Gospel Reductionism and Lutherans

Back in the 60s, there was a big battle in the LCMS.  Many have called it “the battle for the Bible”. Really it was more than that, it was a battle over whether or not Scriptures were or contained God’s Word, but also it was a battle over Lutheran doctrine, especially the distinction between Law and Gospel and the roll that each play.  One of the big battles was around “Gospel reductionism” which essentially (in a very overgeneralized way) says since we are saved by grace through faith, Christians need not worry themselves with the law.  The consequence has played out in liberal circles as Scriptures teaching on life issues, gender roles, and human sexuality has been all but ignored.

The thing is that Gospel reductionism is alive and well still, even amongst more conservative Lutherans.  This is especially true as we have become less and less identifiably Lutheran and more “Evangelical” (in the improper sense of the word – generic American Protestant Christianity).  It is a rather subtle flavor of Gospel reductionism though and sounds something like this when some doctrinal or practice is asserted:  “so if I don’t agree with you, you’re saying I’m going to hell?”

Now this wonderful leap of logic is rather astounding.  Not even the acrobats of Cirque du Soleil are able to pull of such a move.  Most certainly we are saved by grace through faith, and this is a gift, not a work of ourselves… however this is not to say that the law has no place.  Confession of true doctrine is important… and while intellectual assent to true doctrine does not save, the opposite – confession of false doctrine – is a poison that introduces doubt and destroys faith.

The same thing goes with all those traditions which we as Lutherans say in our confessions that we hold to (even though many of them have not been seen in our churches for over half a century or more).  Will you go to hell if your pastor does not wear an alb, or if you don’t have liturgical worship, or if you don’t have the Lord’s Supper every week (all things we as Lutherans promise we will do)?  Well… it’s the wrong question.  It’s a question flowing out of a combination of Gospel reductionism and a misunderstanding of the Gospel itself (in that we earn salvation by doing the right thing).  Instead we must see these things as confession… that things like the Liturgy and vestments point us to Christ and confess unity with the Church (which is the Body of Christ) throughout its history.  Now teaching must accompany such things of course, and teaching takes time.

This then brings up the discussion of “Christian Freedom”.  In America, we have a rather twisted view of Freedom, which is at its core selfish and licentious.  In other words… for Americans, “Freedom” is antinomian.  Christian Freedom on the other hand exercises restraint.  In light of the Gospel, it delights in keeping the law… and going the extra mile.

One example of this proper use of Christian Freedom was on our undergraduate choir tour to Brazil.  We were instructed to use our Christian Freedom when it came to the consumption of alcohol (since the drinking age was 18 in Brazil), by refraining from drinking.  Christian Freedom says, even though I can do something, for the benefit of my neighbor, I will refrain from it.  When it comes to tradition and the liturgy, we surely confess that maintaining the liturgy is not meritorious for salvation.  However, we gladly keep it, especially for the sake of the young, the simple minded, and the old as well as for good order (how great it was when a Missouri Synod Lutheran could pretty much go to any other Lutheran Church and find pretty much the same order of service).

Therefore, we are not nitpicky about doctrine or hold fast to the tradition we received in order to earn salvation, nor do we ditch them because such things do not earn salvation.  But we gladly keep both because of the free gift of salvation that we have and because both bring the comfort and assurance of the Gospel.

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