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Posts tagged "Luther"


Distinguishing Between Law and Gospel: A Brief Guide

This handy guide comes from the first appendix to our newest book, Law and Gospel: A Theology for Sinners (and Saints), coauthored by Will McDavid, Ethan Richardson, and David Zahl. Hope you enjoy:

The distinction between law and gospel is the highest art in Christendom
–Martin Luther

Mbird LAW AND GOSPEL Cover options4A strong belief of Luther, and those who follow in his footsteps, is that people should not be enticed to church by the Gospel and then, after believing, turn toward self-improvement. The Law always kills, and the Spirit always gives life. This death and resurrection of the believer is not a one-time event, but must be repeated continually: It is the shape of the Christian life. On Sundays, therefore, some form of the Law is ideally preached to kill, and the Gospel to vivify—“the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life” (2 Cor 3:6). But in many situations, the Law is mistakenly preached to give life, on the assumption that the believer, unlike the new Christian, has the moral strength to follow the guidelines. This leads to burnout, often producing agnostics or converts to Eastern Orthodoxy. Words like ‘accountability’ or ‘intentionality,’ for example, are sure signs that the letter, rather than the Spirit, is being looked to for life. To help distinguish this form of misguided Law from the Gospel, here’s a handy guide:

1. Listen for a distortion of the commandment: Anytime a hard commandment is softened, such as “Be perfect” (Mt 5:48) to “just do your best,” we’re looking to the Law, not the Gospel, for life.

2. Discern the balance of agency: If you’re in charge of making it happen, it’s misguided Law. If God’s in charge, it’s Gospel. If it’s a mixture, it’s Law.

3. Look for honesty: If you or others either seem ‘A-okay’ or ‘struggling, but…,’ then likely it’s because the Old Adam is alive and well (there will also be a horrible scandal in the next three months). If people are open and honest about their problems, such freedom shows the Gospel is at work.

4. Watch for exhaustion: If the yoke is hard and the burden heavy week after week, then the letter’s probably overpowering the Spirit.

5. Examine the language: If you hear ‘If… then,’ ‘Wouldn’t it be nice…,’ ‘We should all…,’ or anything else that smacks of the imperative voice, it’s implicit works-salvation. If you hear the indicative voice—‘God is…,’ ‘We are…,’ or ‘God will…’—then it’s probably Gospel.

6. Watch for the view of human nature, or anthropology: If human willpower, strength, or effort are being lauded or appealed to, it’s Law. High anthropology means low Christology, and vice-versa.

7. Finally, keep an eye out for the ‘Galatians effect,’ summarized by St. Paul:

Did you receive the Spirit by doing the works of the law or by believing what you heard? Are you so foolish? Having started with the Spirit, are you now ending with the flesh? Did you experience so much for nothing?—if it really was for nothing. Well then, does God supply you with the Spirit and work miracles among you by your doing the works of the law, or by your believing what you heard? (Gal 3:2-5)

If how you’re approaching or being told to approach Christianity now feels different from “believing what you heard,” we’re in Galatians territory. Christianity is Good News, and it never ceases to be Good News.

Grab your copy of L&G today!

Mining Netflix: Frasier and Niles Try to Magically Change Everything

A bit of a nostalgic, I’ve been finding myself vegging out lately to old episodes of Frasier. (Thank goodness for Netflix!). Perhaps you remember the premise. Always trying hard to be people who are well-recognized in society, Frasier and Niles are a restless duo: members of gentlemen’s clubs, wine-tasting societies, country clubs… the elite of […]

Man’s Prosthetic God: Technologies of Glory and the Still-Present Need for Salvation

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote some thoughts on identity and freedom, prompted in part by Apple’s iPad Air commercial. So to continue the theme of ads-from-tech-companies, I thought I might also offer just some brief comments on Microsoft’s ad from the Super Bowl, which is begging for religious reflection. (If you happened to […]

Coping with Our Failure to Be Happy: Moral Palliatives vs Repentance

Well, we’re probably nearing our yearly limit for writing about anxiety, and it’s only January, but great articles on the subject have been irrepressible. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that our increasing need to self-actualize, and increasing avenues for doing so, is a root behind the contemporary epidemic of nerves that had […]

Forde on the Bound (Religious) Will and Freedom

From Gerhard Forde’s Where God Meets Man, one of the most grace-packed bits of Lutheran theology out there, despite the retro cover design:

197424“It is in this theology of old versus new that we can see, finally, the reason for Luther’s formulation of the problem of bondage and freedom. The old Adam is totally bound. No compromise is possible with him. To allow him a ‘little bit’ of freedom is to open the doors to the whole sticky attempt to combine grace with his fraudulent spiritual ambitions. It is to bind man to his self-imposed legalisms and reduce God to his helper. It is to reintroduce the insipid piety of the ‘little bit.’ There is absolutely no way to cure this old Adam, no way to allow him into the picture. He is ‘totally depraved.’ He must die. And that is just what the Gospel means. The cross and resurrection sounds his death knell. Almighty God moves onto the scene to reclaim his own.

And so the gospel is the announcement and realization of total freedom. It is not a matter of little bits. God moves in Christ to raise up a new man – a completely free man – not just to do a partial repair job. When the old Adam is put to death one is set free from bondage to spiritual ambition, legalism, and tyranny. And Luther, for one, meant this quite literally. One is absolutely free. It is a total state.”

Another Week Ends: Blame Games, Law/Gospel Lunches, FOMO, Tom Wolfe, Lou Reed on Yeezus, Luther S3, and Middleton’s Law

Let the pinning commence – not sure what we were waiting for but Mbird is now on Pinterest! Pretty gratifying to see six year’s worth of visual silliness in one place. Also, pre-registration for our Fall Conference near Houston, TX opens next week, on August 1st. Theme this time will be “Overextended, Under God: Christian […]

From One Juliet to Another: Sufferers Comforting Sufferers

One of the criticisms of Gospel preaching is that it can, at times, be gloomy. “Do we have to hear about sin again?”, the complaint goes, “Do you have to be so down on humanity?”, “Can’t we talk about how great life is sometimes?”, “Can’t you give me some self-improvement tools?” To these voices the […]

A Lenten Devotion: The Difficulty of Receiving and the Greatness of the Giver

‘This day is holy to the Lord your God; do not mourn or weep.’ For all the people wept as they heard the words of the Law. Then he said to them, ‘Go your way. Eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions to anyone who has nothing ready, for this day is […]

Another Week Ends: AKB48, More Super Bowl, Seeing Cézanne, Failed Rehab, Humanity According to 30 Rock, Presumption vs Grace, and Creepy Lance Armstrong

1. In the “mea culpa” world this past week, Minami Minegishi of the hit Japanese band AKB48 was publicly lambasted and forced to apologize on YouTube, where people have watched her tearful confession roughly 5 million times, for the crime of staying a night with her boyfriend. No one’s ever done a fantastic job with managing celebrity […]

This Just In: In the Quest for Self-Improvement, Ideals Hinder, Don’t Help.

To be filed under “no duh” for any Mbirder (or anyone with the least bit of self-knowledge) comes this piece of news from NPR this morning: Skinny Models Undermine Dieting Goals. Dr. Anne Klesse, a researcher at Tilburg University in the Netherlands (as I’ve always said, if you ain’t Dutch, you ain’t much:) and her colleagues recently conducted […]

A Reformational History of the English Reformation, Part 1

In eager anticipation of the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation (not to happen, incidentally, for another five years), we’re doing a short, slightly speculative series on a Reformational history of the English Reformation. It also doubles as a book review of Hilary Mantel’s fantastic, Booker-winning Wolf Hall, the source for a fair amount of […]

Wrecking Ralph: Extinguishing the Quest for Glory

Score one for this year’s winter film season! With a half-dozen movies premiering on Mockingbird’s *must* see list (including The Hobbit, Les Mis, James Bond, Django Unchained…), Wreck-It-Ralph kicks off the winter with a pixelated parable of judgment, love, and identity so potent,  you half-expected to see Martin Luther listed as a guest-writer in the credits. Okay, […]