Nail in the coffin?: Surburg decimates “new perspective on sanctification”

16 May
“Gospel” bullying

“Gospel” bullying

I am talking about this post, which builds in part on the conversation had here.

Now, I know the title of this post is a pretty bold.  Still, I think it is warranted.  “2KR” (see last series), now being taught in the St. Louis seminary – and even promoted by one of its professors as “a better paradigm than Law and Gospel” – is the attempted answer to what is quite clearly an anemic, biblically deficient doctrine of sanctification. Luther’s view, echoed by the Formula of Concord (as Surburg clearly demonstrates) is much better.

As for the anemic view of sanctification I am claiming he so thoroughly demolishes, it is what I heard from most all of my professors in confessional Lutheran seminaries.  It is also the view I hear from many guests on Issues ETC (still a top-notch theological talk show program if there ever was one – if you can support it and don’t, please do!).  I think that deep down most everyone realizes its sheer absurdity – that the emperor has no clothes – and people have just been waiting for some capable theologian-historians to convince them.  As far as I am concerned, that has been done in spades – at least on the internet.  Time will tell who has been paying attention, and whether substantial work supporting or attempting to refute Pastor Surburg’s conclusions (not to mention others who have been faithfully conveying the confessions for years on this point, though not with quite the intentional and systematic vigor of men like Strawn, Sonntag, and Surburg) will be forthcoming in print.

Years ago, on Paul McCain’s blog Cyberbrethren, Aaron Wolf (note from the link the last program he did on Issues ETC, and the article it was based on) left this impassioned comment:

Saint Paul writes to Saint Timothy, “Likewise, urge the younger men to be self-controlled.” Now, more than ever, as Western Christian civilization is crumbling all around us, we need to be told what that means. We need to hear what self-controlled means; it is Law. By preaching this, as our Lutheran forebears did, we will learn what pleases God and benefits our neighbor and, in the process, be convicted of sin and driven to confession and the Sacrament of the Altar.

If we don’t get specific about such things, we risk gaining a false sense of the depth of our own sin, and our own need for repentance. It just might not occur to me that I’m breaking a particular commandment, unless I am told what it means to break it. The old man is very good at tuning out general statements about being a sinner, even if we add “poor, miserable” to it.  We also risk creating an antinomian Lutheran culture, a soil that produces young people who don’t really look or behave much differently from those produced in the dying culture around them. They don’t know the meaning of modesty or self-control. They lack manners. They respect neither parents or pastors. In short, they have been trained to hate authority, because their Lutheran culture has given them a pat answer to any specific point of Law: I’m a poor, miserable sinner, and that won’t change until I’m dead. I say the general confession every Sunday. Leave me alone. Or they might go to confession and confess what troubles them, based entirely on their own unformed consciences, untouched by a growing knowledge of the Law, which David loved.

So great is this spirit of antinomianism that, for example, I’ve spoken with many conservative pastors who wouldn’t dare set standards for their young people at church. As in, You may not approach God’s altar dressed like a harlot. Or like a bum. Some pastors wouldn’t dream of doing such a thing in the first place, while others wish they could, but know what a nuclear bomb that would be in the congregation.

Then come the very postmodern, Pilatesque “what is truth” replies. How can you really say that a nose ring or a tattoo or purple punk hair is wrong? Did God really say? Who made you the judge of what is modest and what isn’t? It’s really remarkable that we still have a civilization at all.

Attempts to reason away such plain Scriptural language as that of Titus 2, or a host of other passages in the New Testament, whether by appealing to such theological buzzterms as synergism or by crying “Reformed!” or “fundamentalist!” or “papist” are a slap in the face to Lutheran preachers of the past (beginning with Luther), bespeak a willful ignorance of history, and reveal the deep-seated antinomianism in modern Confessional Lutheranism. It is a small wonder that the grass looks greener in Constantinople or Rome or Geneva. Some folks just don’t want to turn their children into little Marilyn Mansons or Britney Spearses for the sake of maintaining a nebulous sense of “monergism.” And that is sad, because they don’t realize that the formulaic preaching they are hearing, with lessons shoe-horned into an antinomian, post-liberal, Gospel-narrative-only hermeneutic, is not really Lutheran at all. They will have been led by their shepherds away from the green grass of the Gospel to stoney ground.


Back to Pastor Surburg.  In a recent post titled “Lutheran preaching – third use or agnostic use of the law?” he says:

It seems that the discussion about the third use of the law with those who hold the new perspective on sanctification always ends up back at the same point. No Lutheran in the discussion will explicitly deny the third use – after all it is confessed in Formula of Concord article VI.  But at the same time we are told that the preacher can’t control how the law strikes the hearer. The law always accuses and so we must assume that it will function in its second use for some, if not most, hearers.  And so practically speaking there really is no third use of the law that the preacher can intentionally employ because we can never know that it will be used by the Spirit in this way.  We are left with an “agnostic use of the law,” and so are told that we should just preach law – which means we should speak in ways that are most commonly associated with the second use.  The third use of the law is confessed in principle, but functionally it is denied.   Ultimately, the agnostic use of the law ends up being the second use of the law because it is assumed that this is what the law really does.

Yet in fact, this approach stands contrary to the apostolic practice in Scripture and the position confessed in Formula of Concord article VI.  In addition, it does not withstand examination as a theological argument.  It should not be allowed to determine how we think about the law in the preaching task as Lutherans.

The question arises because the New Testament in general, and Paul’s letters in particular, are filled with exhortation and admonition for Christians to live in new obedience.  Within Paul’s letters these statements are always grounded in what God has done for us in the death and resurrection of Christ, and through the work of the Holy Spirit – they find their source in the Gospel (bold originally his italics)

That’s right.  Thank you Pastor Surburg for laying this out so clearly in black and white.

Near the end he says this:

It should not escape our notice that Paul is no more able to control the Spirit’s use of the law than we are.  Yet in spite of this fact he repeatedly engages in exhortation and admonition as he seeks to lead Christians to engage in new obedience.  He shows no hesitancy about speaking in this matter.  In fact, as Luther observes above, “Paul is so persistent in his admonitions that he actually seems to be overdoing it” (paragraph 3).

In doing so, Paul provides the apostolic pattern that we need to follow.  And in fact we can go beyond that assertion. For while Paul can’t control the Spirit’s use of the law, in the mystery of the inspiration of Scripture what Paul writes is exactly what the Spirit wants to be said.  The apostolic model of exhortation and admonition affirmed by Luther and described by FC VI as the third use of the law is in fact the Spirit provided model and pattern of addressing Christians.

Our theologizing about the nature of the law and the manner in which the Spirit may or may not use it cannot be allowed to become something that precludes pastors from speaking the way Scripture speaks.  Theological constructs about the individual’s experience of the law that have their roots in the twentieth century cannot be allowed to preempt preaching and teaching that employs the language of the inspired, apostolic pattern. (bold originally his italics)

If you still are not convinced, you need to go here to read the rest.  Yes, that is a law statement.  And even if you are convinced, go read it anyway as it is well worth your time.  Pastor Surburg, like Pastor Sonntag and my Pastor, Paul Strawn, are doing a great service for the church in bringing this to light and putting it forth so clearly.  If you are concerned about where this leaves the Gospel in the narrow sense (evil ones forgiven and holy before God for Christ’s sake!), as I ended my last post:

…we certainly are makers and doers who influence and impact both the church and the world – as Luther said repeatedly (he believes the gates of hell won’t prevail because God will always preserve some men vigorous to defend and promulgate the things of God). It is also because of these truths that the comfort and confidence provided by the passive righteousness is continually needed.

Mark that last sentence.


Image from here:


Posted by on May 16, 2013 in Uncategorized


3 responses to “Nail in the coffin?: Surburg decimates “new perspective on sanctification”

  1. Mark Surburg

    May 16, 2013 at 1:27 pm

    Nathan, Thanks for your positive comments. Hopefully the recent treatment of this subject on the internet has prompted serious reflection about this topic based on Scripture, the Confessions and Luther.

    In Christ,


  2. Dr. Ralph "Rafe" E. Spraker, Jr.

    May 16, 2013 at 2:22 pm

    It is easy to think of who Pr. Surburg is addressing since I have been dressed down by some of these ‘Confessional Lutherans.” When I quote a part of the BOC, they retort, “Preach the Gospel or GO HOME!” which is odd that they consider me a pastor and react to the standards so vehemently!

    • infanttheology

      May 16, 2013 at 3:22 pm

      Dr. Ralph,

      Something I said on the BJS blog:

      The Christian wants to be warned. According to His new man, he likes the reminders to put old Adam in place, to take him for a walk, to starve him, to tie him down, to hold him under the waters of baptism again – and especially while the believer is being given Gospel in the process.

      A little I John 1:7 action going on here (“But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin.”) en route to I John 3:3 (“All who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure”).

      Or, analogously, as my pastor [essentially] said, summing up Luther’s antinomian disputations:

      “Mindful of our illness”, the Christian constantly and consciously hears and meditates on the word of God, prays, and uses the sacraments to be “purged” and “cleansed of the poison of sin” – until our deaths when we are entirely purged. We also use rituals and works “like an orderly of sorts” so that our sinful nature can be restrained while we “endur[e] the cure of a living physician, that is Christ.” (p. 13).

      Link to paper here:

      The Christian likes to be reminded of the goodness and beauty of God’s law even more than being warned – particularly when put forth in flesh and blood examples of Christ and the saints. So much so in fact that some simple believers will go to other places to hear this if they don’t hear it in their church. And not necessarily because they think they must justify themselves.



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