18 July 2008

In the way of the Gospel?

What's Law got to do with it?

Over at his always insightful and well-thought-out blog (I need a "writing day" on my weekly calendar. . . ), the founder of this blog provided a thoughtful and thought-provoking discussion of man and wife and child-bearing.

But that's not what this post is about - Fr. Rick's blog would be the place to comment on that. But I want to take just a line from Fr. Rick's analysis on this point and move that discussion here for the Four and Twenty Elders. In his post, Fr. Rick wrote that his way of thinking on the topic offered "not only a different consideration, but a different way of thinking: in the way of the Gospel instead of the Law, for the sake of my neighbor instead of my self."

What I've always wondered about Lutherans when they begin talking about serving the neighbor and acting out of the Gospel instead of the Law is this:

How do I know what Love looks like? How can I protect my neighbor from my own notions of what Love is? How do I know I'm being truly Loving and not instead swamped by my own sentiments in the way of the Gospel?

A crass example for the sake of clarity: When Jack Kavorkian says that he is being loving by killing people, we know he's wrong.

But how do we know he's wrong? I take him at his word that he thinks he's being loving. I believe that his sentiments honestly hold that death is immediately preferable to suffering. But I know he's wrong. I know that is not Love.

And I know it because of the Law. The Law shows us what love looks like, for love fulfills the Law. That is a reciprocal relationship. If I want to know what action is Loving, I can look to the Law and see.

Now, our Lord Jesus fulfills the Law by his actions which actions are Gospel to us. So I am certainly not opposed to talk of doing things in the way of the Gospel. But I struggle with this: What's the process for deciding if some one of our actions is loving in the way of the Gospel?

If I want to decide if something is loving based on the fact that love is the fulfillment of the Law, I have a built-in algorithm, if you will, for finding out if it is in fact loving: compare the action to the precepts of the Law.

But how do I find out if an action is loving in accord with the Gospel? Where's the algorithm? Does it boil down to WWJD? Isn't that a bit subjective?

Or another example: In college we used to debate at this Mennonite college. They had a poster in one of the rooms depicting the scene of the woman caught in adultery. The caption read: "The only time Jesus was asked about capital punishment, he was against it."

That seems to me to be an attempt at judging an action in the way of the Gospel. But I also think it is faulty reasoning. Because capital punishment is part of the Law of God (Gen 9, Rom 13) and the Law is the fulfillment of Love. . .

So, I remain confused. What does it mean to judge an action in the way of the Gospel? Can that ever be anything other than a subjective judgment along the lines of WWJD? And what's wrong with judging moral actions in the way of the Law, that is, to see if a moral action measures up to Love?

I'll look forward to reading all your comments when I get back from vacation. . .



Rev. Rick Stuckwisch said...

Just a brief response for now, Brother Curtis. Thanks for a great question to ponder.

I'll have to consider this more carefully, but it seems to me there are different ways of readings these statements: "in the way of the Law," and "in the way of the Gospel." Who, or what, is "in the way"?

You rightly point out that works of love are those that serve our neighbor in accordance with the Law of God. The fulfillment of that very Law, by Christ for us, is the Gospel. So, in Christ, the Law and the Gospel, mercy and sacrifice, are perfectly united and in harmony; God and man are reconciled and at peace in Him. In such a case, the Law and the Gospel are no longer pitted against each other, but find their mutual heart and center in the Lord Jesus Christ, our Savior.

As the Law and the Gospel address themselves to us, however, the Law always accuses (whatever else it also does, it is always accusing us); and the Gospel does nothing but forgive us and give us life, declaring us righteous and, again and again, reconciling us to God in Christ. Here the Law and the Gospel are as far apart from each other as the East is from the West.

The Law commands us to do what we are not doing, do not want to do, and find ourselves impotent to do. The Law forbids us from doing what we are doing and want to keep on doing. Hence, it accuses and condemns us. The sinful response of fallen man is either to run away in fear, or to work harder to impress God and earn His favor, so as to escape punishment and death. That sort of effort is what I have in mind when I speak of living "in the way of the Law." It is to seek a righteousness of my own by works or bargains or personal sacrifices.

Living "in the way of the Gospel," on the other hand, is to live by faith in what Christ has done and continues to do for me. It is to live in the freedom of His forgiveness.

To be sure, this freedom of faith in the Gospel does not leave me to revel in my sin and selfishness. God forbid! It is a freedom to live before God in the righteousness and purity of Christ, and therefore to live for my neighbor in peace and love. Yet, it is real freedom, and I proceed in the genuine safety and security of my divine sonship in Christ.

Luther gets this profoundly right, I believe, in his treatise on the "Freedom of the Christian," and again in his Deutsche Messe. In faith toward God we are perfectly free, the slave of no man. In love toward our neighbor, we are fully bound, the loving servant of all. That love is guided and governed by the Law of God, which is His good and acceptable will (as fulfilled for all in Christ Jesus). But the freedom to live and love in such a way, in the presence of God by faith in Christ, is the gracious gift of the Gospel.

Thus, when I speak of living "in the way of the Gospel," I'm not thinking of works that are defined by the Gospel (as an example), but by the righteousness of faith which is actively working in love, for Jesus' sake. By contrast, to live "in the way of the Law," is to live not in freedom but in fear; not for the glory of God and the benefit of my neighbor, but in a desperate attempt to save myself and to achieve a righteousness of my own. It is the difference between freedom and fear, between real life and a living death.

Rev. Robert Franck said...

A good question is asked here. What best serves the neighbor? Calling their sin to repentance? Or covering over their sin? Both can, at times, serve the neighbor. It is, I suppose, the difference between Law and Gospel.

Here is Luther, in one of his more inscrutible quotes, from "Day by Day We Magnify Thee," p. 260:


Charity shall cover the multitude of sins. I PETER iv. 8.

Learn here to seek your neighbour as a lost sheep, to cover his shame with your honour, and to let your sanctity be a cover for his sins. But now, when people come together they hack one another to pieces, to prove how fiercely they fight against sin. Therefore, you men, whenever you come together, do not hack the people to pieces. And likewise you women, when you come together, cover the shame of others and do not make wounds which you cannot heal. And if you come across two people in a chamber, throw your cloak over both and close the door. Why? Because you would that it should so be done to you.

That is what Christ does. He, too, keeps silent and covers our sin. He, too, could bring shame upon us, and tread us under His feet, but He does not do so. And you must do the same. A virgin must place her crown on a harlot; a saintly wife must give her veil to an adulteress, and all that we have we must make into a cloak to cover sinners. For each man will have his lost sheep to recover, and each woman her piece of silver; and all that is ours must also belong to another.

Sermons from the year 1522. W.A. 10. III. 220f.

Rev. Fr. Robert W. Schaibley said...

I should like to thank Brother Stuckwisch for his post and his clarification. Both are well-put. I've heard this "way of ... " language for some years now, mostly form some of my friends in St. Louis -- both of them :) --

When the phrase is used as "in the way of the Law," I always hear (perhaps this is my problem -- how I hear it) an ethical system at work. Now, it could well be that those who speak in terms of "the way of the Gospel" would reject the idea that "in the way of the Gospel" is an ethical comment. But, my dear brothers, it comes across that way to me. And, at least in this fallen world, the Gospel at work is not ethics.

Rick, again I wish to thank you for the clarity of your thoughts in the somewhat slippery phrase, "in the way of," and I hope that anyone who spots some error on my part would be quick to correct me.

Robert. [Schaibley]

Rev. Paul Beisel said...

I've never understood what people mean by this phrase. To me it always sounds cliche, contrived, and trite. I hate stuff that sounds like that.

wmc said...

The phrase "in the way of" is of course a Nagelianism, often co-opted and imitated but rarely applied correctly. "In the way of the Law" means according to what is proper of the Law, it's proprium, namely to diagnose, amplify, judge, condemn sin and to mortify the sinner. This is the way of the Law. "In the way of the Gospel" means according to what is proper of the Gospel, namely, to forgive, justify, vivify, etc.

When one speaks of earning something, measuring, comparing, sizing, quantifying, or otherwise doing mathematics (as all ethics inevitably does), that is speaking in the way of the Law.

When one speaks of gift, grace, Christ, and the totality of all that He has won and gives to us, that is speaking in the way of the Gospel.

The Christian as "saint" lives "in the way of Gospel" by virtue of his being joined baptismally to Jesus in His death and life. This would correspond to St. Paul's living "according to the Spirit" (in the way of the Spirit) and not according to the flesh. Being simul justus et peccator, the baptized believer is caught in the eschatological tension between now and not yet, and so in his flesh he serves the law of Sin and Death (lives in the way of the Law), but with his mind, renewed in Christ, he serves the law of the Spirit and life (lives in the way of the Gospel).

It's not that difficult, really. Romans 7 and 8 pretty much summarizes it.

Paul McCain said...

I've had the privilege of having Dr. Nagel for two classes and it has been my observation that: a) Nagel disciples never get Nagel as right as Nagel himself does; b) Dr. Nagel is a delightful classroom lecturer, one of the best I've ever had.

I always cringed when I head his students trying so hard to speak "Nagel-ese" when answer a question he asked. I sensed he cringed a bit as well.

I did hear him asking, "Is what running in the way of the Law or the Gospel?" I think the addition of "running in the way of" is important.

But I'll let much better Nagel students than me explain that.

Paul McCain said...

In previous, read "what" as "that."