Preaching: Taking the Saved Seriously

Preaching: Taking the Saved Seriously

Editor’s note: Professor Glenn Nielsen is on a partial sabbatical this year, maintaining his vicarage/internship responsibilities, but catching up on reading and writing occasional reflections on those readings. This is the sixth of these reflections.

This reflection is the third that reacts to the recently published book by Edward O. Grimenstein, A Lutheran Primer for Preaching (St. Louis: Concordia, 2015). The first, advocating a fuller use of the First Article, can be found here. The second looked at how Scripture can be (mis)used in Lutheran preaching in such a way that its integrity as God’s Word suffers because it is too often reduced to just proclaiming the accusing Law and forgiving Gospel.

This essay focuses on the people who most often are listening to our sermons: the baptized people of God. Unfortunately, a growing tendency in some quarters of American Lutheranism (and perhaps other corners of American Christianity) has been to reduce our listeners to what could basically be called a generic humanity who need Jesus to save them. As a result, sermons fail to handle the preaching of the Law in a theologically appropriate manner. In short, the Law’s accusatory role can be misdirected in a way that treats the baptized as unbelievers.[1]  Also, the third use of the Law is sometimes missing or minimalized even when the text calls for the exhortation of the faithful. Both of these concerns evidence themselves in Grimenstein’s book.

Before delving into these issues, I want to commend the Primer for keeping the main thing the main thing: that the hearers of our sermons are redeemed by our Lord. He writes, “Now, during the present ministry of the Church following Christ’s ascension we are still speaking and through that speaking, people are saved from their sins and given eternal life” (36). Throughout the book, Grimenstein does not waver from that assertion, and he emphasizes it over and over again.[2]  As the Primer notes well, John 20:21 says “these things are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name” (60-61).

The difficulty is that this main thing seems to become about the only thing that matters in the lives of the hearers. The result is that preaching is reduced to Law and Gospel, in terms of accusing Law and saving Gospel, and thus people are seen almost exclusively through those lens. They are sinners who need to be saved, and the fact that they are already saved can be mishandled. Further, the whole of the Christian life is missing, even bracketed out of the preaching task altogether.

I may be making too much of a single footnote in the Primer, but it hints at a disturbing trend I’ve seen and heard in publications, sermons, and conversations. Grimenstein allows for the preaching of biblical stories, and wants people to place themselves in the narratives: “There are many ways that preachers can allow people to become part of the Gospel story. Just recounting some of Jesus’ parables shows that there are times when listeners are automatically to see themselves in the story” (62). But the footnote for these sentences reads as follows: “A good rule of thumb would be those instances in which Jesus names the Pharisees specifically.”  If I’m reading him correctly, Grimenstein wants the preacher to work at getting the people to see themselves as the Pharisees from the Gospel narratives.

I find that problematic. The people hearing the sermon are, for the most part, the baptized people of God. The Invocation helps us to recall that identity in Christ given at our baptism. Earlier in the service the Absolution was spoken and people were forgiven once again of their sins. The Creed will be confessed by those who are there. The Lord’s Supper is often offered and will be received worthily by many of the people there. In that liturgical context, the people listening to the sermon are believers. Certainly, they are saint and sinner at the same time. Their sinfulness needs to be made evident in some fashion during the sermon. But they are also saint. Listen to Walther here:

Nowhere in the Holy Scriptures do we see the apostles treating the members of their congregations as if they were uncertain regarding the members’ standing with God. The apostles imply that their members—despite their weaknesses and blemishes—are dear, beloved children of God.[3]

I would not say the people are the Pharisees. The Pharisees (except for a few) hated Jesus. They wanted him dead. They wouldn’t be caught dead agreeing with him, following him, believing him, worshipping him. More likely they would seek the death of those who were doing those activities. Now, does a Pharisaical attitude reside in the sinfulness of our hearts? Of course. We have not yet been perfected. But neither are we the hard-hearted Pharisees of the Gospels. Rather, the way into the Gospel stories is to look for those who are the followers of Jesus in the narratives. Some possibilities: The disciples. The women who supported him. Those who were healed by his powerful touch. The thief on the cross. None are perfect; but they exemplify the very people we are preaching to. I appreciate how Walther puts it:

He (Paul) describes Christians as consisting of two parts. True Christians, he says, always desire what is good, but frequently they do not accomplish it. Now, then, if a preacher claims that Christians do not have a true, godly will if they do not do good in everything—that is unbiblical.

 

To want to do good is the main characteristic of Christians. Frequently, they do not progress beyond the godly will to do something. Before they are aware of it, they have gone astray, sin within them has erupted, and they are ashamed of themselves. But by no means does that mean they have fallen from grace.[4]

In other words, take the people seriously by taking their baptismal identity seriously. “Baptizing a person means that the Son of God is his Savior and that he is His child—and already saved. It means that the Holy Spirit is his Comforter and that the Holy Spirit lives in him.”[5] They are God’s people, not Pharisees.

Unfortunately, I’ve seen this misidentification of the people occur elsewhere. In a recent Sunday school summary from CPH, the following Law/Gospel distinction was offered. “In sin, I blindly go my own way and am headed toward eternal death. Christ saves me and calls me to follow Him in His way, a way that leads to eternal life.”[6]  Do you notice what the author is saying about our Sunday school children? The present tense in the Law statement has them headed to eternal death right now. They are blindly going their own way, a designation Paul gives to the unbelievers in 2 Cor. 4:4. The problem? By saying “In sin,” the children are seen as just sinners, not saints at the same time. Notice what needs to be added to the opening clause to make it correct: In sin apart from Jesus, I blindly go my own way and am headed toward eternal death. But our children are not separated from Jesus. They are not blind but do see Jesus. True, they don’t see him as clearly as we’d like, but that’s why they are in Sunday school. Our children, once they were baptized into the redeeming arms of Jesus, were headed to eternal life, including before that Sunday school lesson occurred, and they are still headed that direction.

Or consider this confession of sins from Creative Worship for the Parish. It begins with: “Father in heaven, forgive us for not always living in ways that honor Your name, which we bear as Your baptized children.” This sentence is well written. We are correctly identified and we don’t always live in God-honoring ways. But notice what happens next. “You lavishly love us, but we have not shown love for You or our neighbor.” The problem here is that the people in the congregation, led by the Spirit, have shown love for God. Evidence for their love of neighbor abounds in congregations and people’s lives. We don’t always do so, but you can’t say we haven’t done so. Then it gets more problematic. “Because we are sinful and unclean, we set our minds only on the things of this world and not on the world to come.” The offending word is “only.” The people have come to worship because they have set their minds on the world to come. They are worshipping that day because they have not only set their minds on the things of this world. Yes, we too often fail to set our minds on the things of God, but that is a far cry from not doing so at all.[7]

We simply need to take our redeemed people seriously by treating them as those already redeemed, living under the waters of Baptism, and anticipating the resurrection to come promised in Christ’s resurrection. What happens is that when the people are simply seen as sinful generic people in need of salvation, then the second use of the Law can be mishandled to address the people in worship as people outside the kingdom of God. Better is what Paul does in Ephesians 2. Verse 1 describes the past: You were dead in the trespasses and sins. Verses 4-5 are for the present time: But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ. Here Paul shows us how to properly identify God’s people by describing not only what they were in the past but how they are now alive in Christ because of God’s mercy. We take our people seriously when identify them in this theological rich manner of those who are saint and sinner simultaneously, including that “saintness” because of their baptismal identity in Christ.

The second concern I have has to do with the reduction of the people to just their salvation and not preaching the whole counsel of God. Here I want to begin with some key quotations.

From Paul:

Therefore, I [Paul] testify to you this day that I am innocent of the blood of all, for I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole counsel of God (Acts 20:26-27).

From the Lutheran Confessions:

2.  We believe, teach, and confess that the proclamation of the law is to be diligently impressed not only upon unbelievers and the unrepentant but also upon those who believe in Christ and are truly converted, reborn, and justified.

 

3.  For even if they are reborn and “renewed in the spirit of their minds” [Eph. 4:23], this rebirth and renewal is not perfect in this world. Instead, it has only begun. Believers are engaged with the spirit of their minds in continual battle against the flesh, that is, against the perverted nature and character which clings to us until death and which because of the old creature is still lodged in the human understanding, will, and all human powers. In order that people do not resolve to perform service to God on the basis of their pious imagination in an arbitrary way of their own choosing, it is necessary for the law of God to light their way.[8]

From Luther:

When you now have Christ in that way as the basis and chief blessing of your salvation, then the second part follows, namely that you take Him as an example and devote yourself to serving your neighbor, just as you see that He devoted Himself to you. Then faith and love are both active, God’s commandment is fulfilled, and the person is cheerful and fearless to do and suffer anything. Therefore, just look at this: Christ as a gift nourishes your faith and makes you a Christian. But Christ as an example uses your works, which do not make you a Christian, but rather they come from you who have already been made a Christian. . . .

 

Therefore, you see the Gospel is not properly a book of laws and commands which demand our activity from us, but a book of divine promises in which He promises, offers, and gives to us all His blessings and benefits in Christ. That Christ and the apostles gave much good instruction and explained the Law to be counted among the benefits as a second work of Christ, for correct teaching is not the least benefit. [9]

Notice: Paul wants the whole counsel of God to be preached, not just a Law that accuses and a Gospel that forgives. Our Confessions direct us to proclaim the third use of the Law as a way to light the way for believers to do what is right. Martin Luther will go so far as to assert that Jesus is not only our Savior but also our example in how we are to love our neighbor as Christ loved us. These three quotations are set against what I believe to be one of the most concerning issues with Grimenstein’s Primer: the loss of preaching the third use of the Law, that use which encourages the hearers in their sanctified lives.

In the Primer you will be hard pressed to find references to the believer’s sanctified life. The Law’s second use receives all the attention in the book, while the third use is conspicuously absent. For example, when the Trinitarian approach to preaching is explained, the preacher is directed to see God the Father as the actor in every text, and that action is speaking the condemning Law and the healing balm of the Gospel (33). But the believer living in the created realm is not addressed, nor do we hear of the various vocations God calls us to live in in the family/social/political walks of life. As for the work of the Holy Spirit, the instruction for the preacher boils down to the Spirit creating belief so that the hearers by believing have eternal life (77). But the fruit of the Spirit doesn’t even start to bud in the Primer. The Spirit’s work in leading us to obey God’s law as a result of our faith doesn’t make an appearance.

Yet, even more disturbing is how the Primer seems to disparage this life of obedience. For example, when talking about the parable of the Good Samaritan, Grimenstein is so insistent on God being the main actor that the parable cannot be about people actually serving the neighbor in need. Read his argument here:

If the preacher fails to realize this, the sermon will almost automatically degenerate into a moral tale espousing hearers to so some work of the Law. In the case of this particular parable, that may be the preacher spurring on hearers to be “better neighbors to each other” or maybe encouraging people to “slow down and not move too fast” or to “take time and smell the roses” or some other silly thing. The point is, however, if God is absent, then so is salvation (76).

I simply shook my head in disbelief when he said that encouragement to be better neighbors to each other is some silly thing. [10]  The Scriptures state many times that we are to love our neighbors as ourselves. Jesus himself called us to that task. Martin Luther spoke of how our good works are carried out in the lives of our neighbors. Spirit-wrought good works blooming in the believers’ lives are part of the whole counsel of God we are called to preach. Yes, we are sinners who need Jesus to redeem us from our guilt and the consequent threats of the Law. But we are also the redeemed who need God’s Law to instruct us and encourage us to good works.

I’m also concerned that those reading the Primer will find that it seems to allow for only two options when interpreting a text: either God is the sole actor or the sermon will preach works-righteousness. For example, in the parable of the Ten Lepers, he gives a snippet from a sermon in which the people are compared to the nine who didn’t come back in contrast to the one who did. Then the last sentence of the sermon bit says: “We really should give thanks more” (37). I agree, it’s not much of a sermon if all we heard was accusation with a quick nudge about something we should do. Jesus is left out (although we do not know what happened in the rest of the sermon). The good example he provides speaks only about Jesus’ healing and giving us gifts (38). It’s good because the leper is at Jesus feet and is not calling “for the individual to do so something to better his life or improve his condition” (38). But a third option is available to the preacher. That is one in which Jesus heals and then commends the leper for coming back and giving thanks. So also, our sermons could follow that pattern and bring the people to Jesus and the gifts he gives and also preach the obedience that comes from faith (Rom 1:5). At that point we would be taking Jesus seriously when he is pleased at what the one leper did. So we could encourage giving thanks. We could give examples of when we do so. We can speak of why we give thanks. Griminstein seems to pit faith and works in some sort of false dichotomy when the preaching task is to proclaim them both in proper relationship to each other.

Indeed, when we take our people seriously as God’s people, we will encourage the sanctified life as it is lived under the guidance of the third use of the Law. Larry Vogel has written an excellent article for Concordia Theological Quarterly, which was originally a presentation at Concordia Theological Seminary in Ft. Wayne, on the pastoral use of the Formula of Concord’s article: Concerning the Third Use of the Law.

The teaching of the Formula on the Third Use is clear, careful and precise; it is utterly unromantic but entirely graceful. On a pastoral level, the Third Use idea relieves the inner fears of the average believer who is rightly horrified by the notion that Christian freedom means irreverence for God’s Law. Third Use terminology, in my experience, does not produce legalists; it enables ordinary believers to understand how the same Law can both condemn and also be a delightful gift in a confusing world where the reborn actually want to be good.[11]

Once again, taking our people seriously means preaching the full counsel of God, which includes the instructing, encouraging proclamation of God’s Law to the believer.[12]

To be continued. . . . (I’ve decided to use a fourth reflection which seeks to pull all the essays together with an example.)

Endnotes

[1] See CFW Walther, Thesis 18 in Law and Gospel: A Reader’s Edition (St. Louis: Concordia, 2010): 429-441.

[2] The following pages would be representative, not comprehensive: 15, 33, 50, 61, 70 and 77.

[3] Walther, 441.

[4] Walther, 344.

[5] Walther, 440.

[6] Growing in Christ: Lesson 6Jesus Calls Disciples (St. Louis: Concordia, 2016-7), 41. Bold in original.

[7] This comes from Creative Worship for the Parish, Nov. 6, 2016. On Nov. 20, 2016, the same problem occurred, although not quite as evident. The Confession begins well. So often, we have lived as though we are in darkness. It is the case that we have all too often lived as though we are in darkness. Not that we are living in darkness, as that would make us unbelievers, but as though we were. But then comes the problem as the present tense describes us in ways that could be understood as placing outside the Kingdom of God. We live as those who are by nature sinful and unclean. Our words and actions do not reflect the light of Christ. We do not live as people who are citizens of the Kingdom of God. Note the bald assertions here. We live. We do not reflect. We do not live. Now, it is true we are still sinful and unclean. But that not the only way we live. We also live as those redeemed by Jesus. So our lives do reflect the light of Christ at times too. We are now citizens of the Kingdom of God (Eph. 2:19). Better would be to say: As those who are sinful and unclean, our words and actions do not always reflect the light of Christ. Too many times we fail to live as citizens of the Kingdom of God.

[8] “Third Use of the Law,” in The Book of Concord, ed. Robert Kolb and Timothy Wengert (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2000), 502.

[9] Martin Luther, “Church Postil”, in Luther’s Works, vol. 75, ed. Benjamin Mayes and James Langebartels (St. Louis: CPH, 2013), 9.

[10] Another statement appears in the book that I’m not sure what Grimenstein means. On p. 51 he says contemplating “the Law without considering our fallen selves would be foolish to do. The Law is right and good. There is nothing wrong with the Law. That is why God did not rewrite the Law after we fell into sin. The challenge is that we are now completely incapable of keeping the Law.”  I agree God’s Law is good because it’s His gift to us. It’s the last sentence that concerns me. In the present tense we are described as completely incapable of keeping the Law. But as those who have been redeemed and the Spirit is present within us, we do strive to keep the Law and good works actually happen.

[11] Larry Vogel, “A Third Use of the Law: Is the Phrase Necessary?”  Concordia Theological Quarterly 69 (2005): 213.  In a later footnote, he writes: “I recall a conversation some years ago with a man whose life had been marked by severe abuse of drugs, alcohol, and sex. I said something about how difficult it is to try to refrain from such abuse. His reply was something like this: ‘Quitting ain’t nowhere near as bad as using.’ We do our flock no favors when we neglect to provide guidance in godly living, and the Third Use, rightly understood, simply reminds us of that responsibility.”

I recognize the long controversy over the third use of the Law in Lutheranism and the LCMS. This essay is not the place to rehearse the history, major players and the like. The issue of Concordia Theological Quarterly in which Vogel’s article appears has a number of articles on the topic from the Symposia they had held on that topic. When reading my reflection, it should not be difficult to see how I approach this doctrine of the Formula of Concord.

[12] In this essay I have made use of some key words for the way the third use functions in the believer’s life: instructing, guiding and encouraging. A very helpful article by James Voelz and Paul Raabe [“Why Exhort a Good Tree?: Anthropology and Parenesis in Romans,” Concordia Journal (April 1996): 154-163.] shows how Paul can say both that our good works are produced by the Holy Spirit working in us and that we fully participate with our mind, will and body in the living out of our faith. Thus Paul not only has the Law guiding us, he has the Law urging us. “…it should be noted that Paul’s intent in paraenesis is not to accuse the Romans as sinners. He does that in chapters 1-3, where the tone is noticeably different. Paraenesis uses the language of urging, appealing, and beseeching rather than that of harsh demanding and condemning. Can Christians still hear paraenesis as accusatory? No doubt they can. If the addressees were not paying taxes, presumably they would have felt accused by 13:6-7. But there were probably other hearers in the church in Rome who saw the rightness of Paul’s appeal and gladly embraced it” (160).

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2 Comments

  1. Joel T Dieterichs March 8, 2017
    Reply

    Good insights again, and well expressed. Just one comment to add, that this type of preaching also occurs in so, so many homes across the churches. It is a difficult and sometimes awkward task, but it’s saying the same thing to the believers who have elected to stay home over and over again until that light bulb goes off in their heads and they are roused by the Holy Spirit to say, “Hmm, my spirit needs worship and the Lord’s gifts.” etc.

  2. Joe March 28, 2017
    Reply

    I check some of our LCMS sites occasionally to ‘keep in the know’ and this is one of the most articulate articles that speaks to my church upbringing. To the point, were my faith was very legalistic – not living ‘life and life to the fullest’. It wasn’t until I heard a Scottish pastor, Alistair Begg, on the radio that not only brought me to Jesus Christ, and knowing He is my living God, but Alistair brought the Bible to life in a way that showed me how to live – teaching ‘the whole counsel of God’. You sir, earned the title of Prof of PRACTICAL Theology in my book. I hope this article encourages more thoughtful preaching by the Spirit.

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