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Describing Law-Gospel Reductionism

Describing Law-Gospel Reductionism

As I mentioned previously, Jordan Cooper's Hands of Faith is a valuable book for both the Reformed and Lutheran traditions. Both have seen an increase in controversy over antinomians and proper teaching/preaching of the God's law. Cooper's work is to state the doctrine of two kinds of righteousness as a counter to the recent popularity of law-gospel reductionism.


To understand how two kinds of righteousness properly reflects Lutheran orthodoxy, a brief introduction to law-gospel reductionism is necessary. But before that, it's worth seeing Cooper's opening concern,

"Since the decline of Pietism in the nineteenth century, Lutherans have feared conflating law and gospel, and making assurance of one's justification depend upon good works or an experience of grace, rather than upon the objective work of Christ for the salvation of sinners. While avoiding legalism is a laudable goal, attempts to distance the Lutheran Reformation from the Pietist movement have sometimes lead to a new form of antinomianism. If one views legalism as the ultimate enemy, without any concern for the real danger of ignoring the importance of Christian living, then such antinomianism is the inevitable result. Contemporary Lutheranism has—in many cases—been reduced to a theology that emphasizes justification to the exclusion of sanctification, and to an unreasonable emphasis on the law-gospel scheme, to the exclusion of proper exegesis in preaching and other theological pursuits." (1)

For those unfamiliar historically with pietism, I would commend the work Cooper has done on the Lutheran Pietist tradition. Rejection of any return to Roman Catholic thought on meritorious works in salvation is important. But the other ditch of "justification to the exclusion of sanctification" oft avoids a stigmatic reputation.

Stemming from the influx of existential philosophy into theology, modern Lutheran articulations of law and gospel became more about what they do than what they are. After making a comment about Karl Barth—I will have to deal with that at another time—Cooper states,

"Within the existential framework, the law of God is described not as God's eternal will as it was in traditional Lutheran orthodoxy, but instead as something which acts upon the sinner … For Lutheran orthodoxy, the law is the objective will of God which corresponds to his own character." (5)

Cooper claims this alternate view of the law entails "the third function of the law essentially has no purpose" (5). This view is exemplified in the teaching of Gerhard Forde (Cooper has a critical publication in the works on the theology of Forde). Jordan states that "Forde contends that the effects of God's speech are more central than the content of that speech" (7). This "Radical Lutheranism" twists the law from "the good will of God, but as that which [only] accuses" (6).

This view of God's law—Cooper contends—is not only foreign to Lutheran orthodoxy but is a far cry from the Reformed view of God's law. And yet, this radical view of the law has slowly been making its way into the Reformed world under the guise of acceptable Lutheran teaching. In contrast, the Westminster Confession of Faith—in concord with Lutheran orthodoxy—strongly affirms a third use of the law when it states:

"Although true believers be not under the law, as a covenant of works, to be thereby justified, or condemned; yet is it of great use to them, as well as to others; in that, as a rule of life informing them of the will of God, and their duty, it directs and binds them to walk accordingly; discovering also the sinful pollutions of their nature, hearts and lives; so as, examining themselves thereby, they may come to further conviction of, humiliation for, and hatred against sin, together with a clearer sight of the need they have of Christ, and the perfection of His obedience. It is likewise of use to the regenerate, to restrain their corruptions, in that it forbids sin: and the threatenings of it serve to show what even their sins deserve; and what afflictions, in this life, they may expect for them, although freed from the curse thereof threatened in the law. The promises of it, in like manner, show them God's approbation of obedience, and what blessings they may expect upon the performance thereof: although not as due to them by the law as a covenant of works. So as, a man's doing good, and refraining from evil, because the law encourages to the one and deters from the other, is no evidence of his being under the law: and not under grace." (WCF XIX.VI)

Contra Forde who pits the two words (law and gospel) of God against one another based upon the effect they have on the believer, the WCF states:

"Neither are the forementioned uses of the law contrary to the grace of the Gospel, but do sweetly comply with it; the Spirit of Christ subduing and enabling the will of man to do that freely, and cheerfully, which the will of God, revealed in the law, requires to be done." (WCF XIX.VII)

Next time we will begin to look at Cooper's articulation of two kinds of righteousness. Not only will we find it the more healthy articulation of Lutheran faith but also applicable as a theological construct to Reformed thinking.

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