By Richard John Neuhaus (First Things, February 2009)
When I was a young Lutheran seminarian, I was struck by a professor’s forceful declaration that the phrase growth in grace is a contradiction in terms. The grace of the gospel of forgiveness is absolute, unqualified, perfect. It allows for no growth or improvement. The law of God, stating what God demands of us, is the enemy, from which our only refuge is the gospel. Put simply—but upon it entire theological systems have been constructed—the law is the bad news and the gospel is the good news. This is the well-known Lutheran dialectic of law and gospel, sometimes called a theology of paradox: an underscoring of the freedom of the Christian from the law.
This does not make it easy for Lutherans to pray, for instance, Psalm 119, which goes on and on about loving the law, cherishing the law, exulting in the law. Years later, in conversation with Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel about these matters, he remarked, “With your law–gospel antithesis, it seems to me that your law is our gospel.” That’s not quite right, yet not only Jews but most Christians through time have had no theological problem with the invitation of the psalmists to rejoice in the law of the Lord. Luther was fiercely insistent about the utter gratuitousness of God’s saving grace, lest faith be contaminated by any hint of pride or “works righteousness.” The preface to his commentary on Galatians, for instance, is an exhilarating display of uncompromised grace and faith, which has drawn the admiration of many non-Lutherans, including Wesleyans, as Methodists sometimes call themselves, and Catholics.
The same Luther, in his catechism’s explanations of the Ten Commandments, however, begins each with the words, “We should fear and love God so that . . .” The commandment to fear and love God is obviously the law, which is to be obeyed. We might even grow in obeying it, as in growth in grace—perhaps even in virtue. If Luther was not always consistent in the passion of his preaching and teaching, the theologians of Lutheranism would soon remedy the fault, creating an intellectually elaborate and relentless system that sought to seal every seam and plug every conceivable leak in the law–gospel dialectic.
Although he titled it Luther, W.H. Auden’s poem applies better to the systematizers of Lutheranism and those who preached the system:
With conscience cocked to listen for the thunder
He saw the Devil busy in the wind
Over the chimney steeples and then under
The doors of nuns and doctors who had sinned.
Lutherans do tend to lead useful lives. They are, all in all, law-abiding folk, despite their frequent pitting of the gospel against the law. Lutherans recognize that the law itself cannot be bad since it is given by God. So the law has its “uses”—some say two and some say three. The law has the indispensable use of accusing us of our sins and thus driving us to seek refuge in the forgiveness achieved by Christ. This use is the law as a mirror that shows us our need for the gospel. Second, the threat of God’s judgment as revealed in the law can serve as a restraint on the wicked. This use is the law as a curb that checks the human propensity for evil. In addition to these two uses of the law, there have been centuries of theological controversy over a third use: the law as a guide in the living of the Christian life. Opponents of this third use insist that it is a slippery slope leading to ideas such as “growth in grace,” which end up denying grace altogether. Give an inch to Pelagianism and the idea that we can cooperate with grace and Pelagius ends up taking the whole game.
What apparatus could stave off disaster
Or cut the brambles of man’s error down?
Flesh was a silent dog that bites its master,
World a still pond in which its children drown.
The fuse of Judgment spluttered in his head:
“Lord, smoke those honeyed insects from their hives;
All Works and all Societies are bad;
The Just shall live by Faith,” he cried in dread.
And men and women of the world were glad
Who never trembled in their useful lives.
Always the Same
Closely connected to the above, Lutherans have another key phrase: simul iustus et peccator—usually translated as “always, and at the same time, both justified and sinner.” This is often called the great paradox of the gospel. The phrase caused considerable difficulties leading up to the Lutheran–Catholic Joint Declaration on Justification, signed in Augsburg, Germany, in 1999. And after the signing as well, as is evident in the large number of Lutheran theologians and some ecclesial communities who roundly rejected the joint declaration. Catholic participants did their best to affirm the utterly gratuitous nature of grace while not compromising the truth of a universal call to holiness that, by God’s grace, entails real change in the person called, with the result that those whom we call saints are not the sinners they once were. They have grown in grace. They are still sinners, however. At the requiem Mass of every Catholic, whether of the saintly or wantonly wicked, the persistently repeated prayer is Lord, have mercy. This does not satisfy those for whom simul iustus et peccator has become a fixed dogma.
This reflection on law and gospel is prompted by a remarkable essay by Gilbert Meilaender, a Lutheran moral theologian and frequent contributor to these pages. (Lutherans do not use the term moral theologian, for reasons close to the heart of Meilaender’s concerns.) The essay is titled “Hearts Set to Obey” and appears in a collection edited by Carl Braaten and Christopher Seitz, I Am the Lord Your God: Christian Reflections on the Ten Commandments. Meilaender’s essay title is taken from a Collect for Peace used in Evening Prayer since at least the seventh century: “O God, from whom come all holy desires, all good counsels, and all just works: Give to us, your servants, that peace which the world cannot give, that our hearts may be set to obey your commandments. . . .” Hearts set to obey God’s commandments? Meilaender loves to pray that prayer but, given their construal of law and gospel, he understands why some Lutherans have problems with it.
Meilaender makes clear that he is offering a critique of a “a certain understanding of Lutheranism” that in its law–gospel dialectic “eventually arrives at a kind of practical antinomianism—which is all too readily accompanied by a strident moralism—but that, were it consistent, would have no reason to pray that our hearts may be set to obey God’s commandments.” This is evident today, for instance, in ELCA Lutheranism’s efforts to develop an ethics of human sexuality—and, very controversially, of homosexuality—accenting the “freedom of the gospel” and “the law of love” as liberation from the law, including the need to obey God’s commandments. It must be admitted that there are also Catholic theologians, sharply criticized by the magisterium, who teach that, if one has made a fundamental decision for Christ, then one may understand his words in John 14 to mean “If you love me, you need not keep my commandments.”
Meilaender quotes Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the heroic theologian-martyr killed by the Nazis, whose Ethics and other writings provided a powerful corrective to the distortions of the law–gospel dialectic. Discussing the ways of the Psalms in exulting in God’s law, Bonhoeffer wrote, “It is grace to know God’s commands.” “It is in no way contrary to the life of discipleship,” writes Meilaender, “that we should, again and again, experience ourselves as simply caught in the tension between the reality of our sin and the reality of God’s forgiveness. What is contrary to the path of discipleship is that we should rest content in that static condition, that we should not in prayer strain against it as we ask Christ’s Spirit to make the history of redemption an ever more effective reality in what we think, say, and do. ‘Strive,’ says the Letter to the Hebrews, ‘for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord.’”
The contrast is between Lutheranism’s “dialectical” framework and Catholicism’s “linear” framework. Meilaender writes, “For Catholicism, that is, the Christian life is understood as a via, a journey (destined ultimately to end in the vision of God). At least at its non-Pelagian best, Catholicism emphasizes prevenient grace, understanding it as the justifying power that makes possible gradual progress toward a holiness that is fit to stand before God.” In this framework one can affirm simul iustus et peccator, but the formula must be understood “quantitatively.” “Divine grace,” Meilaender writes, “is a power that gradually makes us ‘more and more’ righteous—less sinner, more saint, to put it a bit too crudely.”
The consequence of the dialectical law–gospel framework is that it keeps sending the Christian back to square one. Meilaender: “Grace is in no sense a power that enables us to become ‘more and more’ what God wills we should be; rather, grace is pardon that announces God’s acceptance of the sinner and thereby elicits the faith that puts sinners in right relation with God. That grace having been announced, there is no more to be said—other than to say it ‘again and again.’” In fact, serious struggle to grow in righteousness, to obey God’s commands more fully, is sometimes viewed as sin, since it deflects attention from the extrinsic righteousness of Christ to one’s own spiritual and moral efforts. “Expressing a sinful preoccupation with self, such concern simply demonstrates that, in ourselves, we are indeed wholly and entirely slaves to sin.”
Complacency or Despair
In the preaching and pastoral care derived from this dialectical theology, the person addressed is either “complacent man” or “despairing man.” “If complacent, he must be brought to despair; if despairing, he is ready to hear the gospel.” Moreover, it is sometimes suggested that, if one is not despairing, one is complacent, and the goal is then to bring the “bad news” of the law to bear in order to produce the despair that makes one ready to hear the “good news” of the gospel. Yet in our own experience of the Christian life, and the experience of those whom we encounter every day, we know that spiritual states are not limited to complacency or despair. There is also the working out of our salvation with “fear and trembling,” as St. Paul says, and also with faith, gratitude, and a sense of joyful adventure. It is grace all the way, but, in the story of salvation as well as in the life of individual Christians, grace has a history. It is not simply a perpetual and radical oscillation between complacency and despair, an “again and again” returning to where we began.
Grace, says Meilaender, is not only the “imputed” righteousness of Christ but the “imparted” possibility to live and grow in his righteousness. Grace is not only “pardon” but also “power.” Meilaender concludes by returning to that seventh-century collect in Evening Prayer: “We should pray God to put an end to the simul, that our hearts may be set to obey. The command of God, which calls for our obedience, comes to us day by day as the command of the One whose grace has been revealed in the face of Jesus Christ. And because that is true, because we must say ‘Amen’ to him, we should listen for the promise in the commands of the Decalogue: You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and mind. You shall become a child who loves the Father, a bride eager to greet her bridegroom, a creature who loves the Creator from whom comes life and every good thing. . . . All this you shall be. And to trust that promise—the promise that we shall become people whose hearts are set to obey God’s commandments—is both our duty and delight.”
To be sure, not all Lutherans live their lives by the severe law–gospel dialectic described by Meilaender. As Auden’s poem suggests, formal doctrine is often divorced from lived reality. Lutheran textbooks do treat of sanctification as well as justification, but usually very gingerly, lest interest in the former compromise the truth of the latter. Sanctification’s interest in transformative grace must be kept in close check, lest it become a fatal distraction from what really matters—the imputed grace of Christ’s righteousness. The two states of theological and salvational significance are complacency and despair. Once complacency is shattered by the law and despair relieved by the gospel, what follows is, at best, a footnote.
Debates will continue about whether Luther’s sola gratia and sola fide were a necessary and inspired response to late-medieval corruptions. This will intensify in the years of preparation leading up to the five-hundredth observation of the Reformation in 2017, in which Catholics are also actively participating. As will debates continue about the continuity between Luther and later Lutheran theologians, including the architects of the radical law–gospel dialectic. Gilbert Meilaender’s “Hearts Set to Obey” is, from the Lutheran side, an invaluable contribution to these deliberations.
About the same time I read Meilaender’s essay, Benedict XVI gave a general audience touching on Martin Luther’s doctrine of justification by grace through faith. Benedict is a close and appreciative student of Luther and has made inestimable contributions to healing the breach of the sixteenth century between Rome and the Reformation. Luther’s doctrine of justification is correct, if care is taken not to oppose faith to charity, the pope said.
St. Paul’s conversion, says Benedict, “changed his life radically. He began to regard all his merits, achievements of a most honest religious career, as ‘loss’ in the face of the sublimity of knowledge of Jesus Christ. . . . It is precisely because of this personal experience of the relationship with Jesus that Paul places at the center of his gospel an irreducible opposition between two alternative paths to justice: one based on the works of the law, the other founded on the grace of faith in Christ,” the pope explained. “The alternative between justice through the works of the law and justice through faith in Christ thus becomes one of the dominant themes that runs through his letters.”
Benedict then takes up Meilaender’s set of concerns. In order to understand this Pauline teaching, he said, “we must clarify what is the ‘law’ from which we have been freed and what are those ‘works of the law’ that do not justify.” “Already in the community of Corinth there was the opinion, which will return many times in history, which consisted in thinking that it was a question of the moral law, and that Christian freedom consisted therefore in being free from ethics. . . . It is obvious that this interpretation is erroneous: Christian liberty is not libertinism; the freedom of which St. Paul speaks is not freedom from doing good.”
Instead, Benedict said, the law to which Paul refers is the “collection of behaviors extending from an ethical foundation to the ritual and cultural observances that substantially determined the identity of the just man—particularly circumcision, the observance regarding pure food and general ritual purity, the rules regarding observance of the Sabbath, etc.”
These observances served to protect Jewish identity and faith in God; they were “a defense shield that would protect the precious inheritance of the faith,” he remarked. But at the moment of Paul’s encounter with Christ, the Apostle “understood that with Christ’s resurrection the situation had changed radically.”
“The wall—so says the Letter to the Ephesians—between Israel and the pagans was no longer necessary,” Benedict said. “It is Christ who protects us against polytheism and all its deviations; it is Christ who unites us with and in the one God; it is Christ who guarantees our true identity in the diversity of cultures; and it is he who makes us just. To be just means simply to be with Christ and in Christ. And this suffices. Other observances are no longer necessary.”
Because of this, Benedict explains, Luther’s expression “by faith alone” is true “if faith is not opposed to charity, to love. Faith is to look at Christ, to entrust oneself to Christ, to be united to Christ, to be conformed to Christ, to his life. And the form, the life of Christ, is love; hence, to believe is to be conformed to Christ and to enter into his love.”
“Paul knows,” he added, “that in the double love of God and neighbor the whole law is fulfilled. Thus the whole law is observed in communion with Christ, in faith that creates charity. We are just when we enter into communion with Christ, who is love.” Benedict’s reflection is strikingly similar to the argument of “The Gift of Salvation,” the 1997 statement of Evangelicals and Catholics Together. Salvation is by faith alone, but living faith is never alone. Put differently, justification is not so much a doctrine as a person, the person Jesus Christ.
Growth in grace is nothing less than growth in Christ. Meilaender’s problems with a law–gospel dialectic, which leaves room only for complacency or despair