(How) can we call people to take up the cross?

Rick Ritchie left a comment on my previous post describing his “wariness” of evangelism that is geared towards getting people to resolve to deny themselves and take up the cross, and asking how my description of Jesus’ “call” as descriptive of what believing the gospel looks like can be reconciled with Philip Cary’s “Lutheran syllogism”:

Major premise: Christ told me, “I baptize you in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.”
Minor premise: Christ never lies but only tells the truth.
Conclusion: I am baptized (i.e., I have new life in Christ).

If we bring Jesus’ “call” into our basic presentation of the gospel, doesn’t this throw us back onto the “reflective” faith which Cary warns us against: “Have I denied myself? Have I taken up the cross? Am I following Jesus?” What role (if any) does Jesus’ call to take up the cross have in our proclamation of the gospel today?

This isn’t an easy question to answer. On the one hand, if Jesus regards “let them deny themselves, take up their cross and follow me” as part of the gospel call (note that he said this to “the crowd”) then we can’t excise these words from our own understanding and presentation of the gospel. On the other, it is all too easy to use these words to throw people back on the law (“Deny yourself! Take up your cross!”) and on introspection (“Have I denied myself enough?”)

However, if we exclude “taking up the cross” from our account of the gospel in the name of avoiding legalism and pietism then in the end we may find this takes us closer to legalism or pietism rather than further away from them. Because if we say that the “identity” and “mission” elements of Mark’s message are a sufficient statement of the gospel, then that can only mean that the “call” element is something additional which we come to after we have accepted the first two elements: a “further step” into a “deeper experience” of Christian commitment.

So how do we hold on to the pastorally-valuable emphasis on a “non-reflective” approach to the gospel and faith, in the light of Jesus’ call to take up the cross? Well, at least part of it is that we’re not to use those words to lead people to questions such as, “Have I denied myself and taken up the cross?”. We’re certainly not to invite people to make statements like, “I am denying myself and taking up the cross”.

That’s why I think Rico Tice’s emphasis on contrasting the “present” and the “future” is helpful here. This takes us away from an inward focus on our own present state of mind or behaviour, to an outward focus on the future-directed promises of Christ. It’s not a question of choosing between two ways of living in the present – “selfish” vs “self-denying”. It’s a matter of deciding whether to believe Jesus and his promises about the future, or to turn away from those promises and focus only on our lives in the present; whether to treat Christ and his words as something to be ashamed of (v.38) or as something we can believe and rely upon.

To believe that Christ is telling the truth is (necessarily and by implication) to deny one’s own perceptions and works. To become his disciple is to put oneself (or rather, to be put by him) into the community of those who are visibly his companions in the way of the cross – that is, the church. (In other words, the emphasis in “taking up the cross” is on visibly identifying with the crucified Christ and exposing oneself to the world’s ridicule, rather than “self-denial” in the conventional, moral sense.)

And it’s only fair to tell people what they’re letting themselves in for if they believe Jesus: not as a standard of behaviour to which they must attain and for which they must look in their own lives in a reflective way, but as an inevitable consequence of believing that Jesus is telling the truth about his identity and mission. To make people think that believing Jesus is something that can remain a wholly private and individual decision without any negative social consequences is to mislead them.

However, I’d very much welcome any further thoughts people have on how we can ensure that Jesus’ call to take up the cross is included in our proclamation of the gospel in an appropriate way.

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20 Responses to (How) can we call people to take up the cross?

  1. Phil Walker says:

    Yes! If we say “Trust Jesus, but only when he says things which make you comfortable,” then we’re dishonouring him and doing others a disservice. And if we only trust him when he makes us comfortable, then in truth, we’re trusting ourselves instead.

    So there are times when trusting him will feel “uncomfortable”; most obviously, times of sore temptation, but as you imply, times of real opposition. When we’re faced with those, trusting Jesus means trusting his twin promises of “strength for today and bright hope for tomorrow”. The author and perfecter of our faith, for the joy set before him, endured the cross; so let us go to him outside the camp, bearing the shame he endured.

    I think I’m beginning to get a glimpse of how those last chapters of Hebrews fit together. 🙂

  2. Wow, thank you for sharing that Phil. If we only trust Him when things are comfortable, then you are correct, we are only trusting ourselves, which is the pinnacle of “reflective faith” or “faith in faith”. I needed to hear this today, 🙂

    There’s an old joke I once heard about the nature of reflective faith: “On a good day I’m saved, and on a bad day…I don’t want to talk about it….”

    John, I think the “Lutheran Syllogism” fits fine with a call to deny oneself, and I think Bonhoefer handles this issue really well when it comes to his chapter on Baptism in “Cost of Discipleship”. I know Bonhoeffer can be overly salty (especially when compared to Bo Giertz), but I think he hits the nail on the head on this issue. Baptism is a breach from the world; Christ comes to us in the water and the Word and sets us apart from the world, breaks the dominion of Satan, clothes us in His righteousness, and places us into the Church. So when we are told to “deny ourself” or “take up the cross” in reality and if properly understood, the call is fulfilled in our Baptism. All answers should be found in our baptism, “I am baptized, therefore my ‘self’ has been denied”…”Christ baptized me, therefore I am in Christ and Christ is in me”. So really, it’s matter of rescuing the “call” from theologians of Glory and putting it back where it belongs…at the foot of the cross.

  3. Jim says:

    Here are three related thoughts.

    First, adapting Cary’s specific syllogism:

    [1] Christ told me, “I crucify you on the cross with me in baptism” (Ro 6.6).

    [2] Christ never lies but only tells the truth.

    [3] I am baptized (i.e., I have denied myself and have taken up the cross).

    Secondly, we are slaves to sin because we fear death (Heb 2.15). But because, in baptism, we are killed by being united with Christ’s death on the cross (Ro 6.1-7, Gal 2.20, Heb 4.12), we no longer fear death — we are already dead (Col 3.3, 2 Co 5.14, Ro 6.2, 11).

    Therefore denying yourself and taking up the cross isn’t an admonition to look within and to do good works as an act of individual will, it’s instead an admonition to look to the cross, and to trust Christ that we are who he says we are in baptism.

    Third, I “think” this is the point that the Apology is getting at in this teaching:

    From the Apology of the Augsburg Confession, Art. IV.275-278

    “Christ frequently connects the promise of forgiveness of sins with good works. . . . Baptism and the Lord’s Supper, for example, are signs that constantly admonish, cheer, and confirm terrified minds to believe more firmly that their sins are forgiven. This same promise is written and pictured in good works, which thus urge us to believe more firmly. Those who fail to do good, do not arouse themselves to believe, but despise these promises. But the faithful embrace them and are glad to have signs and testimonies of this great promise. Hence they exercise themselves in these signs and testimonies. Just as the Lord’s Supper does not justify ex opera operato without faith, so almsgiving does not justify ex opera operato without faith.
    . . .
    “[I]n penitence we must consider faith and fruits together, so we say in reference to almsgiving that it is the whole newness of life which saves. Almsgiving is an exercise of that faith which accepts forgiveness of sins and overcomes death as it becomes ever stronger through such exercise.”

  4. Rick Ritchie says:

    The earlier question was whether the call to discipleship was Law or Gospel. I think because I classify it as Law, some imagine I don’t hold to it. You could just as easily conclude that because I don’t regard, “Thou shalt not commit adultery” as the Gospel, that I espouse adultery.

    Perhaps where it is phrased in warning terms, this will be clearer. Is “Whoever wishes to save his life will lose it,” good news? How about “For whoever is ashamed of Me and My words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will also be ashamed of him when He comes in the glory of His Father with the holy angels.”? When Peter had denied Christ in Mark 14, and began to weep, was he weeping over good news? What was he to expect at this point, given the warning?

    The idea that when you present these things as descriptions, you are not preaching Law is wrong. So is the idea that they are not an “exacting standard of behavior to live up to.” So some amount of selfishness is okay? Some amount of shame at Jesus is okay? When we fail at these things, I think the natural thing to do will be to reflect on the passages. As Edmund Schlink says in The Theology of the Lutheran Confessions, “In presenting the wealth of the effects of divine grace in regeneration and new obedience, the status of man is again called into question” (page 116). In other words, descriptions of what effects the Gospel will have on us are Law. The rest of Schlink’s chapter is on how there remains Gospel when this happens. But when you insist on calling even the warnings part of the Gospel, that is not at all clear.

  5. Phil Cary says:

    I understand the Lutheran syllogism to be about the Gospel, whereas our Lord’s command to take up the cross is Law. For Law is when God tells us what to do, whereas Gospel is when he tells us what he has done for us. (See “How Christians Should Regard Moses,” LW 35:162, which is for me the most helpful passage Luther ever wrote about Law and Gospel).

    So the crucial question about the command to take up the cross is a question about the value of the Law and good works. What good are they, if they can do nothing to save us? And here I go back to Luther’s treatise on The Freedom of a Christian, which describes the value of good works in terms of what they accomplish for our neighbor and even for our own bodies. God gives us his commandments, including the commandment to take up the cross, so that we may know what pleases him in the way of loving for our neighbor and caring for ourselves, disciplining ourselves and so forth.

    For now that we belong wholly to him (I’m in wholehearted agreement with all of you guys who keep returning to your baptism on this point!), we have nothing more to do with our lives but give them in service to others—and even to our own external needs, i.e., the needs of our bodies for discipline and self-control. But what we don’t have to do is look inside ourselves—all that reflective business of wondering whether we are doing a good enough job to earn God’s favor or our own self respect. That’s all irrelevant now. Who we are deep inside is Christ’s concern, not ours. He’s taken over that part of our lives, and he gives us no say in it, thank God.

    One way Luther has of putting this is to say: the Law must not touch the conscience (e.g., in the big Galatians commentary, LW 26:391). The Law is not to tell me who I am or how I stand before God or whether I am a good enough Christian or any of that. For that I am simply to believe the good news my Lord has to tell me in the Gospel. But the Law (in its 3rd use) does say: Now that you are baptised, buried with Christ and raised to new life with him, just like the Gospel says—well, gee, you’ve got nothing to do with your life except give it to the people you love, to your neighbors. But that will require some work, and indeed some self-discipline, so here’s what you do: take up the cross and follow God’s beloved Son, who has lots of good work for you to do. It will be costly and hard work, and will surely involve suffering and death. But you already knew that, for you’ve already seen how it is with Christ. But that’s who you are–so come, follow.

  6. Peter Milner says:

    Dear Phil,

    I am happy for you, that you have found yourself leaving Anglicanism, and enveloped in Lutheranism.
    At the end of the day, it will not matter.
    God bless you in your journey brother, and remain sure of one thing, that Jesus is the Christ, and that
    He is the firm foundation, and that, while you are alive, you will have an adversary, the devil, that will try to convince you towards mediocrity, rather than holiness, and that “this lion” is prowling around, looking to eat you up. So let your light shine brother, and continue to write your wonderful blogs.
    Be encouraged, in Christ.

    I am an evangelical anglican in the Anglican Mission in the Americas. I love Luther, love Calvin, love Wesley, love Francis of Assisi, love Theresa of Lisouix, Tim Keller, N.T. Wright, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Barth, John Stott, Rico Tice, all of them.

    I eagerly await their presence in the New Heavens and the New Earth.
    May the Lord bless you and keep you
    Peter Milner

  7. John H says:

    Rick: reading through the passage again, I’m beginning to swing round to your point of view on this. Am still thinking through this, and may not have time to produce a full recantation before I go on holiday. 🙂

    I think the context of Jesus’ rebuke to Peter is critical. Peter, while confessing Jesus’ identity, has denied Jesus’ ministry – and thus denied the gospel. Putting himself outside the realm of the gospel, he brings himself back into the realm of the law, and hears Jesus’ words of condemnation and warning in v.33.

    Jesus then extends that same warning to the crowd in vv.34-38. So yes, that looks very much like law. (Looks like a duck, quacks like a duck…)

    OTOH, we still need to recognise that, in the context, what Jesus means by denying oneself and taking up the cross are very different from the moralistic emphasis they are usually given. The focus throughout is on who Jesus is and what he has done, rather than on our own actions and behaviour.

    In other words, the opposite of “deny oneself” is not self-indulgence but the self-assertion shown by Peter. The opposite of “taking up one’s cross” is not seeking personal comfort but refusing the exposure and visibility of being the crucified Jesus’ disciple (the exposure and visibility that is forced upon us by baptism, as Bonhoeffer points out); the opposite of “following Jesus” is not failing to live a particular “Christian” lifestyle (whether monastic or pietistic) but being ashamed of him and his words.

    So where does this leave Rico Tice’s framework for using Mark’s gospel for evangelism? Perhaps a sensitivity to the context in Mark 8 means we need to cut it down to identity and mission – given that the call to deny oneself is issued to those who have proven resistant to either the identity or mission, rather than being inherent to the gospel itself. And indeed if you carry out the “highlighter pen” exercise mentioned in my previous post, “call” texts come a distant third behind “identity” and “mission” texts.

    Anyway: Thanks again for engaging on this. Thinking…

  8. John H says:

    Phil: thanks for comment. Delighted to have you stop by – I have greatly appreciated your various writings which Dr Kimel has pointed me towards.

    I haven’t read the Luther essay to which you refer, but clearly I need to. 🙂

    Incidentally, is Peter Milner correct that “you have found yourself leaving Anglicanism, and enveloped in Lutheranism”? My understanding was you were still an Anglican – which is fine by me. 😉

    I would be very interested however to know whether you have any thoughts on the subject of “Augsburg Evangelicalism” – i.e. the question of why/whether the essentials of Lutheran theology are generally found only within the context of the Lutheran church as such, with all the other theological and cultural distinctives of “actually existing Lutheranism”. See my post on this question, which in turn was prompted by Chris Atwood’s essay Can you be Evangelical without being Lutheran?

    I’d very much appreciate your thoughts on Chris’s summary of what one might call “the Five Points of Augsburg Evangelicalism”, and where you would place yourself in relation to that summary. Feel free to email me (johnhalton AT gmail DOT com) if you’d rather take that discussion outside the scope of this comments thread.

  9. Phil Cary says:

    Thanks for your kind exhortations, Peter. John is right, however, that I’m still an Anglican–though not very happy about the current state of the Anglican communion, as you might imagine.

    In fact, John, your characterization of “Augsburg evangelicalism,” if widely circulated, would solve a terminological problem I frequently run into. I keep having to explain to people that I’m not Lutheran, but my theology is. Now I can say, at least among those in the know, that I’m an Augsburg evangelical but not a Lutheran! For I can happily affirm your 5 points, and do so within the Anglican communion.

    And I agree with what I take to be your agenda, John: I think it would be good for Protestants in general if the kind of theology you label “Augsburg evangelicalism” were more widely known outside Lutheran circles. You Lutherans should get cracking on this! An alliance with conservative Anglicans (especially Anglo-Catholics) would be one possibility to cultivate here.

  10. Well, England did almost go Lutheran at one point, but that was quashed.

  11. Fr Alvin Kimel says:

    Is the summons of our Lord to deny ourselves, take up our crosses, and follow him to be understood as law and not gospel? I am not sure if I can agree with Dr Cary on this at this present moment, though I certainly would have agreed with him during my “Lutheran” period. 🙂

    Granted, the call to conversion and discipleship sounds like law: “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” But is not Jesus not also telling us that following him, with all that it entails (self-denial, repentance, obedience, and suffering), is the way to life and salvation? “For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it.” One does not follow Jesus to earn God’s favor, but one does follow him to find new life. The blessings of this new life are found within our friendship with Jesus, within our following of Jesus.

    I am quite sure that the Lutheran syllogism as outlined by Dr Cary is a right word, perhaps the right word, to speak to disciples who find themselves trapped in despair and the introspective crisis of assurance. I know this crisis only too well in my life, and I know that I have been rescued from the darkness, again and again and again, only by the authoritative and unconditional promise of God’s love and grace. Yet as a (albeit mediocre) preacher for 28 years, I also know the evangelical power of the call to conversion and discipleship. I have seen the lives of people changed precisely through the summons to repentance. They were not changed by the Lutheran syllogism. They were changed by the summons to turn away from sin and self and to abandon themselves to Christ and follow him. The blessings of Christ are experienced precisely in that daily and continuous crucifixion of prayer, repentance, surrender, and obedience. At least, that is what I have witnessed in some of the lives of my former parishioners, and I think it is borne out by the ascetical tradition and experience of the Church.

    I am not sure how to put all of this together, but I am suspicious of formulations that pit the promise of grace (gospel) and the summons to repentance (law) against one another.

    Do we in fact find in the preaching of the Apostles (as described, e.g., in the Book of Acts) and the preaching of the Church Fathers the clear distinguishment of command and unconditional promise that some Lutherans tell us is the heart of the gospel-preaching? What would John Chrysostom, Augustine, and the Desert Fathers have thought about the Lutheran hermeneutical rule? I would dearly love to be re-persuaded that Luther was right here. Please persuade me.

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  13. Rick Ritchie says:

    What a surprise. I clicked refresh last night to see where the discussion had gone, and had to do a double take. Great stuff.

    “So yes, that looks very much like law. (Looks like a duck, quacks like a duck…)”

    I think this is where our tradition is very different from others. Others recognize the duck, uh, I mean the Law, in its Ten Commandments form. They know there has to be a contrast with Judaism, and know that Jesus often chided the Pharisees, so they basically blame Moses for not giving people enough. Moses commanded external righteousness, but now Jesus has come to show us how to be truly righteous.

    It was actually the Puritans who showed me the error of much of this. I can’t say exactly how much of the above I once held, but I can say that is not a straw man position held by no one. I held it at least to a degree. The Puritans would respond to ideas like the above by saying, “As if Moses commanded a merely hypocritical righteousness!” Further, they showed that giving credit to God for our works is not a sure sign of grace, as the Pharisee did that (Luke 18:11). Those things, along with Jesus tying all the commandments into the commandments to love, and I had to wonder. True, the call to discipleship is given to all of us. But before we immediately label it Gospel, let’s meditate on how excellent God’s Law was and is. Could not many of the things that were said about the Gospel be said about the Law? Are we not abandoning ourselves to God when we try to love him with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength? It would appear we are. And with Jesus in the background, we even have good cause to love. But that is Law, nevertheless.

    Consider the First Commandment. “Thou shalt have no other Gods before me.” If Jesus has turned out to be God, then that commandment is about him. What do the other calls to discipleship have in them that that commandment lacks, in terms of what we are to do towards God? It may have a Sermon on the Mount type of intensification of the reading. But looking back, I think we have to say, “Oh. That was really in Moses all the time.” What was lacking in Moses was the motivation to do these things. And that is created by the unconditional promise. We won’t be able to “trust in God above all things” if we have to worry about our own meeting of the conditions. I know you were trying to avoid creating that worry. In many cases we run into, however, it is already there.

  14. Phil Cary says:

    Let me try to persuade my friend Al Kimmel about this.

    It’s true that making a sharp distinction between Law and Gospel, command and promise, is more helpful in some cultural settings than others, which is why Luther needed to make the distinction more explicitly than the fathers. On the other hand, it’s also true–just a sheer matter of fact–that command and promise, discourse about what we do and discourse about what God does, are different forms of discourse and have different effects on us.

    Peter’s sermon on Pentecost, the first sermon in the book of Acts, is a fine illustration of this. It includes discourse about what we have done, which is Law–in this case what Luther calls the second or evangelical use of the Law, which teaches us our sin: “this Jesus. . . you crucified” (2:23)–but this is overshadowed and overturned by a discourse about what God has done for our salvation, which is the Gospel: “This Jesus God raised up . . . being therefore exalted at God’s right hand and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, he has poured out this that you yourselves are seeing and hearing” (2:33) and “the promise is for you” (2:39).

    The effect of this sermon begins with what the tradition calls compunction: “they were cut to the heart” (2:37). This looks to be a result of the discourse of Law, and yet perhaps even this would not be possible if they had not also believed the Gospel, which told them, really, WHO it is they crucified.

    So there’s no explicit Law/Gospel distinction in Acts 2, yet Peter’s sermon can be analysed and its effects understood in terms of the Law/Gospel distinction. You can see the importance of this if you try imagining Peter preaching only Law, not Gospel–saying only things like “you crucified him” without saying things like “God raised him up.” You can’t imagine it, can you?

    So which form of discourse do you think made the biggest change in their hearts, in the long run? Isn’t it by hearing the good news of what God has done in Christ that they become Christians and also begin living like Christians? That is to say: isn’t it Gospel, rather than Law, which makes a real inward change in us?

    The reason why is explained by Augustine, long before Luther. In his treatise on the Letter and the Spirit, he points out that the Law tells us what to do, but cannot give us the power to do it. I find that’s true, and I think it was probably true even before people were introspective enough to realize it was true. What changes people from the inside out is not telling them what to do, but telling them what God has done for their sake in Christ. That’s why the liturgy is mainly a recital of the acts of God–Gospel through and through, including the creed which never once tells us what to do, the eucharist in which Christ gives himself to us, etc.–so that this good news and the One it proclaims may get deep into our hearts.

    And then when we hear “take up the cross and follow me,” it’s not just an indication of how badly we have failed in our Christian lives (Me? What cross have I taken up lately?) but an invitation to do something we really can do. But it merely is WHAT WE DO, and in that sense is an outward rather than inward change. The inward change is the effect of Christ in the heart by faith in the Gospel. The outward change in our behavior is guided by the Law telling us (in its third use): OK, Christian, here’s one of the things you can do to please God. Go to it! Take up your Lord’s cross and follow.

    Here’s my experience (is it really so different from yours?). When I hear sermons that are all about telling me what to do, how to live the Christian life, etc. I get either depressed or bored. I come to church to hear about my beloved, not about myself. And when I do hear about what he has done for me and for us all, which is the Gospel, then I often find myself weeping for joy. To use Luther’s favorite language, the Gospel is consolation, and because of it I find I can go cheerfully about the work (sometimes very hard work) that God has given me to do. I don’t think I could go at that work cheerfully unless my heart held on to Christ offered me in the Gospel. I have tried, but the result is not holiness but anxiety and resentment and failure.

    So I think Luther is right about this: the only real obedience is cheerful and joyful obedience, which comes from within. And that inner obedience gets into us from the Gospel, not the Law–i.e., when we hear about our Beloved, not about ourselves. The Law just points to the shape of that obedience in our lives; it can’t give us the power to obey from the heart.

    Blessings to all of you who are on the way of the cross with Christ!

  15. Adam Morton says:

    There has been much good said in this thread, but I think the full scope of the law’s meaning (and thus what “Take up your cross” might mean as law) has yet to be explicitly stated here. That’s funny in this case, because it involves the most literal meaning of “Take up your cross.”

    Luther uses various language to describe the main power of the law: to reveal sin, to terrify, to humble, to drive to despair, to bring wrath, to increase sin (as in Romans 7:13), to bind, and finally to kill. Consider here the Smalcald Articles, especially the third part, the articles about the law and about repentance–there Luther emphasizes above all the power of the law to kill, as the “thunderbolt of God” which “destroys both the open sinner and the false saint and allows no one to be right.” Out of this comes Luther’s distinction between active and passive contrition–not a repentance we mean to effect ourselves, but a repentance worked on us precisely by the law’s killing power, expressed in “true affliction of the heart, suffering, and the pain of death.”

    So take “Take up your cross” at face value, not as a metaphor for discipleship. By this command, Jesus means to kill us, to render us utterly passive before God, to take away our freedom.

    So the language of daily repentance, of daily death, makes sense in this context. The law kills. Likewise, we may speak with Paul about baptism into Christ’s death. Don’t simply psychologize this, as if it concerned only a crisis of conscience (though it does that). Instead, understand it as part of a rendering utterly passive, so that the sinful self dies and one’s life is found only in Christ (and therefore outside ourselves). In this sense, the law is most certainly a work of God to drive one to true life, though would seem to oppose the word of life, the gospel. We must say, however, that God kills in order to raise to life, and therefore, we say that he condemns via the law in order to raise up via the gospel.

    It seems to me that we can become far too mechanical in distinguishing law and gospel. The sharpness of each is not lost if they are still included in a single formulation, and the difference is functional, not formal. A call to repentance and following Christ can function to kill/render passive, and it can function to raise up again. “Repent and believe in the gospel” is not two laws. Likewise, when Jesus orders a (dead, therefore passive) Lazarus to come out of the tomb, he’s not giving him a law to obey, but raising him. So, Fr. Kimel, I’d have to say that you’re correct that people are changed by words that don’t precisely look like the “Lutheran syllogism”–but then, Luther himself is quite subtle and flexible on this matter, and words that don’t look like the Lutheran syllogism can still be quite distinguishable law and gospel. “Take up your cross and follow me” could well be used as both law and gospel–as a command that kills (as the cross surely does) and as a call that summons the dead into new life in Christ (follow me). So then one word of baptism can unite us with Christ in his death (the work of the law), and in his resurrection (the work of the gospel).

    In that new life, obedience, good fruit and all that are just a given. Good works happen as naturally as breathing.

  16. John H says:

    Adam: thanks for your comment. I entirely agree about the danger of becoming “far too mechanical in distinguishing law and gospel”. As I’ve said before, often the distinction between law and gospel seems to be treated as if you could go through the Bible with two highlighter pens, marking each verse in a different colour depending on whether it is “law” or “gospel”.

    But in fact the law and the gospel are two great overall messages of the whole Scripture, and any particular text within Scripture may be teaching one or other or both. A classic “both” text is the affirmation “Jesus is Lord!”, which is either the greatest source of comfort imaginable or the greatest source of terror imaginable.

    And I’d even go so say that the law itself can (in a sense) be preached as gospel. As I once heard a preacher point out, the ten commandments can be read as a promise of what we will be: “You shall have no other gods before me, you shall not kill/commit adultery/steal”, etc. The law condemns us now, but it also presents us with a vision of what we will be when “we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is.”

  17. Jim says:

    John H.

    You might be interested in this comment by Melanchton, in his introduction to Chemnitz’s exposition of the Decalogue (in chapter VI of the Loci Theologici):

    “In the third place, the Law by implication quietly instructs us concerning the restoration of the human race and concerning eternal life. It further points out to what greater excellence we are recalled. For because God has repeated the word of the Law after the fall of our nature, He surely wills that the Law in some way be fulfilled. Therefore there will be a restoration of the human race and there will be an eternal life.”

  18. John H says:

    Jim: great quote.

  19. BLDavis says:

    Excellent discussion.

    John, unfortunately the “highlighter hermeneutic” you mention above in regards to law and gospel – or lawandgospel(TM), as I like to refer to it – is rampant over here in the States among certain types of confessional Lutherans.

    Once again, I refer interested parties to Gilbert Meilaender’s great little essay Hearts Set To Obey, found in Braaten and Seitz’s “I Am the Lord Your God”.

    Meilaender makes the needed distinction that there are more than simply two categories of people: despairing man and complacent man. Though pastorally the law/gospel hermeneutic is beneficial, it often doesn’t have much gas for Christians who know their sin yet strive to live a life of discipleship. We also need to get rid of Gerhard Forde’s idea that “sanctification is just getting used to justification” and situate our understanding of law in a more covenantal context. (but then again, I’ve been angrily told that idea isn’t Lutheran and that I’m getting to close to the Reformed here!)

    Anyway, here’s the intention of the essay from Meilaender:

    I want to examine critically a certain understanding of Lutheranism, which (whether our language in that of paradox, of the law-gospel distinction, of the law always accusing, of dialect, or of freedom from the law and critique of any third use of the law) eventually arrives at a kind of practical antinomianism — which is, alas, all too readily accompanied by a strident moralism — but which, were it consistent, would have no reason to pray that our hearts may be set to obey God’s commandments.” (p. 253)

    Ps. Sorry to beat the Meilaender drum here again!

  20. Pingback: Love and Blunder · Law, Gospel and identity

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