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How to “get” Law and Gospel: its Personal

05 Oct

Theologians of the Reformation often get upset when non-Catholic preachers promote the dictum attributed to St. Francis of Assisi: “Always preach the Gospel, if necessary use words”.

In all honesty, I do not know why they get upset.  Yes, sometimes clear words of forgiveness are necessary – but words can also be cheap.  We are told if you really want to see what someone believes, don’t look at what they say, but what they do.  I think this is right.  A man might say he forgives me with his mouth, but go on to show me that his forgiveness is quite doubtful.  Another may not say anything, but by his expressions and actions I feel sure that from his perspective, my sins really are buried at the bottom of the sea – when I, the destroyer of the little ones, am the one who deserved to be cast there.

It seems to me that if a child were to hear a person’s words of forgiveness – and that person went on afterwards to intentionally distance themselves from the child because of the deed that was done – what the child would believe about their relationship would be based more on what was done than what was said.  Of course, our words should not be so cheap, but often they are.  In our lives, we may know what we should say and what we should do – and these things should go hand and hand – but many times they do not.  We “forgive” while still holding our hands around another’s throat.  And here, it seems to me, we rob the Gospel of its power.  It does not have the chance to be the stumbling block, because we have already gotten in the way.

Here is my theological point: even though a statement like “live the Gospel” is not found in the Scriptures, we all know that the word “Trinity” is not either.  The point, of course, is whether or not the concept is found in the Scriptures.  I believe it is.

There is undoubtedly danger here.  It is true that persons often get confused about the Law and love, thinking them opposites, when in reality, we are told that the Law is all about love; it is in fact fulfilled in love.  Still, perhaps much of the confusion has to do with us: for often I think that we give the impression that the Law is simply about demands, threats, and punishments, whereas it is the Gospel that is all about forgiveness and mercy.  Actually, Matthew 23 tells us that the Law itself is also all about these things namely, justice [social!?] and mercy and faithfulness.  These are, in fact, the “the weightier provisions of the law”.

If we say that we can’t live the Gospel, but only the Law, do we not deny that Jesus Christ is both the Law and the Gospel incarnate (something else I believe I have heard both Lutheran and Reformed preachers affirm)?  Can we do this?  I am not for denying the importance of propositional statements in our lives, but are not both the Law and the Gospel first and foremost to be found incarnate in the man Jesus Christ?  Are they not primarily to be found, and understood, in a Person (though not at the expense of propositions)?

I know I am messing with treasured categories and that “Confusion of Law and Gospel” alarms are probably going off in some quarters.  I am not looking to have the final word here.  I am interested to hear where I might be going wrong in my reasoning.

UPDATE:

Pastor Wil Weedon said to me: “I think that the language of living IN the Gospel is not problematic at all:  living in its promises, etc.  The problem comes with language of LIVING the Gospel – as though our living were somehow the good news itself, rather than witnesses to the truth of the good news.  When God announced the Gospel to us he did not spurn words:  Behold, I bring you good news of great joy which shall be for all people.”

You can see more of what he wrote below, as he gave me permission to post it in the comment section.  I now have to agree to say “use words when necessary” does seem to put to emphasis on the wrong thing – even as I think such a statement can really get us thinking about how our life may possibly obstruct the Gospel witness. Many thanks to Pastor Weedon.

Further, I have to note that when I said, “If we say that we can’t live the Gospel, but only the Law”, I must note that this seems to me, upon reflection, to be a bit of a straw-man sentence.  I am not sure how many preachers in the broad Reformation tradition that I have met who have said that we can “live the Law”.  They would say, we don’t and can’t “live the Law”, which is kind of the point!  All self-justifying mouths must be stopped.

 

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8 Comments

Posted by on October 5, 2010 in Uncategorized

 

8 responses to “How to “get” Law and Gospel: its Personal

  1. Robert

    October 5, 2010 at 7:26 pm

    It is hard for me to understand your struggle as this apparent conflict and tension you reference is not found in Orthodoxy.

     
  2. infanttheology

    October 5, 2010 at 7:32 pm

    Robert,

    Yes, that’s what I understand. It seems to me it is something we might have to learn from you.

    May I ask, does the statement “live the Gospel” sound normal to you? And would you say that Jesus Christ perfectly shows us the Law and the Gospel?

    ~Nathan

     
  3. Robert

    October 5, 2010 at 8:27 pm

    Yes “live the Gospel” is part and parcel of the Orthodox Christian faith. The Fathers use even stronger language and speak of “fulfilling the Gospel commandments”! This is the normative calling for every Christian, the only path to life, restoration, healing, salvation.

    “would you say that Jesus Christ perfectly shows us the Law and the Gospel?” – yes absolutely (although “showing” would seem impoverished, but I think I know what you mean). Christ is the fulfillment of the Law, and this fulfillment is the Gospel. There is no tension between Law and Gospel in Christ – in His Person heaven and earth were united – this is the Gospel and the fulfillment of the Law. I must point out that the Law and the Gospel are understood in context of the living tradition of the Orthodox church and I would suggest that this is probably where we would find the differences with the Reformed tradition and uncover the reason(s) for the struggle/tension that you describe in this post.

    “I am not for denying the importance of propositional statements in our lives, but are not both the Law and the Gospel first and foremost to be found incarnate in the man Jesus Christ? Are they not primarily to be found, and understood, in a Person (though not at the expense of propositions)?”

    Yes indeed! Christ in His ineffable condescension accomplished an ontological transformation for mankind.

     
  4. infanttheology

    October 5, 2010 at 10:50 pm

    Robert,

    There’s much you write above that I track with – and I think that many confessional Lutherans today would as well…

    In short, I think that what I’ve written is within the bounds of understanding for serious Lutherans. I am not sure if my “Child of the Reformation” post I directed you to earlier is within the bounds of understanding for serious EO.

    But, I want to keep on talking. Thank you so very much for adding to my understanding and this post.

    ~Nathan

     
  5. Robert

    October 6, 2010 at 12:09 am

    “I think that what I’ve written is within the bounds of understanding for serious Lutherans.” >>>> Oh that is great to hear!

    “I am not sure if my “Child of the Reformation” post I directed you to earlier is within the bounds of understanding for serious EO.” >>>> I will check that out tonight and respond if I have anything to worthwhile to add.

     
  6. Robert

    October 6, 2010 at 12:11 am

    *correction*

    I meant to quote “There’s much you write above that I track with – and I think that many confessional Lutherans today would as well…” as the first quote immediately above.

     
  7. infanttheology

    October 7, 2010 at 11:58 am

    For anyone reading this post, I am doing an update on it now, with some more refined thoughts. I was blessed enough to have Pastor William Weedon respond to me personally, and this is what he said:

    “I think that the language of living IN the Gospel is not problematic at all: living in its promises, etc. The problem comes with language of LIVING the Gospel – as though our living were somehow the good news itself, rather than witnesses to the truth of the good news. When God announced the Gospel to us he did not spurn words: Behold, I bring you good news of great joy which shall be for all people.

    The Gospel always involves the announcement of a promise – but a life that is lived from that promise is also a witness to the truth of that promise. Think of how St. Athanasius could point to the martyrs and the way they met death as witness to the Christian’s scorn of death as a defeated enemy!

    So, I agree with the post for the most part, but think that it should not be reduced to “use words when necessary” rather, sing, speak, and celebrate the words that are the very basis for the life that shines with the hope of the resurrection and the nobility wrought upon our race by the incarnation!”

     
    • infanttheology

      October 7, 2010 at 12:09 pm

      Robert,

      I’d be interested in your thoughts about the update to, if you care to chyme in.

      ~Nathan

       

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