Basically, the debate is about how good the lives of faithful Christians should be, morally speaking, how much conscious effort we can or should devote to improving our conduct, how much we can measure our faith by our “sanctification”, what role faith plays in this, and above all, how much pastors, in their preaching, should exhort us to strive for good works, and how much preaching should simply focus on what God has done for us in Christ Jesus. Essentially the pronomians (“for the law”, Keller and others) advocate active, robust exhortation to good works, strong “third use of the law” (the law as good guide for Christian living) after a clear proclamation of justification by faith. Tullian Tchividjian (Billy Graham’s grandson and a prominent evangelical mega-church pastor from Florida and guest speaker at our Concordia Seminary in St. Louis recently) advocated a more passive, faith-based approach to sanctification, emphasizing the chief use of the law is to show our sin and drive us to find mercy in Christ by faith alone, emphasizing that God loves us as we are because our sins are always already covered entirely by the blood of Christ. This position was critiqued by pronomians as “soft antinomianism” (being against the law).
The debate reached a new level of shrill last month when Tchividjian abruptly resigned as Senior Pastor of Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church in Ft. Lauderdale (D. James Kennedy’s old church) admitting that both he and his wife had been guilty of adultery. He was kicked out of Keller’s Gospel Coalition network [a few months prior] and there was much “See! I told you! I told you being soft on the law would lead to mischief like this!” type of posts.
Really, this debate about just how good we should be as Christians, morally, and how important that is to our faith and salvation has raged in the LCMS for decades. My own view is that, like most of the debates that come out of Reformed Calvinism, the terms are poorly framed so that both sides are failing to do justice to what the Scriptures actually teach. Luther framed questions about faith and good works, free will and sanctification in subtly, but importantly different ways than did Jean Calvin, though they often used the same terminology in an outwardly similar fashion. Lutherans have often been sucked into silly arguments about things like limited atonement, or total depravity (I say “anyone who believes in total depravity can’t be all bad”!), predestination, and assurance of salvation by accepting Calvinist debate terms. There is a thoroughgoing rationalism in all of Calvinism that is antithetical to Christian faith in the Word. Luther grasped that the revelation of Christ is ultimately wrapped in Mystery and paradox and that reason simply cannot grasp the deep things of God, like how the finite is capable of the infinite when God took on our flesh in Jesus Christ.
I’m concerned that a Reformed rationalism has spilled into our church’s theology and practice. Personally, I think both Keller and Tchividjian are off-base, though, if pressed I’d say Tchividjian is a bit closer to getting it than Keller, despite his recent bad press. The problem with both sides in the debate is they want to take something that is essentially a Mystery and put it into rationally comprehensible and “programmable” terms so that 1, 2, 3 we can live holier lives by just following the right spiritual formulas, or alternatively 1, 2, 3 be able to forget about holy living entirely!
When we think it’s our work and effort to try to “live more holy” we have separated ourselves from Christ and the power of His death and resurrection and are trusting to some degree in ourselves. When we think “I don’t have to worry about being good, I just need to believe in Jesus” we are mirroring the very same move—focusing on ourselves rather than on Christ Jesus. If you’re working at being holy, it’s too much about you. If you insist you don’t have to be holy, because you have faith, it’s again, too much about you!
St. Paul says that when we were baptized we “put on Christ”. When you take this very, very literally a third alternative to the sanctification debate appears. Living a Christian life is not like an exercise program, nor is faith like a “free pass” to let you off participating in Christ’s holiness already in this life. Putting on Christ is like dressing up as your favorite super-hero when you were a kid. Mom didn’t have to tell you “Go out and spend 45 minutes pretending to be Batman. It will do you good.” No, when you had a spare hour or so, you’d pretend to be Batman because Batman is way cool, and you want to be like that yourself! And in the playing and the pretending, in the focusing on your hero’s traits and exploits, a little bit of his form of life starts to shape yours.
Sanctification is not a program. It’s like a child’s game. It’s pretending to be something we know we’re not (yet, at least!)—Christ Jesus our Lord. He’s authorized us to play this game by our Baptism into His Name, and it is the best game in town. The more you take in His Word and Sacraments, the more you think on Him, “put Him on”—imaginatively at first, then spiritually, and finally, really and for keeps when He returns (or when we die, whichever comes first). The key to the game is focusing on Jesus and forgetting about ourselves and whether we’re good enough or just how good we have to be anyway to get to heaven. Like little children, if you really love your hero, you will emulate Him, and the more people try to stop you, the more fervently you’ll play the game. (One of my favorite quotes is from Luther who said “Even if God sends me to hell, I will still love Him and even in hell I’ll worship and praise him.” Which is awesome! Even if Batman won’t let me in the Bat-Cave I’m still having him for my hero.
One of C.S. Lewis’ last books was “Till We Have Faces”. In the book, an ugly but well-intentioned queen of an ancient kingdom both loves her beautiful sister and is very jealous of her. She considers her own face so ugly, she wears a veil all the time to hide it. In putting on a mask though, the features of that mask eventually shape her in unexpected ways. I can’t think of a better book on the Christian life actually and the role that faith and love for Christ actually play in our earthly lives.
-Pastor Kevin Martin
Our Savior Lutheran Church (Raleigh, NC)