I like the old saw, “What is popular is seldom right and what is right is seldom popular.” Indeed, the first rule in “discernment” – thinking critically about preaching and teaching – is that if it’s popular, it’s probably wrong. However, we Berean types are often too quick to give a pass and provide cover for our own popular teachers and pet organizations. This seems to be a blind spot for us.
A great example of this was the Tullian Tchividjian scandal several a years ago. There are still those today who will defend him. And defend him on the grounds that his preaching and teaching was right and had nothing to do with his massive sex scandal. When someone with whom we disagree goes down, we say, “See? It was his theology!” But when our guy has a moral failing, we often don’t apply the same level of discernment.
While we may be careful Bereans on every other occasion, we have certain folks who we believe are beyond critique. We simply don’t listen to everyone with the same level of analysis and that’s dangerous. It’s especially dangerous when our man is popular. So, my hope here is that you will begin to be a true Berean forthwith. That means we give no one a pass even when they are a popular iteration of our favored theological school or denomination.
Your favorite podcast host can be wrong. That conference your denomination puts on for the teenagers that everyone loves could be wrong on some things. Your favorite preacher just might be missing something. And I’m not just talking about making an honest mistake. Popularity and charisma have a strange effect on ministries that send them off the rails more often than not. Always pay attention!
For my part, I am a Confessional, Missouri Synod Lutheran so I’ll speak from that perspective in discerning error and sloppiness in preaching and teaching among my own. And let me simply come straight out with it: often, too often, we Lutherans are weak on the doctrine of Sanctification. This is especially true among some of our most popular preachers and teachers – yeah those guys who have popular websites, podcasts, preaching ministries, blog sites, and mega-church-like conferences. Let me hasten to add that simply because they are popular, doesn’t mean they are bad, but it is to say that if they are popular, a red flag should go up and you should have your discernment faculties turned up to eleven!
Lutherans, if you’re engaging in a steady diet of Lutheran media, get your ears on! Evangelicals, if you’re taking a good look at the Lutheran articulation of the faith and are considering a conversion to Lutheranism, what you read on the blogosphere and heard at the latest, hippest conference may not be true Lutheranism. Reformed friends, please understand that not all Lutherans are squishy when it comes to how a Christian should discipline himself to live in accord with the commands of Holy Scripture.
As it goes with all error, the false teacher is never wearing a tee shirt that says, “I’m a false teacher” and his wife isn’t standing next to him with a blouse that says “I’m with false teacher.” The most insidious of false teachings come in the form of subtlety and subversion. It’s never obvious and what’s more is the person teaching it may be completely oblivious to what the problem is. A key to spotting bad teaching is paying attention not so much what is being said but what is not being said. Unfortunately, some of my more popular Lutheran brethren have this problem and here are several examples.
Teaching on the Sacraments
Lutherans love to talk about the Sacraments; that is the Lord’s Supper and Baptism. And why shouldn’t we? Those gifts of the Gospel are a great source of comfort for us and are foundational to having the strength to live out the Christian life. However, beware of your favorite podcast host that is wont to mention the benefits of the Sacraments, but never mentions that obedience to the dictates of Holy Scripture are bound up with the Sacraments.
Here, note well that you only get half of the story a great deal of the time. For example, the host, speaker, or pastor might mention a passage like this from Martin Luther:
Here is a beautiful passage on baptism from Luther that is all true. True insofar as it goes. But what is seldom mentioned is what follows in the remainder of the passage:
Put simply if you are hearing Luther’s words,
“Baptism lasts forever, and you cannot fall so far away and so far down from it that you cannot and should not take hold of it again”
but not hearing,
“If he was disobedient, angry, spiteful, unfaithful, and unchaste before, he is to depart from that… and strive to be obedient, patient, and kind. If you do not do this, do not think that all is well with you nor boast about the grace of Christ a great deal in order to justify your sin”
you’re not hearing the whole story.
Furthermore, if you are hearing words like these, “What can I do about it? I cannot get rid of it. Anyway, all is grace and forgiveness,” etc., pay particular attention. This is a classic confusion of Law and Gospel, but one often missed by the casual hearer. And it leads us to our next red flag when it comes to pop-Lutheran teaching.
You must obey perfectly (or not at all)
The simple way out of this quandary is to make utility of what we Lutherans call “the proper distinction between law and gospel” (ala CFW Walther). Or, for our purposes here, the proper distinction between “Justification” and “Sanctification.” While much theological hay has been made and ink spilled over this distinction, it is really no more complicated than this.
“Justification” requires perfect obedience and is only possible with God in Christ. God be praised that He, because of the person and work of Christ, does all of this for us and on our behalf. It is Christ’s perfect obedience that is reckoned, imputed, or given to us as a free gift. (Romans 4; Ephesians 2).
“Sanctification” requires us to live in conformity with our “Justification.” That means we learn the commands of Holy Scripture and “strive to be obedient” to them as Luther teaches us. Again, God be praised that we are not left to our own strength to accomplish this. We have the aid of the Holy Spirit through His Word and His good gifts to strengthen us on the way, but we are expected to cooperate and exert effort in becoming people who are exhibiting an “amended” life as Jeremiah teaches us.
To put it another way, with Justification, we stand before God where He takes on the sole role of Judge. Without Christ -and on our own – we will stand condemned. Once Justified by Christ, we stand before God as adopted sons. Because of Christ, our Father is at His leisure to treat us as we would our own earthly children. Whereas once, a single act of rebellion against God as Judge only summarily condemns us, now our struggle with disobedience is met with loving discipline. (Hebrews 12) Whereas to displease the Judge meant an eternal death sentence, now to displease our Father is much akin to the dynamic that happens when our earthly children displease us in their disobedience – which leads me to the next red flag of pop-Lutheran teaching.
You can never displease your Father
Yes, you can. This is yet another confusion of Law and Gospel. St. Paul teaches us in Ephesians 5:
Here again is the trend among our pop-Lutheran teachers in only telling half of the story. It’s done with St. Paul as well as Luther. These Lutherans love to proof text Ephesians 2 while ignoring Ephesians 5. They’ll preach sermon after sermon on Galatians 1 through 4 and totally ignore chapters 5 and 6. And they tend to do this with the entirety of the Pauline corpus.
Again, if you have children, think of a time when they’ve disobeyed your explicit command. If you’re a loving parent, you will be displeased with that child and discipline them. Is your displeasure eternal? It might seem that way sometimes (especially if you have teenagers), but the answer is no. Your children have your eternal love and pleasure, but make no mistake, they can earn your temporal wrath. The same is true for our Heavenly Father.
Here’s where the confusion of Law and Gospel lies. Sometimes well-meaning teachers in hopes of delivering comfort to their audience will confuse God’s eternal displeasure with His temporal displeasure. Only enemies of God get his eternal wrath, but sons get temporal wrath and loving discipline from their Father. And God be praised for it! While you as a father sometimes let your sons off the hook for a transgression, most of the time you have them face the consequences lest they continue to behave in ways that are both destructive to themselves and to those around them. God our Father treats us as His beloved sons in disciplining our behavior. Indeed, God could not properly be called “loving” if He allowed us to remain in our sin without recourse.
At any rate, pop-Lutheran teachers will rarely, if ever, mention how our Father is displeased with our disobedience and how he will act to correct our behavior. Again, the problem isn’t with what is taught. The problem is with what isn’t taught; which leads us to an overarching point in all of this.
False and/or sloppy teaching is thematic
Put simply, you won’t be able to tell if you have a bad teacher on your hands in one sitting. Pastors have off days. Some sermons or lectures aren’t geared for some of the material we’ve been discussing. However, if you find that a certain teacher never or rarely talks about these topics in blogpost after blogpost or in podcast after podcast, that should be your cue to shut down the blog and turn off the podcast. The least you might want to do is use a very discerning ear when listening to these cats.
In addition to the issues we’ve discussed, here are a few other topics upon which you’ll only get half of the story from our pop-Lutheran friends:
“Good works for the Christian are a joy and require no effort!” (first half of the story)
“Good works for the Christian are a joy, requiring no effort - sometimes. Many times, obedience to God’s commands are very difficult and require lifelong discipline.” (full story)
Security of the believer is often mentioned.
Apostasy is seldom warned of.
“Love” is often spoken of.
Love as defined by the dictates of say the Ten Commandments is not.
Freedom from sin is a frequent topic.
Consequences of sin is a rare topic.
“The Christian is too weak and inadequate to obey God’s commands.” (part of the story)
“The Christian, while weak and inadequate in and of himself, has been empowered by the Gospel to live a godly life in love of neighbor and God.” (full story)
You get the idea. The bottom line in all of this is no matter who you listen to or read, be a Berean at all times. Now, we’ve covered the “half the story problem,” let’s move to those times when our pop-Lutheran friends are flat out wrong.
All kinds of bells, whistles, and flags should go off and up when someone starts speaking in terms that over-examines the sincerity of repentance. Let’s pull no punches here. Repentance is required for salvation and repentance is only granted by the Holy Spirit. Thus, we should be confident in God’s Word when it comes to repentance and resist examining our emotions in order to determine whether repentance is genuine.
The repentance that the Holy Spirit has given you is never half-hearted. You never have to worry if you “really meant it.”
God gives you scars
This error is about as close as a person can come to denying the Gospel. Sadly, what I have seen from some popular Lutheran teachers is an attempt to salve their consciences by insisting that God had a hand in their sin so they could teach others of the greatness of the Gospel. A man falls into an adulterous relationship and instead of turning to the Gospel only for repentance and forgiveness, he turns to some convoluted notion that God meant for that to happen so God’s great mercy could be magnified.
Please distinguish very carefully between those who would talk about how the Gospel was put front and center by a bout of cancer and those who think the Gospel is put front and center by their sin. Anyone who thinks that their sin somehow has enhanced the Gospel is doing nothing less than trying to make themselves feel better about their sin apart from the true Gospel. Now, to be sure God does work all things for good (Romans 8), but to somehow think that your evil deeds are a work of God is a means by which we humans call what is evil, good and good, evil. Instead of calling upon God’s mercy for our sins, some think that sin enhances the Gospel. It does not.
Denial of the “Third Use” of the Law
Us Lutherans understand that the Law functions in three ways. 1) It threatens punishment if broken. The reason we don’t speed is not because we’re worried about the general safety of the motoring public. We don’t speed because we don’t want a ticket. 2) The Law convicts us of sin and reveals our need for a savior. This is the foundational function of the Law. No conviction of sin, no need for the Gospel. No Gospel, no reformation of life. No Gospel, no eternal life. 3) The Law teaches us how God created us to live.
Just as surely as a false teacher isn’t going to wear a tee shirt identifying himself, teachers who deny the third use of the Law aren’t going to come right out and say that. So, when you hear preachers and podcast host talking about the third use of the Law in terms of say “instructing us to death” or something other than teaching us how to live, then you should sit up and pay attention. Furthermore, our pop-Lutheran friends will speak of the Law as exclusively convicting us of sin (2nd use). In other words, while the law always convicts us, some will speak of it as if it only convicts us.
As with the “half the story” problem, you’ll find “2nd use only” folks preaching the Law thematically as something that only convicts us of sin. Sermon after sermon will feature the Law as something we always fail to fulfill and only works to reveal our sin. The Law is never spoken of as informing the Christian, as an adopted son of God, how he should live.
Most often, this is couched in terms that depict the Christian as someone suffering from a singular bipolar disorder. The pop-Lutheran teaching goes something like this. On the one hand we have the “old man” living in us. This is the guy who needs instruction in the Law. However, we know that the “old man” isn’t going to obey the instructions of the Law thus, those “instructions” only work to kill the “old man.” The “new man,” on the other hand, is as perfect as Christ is. He needs no instruction in the Law. Thus, it is practically useless to preach on disciplining oneself toward obedience. The “old man” won’t obey and the “new man” doesn’t need such exhortation.
This line of argumentation is clever but has several flaws. First of all, it is an insult to the Gospel to characterize the struggle between “the flesh” and our renewal in Christ (ala Romans 7) as some sort of incurable neurosis. Being a Christian shouldn’t remind us of the “Gollum” character from Lord of the Rings. Secondly, it really doesn’t matter which “part” of us needs the instruction. It’s a false dichotomy. The simple fact of the matter is that Christians need to know God’s Law and know they are required to obey it. Putting forth the “old man/ new man” argument gives preachers a way to avoid teaching the hard parts of Holy Scripture. It’s no wonder that kind of preaching and teaching quickly becomes popular.
The dangers of pop-Lutheran teaching
Isn’t it enough that people are getting the Gospel? Even if they are getting the Gospel through flawed means? Why so harsh on these people? Let me articulate several concerns…
1. A libertine lifestyle
To be honest, this is the least of my worries. This seems to affect clergy more than laymen. However, the logical conclusion to the preaching of these pop-Lutherans is that it doesn’t really matter how we behave as Christians. Recall Luther’s warning to avoid those who say “all is grace and forgiveness.” They may not be telling people to go out and sin, but they sure aren’t teaching their people how to go out and live moral lives.
2. An existential crisis
Telling people that it doesn’t matter what they do will lead to apathy and then eventually to Rick Warren’s The Purpose Driven Life. For all that is good and holy, can we stop pretending that our good God didn’t give us a purpose in life? God does have a great plan for your life and it’s found in His Law. Yes, there’s tons of freedom there, but make no mistake. If you aren’t disciplining yourself to learn and adhere to the commands of Holy Scripture, you’re going to fill that void with a false purpose.
3. We lie to potential converts
Pop-Lutherans are no better than “seeker sensitive” Evangelicals on this score. They want to make Christianity look like a cake walk. It is not. We are what true Lutherans call the “Church Militant.” That means we fight. We struggle. We walk in danger all the way.
We do a massive and deceptive disservice to those exploring the Christian faith to tell them that it’s easy. We should be bold to proclaim to unbelievers and those disillusioned with the Christian faith that this life is hard and difficult.
Jonah began to go into the city, going a day's journey. And he called out, “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” And the people of Nineveh believed God. They called for a fast and put on sackcloth, from the greatest of them to the least of them. (Jonah 3:4-5)
4. We lose the Gospel
No Law, no Gospel. That is about as simply as I can put it. If some want to shave the sharp edges off of the Law – that being obedient as Christians – then the Gospel loses its sweetness. We do not fully feel the sting of our sin unless we are striving to obey. We will not strive to obey the commands of Holy Scripture unless our preachers and teachers urge us on toward obedience empowered by the Gospel. The Law and the Gospel are not opposed to one another. They work together. Anything less is a confusion of the two.
Here are some resources, both popular and obscure:
I would be remiss if I didn’t leave you with some resources that I’d recommend to replace your false and/or sloppy pop-Lutheran blogs, podcasts, and preachers. Here’s what I would endorse, in no particular order:
Let’s be Bereans at all times; even when that’s really hard. Let’s recognize that any deviation from the truth is harmful. Moreover, false teaching, whether intended or misguided detracts from the Gospel. May we be especially vigilant in our discernment in evaluating our own.
Matthew Garnett is the husband of Jennifer, the father of two children, a member of Redeemer Lutheran Church in Fort Wayne, Indiana, truck driver, and host of the “In Layman’s Terms” broadcast.