Lutherans, Sanctification, and the Idiot Next Door


You drove me to this: And you know who you are! You comboxers who jump into every discussion the minute the phrase “Third Use of the Law” is typed to scream about confusing law and gospel.

Forget about “third use”: sanctification seems to be the third rail of Lutheran polemics. Talk about “good works” and you may as well sit in a corner with one of those conical hats that reads “semi-pelagian.”

Recently, a discussion broke out over at Steadfast Lutherans, called “Aversion to Sanctification,” which pulled no punches and spoke to this issue adroitly. It made so much sense you would think there was no way anyone could find cause to object. Ah, but you don’t know Lutherans! Read the comments!

Let me offer one more perspective on why this seeming inability to preach sanctification from the pulpit is doing some serious spiritual harm.

We hear the law. We hear the gospel. We hear what Christ has done for us at Calvary. We confess our sins. We receive the sacrament. All necessary. All good.

Over time, though, some begin to sense an emptiness that, rather than being filled by Word and sacrament, widens. See, there’s Jesus’s blood—his righteousness—which is the covering that God sees instead of me, and there’s my sin. But the two—the white garment that is Christ’s holiness and my miserable sinful carcass—never quite meet. Between the two is this space that remains empty. We’re not quite sure what’s supposed to go there. And after time, if that space is not dealt with, the question becomes, Why do I still feel so empty? I thought Christianity was the answer: or is it merely Protestantism that is the problem? 

Give it a year, and EWTN’s Journey Home program has yet another ex-Lutheran as a guest yucking it up with Marcus Grodi.

It’s not that Lutheran pastors are doing something wrong. It’s that too many are not doing something that many of their congregants wish they would do, and that’s give them the spiritual tools they need to deepen a sense of becoming—becoming more and more of what they are already by virtue of their baptism. Becoming more like Christ.

The great exchange that is Luther’s great contribution to our understanding of redemption is not only a covering over of sin but a real gift of Christ’s righteousness—of Christ Himself. Some are afraid to call this “union” with Christ. Call it whatever you will. But we receive Christ Himself in the sacrament and we receive His righteousness through faith. They are outside us, in that they are alien to our nature, but they are also truly ours—as gift.

What does that mean for our walk of faith?

My sense is that many pastors are convinced that if they preach personal holiness or sanctification as something we do (!), they’d be misleading the congregation, pointing them down the road to Rome or a legalistic evangelicalism—which is to say, they’d be acting very un-Lutheran.

Is that the case, then? Is there no room for personal sanctification, personal spiritual growth, in the Lutheran faith? Is it always merely a matter of confession and waiting out the eventual disintegration of the flesh?

Shall we say that, in the Lutheran way of construing the faith, to practice personal sanctification is a mere pretense, the usurping of the role Christ should play in our lives—or rather did play in AD 33?

Yesterday, Gene Veith posted an excerpt from a sermon from his pastor, James Douthwaite, that I thought perfectly avoided the Charybdis of “aversion” and the Scylla of “try harder, you miserable backsliders!”

What does it mean to be set free from idolatry, from selfishness, and from fear? It means the freedom to forgive because I am forgiven. It is the freedom to love because I am loved. It is the freedom to give because I receive. It means the freedom to serve because I am served. It is the freedom to provide for others because my Father provides for me. All these things and more because I cannot out-give my Father and Saviour. And as I believe, so I do. I will show you my faith – what I believe – by how I live, by my works.

He goes on to address the problem of not doing these things:

[I]f you find yourself struggling to do these things, you know what? It’s not a works problem! And so the answer isn’t just to buckle down and try harder or for me to stand up here and either give you a pep talk or berate you. … No, if we find ourselves not doing these things or struggling with them, it’s a faith problem. Not that you don’t have faith, but that our faith is sometimes weak and that faith is often hard. And so the answer is to be ephphatha-ed again, to be opened again, to receive again and again the love and forgiveness and healing of Jesus here for you. For that is what changes you. That is what raises you. That is what makes the difference.

Bingo. On the money. The Lutheran difference.

But I would thicken that Lutheran difference just a bit. One complaint about Christians, especially in their do-gooding best, is that we’re merely trying to earn brownie points for heaven. We’re being driven on by a fear of God and a hope of eternal reward. That we are incapable of true altruism—of doing good for its own sake.

Enter Luther. Luther took the vertical direction of “meritorious works”—what I do in obedience to God’s law in order to merit more grace, more sanctification, more justification—and repositioned it as a strictly horizontal relationship: not one between me and God but one between me and my neighbor.

Now there are plenty of ex-Reformed, ex-Calvinists on the Journey Home show too. And no one can accuse the Reformed of not emphasizing sanctification. But here’s the difference. For Reformed believers, good works are ostensibly evidence of one’s election. That empty space is there for many Reformed as well, in the form of doubt that one is elect. And one of the ways to allay such doubt is to see how the Spirit is working out my faith in good works. 

Luther redirects this concern as well. Rather than looking at ourselves, looking inward, he has us remember our death with Christ and rebirth in the waters of baptism. Once we come to the realization that our salvation was secured—and is secure—we are free now to look after our neighbors’ needs (and even those of strangers across the globe). Our neighbor becomes not a means to an end—our spiritual end—but an end in and of himself. He becomes de-objectified. She is no longer a notch on our “good works” belt to be displayed before a dubious deity at the end of history. We are freed both from something—sin, death, and the anxieties that accompany religious scrupulosity—and for something: benefiting others. It may be in our vocation as teacher, preacher, fire fighter, doctor, police officer, or plumber. But also in simply acts of charity, generosity, forgiveness, and patience with the idiot next door.

Here is the great irony to me: the rap against Lutherans is that they suffer from a kind of quietism, if not an out and out antinomianism. But in fact, Lutherans have an opportunity to make a unique contribution in our understanding of what it means to be good and to do good. The resources are all there: in the scriptures first and foremost and also in the confessions.

Once the pulpit starts playing a more consistent role, the “antinomian” and “quietist” Lutherans may finally awaken to their full potential in the body of Christ.


25 thoughts on “Lutherans, Sanctification, and the Idiot Next Door

  1. I would not call it a faith problem because I equate faith with its object, Jesus. I would call it an Old Adam problem which constantly wants to reject that faith and that Lord.


    1. For a descendant of the mighty Vikings to withdraw from the lists! That’s heresy, sir!

      (Or have I unintentionally mixed my metaphors?)


  2. Great post. It’s really just Christian freedom.

    For Lutherans, things take their definitions from their outside observers, not inherent qualities. Since the Word tells us we are defined in Christ as saved, forgiven, holy, Christian, we can, and must, ignore any contrary definition given by the world or by ourselves. That is true freedom. But the purpose of it is to free us to love others for their own sake. Tha Law tells us how that should look, but no longer defines us.


  3. I appreciate your insight:
    “Our neighbor becomes not a means to an end—our spiritual end—but an end in and of himself. He becomes de-objectified. She is no longer a notch on our “good works” belt to be displayed before a dubious deity at the end of history. We are freed both from something—sin, death, and the anxieties that accompany religious scrupulosity—and for something: benefiting others. It may be in our vocation as teacher, preacher, fire fighter, doctor, police officer, or plumber. But also in simply acts of charity, generosity, forgiveness, and patience with the idiot next door.”

    Christians do good works because our neighbor needs them. The fact that there is the sinner part of me doing these outward acts of care under of the compulsion of the law and self-interest and the saint part of me doing them out of pure love of God does not exempt me from doing good works nonetheless. That’s the upshot of FC VI. The self-absorbed analysis of which part of my saint/sinner these works are coming from is beyond me–out of my control. All I can do is revisit my baptism, where daily my old nature is drowned and the new nature of Christ raised up and trust the Holy Spirit to sort things out in His own way and move the purification of the heart forward in His own time.

    What muddies things up, however, is when we move from Jesus’ overarching command to “love one another” (so eloquently described in the quote from Pastor Douthwaite) to specific actions. The post you cite from Steadfast Luterhans begins with a statement that suggests that listening to Eminem’s work is something a Christian should not be doing. That may well be; I am no fan of Eminem. But where does one draw the line? And who gets the say as to where the line is drawn for you and me?

    I have been following and admiring your writing on the web for quite a while now both at Luther at the Movies and then in this blog. As a critic (and thus a consumer) of popular culture, you have shown that Christians can and should know and engage the art, music, and film being put out there, even if it is to simply excoriate them unmercifully.Many of the TV shows and films you have watched (and sometimes even admitted to enjoying) present themes and attitudes that are just as objectionable from the point of view of the Law of God as Eminem’s “music”. Yet you have shown that sometimes even these can serve understanding and proclaiming the Gospel to the world we are living in now.


    1. Steve, thanks for this.

      You write: “who gets the say as to where the line is drawn for you and me?”

      Is there no room for pastoral counsel–or scriptural insight? There may be no hard and fast line for everyone: what I would find acceptable in terms of movie or TV viewing, especially given my film-history/criticism background, might be deemed intolerable, and yes, even sinful, for someone else. A certain critical distance may be required not to be adversely affected by a lot of the junk in pop culture (which is why I would be much more Draconian with a child’s viewing habits), and so we can agree to disagree about where to draw the foul lines for adults (taking into consideration also their vocation).

      So we can nit and pick over particular examples, and we want to avoid some laundry list of don’ts that reduces the Christian life to one long obstacle course that is constantly interrupting our peace. But that we should be at least thinking about the choices we make in light of our life in Christ is inescapable. Because Jesus did not come with another list of rules, per se (and who needed them? between the scribes, the Pharisees, and the Romans, the world was FILLED with rules, laws, and obligations), does not mean we can avoid internalizing more of what it means to bear the title “Christian” in a world that hates Christ.


  4. Ah, heck, it is too much fun, I just have to throw some more Lutheran goodness into the mix:

    Indeed, there is an “aversion” to speaking plainly to God’s people about the “How is this done?” after we have answered the question, “What does this mean?”

    Some Lutherans have embraced a “don’t ask/don’t tell” approach to teaching and preaching clear, practical sermons about good works, Luther contradicts these views:

    “The lawmonger compels with threats and punishments; the preacher of grace persuades and incites men by reminding them of the goodness and mercy of God which they have experienced, for he wants no unwilling works or grudging service; he wants men to render a glad and joyous service to the Lord. Whoever will not let himself be moved and drawn by the consoling and lovely words of God’s mercy, granted to and bestowed on us without measure in Christ, so that he gladly and joyfully does all this to the glory of God and the welfare of his neighbor, amounts to nothing and all labor is wasted on him. How can laws and threats soften him to do God’s will, whom such fire of heavenly love and grace does not soften and melt? It is not man’s mercy but God’s compassion that we have received and that St. Paul sets before us to urge and impel us.” (St. L. XII:318 f.)


  5. Some more Lutheran goodness on these issues…

    The Augsburg Confession and the Apology set forth the reasons thus: It is necessary to do good works commanded by God, not that we may trust to earn grace by them, but because of the will and command of God, likewise to exercise faith, and for the sake of confession and giving of thanks. Urbanus Rhegius, in the booklet De formulis caute loquendi, summarizes the reasons in this way:

    I. Because our good works are due obedience commanded by God which we creatures owe the Creator, and they are as it were thanksgiving for the favors of God and sacrifices pleasing to God because of Christ.

    II. That our heavenly Father might be glorified thereby.

    III. That our faith might be exercised and increased by our good works, so that it may grow and be stirred up.

    IV. That our neighbor might be edified by our good works and spurred to imitation and be helped in need.

    V. That we might make our calling sure by good works and testify that our faith is neither feigned nor dead.

    VI. Though our good works do not merit either justification or salvation, yet they are to be done, since they have promises of this life and of that which is to come. 1 Ti 4:8.

    In Loci communes Philipp Melanchthon lists in this order the reasons why good works are to be done:

    I. Because it is God’s command, and we are debtors.

    II. Lest faith be lost and the Holy Spirit grieved and driven out.

    III. To avoid punishments.

    IV. Since our works, though they do not fulfill the law of God and not merit eternal life, are nevertheless called by God sacrifices that both please and serve Him for the sake of Christ.

    V. Since godliness has promises of this life and of that which is to come.

    Luther sets forth the reasons why good works are to be done in such a way that, if they were briefly summarized, the list would be about this:

    First, some have regard to God Himself, namely since it is the will of God (1 Th 4:3) and the command of God (1 Jn 4:21). And since He is our Father, it therefore behooves us children to render obedience to the Father (1 Ptr 1:14, 16–17; 1 Jn 3:2–3). And as He loved us and graciously forgave [our] sins, so we also should love the brethren, forgiving them [their] sins (Eph 4:32; 1 Jn 4:11), that God might be glorified through us (Ph 1:1; 1 Ptr 4:11; Mt 5:16). Christ also redeemed us, that, being dead to sins, we might live unto righteousness and serve Him (1 Ptr 2:24; 2 Co 5:15; Tts 2:10; Lk 1:74–75; Gl 5:25). Nor should we grieve the Holy Spirit (Eph 4:30; 1 Th 4:8).

    II. Some motivating reasons for good works have regard to the reborn themselves. For since we are dead to sins, we ought therefore no longer walk in sins but live unto righteousness (Ro 6:2, 18; 2 Co 5:17; Eph 5:8, 11). Likewise, that we might have sure testimony that our faith is not false, feigned, or dead, but true and living [faith], which works by love (1 Jn 2:9–10; 3:6, 10; 4:7–8; 2 Ptr 1:8; Mt 7:17; Gl 5:6). And that we might not drive out faith, grieve the Holy Spirit, [and] lose righteousness and salvation (1 Ti 1:19; 5:8; 6:10; 1 Ptr 2:11; 2 Ptr 1:9; 2:20; Ro 8:13; Gl 5:21; Cl 3:6; Eph 4:30). And that we might not draw divine punishments on ourselves (1 Co 6:9–10; 1 Th 4:6; Mt 3:10; 25:30; Lk 6:37; Ps 89:31–32).

    III. Some reasons have regard to the neighbor, namely that the neighbor be helped and served by good works (Lk 14:13; 1 Jn 3:16–18). That [our] neighbor might be drawn to godliness by our example (Mt 5:16; 1 Ptr 3:1). That we be not an offense to others (1 Co 10:32; 2 Co 6:3; Ph 2:15; Heb 12:15). That we might stop the mouths of adversaries (1 Ptr 2:12; 3:16; Tts 2:7–8). And it is unimportant in what order the reasons are listed because of which good works are to be done, provided the Scripture basis of this article is retained complete and pure.

    Martin Chemnitz and Luther Poellot, Ministry, Word, and Sacraments : An Enchiridion, electronic ed., 98-99 (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1999).


    1. As this clearly demonstrates: the resources are all there. And you could probably run a six-month-long series of sermons just unpacking Melanchthon’s list: “To avoid punishments”!! Oh my goodness, you’ll be cleaning rotten fruit out of the collection plate after that one…

      I was going to include a coda, if more motivation was needed for good works than just gratitude: Because Jesus is Lord, but I didn’t want to be accused of sentimentality…


  6. A clear conscience, formed and trained by God’s law and made clean by the Gospel, is what impels me to do good works through my vocations. I’m not convinced that stronger preaching on sanctification is going to add much in terms of the works I do for my neighbor.

    That said, I really have nothing against the idea that we really are expected to increase in good works and love for the neighbor in the Christian life. I’m not one who’s going to wear a T-shirt that says “Weak on Sanctification” because, while it may be true, it is certainly not something to brag about! My lack of good works, of charity, of energy on behalf of my neighbor, is something I constantly have to take back to the Lord in confession.

    Something that helps me with this conundrum is Jesus’ teaching on the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25. Crucially, those whom the Lord identifies as righteous are unaware of all the good works that they have been doing! The righteousness imputed to them has been manifested in real good works that Jesus takes personally, as if they were done to him personally.

    So what I really need to hear from the pulpit from time to time is that as we live under the cross, we really are increasing in righteousness whether we think we are or not. More likely, the more we meditate on the law, the more we realize what hopeless basket cases we are in the flesh. As for the goats who are ignorant of God’s sky-high standards, they think they are living a pretty good life, but are deluded.

    Excellent discussion! You, Mr. Sacramone, are a treasure. Keep kicking us where it hurts.


  7. This is great Anthony. The Christian life is certainly one of daily repentance.

    I kind of like a relationship where I’m commanded to DO something, knowing that Christ is the standard and I’ll never do it like he does it. At least God isn’t arbitrary or capricious about what His standard is.

    I’ve always believed, underlying the Benediction is a directive also, “Go and SIN NO MORE. But since you won’t, come back next service to receive Word and Sacrament for the forgiveness of your sins.”


  8. I agree with you whole heartedly, Anthony. The resources are out there and pastors need to use, preach, and teach them constantly. And it does take time to do it right–with the care that avoids Scylla and Charybdis. At the same time there comes a point where differences as to how to apply the Law to specific situations will arise between Christians. This does not mean that at some level it simply comes down to to individual choice. We remain members one of another and it is important we seek to find understanding and concensus among ourselves even in these cases. I think this is where Paul’s talk about the “weak” and the “strong” in Romans and 1 Corinthians come into play.


  9. Had some more thoughts…these discussions continue to help me refine my concerns with this issue. Here’s the latest version of my thinking, subject to change with, or without, notice.


    OK, I know, that word “parenesis” is one of those big “pastor words,” let me explain. It is pronounced “pair-uh-knee-sis,” by the way. What does it mean? Here is how a reference work defines it:

    Greek παραίνεσις/paraínesis (from παραινέω/parainéō) means “advice, counsel, exhortation.” Among the Stoics, the term can be used for the part of philosophy that hortatively expounds the practical conclusions of their teaching (Sen. Ep. 95.1). (” Parenesis.” Religion Past and Present. Edited by Hans Dieter Betz, Don S. Browning, Bernd Janowski and , Eberhard Jüngel. Brill Online , 2012. Reference. 14 September 2012).

    Let me give you some examples from the Bible of what Christian parenesis is, what it “sounds like” when you bump into this kind of “advice, counsel and exhortation” in the Scriptures.

    Just click on these links and you will read beautiful parenesis:

    Phil 4:5-7; Matt 6:25; Prov 16:3; 1 Cor 7:32; Psalm 37:5 etc . etc. etc.

    There are debates that continue to ebb and flow over whether or not sermons should ever conclude with “the law” and since, as the theory goes being advocated by some, anything that commands something of us, or demands something of us, or exhorts us to do something, is “law,” and because the “law always accuses,” as our Lutheran Confessions clearly assert, no sermon should ever end with “the law” or else people will only hear the accusing Law and the Gospel preached will somehow be overwhelmed, clouded, obscured, or otherwise set to the side because of the fact that “the law” has been used to end the sermon. That’s the theory.

    I’ve even had pastors tell me, as recently as a day or two ago, that the sermons of the Church Fathers, Martin Luther, and CFW Walther were simply wrong, because they often end a sermon with “the law.” Seriously, I’m not making this up. There such fear of being “like the Evangelicals,” whose sermons give clear, practical advice and exhortation to Christian believers, to a degree that often leaves the Gospel behind, that some counter this problem by thinking they should not do it at all, or only very little, or without any intentionality in their sermons.

    It is undeniable that thoughout the Scriptures there is plenty of “parenesis” and if we read that only as a word of Law that exposes our sin we are, to be blunt, misinterpreting the Holy Scriptures. It’s just that simple. It is therefore clearly wrong to assert that a sermon should either never include specific Christian parenesis, or never end with it. That is simply, and quite entirely, completely wrong. Jesus does it. St. Paul does it. The Psalmist does it. In other words, God Himself, does it. So preachers should not hesitate to do it.

    I’m not saying that every sermon has to end with it, of course. But the problem in some Lutheran preaching today that is averse to doing it is that the sermon simply, at the end, falls into a fairly predictable pattern and ends up always being a lecture on justification by grace alone, through faith alone, regardless of what happens to be in the actual text theoretically being used as the basis for a sermon. Text become pretext for yet another, usually all too brief, 10-12 minute, little pulpit chat. Lay people notice this and notice “something” is missing from sermons like this. And they are not wrong.

    Here’s the bottom line, as far as I’m concerned.

    The Holy Scriptures, the Lutheran Confessions, the Church Fathers, including our specifically Lutheran Church Fathers … none of these sources ever avoid parenesis in preaching.

    Whence, then, this odd departure from the entire consensus of the Holy Scriptures, the Lutheran Confessions, and the great consensus of the Church’s teachers, preachers and theologians?

    What is the source of this misunderstanding? I haven’t quite figured it out yet.


    1. Unfortunately, none of this comes as a surprise. This has been my experience, which of course is what precipitated my post.

      What’s interesting is that this deep denial among orthodox Lutherans is a mirror image of what you see in “mainline” Lutheranism (read: the ELCA) — the law/gospel distinction gets pulled out of the context of a much deeper theology and is used as a hammer against whatever “behavior” one wants suddenly to approve of or at least remainder to the adiaphora file.

      As I said to Steve, you don’t need to craft a laundry lists of dont’s. But you do need to remind the congregation that we are a “called-out people,” and then unpack what that means in terms of the choices we make. I think that message is very compelling — and necessary — for teens especially.


  10. By the way, it is again a bit amusing and frustrating, combined, to notice how some of the “Steadfast Lutherans” over on that web site are quite steadfastly unwilling to correct their misunderstandings about these issues and insist on going contrary to the “magnus consensus” of the church catholic, not to mention our own Lutheran Divines on these issues.

    Oh, well.


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