One of the primary subplots of this year’s synodical conference in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, was the increasingly high percentage of non-Lutheran students and faculty in the Concordia University System (CUS). A secondary but important issue involves the sexual deviance of current and prospective students. In the context of their ministry within the CUS, rostered LCMS church workers and called and ordained LCMS pastors have concluded that their evangelical mission—their commissioned role in God’s restorative work to redeem His creation—requires them, before all else, to boldly proclaim the Gospel. A growing body of critics from outside of the CUS asserts that the Concordias should be “by Lutherans, for Lutherans.” They claim that exposing the shrinking percentage of Lutheran students to the worldly influence of non-Lutherans threatens the piety of our young people. These critics are so concerned with this that their own, Lutheran-only college opens in Casper, Wyoming, in the fall of 2025—Luther Classical College.
The CUS debate is a microcosm of a larger conflict in our synod—confessional versus missional. The framers of this argument imagine that one must either hold firmly to our Lutheran confessions or compromise one’s convictions in order to proclaim the Gospel to a fallen creation. This is a false dichotomy of the highest order. Like so many false ideas in the Christian Church throughout history, fallible humans have substituted God’s clear commands and promises in favor of their own reason. God’s plan, properly understood through the special revelation of Holy Scripture, maintains a great many things in perpetual tension. But our sinful nature compels us to try to solve these tensions. When we do, we always err. The CUS debate, along with the wider question of our synod’s posture toward the outside world, lends itself to two particular errors—Gospel reductionism on one extreme and pietism on the other—both of which are heresies.
Recalling the confirmation classes of their youth, the pietists rightly remember that there are three uses for the Law: the curb which constrains the actions of man by threat of the sword; the mirror which convicts all before God so that all would recognize their need for salvation; and the rule/guide so that the regenerate would desire a God-pleasing life by the power of the Holy Spirit. They might also recall the acts of the apostles who remained in Judea, and who preached to the Jews throughout the Mediterranean. These apostles called all to repentance, and only then shared the Gospel. Luther, Melanchthon, Walther, Pieper, and the apostles to the Jews faced the same primary obstacle to salvation—works righteousness. The Pharisaic Jews of the first century, the German peasants of the sixteenth century, and the conservative midwestern context of the nineteenth century required that the hearers of the Gospel must first be disabused of the errant idea that they had earned salvation by their temporal deeds. The apostle Paul on the other hand, preached mostly to the Gentiles. His audience was a pre-Christian world with no knowledge of the Triune God. With one notable exception in Athens (and I would note the absence of 1st or 2nd Athenians in the New Testament), Paul begins his preaching with the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins and the restoration of God’s creation. Even in Corinth, the Las Vegas of the Classical Mediterranean World, Paul leads with the Gospel. By God’s Word and examples in Christian tradition, we are left with a tension-filled, counterintuitive conclusion: the more temporally/civilly righteous a society is, the more it needs to be shown the Law from the outset. The less temporally righteous a society is, the greater the need for the Gospel from the outset.
With these axioms in mind, we should ask ourselves about the context in which we find ourselves in America in 2023. Is America godly and righteous, or godless and unapologetically sinful? We should ask ourselves how we as individuals, our congregations, our circuits, our districts, and our synod are postured publicly. Do we boldly proclaim the Gospel to our neighbors, our communities, and the world, or do we condemn and rebuke? It is God’s will that all would be redeemed by grace through faith in Jesus Christ. It is our selfish desire to find earthly catharsis in rebuking our neighbors, even if doing so risks hardening their hearts, so they reject the Gospel. We have deceived ourselves into believing that we necessarily do God’s will when we proclaim His Law before man regardless of context. Pursuing our own reason and desires is an artifact of our fallen state. In this pursuit, we cobble together God’s Law, our selective reading of the New Testament, and the written works of our esteemed Lutheran theologians. When the puzzle pieces do not quite fit, we take out our scissors and make them fit. This begs the question: Do we delight in His will and walk in His ways because we fear and love God above all else, or do we delight in His will and walk in His ways because we just so happen to agree with God? I pray that it is the former, but all too often, the latter becomes our motivation. Whether we realize it or not, we tend to elevate our social and political beliefs above God’s will while claiming our beliefs are products of our faith in God. Scripture promises us that the Holy Spirit accomplishes the miracle of faith by means of hearing the Gospel. If we have faith that God keeps His promises, then we should set our well-reasoned misunderstanding of spiritual matters aside and have the conviction to proclaim the Gospel first and foremost.
This all sounds like a Gospel reductionist argument, right? Not at all. God’s Law is good. God’s Law is essential to our Christian lives. God’s Law is the order of His creation, and this order will be restored when Christ returns. God’s Law is the rubric by which all will be judged. God’s Law is holy. Just as the very central point of the Bible is Christ—everything before and everything after Christ’s bodily incarnation points to His life, death, and resurrection, so too does the order of salvation. Everything that comes before justification through faith in Christ is death. Everything that comes after justification through faith in Christ is life. The entirety of the economy of salvation, the entirety of God’s plan to restore His creation, is Christ. We see this in the third use of the Law. Though imperfectly, they regenerate joyfully and without fear or coercion, endeavor daily to keep God’s Law. Paraphrased, the Solid Declaration of the Formula of Concord tells us that the Christian’s love of God, through the Holy Spirit and faith in the promise of salvation, extracts a temporal righteousness from man that fear of the sword and damnation could never hope to achieve. God’s plan to restore His creation is Christ. Christ should be our plan, too.
Our misunderstandings are perfectly reasonable. They arise from the misunderstanding of
the teachings of our own church. They appeal to our rationalism. Second only to the misuse of Luther’s Two Kingdoms teaching—which results in the heresy of
dualism—lies the misunderstanding of C.F.W. Walther’s The Proper Distinction Between Law and Gospel: 39 Evening Lectures. The most prevalent misunderstanding goes something like this, “all people, at all times, and in all places must hear both the Law and Gospel preached to them.” Of course, this is not Walther’s point at all. Walther’s point was principally that God’s Law and the promise of the Gospel should be presented as distinct concepts so as not to confuse the two—properly distinguished. Secondly, the audience for Walther’s lecture series was seminarians. The explicit application for Walther’s teaching was the pulpits of Lutheran churches on Sunday mornings, not evangelism in the world. Properly distinguished, Law and Gospel sermons are just one of Walther’s great gifts to our synod. When we misuse his scholarly work to construct obstacles to the salvation of unbelievers by screaming ineffective, unintelligible condemnations at society, our hubris and lack of faith in the power of the Holy Spirit are matched only by our disservice to Walther’s memory.
So, you are advocating for the quietest posture then, right? Not at all. We must recognize our context. In our post-Christian nation, we find ourselves more similarly situated with the apostle Paul than our own Lutheran forefathers. In fact, in the conduct of evangelism, we have more in common with Paul than we do with our own parents and grandparents. This realization should inform both the pressing need for, and composition of, our outreach efforts. Many who read this will remain unpersuaded. If God’s will that all would receive salvation and our Lord’s Great Commission to us are not reason enough for Gospel-forward outreach, if your primary objective is the restoration of God’s Law to its rightful, first-use purpose as that which constrains the conduct of man by threat of the sword, then let us remember that our form of government is a democratic republic. We cannot simply appeal to the Elector of Saxony for the magisterial imposition of God’s Law. Like it or not, what is permissible or impermissible in our society rests on the values (or lack thereof) of 51 percent or more of voters. For a democracy to remain godly, it must be majority Christian. But this is not accomplished through fear and coercion. It is best accomplished through the proclamation of the Gospel and the third-use works that follow.
While proclaiming the Gospel may not avail itself of the immediate satisfaction that comes from rightful rebuke and condemnation, it is infinitely more effective in changing the hearts of man. We should always remember that we play no role in our own salvation—God does it all. However, we can, through the bold proclamation of the Gospel, be the means through which the Holy Spirit brings others to faith. Bringing others to faith is God’s fervent desire. It should be our desire, too. So, dear Christians, in the faithful exercise of your vocations among your family and friends, as you run the errands of daily life, look for opportunities to proclaim the Gospel instead of reasons to condemn your neighbor.
Soli Deo gloria!
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