The New Antinomianism: Denying Thesis 18 of Law and Gospel
By Rev. Mark A. Preus
I know you’ll all want sources. “Where have you seen this?” “Who said this?” I can’t give you any right now. I’ve just seen it happen, and I think that if you’re reading this, you probably have too. I’ve heard it preached. I’ve read sermons, blogposts, Facebook statuses, etc. It’s the belief that Christians are dead in sin, that their wills are bound as much as any unregenerate’s will is. It’s been confessed in the ELCA for decades now. The people say in the confession of sin, “We confess that we are in bondage to sin and cannot free ourselves.” (Lutheran Book of Worship)
Isn’t this the truth, though? Don’t we believe in the bondage of the will? Does Jesus say, “Whoever sins is a slave to sin?” Doesn’t Paul say, “But I am carnal, sold under sin?” and “With my flesh I serve the law of sin?”
I suppose it all has to do with the old Lutheran adage simul iustus et peccator – same time righteous and a sinner. What role does sin play in the life of a believer? We know that we are all still sinners. Paul calls himself the chief of sinners in the present tense in 1 Timothy. But we also confess that we are freed from sin. “The Law of the Spirit of life has set me free from the Law of sin and death.” (Rom. 8:2) “If the Son sets you free, you shall be free indeed.” (John 8:36) “And having been set free from sin, you became slaves of righteousness…But now having been set free from sin, and having become slaves of God, you have your fruit to holiness, and the end, everlasting life.” (Rom. 6:18,22) So Christians are no longer bound by sin, though they still sin. They are free, though they still feel sin’s bondage in their flesh. As the communion hymn goes, “Lord, I confess my sins / And mourn their wretched bands; / A contrite heart is sure to find / Forgiveness at your hands.”
C. F. W. Walther’s eighteenth thesis on Law and Gospel goes like this, “…[T]he Word of God is not rightly divided when the universal corruption of mankind is described in such a manner as to create the impression that even true believers are still under the spell of ruling sins and are sinning purposely.” (The Proper Distinction between Law and Gospel, trans., W.H.T. Dau (St. Louis: CPH, 1986), 3)
In explaining this, Walther says at the outset of his lecture on this thesis, “You will observe that I am speaking of the claim that the universal corruption of mankind embraces living in dominant and willful sins on the part of believers. No one who is conversant with the pure doctrine will make the unqualified assertion that a Christian can be a fornicator or adulterer. Such a thought would not enter the mind of a true teacher of the Word of God.” (Law and Gospel, 318)
Walther says this mistake is often “made by zealous ministers and also by theological students.” They don’t qualify their statement by saying “as we are by nature” or “as long as a person is still in the state of natural depravity and is unregenerate” (not born again). Walther goes on, “When you speak of ‘abominable’ sinners, you must not refer to Christians, in whom we find, on the one hand, weaknesses, which are covered with the righteousness of Christ, and, on the other hand, good deeds, which God does through them and which are pleasing to Him.”
Do you see what I mean? How often do we say “I’m just as much a sinner as the unbelievers are?” Maybe we are, according to our nature, but not insofar as we are Christians. But what this leads to is more dangerous doctrine. I once heard a theological professor say to a group of students, “We don’t act any different than the heathen.”
Is that really so? I think this might be confusing Luther’s doctrine of vocation, where he often speaks of the Christian’s good works not looking in any way different than the unbeliever’s so-called good works. But Luther would never say, as Scripture doesn’t say, that Christians’ sins are the same as unbelievers’ sins. On the contrary, “Sin shall not have dominion over you, for you are not under the Law, but under grace.” Our sins are covered by the grace of God, and not only this, but God has begun to do good works in us, so that he suppresses the Old Adam so that he doesn’t gain the upper hand. Those who are in Christ do not belong to sin or serve it. They serve God.
Luther explains it this way in our Confessions, “It is, accordingly, necessary to know and to teach that when holy men, still having and feeling original sin, also daily repenting of and striving with it, happen to fall into manifest sins, as David into adultery, murder, and blasphemy, that then faith and the Holy Ghost has departed from them [they cast out faith and the Holy Ghost]. For the Holy Ghost does not permit sin to have dominion, to gain the upper hand so as to be accomplished, but represses and restrains it so that it must not do what it wishes. But if it does what it wishes, the Holy Ghost and faith are [certainly] not present. For St. John says, 1 John 3:9: Whosoever is born of God doth not commit sin, ... and he cannot sin. And yet it is also the truth when the same St. John says, 1:8: If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.” (SA III.III.43)
What is at stake here is the truth of the Gospel! The Gospel is only for beggars who truly know their sin. When we find ourselves ruled by sins, we should be afraid, as David was, who after his return to Christ sang out, “And take not Your Holy Spirit from me!” We should never simply view our sins as something that makes us miserable and feel bad, but as what calls God’s wrath upon us and separates us from him.
But this error, that Christians can be called Christians properly while unrepentant and letting sin rule over them, has far-reaching consequences. Look at the homosexual debate. How many times have nominal Christians shouted out the Gospel that God forgives homosexuality without actually requiring repentance? “All sins are the same,” they say, “and so the lust in your heart after a woman is the same as the sin of Sodom, therefore you can’t judge him; if you claim forgiveness, so can he.” But must I not repent of the lust in my heart? Is there no distinction between feeling my sins of weakness which by God’s grace I crucify and drown every day in my baptism and willful and deliberate sins about which a person has no remorse? In our zeal to destroy the hypocrisy of the Pharisees have we embraced hypocrisy as something normal for Christians? It seems the only way to deal with our hypocrisy is simply to say that we are ruled by sins just as much as the heathen are, and in so doing, we fall into greater hypocrisy, that of “having the form of godliness but denying its power.”
What do we say to the Christian who struggles with transsexual thoughts? Does it really matter whether he thinks his sin is a disease or a medical condition? Does that make it any less sin to subvert the order of creation? What do we say to the drunk who is addicted to booze or the druggy who is addicted to narcotics, or the glutton, who can’t control his eating? Heap up all the scientists who monitor brain patterns and find biological or epigenetic or genetic “causes” for all these things, and does that change the face that these sins can’t rule over a Christian, that when one is ruled by them he has lost faith in the Gospel, lost the Holy Spirit, and needs to repent of and abhor his sin before he will actually receive the forgiveness of sins?
What happens to the Gospel when it is received by those who don’t believe that the Gospel actually frees them from their sin? They change it into a different gospel. Even if what they hear is the pure, unvarnished truth of the atonement, in their minds the gospel is no longer the forgiveness of sins. It becomes exactly what St. Peter describes it, “a cloak for vice.” It is a different gospel, which, even if an angel from heaven were to preach it, we should call anathema.
The Gospel is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes. Its goal is to bring us to heaven. Its goal is to comfort the poor, miserable sinners who daily struggle and slip and fall. It gives certainty when the Law gives only uncertainty. It reveals the blood and righteousness of our God who is our brother and will never cast aside any sinner who hears his voice, repents and believes in him. It is the power to save the homosexual from his sin so that even as his flesh desires to join with the heathen, his soul cries out not with a spirit of bondage, but with the Spirit of Christ, “Abba, Father.” The Gospel is the power to comfort a man who wants to be a woman, as he can’t stop the thoughts from coming into his head, and the world and those who worship earthly happiness tell him to follow his heart’s desire that promises peace in giving in – then the Gospel comes again and again and shouts into the soul of this poor creature, “This man is mine. He is my baptized son. I claimed his sins as my own, and I have the right to forgive them as often as they happen because they all pierced me and lost their power to kill.”
The New Antinomianism is anti-Gospel, just as the former antinomianism was. In an effort to show mercy it shows no mercy by excusing sin and refusing to recognize its consequences. If you have seen it, beware. If you haven’t seen it, or don’t think it exists, then you probably haven’t been paying attention.
Rev. Mark A. Preus is pastor of St. Andrew's Lutheran Church and Campus Center, Laramie, Wyoming.