The Road Ahead

05.08.2012 by Reed Dunn


This post is part of the the lutheran captivity of the church series (click to view the other posts in this series).

Lutheran Captivity of the Church: Part 6 of 7 - The Road Ahead

NT Wright makes a startling statement in his book "Justification."  He says:

I have often reflected that if it had been the Reformed view of Paul and the law, rather than the Lutheran one, that had dominated biblical scholarship through the two hundred years since the Enlightenment, ...the new perspective [would] not have been necessary. (Justification, pg. 72)

When I first read that, I was encouraged by the fact that Reformed scholarship, at least in Wright's eyes, offered a more balanced approach to understanding salvation.  But the more I have thought about it, the more I see his statement as an admission of a troubling reality: the New Perspective is simply a reaction to what I have called the Lutheran* Captivity of the Church.

Here is what I mean: I believe that legalism, in whatever form, is a natural response to Lutheranism once Lutheranism has lost its luster.

Much of the Lutheranism in the PCA today is a reaction to the legalism of the 1970’s.  It is natural to think that grace is the right response to law, but that is more dangerous than it sounds.  The problem with this approach is clear when we reverse the process.  What will we do when our churches are full of lawlessness?  Do we respond with legalism?  Of course not.  I hope not.

Most of the people I know that have sought out the Roman Catholic Church came from a Lutheran understanding of salvation.  And that includes myself.  The New Perspective, for all its insight, can lend itself to a legalistic understanding of salvation.  The same is true for the increasingly popular Greek Orthodox Church, not to mention the social gospel of the Emergent Church.  Legalism is all around us.  I even once heard of a PCA church where the departing pastor was of the Lutheran bent.  The church made it known that they were interested in getting “more law” from the pulpit.  I understood what they meant, but I was troubled by it none-the-less. 

What are we creating when we preach a Christ that saves but not one that transforms?  Grace is fun to talk about and a great joy of the gospel, but if it isn’t connected to the right rudder it can run us aground as quickly as a false teaching.

Humanity is hardwired to obey the law and God is the one that hardwired us that way.  The desire to keep the law isn't bad; what we do with it sometimes is.  We need to know where we stand.  We need to perform.  We feel the need to please God.  If the PCA overlooks this "need" and doesn't get people to understand how to appropriate it, then we will inevitably see people leave our churches to find answers in the wrong places.  The Catholics, Orthodox, Social Gospel and New Perspective churches are not going to preach the right gospel - they are as legalistic as the Lutherans are gracious. 

Law and Grace simply aren't the answer.  Jesus Christ is.  Luther was wrong when made justification the center of the Bible, based on Jesus' own assessment (Luke 24:27, John 5:39).  We are wrong when we equate the gospel with nothing more than forgiveness of sins. 

Jesus Christ (and our union with him) should be our overarching narrative, not grace.  Sermons should be rooted in the identity and activity of Christ and not just his cross.  Grace can end up a meaningless philosophy and the law an illegitimate badge of honor if neither is connected to the person Jesus Christ.  He provides the substance that makes grace effective and the law a blessing. 

In today’s culture, to preach Christ is code for preaching a Lutheran form of grace.  I would like to see that changed.  Christ is all things to us - not just grace - and it is through him that we can please God with our actions, it is through him that we are transformed into new life.

I have mentioned in this series how much I struggled with a Lutheran perspective.  When I sought out answers beyond just “resting in my justification,” I looked in many of the wrong places.  I started with the Catholic Church and ended up in a form of mysticism that nearly shipwrecked my faith.  At the time I didn’t think a Reformed understanding of salvation was sufficient - what I didn’t realize is that I wasn’t hearing the Reformed position.  Once I came out of all that, I rediscovered how true to all of Scripture our theology is and that it does offer a full-orbed view of life and faith.  That is what I want for all of us in the PCA and that is the primary reason I want to see the influence of Lutheranism diminish.

It is my hope that we could get to a place where preaching Christ is code for preaching all of Christ; where a sermon rooted in Christ is not just rooted in his death.  It is my hope that our churches would be as well rounded as Scripture and we stop leaking people to more legalistic theologies.  It is not consistent with our theology to zero in on one concept within Scripture at the expense of everything else, and I am hopeful that will change.  It is my fear that we will someday switch grace for law - that has certainly been the story of church history.

The next post in this series will be the last.  It will be an overview of some things I am taking away from this study.

* DISCLAIMER - I am not critiquing the Lutheran Church or even formal/historical Luthern theology.  These posts address a form of Lutheran theology that is active in the Presbyterian Church in America.  Whether the critiques hold true outside the PCA, I would not be the judge.


This post is part of the the lutheran captivity of the church series (click to view the other posts in this series).