We move forward to Lecture 28, and a new thesis.
In twelfth place, the Word of God is not rightly divided when the preacher tries to make people believe that they are truly converted as soon as they have become rid of certain vices and engage in certain works of piety and virtuous practices.
This grossest form of commingling Law and Gospel is the most grievous fault of rationalists. The essence of their religion is to teach men that they become different beings by putting away their vices and leading a virtuous life, while the Word of God teaches us that we must become different men first, and then we shall put away our particular sins and begin to exercise ourselves in good works. The doctrine which proposes to make men godly by their own works is the doctrine of pagans, Reformed Jews, and Turks. It proposes to empty a great river of iniquity by continually dipping up pails of water from it and expecting to reach the bottom some time. If a river of iniquity is to be dried up, the evil source from which it springs must first be stopped up, and then pure water can be led into it.
In proof of what I have said let me submit a few Bible texts. John 3, 3 we read: Jesus answered and said unto him, Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God. Nicodemus had approached the Lord with the statement: “Rabbi, we know that Thou art a teacher come from God; for no man can do these miracles that Thou doest except God be with him.” He expects, of course, that the Lord will be pleased with such a statement from a Pharisee and will say to him: “That is excellent. Continue as you have begun.” But not a word of this. Jesus slams the door of heaven shut in Nicodemus’ face and practically says to him: “I see you wish to curry favor with Me by flattery. But if you are still in your old mind, you cannot enter heaven. You will have to become a different being,you will have to be born again.” Now Nicodemus reveals his mind by exclaiming: “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter the second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” But the Lord repeats His previous statement and enlarges upon it: “Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.” The Lord meant to say: “All that you undertake to do while still in your carnal nature is sin; you must become spiritual before genuine spiritual fruits will begin to show themselves in your life.”
On John 3, 3, which I just cited, Luther comments as follows, “Let us now hear what this new birth must be like. We base our teaching concerning it on the fact that Christ twice affirms it by an oath, saying: ‘Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born again,’ etc. He means to say: You must not imagine, Nicodemus, that you will be saved because you are an honest, pious man. True, we art to lead an honest, decent, and peaceable life in this world. If we fail to live thus, Master Hans the Hangman will come along with his sword and noose and will enforce the commandments which you have broken by putting you where you can no longer break them, thus teaching you that, if you will not obey, you will have to suffer. But your good works are worthless when you begin to put this estimate on them, that they are to earn heaven for you. For these works, this goodly conduct, gain for you merely a proper living here in time and keep you out of the executioner’s hands and from the gallows or from being expelled from your house and home and being separated from your wife and children. Thus, the fact that you are an honorable citizen of Jerusalem secures your life, honor, and distinction in this city. But if you wish to get to heaven and into the Church and kingdom of Christ, you must understand that you will have to become a new man. You must consider yourself an unborn infant, who is not only unable to do a single good work, but has not even attained to life and being as yet. That is what Christians preach. The Christian doctrine teaches us that we must first become different people, that is, we must be born again. How is this done? By the Holy Spirit and by the water of Baptism.
Even believing pastors may, without being aware of it, slip into a horrible commingling of Law and Gospel, not so much in their sermons as in their private ministrations and in the exercise of church discipline. Many pastors and congregations make mistakes in applying church discipline. They may be dealing with a drunkard who readily professes sorrow over his sins, as these people usually do. An inexperienced minister is easily deceived by such a profession. The drunkard may be suspended from church membership and placed under surveillance for three months. Presently some brother brings the good news that the drunkard has kept himself sober all that time, and the minister decides that the drunkard is now converted, while in reality he is still quite a godless person. Beware of being deceived thus! The same may happen when a habitually profane person who has been admonished by the congregation quits cursing for a while. Or take the case of a person who is negligent in church attendance, who, therefore, certainly is not a Christian. After he has been brought before the congregation he may come to church for several successive Sundays. But does this outward act alone make him a Christian? By no means; any godless person is able to do what such a one is doing. The aforementioned persons must be made to realize that no Christian acts like them; if he does, he cannot possibly be in a state of grace. But it requires labor on the part of the minister till these persons are reborn by the Word of God. If he is unwilling to perform this labor, he neglects the souls of such persons. — Or take the case of tardy communicants who will come to the Sacrament once again after the minister has reproved them. If he is satisfied with that, he is guilty of commingling Law and Gospel. Or take the sin of avarice. A congregation may be so stingy as to refuse to take up a collection; it may fail to pay the pastor his salary. In that case the pastor must not resolve to preach his people a sharp sermon in order to open their purses. Opening purses by means of the Law is no achievement at all. He must preach in a manner that will rouse them out of their spiritual sleep and death. If he does not do that, he falls under the censure of our sixteenth thesis.