms. You are moved from the one to the other not by moral transformation but transferred, translated in such a way that you are put to death as the old and raised up as the new. In this way, and only this way, Flesh is defeated and the Holy Spirit reigns, not only in the world, but in you.
Now right at this point there is a longstanding fight among Lutherans about what happens to the law once the gospel has arrived. This intra-Lutheran struggle is played out in this new, eclectic ELCA document without clarity or resolution. What you get is a little of this, a little of that. Here and there a great confession of faith, and then a series of awful description of our situation before God and in relation to others. In part this comes because of our long unresolved confusion over what precisely is the Gospel and what is does with sinners. One side among Lutherans has particularly enjoyed the humanistic impulse and gives us the following theology:
The other side of this Lutheran fight has taken as its center the Cross or Word, which does make an appearance in this ELCA document, nearly for the first time in this discussion as far as I can tell. But it is served up only as one option at the smorgasbord of theologies. For these,
You people here at Word Alone are to be witnesses for the latter group, and so you speak of Scripture thus:
So when I say to you—“Grace to you and peace from God the Father and our Lord Jesus Christ, who gave himself for our sins to deliver us from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father; to whom be the glory for ever and ever. Amen. I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and turning to a different gospel—not that there is another gospel, but there are some who trouble you and want to pervert the gospel of Christ. But even if we, or an angel from heaven, should preach to you a gospel contrary to that which we preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again, If any one is preaching to you a gospel contrary to that which you received, let him be accursed!” (Galatians 1:3-9)—you know what this means: Sin prefers another gospel. But there is no other Gospel. What is the Gospel then? It is the story of Christ, that he is the Son of God, became a man, suffer and died at the hands of sinners, was raised from the dead, and sits at the right hand of the Father ruling a new kingdom and judging the old. That is, in the Cross Jesus defeated death, devil and our own sinful self, and now seeks to bring this benefit to you—to do this he sends a preacher, who uses word and sacrament. Paul takes us through this in Galatians this way:
For I, through the law, died to the law. Why then the law? The law was added because of transgressions. Is the law then against the promises? By no means! But Scripture consigned all things to sin—in order to give what was promised to faith in Christ.
Is this somehow not any longer our teaching? Unfortunately your new ELCA document leaves you with a series of contrary inferences or suggestions about Scripture and its authority instead:
The conclusion of this sort of thing is to say, in light of all the confusion about sexual experiences and Scripture’s words we must appoint a committee that represents the various teachings in the ELCA and thus deliberates about all the various experiences and comes to some conclusion. The conclusion they reach is clear enough: we disagree about how the law treats mattes of sexuality. Then, they conclude from this that only disagreements about the Gospel are church dividing—not disagreements about the law. This last statement is true enough. But the committee, after all its deliberations, assumed that all we have is a disagreement about the law regarding sex practices or “identities.” (p. 15). This itself would be problem enough, I suppose, but unfortunately what we really have operating here as shown in their treatment of Galatians is that we have an actual disagreement about the gospel. At the very least we can be thankful to the committee and its hardworking members for concluding one thing: everyone in the ELCA (and beyond) should sit down and read Paul’s letter to the Galatians.
The committee has been taken up into something beyond its own control. The great humanistic impulse swirling around the early Reformers would not rest with its refreshing reforms of catholic Christianity, it is now being used, mostly through its Bible exegetes, to tell you that “Luther’s interpretation of Paul” is simply wrong. This is a sideways way of saying something worse: the distinction of law and gospel is false. If this were only a matter of criticizing Luther, it would remain in the halls of universities where it couldn’t do much harm, but this attack has spilled out all over. It amounts to telling the Holy Spirit that His work is over and done with it, and we can take it from here. This we cannot abide, and unless we lay it bare the ELCA will continue to blunder as it enters its new commitment to read Scripture.1
The new proposal (that is not really new) coming from Biblical experts that has bewitched so many Lutherans today is this: The Gospel is not justification of the ungodly as forgiveness of sins on account of Christ’s cross. Instead, Gospel is a matter of whether Christianity as a religion, or “the church” is exclusive or inclusive. This comes out of a problem that emerged immediately in the Reformation itself in the person of Zwingli, and is called today “Covenant Theology.” For adherents to this theory, Gospel concerns who is in and who is out of the community of true believers. Therefore justification is really a matter of “church” not Christ and his cross. One of the favorite playgrounds for this theory is Paul’s letter to the Galatians, which they then interpret very differently than Lutherans have. They say that circumcision was purportedly not about adding a law to the gospel, who is Christ alone. It was rather about who gets entrance into the covenant of Israel or not. They key words for “gospel” are then “access” and “inclusion.” Put bluntly: Gospel is gaining access to church. The church is a covenant community whose main concerns are who is included and who excluded. Anyone who presents a barrier to another’s full inclusion or refuses welcome into the church, is therefore opposed to the Gospel by this very act or deed.
Just think of it. This rejection of aw and gospel replaces Christ with a new Gospel described as full, unrestricted, unobstructed, unlimited, free, limitless acceptance. When this is achieved the communal effect is to celebrate. But there is a problem hovering over this joyous description. Eventually this group that speaks endlessly about community and togetherness, loses interest in actual inclusion into the particular group called Christian church, not because it loses interest in inclusion, but it loses interest in the particular group assembled by Christ’s word. After all, what do you do when you invite and welcome someone into the church and they don’t want to come in? Well, you accept that too! You accept self-selected non acceptance so that all are ratified in their own selections of where they want to be. So ends the glorious proclamation of the Gospel in the empty and vapid world of “acceptance.”. The mission of inclusion is a short-lived mission though as we see, it can be very demanding and forceful for a short time. It is shameful to me that these kinds of people are more fervent than I when it comes to preaching “their Gospel.”
But Paul was right when this began to happen in the churches of Galatia. There is no other Gospel than preaching Christ and him crucified. Acceptance into the group simply equates law and love in the form of acceptance. The law is then divided up into two types, bad and good. Bad law means restricted access—and the main example given is the Jews, who only allowed certain people going through certain covenant rituals like circumcision to come in—this is why the Jews had a good community, but were faulty in terms of fulfilling the whole law, because they restricted access to the Torah, or those elected by God giving them the law.
On the other hand, good law means unrestricted access to the community shaped by the law of love. After all, why would Gentiles want access to the community of Jews, who are otherwise isolating themselves? Because the Jews are God’s elect! But what does it mean to be elect? It means God gave the Jews a covenant law, with the sign of circumcision. What is so good about the law? It is summed up in one word: LOVE.
What has happened here in this little theological experiment? The Gospel = unrestricted inclusion = welcome = entrance = church = community of loving, accepting people = law (after all, the law is summed up in one word: Love). This is the problem with attacking the proper distinction between law and Gospel. There is no other Gospel! Then what happens to the new proposal? The Gospel is mistaken for the Law!
This is a very old problem, which Paul is dealing with in Galatia. Its symptoms are these:
Americans, like the old Galatians, have been especially susceptible to this way of thinking. Thomas Jefferson tried it this way: Moses was good because he taught people to love. But he only applied it to one tribe, the Jews. Jesus is better than Moses because he taught that the law should be applied lovingly and universally to all people—that is, Jesus universalized the law! My what have we come to? In this way of thinking the law is not a problem because of what it demands: it simply has been too exclusively applied to too few. The law among Jews became exclusive. The solution is Christ, who applies the law to everyone. Isn’t this what Paul meant when he said, “For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: “you shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Gal 5: 14). I wish I didn’t have to go any further, but this bewitching theory has become the regular option for most everyone today, including our own Lutherans. We have to watch the series of things that happen once Gospel becomes Law.
This group wants to convince you, that if you take up the issue of sexuality in relation to the law ( instead of their newly minted description of the gospel), then you are the false apostles adding “old law” to the open, accepting Gospel. You are circumcisers. But this group is the modern pseudo Apostoloi, pure enthusiasts, adding to Jesus Christ and his cross the proposition of another gospel: one, universal law of love that makes us into accepting acceptors who accept our own unacceptability and that of others. Is this who Christ has become? They have, in the words of 1 Timothy, 1:19, “made shipwreck of their faith.” In the end, they are Gnostic, anti-creation idealists, seeking a utopia on earth that is hostile to the entire first article of your creed, then reduces Christ to a new Moses, an example, rejecting the crucified, and becoming pure spiritualists—enthusiasts--who attempt to make of the Gospel a vision of the church as a covenant community of accepting acceptors. They become a social contract theory.
Who has bewitched you! Who wants to make of the Gospel a Law? Who wants to make the church, and its entrance rites, that is baptism, into an act of acceptance into the group of holy? It is not this or that misguided individual or poor exegete who has done this—it is the cosmic and humanly undefeatable power Paul simply calls—Flesh. But the Spirit, in whom we must and will walk—does not raise up carpers, people poking away at the preachers of the Gospel, people who “agree to disagree” on this matter of biblical interpretation. The Holy Spirit does not create a community of dissension made up of people of multiple cultures who nevertheless have learned how to be cultural relativists--as if that were the gospel! This finally will be of no help to a troubled conscience of any sort, and so we ought to have true compassion and love for people in great difficulty. There is only one remedy to being bound in sin and that is the forgiveness of sins on account of Christ. Justification by faith alone.
These folks have been proposing that true freedom is freedom from the natural law since at least the time of Hegel, but Hegel at least had the good sense to make the state the institution of God that would provide the necessary cohesion of love in the form of new laws that truly included the disparate individuals who wandered lost in life. The church doesn’t even have this much sense any longer. They have decided that what really keeps them from being free is some outside imposition on the will that can and must be removed. Specifically they have zeroed in on the natural law as the root of their problems. Instead listen to Luther in his Galatians Commentary on Gal. 5:14 (“whole law is summed up…”)
All people have a certain natural knowledge implanted in their minds (Rom 2), by which they know naturally that one should do to others what one wants done to one’s self. This principle and others like it, which we call the law of nature, are the foundation of human law and of all good works. Nevertheless, human reason is so corrupted and blinded by the malice of the devil that it does not understand this inborn knowledge, or, even if it has been admonished by the Word of God, it deliberately neglects and despises it….In addition, the human reason and flesh, which resists the Spirit in the saints (in the wicked, of course, it has dominant control), is naturally afflicted with Pharisaic superstitions and, as Ps. 4:2 says, ‘loves vain words and seeks after lies’; that is, it would prefer to measure God by its own theories rather than by His Word and is far more ardent about doing works that it itself has chosen than about doing those that God commands.3
And further: “The whole world…cannot estimate the value of even one tiny truly good work, because it does not measure works or anything else on the basis of the Word of God but on the basis of a reason that is wicked, blind, and foolish.”10
The sinner’s preference is always for “self-chosen works.” But since it has become rather evident that the State or government is not up to this task as Hegel and the Germans once dreamed, an even worst suggestion is floating out there that the community of the church in its imaginary act of “moral deliberation” in the form of church basement meetings pouring over this ELCA material or in blue ribbon committees of the finest theologians known to the church like the one that produced this material (with all good intention!), is able to supply the new, creative structures needed for the Christian life lived in Christ’s new kingdom is frightening. And on what basis do they make this claim? They direct us to their rallying cry: “The Spirit is doing a new thing!” So, like a true spiritualist they say, “We have a new law, better than the Creator could accomplish the first time around, based on a new gospel that will get outsiders to become insiders and so grow the church.” Beware of such superstitious, religious sounding good works.
Since this is not the Gospel What do we teach, then? What is the Gospel? What does the Law do? The basic argument of Galatians goes like this.
Of course these assertions have been difficult to hold, teach and confess, since the devil himself dislikes them immensely, and our old sinful self fights against its death with every ounce of effort. Unless we become clear about what has happened in this church to the understanding of such a basic letter as Paul’s to the Galatians, we will not make any headway regarding how to live together as sinners redeemed by Christ himself and alone by no other way than the cross itself. Bewitchment means we were caught off guard. We didn’t understand that this was happening, until one day it showed up with all the trappings of something that looks like official teaching of the church. It sounds pious. It sounds religious. It sounds like Gospel.
But the Gospel of Christ crucified is our only authority, and by it we are truly freed for freedom, no less, not for some other lofty sounding goal—even so great as “the neighbor.” You can be assured that good works will come, and they will not be for you, they will in fact be for the neighbor, but this is not your new religious goal in life. Spiritualism is always a terribly slippery eel to fight, but there is no other Gospel to run to, and the one we have is so precious that we don’t have to go looking elsewhere. With such freedom comes boldness to say no to such confusion that we are receiving in the mail. So even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a contrary gospel than what we proclaimed to you, let that one be accursed!
In his own commentary on Galatians, Luther noted that “It is difficult and dangerous to teach that we are justified by faith without works and yet to require works at the same time. Unless the ministers of Christ are faithful and prudent …who rightly distinguish the Word of truth (2 Tim 2:15), they will immediately confuse faith and love at this point. Both topics, faith and works, must be carefully taught and emphasized, but in such a way that they both remain within their limits.”11
When the Gospel is clear, then also works become clear: “I come forth into another kingdom, and I perform good works whenever the opportunity arises.” Here there are a whole series of offices that open up opportunity to the neighbor like preacher, parent, politician, and servant. Here one can even speak of obedience, submission (but only after one has refused any submission to the Law). Obedience is a result of the Gospel, it is not the Gospel, even in Christ. Here no better command is given than “Love your neighbor as yourself.” The pattern to follow is not a book of laws, but what you do when loving yourself. Luther reminds us that the loveliest of all books about laws is right in your own heart. The subject of love is set: my neighbor (a most lovable object indeed), and nothing better can be done in this old world than love since “it is neither called forth by anything that someone deserves nor deterred by what is undeserving and ungrateful.”
One of the greatest acts of love is “teaching the erring; comforting the afflicted; encouraging the weak; …bearing with his rude manners and impoliteness; putting up with annoyances, labors, and the ingratitude and contempt of men in both church and state…etc.”12 This should not become mere ideas or values like acceptance, so that we lose our Christ, and our neighbor, and have only the cold words of the law in “letters and syllables.” Jesus says to us: “persevere in the doctrine of faith, which you have received from me. Afterwards, if you want to do good works, I will show you in one word the highest and greatest works, and the way to keep all the laws: …love.”13
This is the shortest and longest theology at once: shortest in words: faith, then love. It is the longest in practice, since it is wider, longer, deeper and higher than the whole world. That means, there will be plenty for you to do.
But here Paul gives a caution: “if you bite and devour one another, take heed that you are not consumed by one another! (Gal 5:15). Remember the source of schism is not God’s word of law regarding sexuality; it is the attempt to make another gospel. And that we must teach against. “The commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbor’ makes the same requirement, namely, that you not submit to your flesh…” One does not come without the other. Loving neighbor is not done by submitting to Flesh. If you remember that much you will have enough to pierce through this bewitchment that has grabbed hold of the church.
Steven D. Paulson, Easter, 2007
1 The main figure for this rejection of Luther and new approach to Paul (not new at all) is E. P. Sanders in a book like Paul and Palestinian Judaism but it now includes most of the Biblical experts’ guild. This is not the fault of historical critical method, but is the fault of bad theology and the Flesh.
2 ELCA document, Free, 103 note i, David Tiede writes about Paul’s statement “no male and female”: “The first pairs are contrasts (“no longer Jew or Greek … slave or free), and the last pair echoes and overturns the orders of creation in Genesis 1:27 (“no longer male and female”) because in Christ Jesus, God has made a new creation according to God’s promises, not God’s rules. This witness drives to the root of the changes in everything God inaugurated in Jesus.” At the root of the Gospel is then, according to this theory, getting rid of what he calls “orders of creation.” But of course this means that new orders take their place, since we are not talking about Christ any longer.
3 LW 27:53-4.
4 Ibid., 56.
5 LW 27:63.
6 Ibid. 56.
7 Ibid. 59.
8 Ibid. 67.
10 Ibid., 56.
11 LW 27:63.
12 Ibid. 56.
13 Ibid. 59.