“So why aren’t you a Lutheran?”
That was the question asked to a candidate being examined for an interim pastoral position on the floor of Washington Presbytery last night. The statement of faith that we were given prior to the examination was thoroughly Reformed (and quite well written), but his biography informed us that he was raised Lutheran, completed his undergraduate studies at a Lutheran school, and split his time in seminary between a non-denomination seminary and a Lutheran one. Thus the question from a fellow presbyter.
I found his response quite interesting–and not entirely what I expected.
He shared a personal story about how he had really come to faith through a Presbyterian church, but upheld the “family tradition” of attending a Lutheran college. Feeling the call to ministry, he even studied at a Lutheran seminary. “But”, he said, “it did come down to theology.”
Specifically, he shared how the Lutheran approach to the Law felt incomplete to him. Luther–and most of those who bear his name ecclesiastically–emphasize what are called the first and second “uses” of the Law. The ‘first use’ views the Law as that which reveals our sin and drives us to Christ while the ‘second use’ views the Law as the means by which sin is restrained in society. (see the links to my previous posts for more)
This wasn’t enough for him, he said, and it was when he encountered Reformed thinking and the positive approach that it takes to the Law–often called the ‘third use‘–he was captivated by this robust view. Simply put, the ‘third use’ (a distinctive of Reformed theology) views the Law as normative for those whom the Spirit has brought from death to life in Christ. It reveals to us how we are to live in grateful response to the One who rescued us from the grave. (again, see my previous post for more)
The Law indeed still does expose our sin and drive us to the Savior and is also the means by which sin is restrained in society, but this candidate shared that his experience with Lutheran theology and piety produced a frequent sense of penitent guilt and intense spiritual introspection. It was only when he understood the Reformed view that he could see the Law as also a good and heavenly blessing which reveals to us the way in which we are to live as we grow more and more into the image of Jesus Christ.
Related to this was his dissatisfaction with Luther’s “two kingdoms” view (i.e. the separate spheres of the spiritual and secular kingdoms) and the captivating vision he found in Reformed thinking. Whereas the former can produce an insulated and separatist mentality in the church, the latter looks to the transformation of society through the proclamation of the Gospel and the advancement of the kingdom that Christ is building by Word and Spirit. Because Christ is Lord of all, the spiritual/secular divide and the idea that one is subject to him while the other is not is a false dichotomy.
I found his answer to be a refreshing reminder of one of the distinct aspects of Reformed thought. There is a joy to be found in the Law when we see it as the means by which we faithfully serve the Lord and are continually conformed to the image of our Risen Lord. I suppose I’ve often taken this view for a given because I’ve grown up with it, but it was encouraging to hear how invigorating this understanding can be if we’ve never heard it before.
I’m grateful today for that reminder and for the corresponding challenge: to once again humbly seek the will of the Lord who has exposed my sin and revealed his design for my life through his Law.
I appreciated the examination response last night and this followup. Well done on both accounts.
I agree. Not the answer that I expected, but an interesting and thought-provoking one. Thanks Justin!
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I came across this post on Twitter, and admittedly have not read any of the background or other articles you list here. But from this post, it seems to me that this man is really confused on the differences between Reformed and Lutheran theology/history. The Lutheran and Reformed doctrine of the Law and Christian obedience are identical. Read Luther’s catechism and compare it to Calvin and the WCF. The ’emphasis’ allegation may perhaps be true in our experience and observation of Lutheran practice, but it cannot be demonstrated by the facts of history and the confessions. And Two Kingdom theology was certainly taken to a new and unique level with Luther’s formulation of it, but it is also thoroughly Reformed as well. The Patristics, Augustine, Calvin, and others we’d associate with Reformed theology held to and taught 2KT. So I must say, I find this post rather interesting.
Thanks for reading and commenting. I agree that this candidate oversimplified a rather nuanced matter, and I also agree with you that there is great harmony between the Lutheran and Reformed confessions on the use of the Law, though Luther’s own writings don’t always seem to show this same harmony. In his Galatians commentary, for example, he specifically affirms only the first two uses of the Law, and writes, “To those who abide in Christ, the law is dead forever”. That view seems to be what is typically put into practice by many Lutherans over against the more carefully articulated confessional statements. However, if the potential trap for Lutheran theology is to minimize the normative use of the Law, then it must be said that the potential trap for Reformed theology is to fall into a legalistic application of it. As for the two kingdoms, I’m not sure that I’d say that Calvin and Luther (or their followers) took the same approach to this, but, again, it is admittedly more nuanced than indicated above. I didn’t intend to be comprehensive with this post, only to share the rather interesting comments that I heard while examining a candidate for ministry. Thanks again for the feedback!
Thanks for the reply. Again – I’m not claiming that we cannot observe differences in practices. What I am saying is that I cannot find a difference between Luther and Calvin in their writings on the place of the law in the Christian life. Luther’s catechism is just so clear –it puts all this talk to rest about what Luther really taught. And Luther clearly taught that good works are an evidence of conversion. He wasn’t shy about saying that whoever doesn’t have good works doesn’t have faith –something that, admittedly, some Lutherans now days would not feel comfortable saying.
Certainly Luther affirmed the need for good works in the life of a believer while denying their role in salvation. (I’ve always appreciated his famous statement that “God does not need your good works, but your neighbor does”.) But without trying to overstate the differences, I think there is a distinction–even in the confessions–when it comes to how, specifically, the Law relates to these works. In his Small Catechism, Luther begins with an exposition of the Law and concludes it with the brief statement “we should, therefore, love and trust in him, and gladly obey his Commandments”. In comparison, the Heidelberg Catechism, as a chief example of Reformed confessional thought, places its exposition of the Law after its treatment of grace and salvation, and begins by saying that good works are “only those which proceed from a true faith, are performed according to the law of God, and to his glory”. It then goes on to expound the Ten Commandments, and in each case describes not only what we should not do but also what we should do in response to grace. So it’s not as though one camp affirms good works while the other denies it (either in their confessions or their practice) but rather that the Reformed specifically use the Law as that which reveals what those works are to be and place their confessional expositions of it in a way that highlight its role in our discipleship. I don’t think this is a theological point over which to break communion, but it is worth noting. Thanks again for the thoughtful responses!
Yes, I’m sure there are some slight differences and nuances between Luther and other reformed writings on the subject. We could hardly expect otherwise! Especially since Luther was the trailblazer of the Reformation, and true refining and formulation of protestant/Reformed doctrine came later. For example, we’d never hold up the WCF and expect Luther to anticipate the formulation of doctrine and phraseology of that time.
But here’s the point: in the post above, you are pitting Luther and Reformed as *against* each other. While I believe that history is very clear that small differences of nuance do not warrant this. There is no real difference between Luther and the Reformers on this issue. Frankly, it’s an urban legend and cannot bear the facts of history. Phraseology and nuances do not account as a real or distinguishable difference, for we all express things in our own unique way.