Lutheran Confessions – Would the real gospel please stand up
At the recommendation of a Lutheran brother and for my own edification, I am reading through the Lutheran Confessions (not necessarily in order). [Brief disclaimer: While I’m not a fan of several distinctives of reformed or Lutheran theology which will be clear here, I am, more importantly, a fan of folks in those camps. I’ve been raised in the camps spawned by the reformation and still enjoy their company. This is not a venue to bash such folks; it is a venue to discuss ideas that shape our thinking and practice.]
Part V of the Large Catechism of the Lutheran Confessions is titled “Of the Law and the Gospel.” It only consists of 11 paragraphs (for which I am very grateful), the first of which lays out the issue of:
Whether the preaching of the Holy Gospel is properly not only a preaching of grace, which announces the forgiveness of sins, but also a preaching of repentance and reproof, rebuking unbelief, which, they say, is rebuked not in the Law, but alone through the Gospel. (Emphasis added.)
Right off the bat, we can see a difficulty that never really leaves reformed theology, namely, where does the announcement that the government of God has come near (which dominates the gospels and continues in Acts as “good news”) fit in response to that question? Unfortunately, it doesn’t really fit. The gospel issue as framed by Luther only concerns itself with sinning. Specifically, according to Luther, the issue is whether forgiveness of sin alone is “gospel” or whether the oft accompanying reproof of and call to repentance from sin is also “gospel.” That’s it; it’s “A” or “B”. This “gospel” question is already too narrow to include the much fuller and richer “gospel” usage of the NT that includes God’s revelation of Jesus’ lordship and his government’s agenda for re-creating the earth and the people and activities within it according to God’s desire to redeem and his sense of justice and love. From Luther’s question, one can genuinely wonder whether the larger revelation and movement of God’s reign (which Jesus and the apostles clearly called “good news”) is “properly” called “Gospel” in the Lutheran view.
In the following couple of paragraphs, after naming the issue as Luther sees it, he briefly describes the now famous reformed distinction between “Law” and “Gospel.” Next, in what is perhaps the strangest paragraph of this section, Luther admits that the term “Gospel” is used differently and more broadly in the New Testament (by comparison to his Law-Gospel usage) and is recommended as such by Jesus himself and the apostles:
But since the term “Gospel” is not used in one and the same sense in the Holy Scriptures, on account of which this dissension originally arose, we believe, teach, and confess that if by the term “Gospel” is understood the entire doctrine of Christ which He proposed in His ministry, as also did His apostles (in which sense it is employed, Mark 1, 15; Acts 20, 21), it is correctly said and written that the Gospel is a preaching of repentance and of the forgiveness of sins. (Emphasis added.)
I am in complete agreement with that. In fact, Let me add that “if” we use the term “Gospel” in the broader, more common way that “[Jesus] proposed in his ministry as also did his apostles”, we will “correctly” say not only that the “Gospel” is an announcement of repentance and forgiveness as Luther suggests, but also an announcement of everything that God has done and has purposed to do through his Servant, the now revealed Lord of heaven and earth, Jesus. In other words, to proclaim “the Gospel” according to the New Testament is to announce the identity, purpose, actions, and agenda of God’s chosen Lord of heaven and earth, namely Jesus. And preachers, or announcers of this Jesus and the good news of what God is doing through him will call everyone, in light of this full, and amazing plan in Christ (which includes but goes well beyond forgiveness), to repent and trust this good news, this King.
But that’s not the way Luther continues, which is odd for a guy that is big on “sola scriptura.” Rather, he says, despite the larger usage of “gospel” in the scriptures by Jesus and the apostles, we get a different, preferable, view of “gospel” if we compare Luther’s own smaller concept of “Gospel” to his (arguably larger) concept of “Law” (for reasons he doesn’t really state in this section anyway):
But if the Law and the Gospel, likewise also Moses himself [as] a teacher of the Law and Christ as a preacher of the Gospel are contrasted with one another, we believe, teach, and confess that the Gospel is not a preaching of repentance or reproof, but properly nothing else than a preaching of consolation, and a joyful message which does not reprove or terrify, but comforts consciences against the terrors of the Law, points alone to the merit of Christ, and raises them up again by the lovely preaching of the grace and favor of God, obtained through Christ’s merit. (Emphasis added.)
I hope it is by now obvious where a significant problem may lie, aside from any circular reasoning Luther used: The Holy Scriptures (including Jesus and the apostles) talk about “Gospel” in a large, full way, Luther says, which led to “dissension” (as well as the birth of the Church, to be fair). But if we take one particular component of that larger scriptural concept of good news, namely, the forgiveness of sins, and compare it alone with Luther’s very broad definition of “Law” (which would include not only the Mosaic law, but Jesus’ own teachings and example), then “the Gospel is properly nothing else than a preaching of consolation,” by which he means forgiveness, or justification, or not being condemned for one’s sins.
Think about what just happened there. Luther states that only a part of the usage by Jesus and the apostles of the term “Gospel” is “properly” called Gospel based on Lutheran systematics, namely the Law/Gospel comparitive approach.
This creates the following situation, then: Certainly what Lutherans declare as gospel is gospel (since it is a subset of what the New Testatment calls “gospel”). But, unfortunately, much of what the NT would also unequivocally call “gospel,” Lutherans and many reformed would hesitate upon or even dispute, saying such announcements of God’s will and plan for earth should be called “Law.” This results in a downgrading of everything in God’s plan, God’s dream for the world, that goes beyond forgiveness and justification from “Gospel” to “Law.” I can’t help but see the logical connection between that theology and the silliness of “weak on sanctification” t-shirts, the idea that we are disciples of the gospel (of justification) as opposed to disciples of Jesus, and the large scale phenonmenon of what Dallas Willard has called “bar-code faith.”
Rather than trying to live from a concept of “gospel” that is smaller than that which Christ and his apostles announced, let’s look at the all that God has done and wants to do through Christ and start soaking in it. Let’s take it all in as good news. We might find that God’s love and his “gospel” go way, way beyond just forgiving us, which is really good news.