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What's at stake?

Steven D. Paulson (Professor, Luther Seminary)

November 13, 2002

photo of Dr. Paulson

Dr. Steven Paulson

“This is our theology,” Luther lectured his students at Wittenberg at the introduction of his great work on Galatians, “by which we teach a precise distinction between these two kinds of righteousness, the active and the passive, so that morality and faith, works and grace, secular society and religion may not be confused. Both are necessary, but both must be kept within their limits.” Sometimes this has been shortened to the doctrine of justification by faith alone. Your job, Luther taught his students, who were preparing to become public “instructors of consciences,” was by study, reading, meditation, and prayer that you would be ready in the time of temptation to “take [those experiencing confusion between one righteousness and another] …from the Law to grace, from active righteousness to passive righteousness, in short, from Moses to Christ” (10). After all, as Luther matter-of-factly warned his students: “if the doctrine of justification is lost, the whole of Christian doctrine is lost. And those in the world who do not teach it are either Jews, or Turks or papists or sectarians.” This is not name-calling by Luther. It is a simple description of what a confusion of law and gospel actually does in the lives of churches and individuals. “There is no middle ground.”

The ELCA has taken upon itself the task of searching for middle ground according to its vision of ecumenism by which we are to overcome divisions based on historical misunderstandings, broaden inclusiveness and fill the urgent need for social justice. Healing Christ’s wounds is a big undertaking, even for a church as religious as the ELCA. After all, it took no less than the Father to raise Jesus Christ from the dead by the Spirit, and even then, Christ’s wounds showed to Thomas. Nevertheless, the ELCA is on a mission. But since there is no middle ground, as Luther put it, the church constantly swings wildly between the two extremes of legalism—enforcing its will through ever greater power plays, especially emanating from its evolving forms of Episcopal authority-- and at the same time the ELCA stretches to the other extreme of antinomianism in taking up the mantle of absolving persons engaged in homosexual acts--not by its word of unconditional forgiveness via the office of the keys, but by majority vote as to whether we should consider such acts vices or virtues, i.e., by its imaginary power of moral deliberation.


To get a picture of this wild enterprise we are on in the church, I find myself turning to the story of David and his son Absalom. Absalom was a man on a mission, seeking justice for his Father’s error in judgment—an error that led to the rape and rejection of Absalom’s sister Tamar. It is also the story of, David, whose love for his recalcitrant sons knew no bounds. But it is finally the story of God--again using both the law and the gospel (each in its proper place)-- to make of David one who can only live by God’s forgiveness. God was practicing the art of law and gospel with David, and with Absalom for that matter, and we ought again to exercise our work as good dialecticians to help identify what it is that we as a church ought to be about doing, can do, are free to do, rather than simply ruling over and administering our own demise as a Lutheran church.

Where are we then, in the ELCA? Just precisely where the twisted combination of legalism and anti-legalism leaves a group or a person, hanging, as it were by the head, with all that beautiful hair, our feet not touching the ground where the law actually belongs, and our head not quite in heaven, where our faith rests outside ourselves in Jesus Christ alone. Our church, or our part of the church, if you like, has hung itself between heaven and earth while on a mission of justice. Swinging like a wild, uncontrollable pendulum between the works-righteous and the antinomians—between one form of enthusiasm embodied by the papacy and the other embodied by self-appointed spiritual prophets. We have become a class of “Absalomites,” as Luther once called them. Questing after righteousness like a blind crusader, but ending with God’s own righteous judgment upon us. Just like God did with David, so he will do with you and me—make us a crushed, weeping, pathetic Father who has no refuge than to return to God’s puny-sounding word of promise: on account of Christ’s cross alone your sins are forgiven--not imputed…forgotten…ignored.

Preaching on New Year’s Day from Galatians 3 Luther declared: “It is now plain to whom Paul addresses the words of this verse—the work-righteous, who would become godly through the Law and its work, who consider the first office of the Law sufficiently effective to make them righteous. This doctrine gives rise to a class who might be styled “Absalomites.” For as Absalom remained hanging by his head, in an oak tree, suspended between heaven and earth (2 Sam 18, 9), so this class hang between heaven and earth. Shut up by the Law, they do not touch the earth; they are restrained from the things their evil nature ardently desires. On the other hand, since the Law, powerless to improve their nature, only irritates and provokes it, making them enemies to the Law, they are not godly and so do not reach heaven.”[1]1

So it was for David--A much-loved son with the promise of the future ended as his bitter disappointment, and his hope would have to travel through great agony to get back to God’s word of forgiveness alone. This can happen to a church group, I warrant, as it happened to David, and this is the one hope for the ELCA. In the meantime, where are the Lutherans now, making the public confession as the Reformers did, as the Marburgers once did, as the Concordists did? Well, it should not surprise you that you and I are right where we should be, between a rock and a hard place, Scylla and Charybdis, between the shrill cry of obedience to church authority on the one side and the fiction of antinomiansim that puts on a play in an empty theater on the other, between the enthusiasm of Rome and the enthusiasm of antinomianism on the other.

It should be no surprise for any of you that the art of distinguishing law and gospel, the doctrine of justification itself, is under attack by those who would be its keeper and its “handlers.” Currently confusion of law and gospel is being offered up by the demands in the Lutheran church of a new ecclesiology, a theory of the church. What church is is something that Lutherans had agreed upon clearly and dispensed with as a on-issue—church is whatever happens when God’s word is preached. We even know what that something is: a group of believers is created by that word, sinners in themselves, righteous in Christ alone.

Instead of this clear confession, we are now being fed confusion. We are told by some of our biggest theologians and bishops that the church ensures the gospel. We have come to accept a whole series of contrived slogans, which when repeated often enough become a new, replacement confession. Lutherans, we are told, are a reforming movement within the church Catholic. We want nothing more than to purify the Western church, perhaps with a good dose of Byzantine theology as well. We are told Lutherans need a new church definition, since theirs is lacking, small or non-existent. We are told that the Lutherans of the sixteenth century were caught in an emergency situation and had to adopt temporary measures for church order they never intended to keep. We are told that the body of Christ is currently being wounded by denominationalism or confessionalism, and that we can actually heal those wounds if we agree on church order. Imagine being Christ’s physician. Here is your big chance! We are told that until this happens we don’t have “full communion.” We are told the church is a sacrament, that it is needed to give the gospel continuity and reality in history, that it is not only the mother of Christians, but of the Word itself. So we are informed by a new class of Absalomites that a church without authority to create ongoing revelation is no church at all. Or that once the church was whole, united and pure (at least on Pentecost), or maybe all the way through the first seven ecumenical councils, but now in the Reformation it fell into brokenness and sin. We are told that Christ is great, but the Holy Spirit is even better!

At the same time, we find people suggesting that the church is the location of moral deliberation so that what once was considered sinful need not be in a more enlightened, loving age. Aren’t Christians able to make their own decalog if they want? My seminary students look around them and see their teachers disagreeing on the most basic issues, and assume—everything must be a matter of taste! Whatever your belly wants, so do. Especially we are now having our minds straightened out about people who have different life-styles than the old traditional norm, and that love is precisely not using absolution or forgiveness, the one authority the church has been given in this old world. Never mind Luther’s prophecy: “it is characteristic of love to be deceived.”2

As usual we find ourselves between two enthusiasms: the massive subjectivity of the papacy as the means to demand obedience, or the swarming mass of the fanatic prophets with their pugnacious demands to be heard as the Spirit’s new mouthpiece. There we are between legalists and fanatics, all leading us out of the desert and back to Moses, in ever improved forms--as if a toothless Moses were our true freedom from what holds us back. But what we need is not a better Moses, but a Savior.

Luther's legacy

A generation ago, Ernst Wolf wrote a review of his day’s Lutheran church in Germany called “Luther’s Erbe?” What is Luther’s heritage and how have we handled it? Wolf gave a distressing and dismal review of what Germans had then done with Luther’s legacy. They squandered it, awash in totalitarianism and obedience on one hand, and the Liberal theology of “the Fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man” on the other.

If we pause for a moment to ask how it is today with Luther’s inheritance, I must say it appears a dismal scene. We have been wrong in the ELCA about key, theological matters, and are now reaping what was sowed. We have been wrong regarding the nature of our agreement with the self-named ecumenical movement, as it proposed stages of “visible unity,” with the goal of “full communion” in the ELCA statement of its vision regarding ecumenical policy. Can Melanchthon have been any clearer—that our confession refuses to make the church an ideal, Platonic Republic?

We have been wrong in letting church orders for ministry take over the center of theology, and so the definition of church has become the center of all we survey. Order, not faith dominates theology. Church, not justification rules. This has spawned a serious of troubles including our current process of defining episcopacy as something other than a human tradition within the greater office of ministry. The confusion over ordination is now being bred into the bones of the next generations—on one side threatening and on the other seducing seminary students into going along with what the church officials want.

We have become so confused about law and gospel that we hardly made a sound when the Lutheran World Federation celebrated a statement of agreement with Roman Catholics concerning the chief article, justification that could not distinguish the Lutheran confession from Augustine, Aquinas, or for any of the great syntheses of grace and work. Presently we are preparing to reap the harvest of a false employment of the historical-critical method as the means of interpreting Scripture. This has been a long-standing problem-as everyone knows--that has led Lutherans either to reject this method outright as the only way to protect gospel, or to appropriate it for our own purposes--attempting to remove the sting of the law by its facile formula—“that was then, this is now.” In particular we are trying to absolve homosexuality by promising to utter no word at all about it, except perhaps the masquerade of selling people what we call now “a blessing,” as if we had a great treasure of that good stuff, whatever it is, called “blessing,” to dole out as church people see fit. But the law does not lose its sting so easily. Quite to the contrary, as Ernst Kasemann once noted, the historical critical method of interpretation is necessary for us, but only as a theology of the cross, not the means by which to vindicate ourselves and others against God by demanding: why have you made me thus!

An Achilles Heel

The Lutheran Confessions and Luther’s heritage has had a long-standing Achilles heel in the freedom regarding liturgies for worship. Once this was exploited, especially in the re-introduction of the Eucharistic Prayer in the new form given it by the last century’s liturgical movement, it became harder and harder for pastors to distinguish law and gospel, prayer and proclamation—so eventually they understandably confuse absolution and blessing. This also led to a misleading agreement among Protestants regarding the understanding of the Lord’s Supper that at least had the benefit of imposing nothing and doing little. We have therefore failed to witness to the specific word that alone puts the old sinner to death and raises the new to life by faith alone by Christ alone: “This is my body… My blood, given for you.” We no longer hear that Christ there makes his promise to you, his testament to his betrayers. Even our appeals, following some of our favorite theologians, of “the Trinity this,” and “the Trinity that,” and Christ is the head, albeit absent, of the church his body--and obedience and spiritual discipline is the thing! All these have all conspired to return us to the confusion of law and gospel that the Devil loves—and we Lutherans most of all should know that when they are confused, however religious sounding, it is not the law that is lost, but the gospel.


Since the devil hides in the details, when I consider the source of these troubles that now make Lutherans the chief purveyors of confusion over law and gospel, I would point to our confessional problem par excellence and our only solution to it. We have made our confession a wax nose, bending it to our desires for power within us, shaping it rather than letting the word of God (to which our confession points) shape us. The great culprit for this confusion is a misuse of the notion of adiaphora that finally brings all arguments in the ELCA down to one thing: it doesn’t really matter as long as Jesus Christ, faith and grace are somehow piously named in the equation. From the Lutheran side, many seem to cave in whenever another party in the church comes to us with a demand for how the church is structured, how ordination is shaped, how the law demands obedience in order to receive our justification. Our Lutheran confession has tried to be clear about the limits of this idea in The Formula of Concord, article 10, but when adiaphora (originally a pagan, Stoic notion) is unlinked from justification by faith alone, and the crucial distinction between law and gospel, it is like a creeping cancer once it becomes the vehicle for confusing law and gospel. Instead of strengthening our resolve to keep what is necessary, it is twisted to convince all of us that every demand for church order can be accepted by love since it is always sold as something that will help our faith, not undermine it.

But we must learn to distinguish properly between faith and love. We must learn to know when we are speaking about the article of faith, justification of the ungodly on account of Christ’s death for the forgiveness of sin. We must learn again how to refuse making all things adiaphora, indifferent matters. How absurd that the limit of satis est could be understood as a floor but not a ceiling. That CA 7’s “It is not necessary” has somehow become “not sufficient.” How absurd that the Episcopalian requirement of ordination in its understanding of historic episcopacy would be mandated and enforced for church unity—except possibly for individuals who have a bothered conscience somehow? That for them we give an “exceptional” ordination that cannot have equal status in this current church arrangement. How absurd that the teaching of justification get reduced to a misunderstanding in the 16th century, sold to us as a case of different uses of language while meaning the same thing—Aquinas and Luther meant the same thing on faith and love! As far as I can tell, all of these fictions have been authorized by a contorted use of the Lutheran Confessions themselves. That we could do things this way or that-- that it doesn’t matter, and since it doesn’t matter, why not just agree? The ELCA has become the theological party of adiaphora. But when law and gospel can no longer be distinguished, everything is adiaphora, an indifferent matter, except requirements of church order and its form of ordination into the ministry! The only reason that church officials resign in protest is because church order in the form of Episcopal ordination was not followed.

Thus we truly do have what some have called a crisis regarding the Lutheran Confession. We think we have middle ground while we hang by the head. And we are no earthly good to anyone’s vocation, and no heavenly good to sin-sick souls, since forgiving sins can be bypassed with a little moral deliberation and a democratic vote or two. All discussions of adiaphora in our church must make the necessary and clear distinction between that which alone is necessary for the being of the church—the gospel given by proclamation and the sacraments—and that which cannot be imposed or required for church unity or any other grand design in the form of human tradition. In our circumstance, adiaphora and that which alone is necessary have been exactly and precisely reversed—while casting the illusion that all its arguments were Biblical, and strictly confessional. The devil himself could not have done better to remove the gospel. That is why we say in our “Admonition for the sake of the True Peace and Unity of the Church” that the distinction between that which is necessary and that which is not necessary in the church must be absolutely clear—both in teaching and practice. “If any “indifferent” element is made a condition for the being, the apostolicity or the unity of the church, this distinction is blurred. Thus, Christian freedom…is destroyed, and the Lordship of Jesus Christ over His Church is compromised. We submit our admonition to the church, in part to return our church to its clear distinction between necessary and not necessary that have become so confused.


Hand-in-hand with the false use of the confused adiaphora defense for any confessional change church authorities want goes the occasional Lutheran refusal to resist authority. Any resistance gets labeled schismatic, uncooperative, non-ecumenical and a list of further vices meant to scare pastors and lay people straight. Too many of us have obliged by becoming schismatic, doing the American thing of leaving to open shop elsewhere. Once again, like the old Lutherans Flacius and Amsdorf & Co., we will have to develop our theology of faithful resistance in this church. That means not only resisting political leaders when they are not fulfilling their calling to an office made by God, we have gotten quite good that that, but resisting church authority that has lost the exclusive particles of faith, Christ alone, faith alone, word alone, because it can no longer distinguish law and gospel.

The hardest part, for me at least, of resistance to false teaching in the church is to teach others to resist, knowing full well that it will mean suffering on their part for the sake of the clear preaching of the gospel. Especially this is hard for those who are most vulnerable, lay people in their parishes and young seminary graduates who need to be called to their first church. Nevertheless, my students, now ordained pastors--”exceptionally”-- like Daniel Shaw and Matthew Kuempel, are usually the ones who stiffen my own resolve, and thank God for them. They have become confessors for the church.

The examples could be multiplied, unfortunately, of our bumbling and selling our confessional heritage for pottage. But we certainly have a condition now in which our very best and brightest young theologians must quickly become the confessors in and to the church. They are already facing the same form of temptation Luther himself faced throughout his life: “Are you the only one who knows? Will you not be a team player? Will you continue to add wounds to the body of Christ? By resisting this temptation for the sake of the gospel, they carry the church, or at least a part of it, by suffering for a public confession that we Lutherans are, after all, supposed to confess together. And if they cannot survive, as Luther liked to say, at times Christ’s church has consisted of only baptized infants.

Despair and Joy

Now, having said all that, I’m not worried. I might despair of our cause-- If it were not that our confessions’ great contribution to the church is the locus of faith. The Lord said, after all, that he would dwell in the thick darkness (1 Kings 8:12) So, Luther wrote to Brück: “Our rainbow is frail and their clouds are mighty, but it will appear in the end to whose tune we shall dance.” [3] Likewise to Melanchthon, June 27, 1530, two days after the reading of the Augsburg Confession. “Great though our cause is, its Author and Champion is also great, for the cause is not ours…. I for my part am not very much troubled about our cause. Indeed, I am more hopeful than I expected to be. God, who is able to raise the dead, is also able to uphold his cause when it is falling, or to raise it up again when it has fallen, or to move it forward when it is standing. If we are not worthy instruments to accomplish his purpose, he will find others. If we are not strengthened by his promises, where in all the world are the people to whom these promises apply?”

So, knowing full well how replaceable I am in God’s cause, nevertheless as an instrument, I suggest we recognize that the Lutheran tradition has two long arguments deep within it the Lutheran traditions, vying for teaching authority: One is accommodation to authorities whose office was created for the control of evil in this world. From this sprang the central teaching of adiaphora that soon unfortunately left its moorings in the Pauline distinction between faith and love. That means dealing with the freedom of the gospel and at the same time, out of love, learning the art of not misleading those whose faith is weak. This has its early legacy in the two interims of the Sixteenth century as the Roman church tried to impose its order again, along with Melanchthon’s sputtering attempt to rescue free will and reason from the distinction of law and gospel. The other tradition, which is still alive and well, and is the basis for our common confession, is that which can be found in Luther himself and was notably carried by the likes of Flacius who, with others, began to practice the work of distinguishing law and gospel in a tradition of resistance to authorities who no longer recognize the limits of their office, and end up in a confusion of law and gospel,-- hung by the head like Absalom between heaven and earth in search of their “middle ground.” Not only is this found in article 10 of the Formula of Concord, with its attempt to bring law and gospel back into the center of the work of theology. It is found also in Melanchthon’s own addition to the Augsburg Confession in the form of the Treatise on the Power and Primacy of the Pope, especially “when bishops either become heretical or are unwilling to ordain” 341, 72.

But it is also found already in Luther’s means of addressing the real ecumenical matter straightforwardly in the Smalcald Articles. What Luther did in that public confession (dramatically, and without hesitation) was stop treading lightly. He faced the basic problem of his day and ours-- the tie between the liturgical Mass and the office of the Papacy. He called it, in a way only Luther dared, the “dragon’s tail” from which are spawned the dung of religious excrement covering the one and only Savior, Jesus Christ. Against this we put the great merit of Christ alone--acquired not, as Luther put it, “through our work or pennies, but through faith by grace, without any money and merit—not by the authority of the pope, but rather by preaching a sermon, that is God’s Word.” (SA II, 2)—our authority is preaching a sermon, imagine that! That is our divine right. And no other divine right exists. No other office of ministry exists. That is what is “at stake,” in our resistance to the ELCA. But if you think this only cuts against the papal party in the ELCA returning us to Rome and its teaching authority, I remind you that it cuts with equal sharpness against the American spiritual enthusiasts who eschew the external word of the preaching office, and the gifts of bread, wine and water, through which means God’s promise is given to betrayers and sinners. So Luther recognized in his Smalcald Articles, Part III, 8 “Concerning Confession,” that Lutherans will always have to deal with two forms of enthuasiasm at once, two forms of God-withininism, that comes to trust in its own faith rather than the external word of God alone as it comes to us in the preaching of a sermon and the Lord’s Supper and Baptism-- that is in the forgiveness of sins. There law and gospel are distinguished properly. The Holy Spirit sees to it. There our life is established in Christ alone, and the law finds its rightful place and limit in condemning our old Adam or Eve. It confines our members from sin but has no place in our conscience where Christ alone sits, albeit hidden under the sign of his opposite in the cross itself. No other God for me than that, we Lutherans say! No church theory or spiritual person. Christ, Christ, and his cross alone is our proclamation to you as sinner. What our Lutheran heritage gives us is the constant need to distinguish law and gospel in a world ruled by Devil, awash in sin and turned in upon our selves. Let Christ run free, wreaking havoc in this dark world and make a new spiritual kingdom for his sinners. We have plenty of examples for practicing this art and no excuse for hanging suspended between heaven and earth, looking for middle ground between legalism and antinomianism—but there we hang by the head, a bunch of Absalomites.

Now if I were not certain of this I could not preach it to you and could not demand of you to suffer when others seek to take it from us, even if those others are the most prominent religious authorities. I would also faint like old David, weeping on the way up the mount of Olives, having curses hurled upon his head by old Shimei the Benjaminite. But the God who knew me and you in our Mothers’ wombs has other plans. His word remains forever while the world is burned up and laid waste. So, in the midst of temptations we can pray like old David: “Hide your face from my sins, and blot out all my iniquities. Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me. Do not cast me away from your presence, and do not take your holy spirit from me. Restore to me the joy of your salvation and sustain in me a willing spirit. Then I will teach transgressors your ways, and sinners will return to you. Deliver me from bloodshed, O God, O God of my salvation, and my tongue will sing aloud of your deliverance.” (Ps 51) For surely that deliverance has already come in Jesus Christ and him alone, apart from the law and in the face of death itself. If we prove poor instruments for God’s cause, he will just find others. That is both law and gospel, let it strike you as the Spirit will.

[1]1 Lenker, Vol 6, 277. WA 18, 652,4 letters of Spiritual Counsel Letter to Gregory Brueck August 5, 1520: (157).