Welcome to a very special Resurrection Sunday edition of Thesis Thursday! Not only does this week’s reading include the word “Easter”, but since Maundy Thursday bumped Thesis Thursday, I guess it’s only fair that Thesis Thursday return the favor today.
In Lecture 37, we get a Lutheran take on covenant theology, and a colorful generalization about the Irish.
In the nineteenth place, the Word of God is not rightly divided when an attempt is made by means of the demands or the threats or the promise of the Law to induce the unregenerate to put away their sins and engage in good works and thus become godly; on the other hand, when a endeavor is made, by means of the commands of the Law rather than by the admonitions of the Gospel, to urge the regenerate to do good.
The attempt to make men godly by means of the Law and to induce even those who are already believers in Christ to do good by holding up the Law and issuing commands to them, is a very gross confounding of Law and Gospel. This is altogether contrary to the purpose which the Law is to serve after the Fall. This will very readily become manifest when we examine, among others, the following passages of Scripture:
Jer 31, 31–34. Behold, the days come, saith the Lord, that I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah… This precious, valuable text is like a sun that rose suddenly upon the gray dawn of the Old Testament. We see from it that, while the Law was written into the hearts of men even before the Fall, it did not serve the purpose of making men godly; for man had been created godly and righteous in the sight of God. The only reason why men had to have the Law in their hearts was that they might know what is pleasing to God. No special command was needed to inform them on that point. They simply willed whatever was God-pleasing; their will was in perfect harmony with the will of God. This condition was changed by the Fall. True, God, after the exodus of the Israelites form Egypt, repeated the Law and reestablished a legal covenant with the Jews. However, what did the Lord tell them by the prophet Jeremiah? This, that the legal covenant had not improved their condition, because God had to force them to comply with his will — and forced obedience simply is no obedience. Accordingly he speaks to them prophetically of a time when he will make an entirely different arrangement. That does not mean that the new arrangement was not in force even in the time of the Old Testament. The covenant, so far as it had been established with the Israelites, was a legal covenant. Yet during the time of this covenant the prophets were continually preaching the Gospel and pointing to the Messiah.
This abominable confounding of Law and Gospel is practiced in the grossest form by rationalists. There really are rationalistic preachers who regard the Gospel as a dangerous doctrine, a doctrine that makes men secure and unwilling to strive after godliness, because they are constantly being told that a person is made righteous and saved by faith alone. To make people godly, they preach ethics with great earnestness. What do these rationalists accomplish? The most zealous of them accomplish no more than this, that some of their hearers adopt a certain kind of probity and abstain from gross, shameful vices and crimes, but regard it as something not to be thought of that they must obtain a new heart and love God and their fellow-men.
The situation among the papists is similar. They know nothing of the free grace of God in Jesus Christ. They preach ethics continually, interspersed with all sorts of references to Mary and the saints, but not a word of the Gospel. They do not direct the poor sinner to Christ, but represent Christ as the Judge of all the world and urge men to seek help from the saints who are to intercede for them with Christ and make Christ gracious to them. That is the diabolical teaching of the antichristian Papacy. What do they accomplish? What is the fruit of their teaching? Read the reports from countries in which the papists are dominant and are not being watched by the Protestants. Conditions in those countries and the lives of the priests are most abominable. The people know that their priest is the father of a number of illegitimate children; but since he has received ordination, they believe that one can obtain forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation from him. The most faithful Catholics are the Irish, a vulgar people who practice all kinds of knavery and go to confession at Easter, where they recite their wrong doings to the priest, have a money fine imposed on them, or are told to fast or eat fish on such and such days — and their account is settled. What an abominable practice!
However, this confounding of Law and Gospel occurs not only among rationalists and papists, but also in the orthodox Church, in numerous instances. This confounding of Law and Gospel occurs when ministers become aware that all their Gospel-preaching is useless because gross sins of the flesh still occur among their hearers. There may be drunkards among them or people who indulge in fist-fights, etc. These people come to church occasionally, but rarely to Communion and refuse to contribute when a collection is taken up. Now, the preacher may come to the conclusion that he has preached too much Gospel to them and must adopt a different policy; he must hush the Gospel for a while and preach nothing but the Law, and conditions will improve. But he is mistaken; the people do not change, except that they will become very angry with their minister for not permitting them to do what they very much like to do. A collection is taken up, which nets twenty cents, when he had expected twenty dollars. He resolves to give these people hell and damnation next Sunday. Possibly he may increase the collection by a few dollars, but the offering is worthless in the sight of God, because it was made under coercion. Even the most corrupt congregation can be improved, however, by nothing else than the preaching of the Gospel in all its sweetness. The reason why congregations are corrupt is invariably this, that its ministers have not sufficiently preached the Gospel to the people. It is not to be wondered at that nothing has been accomplished by them: for the Law kills, but the Spirit, that is, the Gospel makes alive.