Cheap grace? Gospel, law, and obligation

So I found myself saying something like this the other day: "Law then Gospel is a Lutheran mistake." It's a much wider mistake than just the Lutherans, and we Lutherans don't all fall into it, but there seem to be two basic questions it answers. 1) What gives the gospel its savor? 2) What maintains that value? Homiletically, how do you convince your auditors of the value of the gospel?

The core of the problem seems to revolve around "cheap grace." That is, gospel without obligation, aka "antinomianism." Relatedly, the debate over the usus tertius legis: where Luther only finds two uses of the law, we want a third, one that lets us use it for the guidance of the redeemed.

If you're saved, you've got to be saved from something, right? Adding salvation to pre-existing freedom and comfort is silly. Now, to be sure, we aren't saved from the law -- the law just codifies, illustrates and condemns our sin(s). Being saved from the law would be like fixing a compiler warning by suppressing the warning message. The brokenness remains. But at the same time, a Lutheran law ethic that acknowledges the value of the law for direction of the sinner toward Christ still leaves us wondering what happens after that. If we're saved from sin, is that it? What happens to ethics on the other side?

In our simplistic association of obedience with law, we try to put the law on both sides of the gospel, so we have something to do between salvation and the eschaton. But Luther didn't have that problem, neither does Barth seem to, and I don't think you can say Paul did, either. Althaus played with the notion of distinguishing "command" from "law," and that gets us a position like we see in Elert as well, the decalogue as Christian ethos. But these are both forms, weak though they might be, of the same Lutheran error. If the gospel is an event, then the law is the environment against which it appears, and the normative environment of Christian ethics. It isn't far to the reservation of the gospel for the obedient, and the concomitant reservation of places in the Christian life, that is, the church, to the obedient.

Blatant, pretentious hypocrisy.

The word of God is gospel and law. Salvation always comes first. Salvation which requires no synergism, and accepts none. God initiates the covenant and upholds it. As Paul reminds the Galatians, the Mosaic law is subordinate to the Abrahamic covenant. Abraham may not be the first man, but he is the first man of God. (And a far more interesting character than Adam!) He is so because of God's choice, God's extension of grace with its concomitant benefits and obligations. God's determining election. I know Barth has his problems with infant water baptism, but the ground of the practice in Lutheran theology is precisely the constitutive extension of grace. It is gospel proclamation of that electing grace in the material sign of the sacrament. It is the Gospel initiating Christian life, and we push it back as far into the beginning of human life as we can so as to make it clear that we believe all of life to be under God's grace.

Barth has said that the law is a form of the gospel ("Evangelium und Gesetz"), and this is a core insight for the ethics of the Church Dogmatics. Law is a type of obligation, and indeed, the Mosaic law does follow as the set of enumerated obligations concomitant with the Mosaic covenant. (With which it is not, therefore, identical!) But obligation is not a function of law, let alone exclusively of any given codification. Neither does the gospel violate law, for it to be the exception from a universal rule. (But it would be, if the law were not a form of the gospel. This is the hinge of many atonement theologies, I think.) God's freedom is fundamental. Should there be a "natural law," it is a piece of a "natural covenant" which God has made in freedom. I don't believe there is, and certainly there is no promulgation, no gospel of which it is a form, for us to know it. (Consensus of cultured human beings is inevitably a selective consensus built out of agreeing viewpoints of common or equivalent cultural descent. It is not a divine mandate by any means, nor need we treat it as such.) In any case, God is not obligated by it, nor by any law or set of laws. Nothing restricts God as a God who goes about freely saving.

Have we contradicted ourself? In denying that law follows after the gospel, and then declaring that laws often follow gospels? I believe not, precisely in the fact that I have insisted that the former is a consequence of a mistaken assumption contradicted in the premises of the latter. But all the same, this is why Elert, Althaus and Barth had a mildly famous disagreement on the subject.

If we have obligations, they are obligations of the precise sort that our gospel embodies. They are based on the particular imposition of God into the world by which we have come to be people of God. It is our Christic salvation which obliges us to God, and which determines the forms in which we obey those great commandments which seem to be constant in what God wants: love God, love neighbor. They are not Mosaic, or Noachic, or Abrahamic, or even Isaianic or Deuteronomistic forms. This is in no way to deny the value of scriptural witness to the people of God in their relationships with God and one another (imbalanced though that couplet always is); indeed, it relies on analysis of that witness and those histories. But we are not them. Only God is the same -- yet we witness to that same God in remarkably different ways than our Fathers and theirs did.

Sin, and not law, is the desired root of the law-gospel idea, but even sin must be understood in relation to the mark that we miss. We have been elected to a life in God which is a calling to be about the business of God in the world. That election constitutes us as "perfectly free lords of all, subject to none." It obliges us, as we understand our Pauline and apostolic duty, to be "perfectly dutiful servants of all, subject to all." Subordinate only to God, and in God's service bound to all others. In that we fail that duty, you may reprove us, for it is properly a form of our gospel. (Which, by the by, is the entire point of Barthian dogmatics: correction of the actual behavior of the church in light of its proclamation -- its gospel.)


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