May 9, 2019
Pastor Rolf David Preus
Some of you know that John Fehrmann is the Bishop of the World. No one knows who ordained him Bishop of the World. Maybe he ordained himself. What you may not know is that he ordained me Bishop of America thirty some years ago. It’s not that I pay much attention to what he says – I mean, we’re antinomians, right? On the list of authorities I choose to ignore, episcopal authority is right near the top. But when he tells me to preach, I should consider it.
Preaching is good. On Sunday morning after a few cups of coffee. But after a drink or two, some wine, and a good meal a sermon might put you to sleep. Still, John asked and so here I am.
But his request is troubling. I am supposed to preach. Preaching is good. But look at what I am to preach. It says, “Preaching antinomianism.” It doesn’t say preach about antinomianism, in which case I could preach against it. It doesn’t say talk about antinomian preaching. No, it’s quite clear. It says, “Preaching antinomianism.”
Based on what has been said at this conference so far, we conclude that antinomianism is bad. One could even call it false doctrine not to be tolerated in the church of God, much less excused and defended. We are faced with a moral quandary. The bishop of the World asks the Bishop of America to preach false doctrine.
We should not be shocked when a bishop instructs his subordinates to preach false doctrine. If the Bishop of Rome can do it, surely the Bishop of the World can do it. Well, let’s see what we can do. First things first. Choose a text. Antinomians don’t need lectionaries. We just open up our Bible and point our finger, trusting in divine guidance. What do we find? Galatians! Why if ever there was a manifesto against the law it’s St. Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians! How about these words from Galatians 5?
Now the works of the flesh are evident, which are: adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lewdness, idolatry, sorcery, hatred, contentions, jealousies, outbursts of wrath, selfish ambitions, dissensions, heresies, envy, murders, drunkenness, revelries, and the like; of which I tell you beforehand, just as I also told you in time past, that those who practice such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.
Uh, I don’t think this text is going to work. You know, on second thought, who says we need a text? If we start preaching on texts, pretty soon we’ll find ourselves proof texting. You know what that is, don’t you? That’s forcing parts of the Bible into the task of teaching specific doctrinal topics. Before you know it, we’ll end up with an enchiridion featuring questions, answers, and Bible passages!
Preaching antinomianism is not easy to do. You need to learn certain (if you will excuse me for saying so) rules. The first rule you must learn is that the gospel is good and the law is bad. Why is the gospel good, you ask? Because it makes you feel good. Why is the law bad, you ask? Because it makes you feel bad. Doesn’t the Bible say that we must become like little children? Let me tell you about little children. Tell a two year old that he is bad. You are bad for saying that he is bad. Learn from the little children. The law is bad.
The law is the bad god and the gospel is the good god. The bad god makes you feel bad so that you will want the good god to take over from the bad god. Don’t confuse this with the good cop, bad cop dynamic. God is not a cop. That’s the way of the law, and the law is bad, but God is good.
The law is bad because it hurts you. Specificity hurts. Generalities don’t. For example, speaking of marital fidelity is fine, as long as you don’t dwell on it or get too specific. Telling Jim that since Jane is not his wife he sins against God and makes him angry when he has sex with her, well, that might hurt. Remember: when you must choose between clarification and obfuscation, obfuscate.
Obfuscating the law is good. This makes the law more user friendly, that is, people friendly, thus fulfilling the purpose of the gospel, which is about unconditional love for people. But how do we obfuscate what is perfectly clear? That’s why we have exegetes. It could mean this. It could mean that. But maybe it means that! You see how this works? We just don’t know what it means.
This is also the wisdom of a child. My son David’s eight children have been living in our home for a few months now, providing me with childish wisdom that, being pertinent to our topic, I thought I would share with you all.
One day, going down to the family room where the television is located, I find something out of place. The ottoman (footstool) has been moved over to the bookshelf. On the top of the bookshelf are DVDs arranged in neat piles – at least they were arranged in neat piles before a child or children moved the ottoman over to the bookshelf, stood on top of it, and messed with my DVDs. Now the DVDs are all mixed up. Neatly arranged piles of Law and Order and Monk reruns, old movies, and blank disks are mixed together indistinguishable from each other.
Who messed them up? Naturally, Andreas did because he’s not yet three, cannot talk, cannot defend himself, and therefore takes the blame. But even standing on top of the ottoman, Andreas is too short. Søren is seven and Leif is five. I ask Søren: “Did you mess with my disks?” Søren says no. I ask, “Are you telling the truth?” He says yes. I ask Leif, “Did you mess with my disks?” He says no. I ask, “Are you telling the truth?” Leif gives me a pained look and says, “I don’t know what truth means.” Here is a candidate for professor of exegetical theology at one of our seminaries! The B-I-B-L-E, that’s the book for me, I take my stand on the word of God, I just don’t know what it means!
Radical liberal antinomians are much easier to spot than the dead orthodox conservative antinomians. Radical liberals can’t fit into the sheep’s clothing. Consider Dr. David P. Scaer’s favorite contemporary theologian: Nadia Bolz-Weber. She promotes what we might call crass antinomianism. You couldn’t invent a better caricature of the contemporary antinomian if you tried. Particularly vulgar, if not hideous, she connects with people who have been made to feel bad by the bad god wielding his bad law. She’s really quite remarkable: fifty years old, wearing a black wife-beater, exposing gaudy tattoos on her arms, she shares her life experiences with an enraptured crowd of idealistic socially conscious ELCA young folks. That a woman preacher must always and only talk about herself is a given, but if ever a woman has gotten a degree from the school of hard knocks, this is she. She’s a rock star!
Of course, her gospel of unconditional love has little to do with Jesus and nothing to do with the vicarious satisfaction. The word grace is tossed around quite a bit, but isn’t grounded in anything Jesus did to propitiate wrath. She’s not a wolf in sheep’s clothing. She looks nothing like a sheep.
Antinomians from assorted apostate churches that marry men to men and women to women may be the death of the American culture, but they’re easy to spot. The real threat to us conservative Lutherans is the antinomianism of the right. It doesn’t mock traditional Christian morality as Bolz-Weber does. It doesn’t explicitly deny the moral law, the law of Christian love, or the joy of obedience. It ignores it. Moral theology is too “Catholic.” Instead of learning what it means to love, and how love requires bearing the weaknesses and sins of others without compromising on immutable divine standards of right and wrong, it joins the right synodical clique, learns who are wearing white hats and who are wearing black hats, and remains loyal to the home team. Should a preacher divorce his wife without cause and marry another? Should a man sue his brother instead of seeking reconciliation with him? Should a pastor get drunk, spout obscenities, and tell filthy jokes? Well, what of it? We are not Pietists! We are not Anabaptists! We’re Lutherans, doggone it and we’re not going to let any proof-texting fundies deprive us of our gospel freedom! Remember: the way of the law is bad.
Let’s not point the finger at the radical libs from the ELCA while ignoring the spirit of antinomianism among us! Hiding behind a legalistic caricature of Luther’s two kingdoms doctrine, so called confessional Lutherans divide the kingdom of God’s right hand – the spiritual authority – from the kingdom of God’s left hand – the civil authority – in such a way that God is thrown out of the kingdom of his left hand. Johnny Cash sang about them in his song, The Wanderer:
The divine moral law no longer informs our conduct in civil affairs. To call civil authorities to account for their defiance of God’s law is mixing church and state, some form of Calvinism, or something even worse. Man’s positive law is unleashed from the restraints of God’s moral law. All hell breaks loose.
When man’s positive law loses its mooring in God’s eternal moral law the result is legalism. Antinomianism always results in legalism. Antinomians who decry legalism are hypocrites. It’s not a matter of submitting to the law. It’s a question of whose law it will be. Will it be God’s law of Christian love that flows from the heart of those who have confessed their sins and have been absolved by Christ’s blood? Or will it be whatever rules the establishment has established for us to obey? The proof that even conservatives are functionally antinomian and therefore essentially legalistic is how the words behavior and obedience are used these days. It is always in reference to civil, positive, manmade rules that may be here today and gone tomorrow. When it comes to the permanent, the wholly divine, the utterly pure and holy law of Christian love, the words obedience and behavior are seldom heard.
Antinomians confuse the gospel with the law. They want the gospel to tell us why we should not have women pastors. The gospel doesn’t tell us why. The law says don’t do it. God said no.
It is good to obey. God likes obedience. If you want to know why some of us are not part of the pep squad cheering LSB as the greatest thing since sliced bread, we may have reasons why that pertain to this issue. Why were the words, “May God bestow on us his grace and favor to please him with our behavior” changed to “May God bestow on us his grace and favor that we follow Christ our Savior”? Is there something un-Lutheran about pleasing God with our behavior? Are the good works of Christians not pleasing to God? What does the Bible say?
When I was a junior in high school, attending Clayton High, which was about sixty percent Jewish, I pleaded with Dad to let me go to Lutheran High School North. He didn’t want me to go there because Clayton High was academically superior and Lutheran North had already gone liberal. I told Dad that he didn’t want me dating Jewish girls, did he? He relented and let me transfer to Lutheran High School North where, through my biology lab partner, I met a nice Catholic girl by the name of Donna. Dad had just given me a little softcover edition of the NIV New Testament. On a date with Donna, as we argued about the central teaching of the Christian religion, I read to her Ephesians 2:8-9:
“So,” I asked Donna, “What do you think of that?” She said, “I have to ask my priest.” The next weekend, I asked her, “What did your priest say about Ephesians 2:8-9?” She said, “He said it didn’t mean that.” “Mean what?” I asked. “What you said,” she replied. “But I didn’t say what it meant. I just read it to you.” She said, “Well, he said it didn’t mean that.”
What about the next verse? Does it mean what it says?
Good works are good. They are good because God commanded them and God is good. The same good God who speaks to us in his good law makes us good by reckoning to us the obedience of him who obeyed the good law as our substitute, bore our sin and suffered divine wrath against it in order to take it away. The law isn’t bad. We are bad. But God has covered us with the goodness of him who obeyed the law in our stead. That makes us good. When God reckons us to be good he creates us to do good and to do so in accordance with and in obedience to his eternally good law.
We don’t do the good he tells us to do by supporting the right faction in the church-political wars, voting for the right list of candidates prepared by nameless and faceless men behind the curtain, no, not even by giving generously to the ministry of mercy du jour. We do it by loving the neighbor God has placed before us to love and doing what love requires. “My little children,” St. John writes, “Let us not love in word or in tongue, but in deed and in truth.” (1 John 3:18)
Bishop John told me to preach antinomianism. I didn’t preach antinomianism. I preached against it instead. I disobeyed my bishop. Ah well, I live under grace, so I can do what I want! Amen!
Rolf D. Preus