Why Every Christian Should be Tempted by “Radical Lutheranism”

Why Every Christian Should be Tempted by “Radical Lutheranism” July 29, 2015

The point is that only the Gospel is the ground of our motivation for fulfilling the 10 commandments, which are eternal.
Radical Lutheran brothers not getting it: The point is that only the Gospel is the ground of our motivation for fulfilling the 10 commandments, which are eternal.

Post by Nathan Rinne

(Or at least some aspects of “Radical Lutheranism”)

There is evidence that even Martin Luther was concerned about appearing too strict. No believer in Christ ever wants to be – or to be labeled – a legalist or Pharisee. They do not want to be seen as persons who live by and from law. They want to be – and be known as – people of grace.

This is especially true of Radical Lutherans.

“Radical Lutheranism” was a term coined by the conservative ELCA Lutheran theologian Gerhard Forde in part to exacerbate – over and against American evangelicalism – the Lutheran emphasis on the doctrine of justification, which insists that we are saved by grace alone, by faith alone, for the sake of Christ alone.

The doctrine of justification, as understood by Luther, is an exceptionally good thing. It means that all may not only have peace with God on their deathbed but in life. It is something that the Christian lives by and from. After all, those who know themselves to be great sinners – even if everyone else thinks they are basically flawless saints – are those who are eager to show mercy….

This is why we should be tempted – because the desire to proclaim the forgiveness of God in Christ to all persons without exception – and to do so more and more – is to be at the heart of the Christian life. This is the valuable truth that Radical Lutheranism strives to bring to our attention. You don’t have to be a “Bad Boy” Christian to see that.[i]

But with that said, the difficulties with Radical Lutheran teaching can not be ignored. And not just because Forde failed mightily when it came to getting the atonement right, but because of other issues as well (which I think one certainly can connect with the atonement issues – see here and here).

Recently, I read a short article in the magazine put out by Valparaiso University (which is a Lutheran university heavily under the influence of men like Forde), the Cresset, called “Lutherans and the Law” by Nicholas Hopman.  The article was shared with me by a friend after Pastor Hopman was willing to engage with me on some substantive debate in another post I had written regarding Radical Lutheran issues: “A Plea to Reformation Christians: Don’t Let Your “Simul” Become the One Ring to Rule Them All”

Based on my online interactions with Pastor Hopman, I was not surprised to find his article very insightful, well-written and rhetorically persuasive (and there is certainly much in it that I appreciate and agree with).

(also brief, which is more than I can say about this one)

In a nutshell, he argues that since Lutherans are eager to emphasize grace, they will inevitably be associated with antinomianism (meaning “against the law”).  Therefore, in order to avoid the implications of antinomianism, they often find themselves retreating back into legalism.

Lutherans, he argues, should view themselves as free from the 10 commandments. What?  Well, as is clear from the command regarding the Sabbath, these were given to the Jews and not the Gentiles – and yet Christians continue to keep them because nature teaches us that they are something that human beings continue to need in their lives (even for something like the Sabbath, “nature tells us that people need rest from work and that they need to hear from their creator”, as even the Lutheran Book of Concord indicates, p. 376).[ii]

In other words, we who have been incorporated into God’s people should now live in accordance with these commandments because they were created to comport with human nature, not because God has commanded us to do them.

And I can't compel re-tweets of stuff I think is pretty good.
Getting kids to go to corporate worship as they were created to do… And I can’t compel re-tweets of stuff I think is pretty good!

The distinction is subtle but important. On the one hand, this does seem to make a lot of sense. It provides a ready answer for the “why?” question parents never stop hearing from their children: “…because God created us to be this way… these are like the “operating instructions” for human life”. Hence, this “eternal will” of God, as the Lutheran Formula of Concord (part of the Book of Concord) calls it, makes perfect sense.

But is that all that Pastor Hopman is saying? It would seem not. Even if he notes that we must in some sense remain “Law people” because if we do not, we will do damage to our bodies!  In saying this he invokes the importance of good order and the Golden Rule, which he then equates with the human convention of traffic lights and laws (something for which, I note, there may well be an alternative, or divergent, solution).

Do you see what happens here? The emphasis is no longer on how God freely made His creation to function a certain way, but there now seems to be more freedom regarding how to think about God’s law – creation becomes “nature”, and more opportunity for autonomy is introduced. In short, the impression is given – at least by phrases and illustrations like these – that that the law is perhaps not so eternal after all. Even if this is not what neither Hopman nor Forde intend to say. [iii] Further, it does not help when he goes on to say: “[our] freedom includes freedom from the law”, and, citing Vitor Westhelle[iv], adds, “This freedom allows us to engage in a dialogue with the law.”

Again, as he implied earlier, Pastor Hopman is keen to emphasize that none of the 10 commandments were directly given to Gentiles (even if their articulation is ultimately for their benefit in some way – I note that Luther himself argued that God had to “re-publish” the natural law through the Jews because Adam and Eve’s descendents had basically lost it through suppression of the truth). Putting the best construction on his article, it seems he would likely say that when Paul calls the commandments the fulfillment of the law of love in Romans 13 – and urges Christian adherence to these commandments throughout his N.T. Epistles, particularly that same book of Romans – the Apostle nevertheless does not believe that these commands are something that God gives the Christians and expects them to do, but perhaps is only inviting them, in love, to do (recognizing that they are given for their good, with a blessed life in mind).

Definitely loving the dialogue thing.
Definitely loving the dialogue thing.

Again, it does seem like a conversation, or “dialogue”, with God’s law is just the way that many self-professed Christians in our day and age would like to look at it.[v] Better to have a dialogue partner than a Divine Patriarch. But does this mean that the conscientious Christian should insist that God does not, in any sense, “invite” us to run the way of His commandments? I think the Radical Lutheran would be right here to say that asserting He does not, in fact, invite us, would be wrong. Here is where they are likely hearing many saying “shall we sin then that grace may abound” and eagerly responding with Paul’s “God forbid! May it never be!”

That said, with the Radical Lutheran the impression is often given that any exhortation, guidance, or direction delivered to the Christian after they have believed Christ’s word of forgiving grace (for all their sins) means that we are “being put back under the law”. What this means, they seem to be saying, is that Christ is no longer the Romans 10:4 fulfillment (better, they say, “end”!) of the law, but the Christian is now living by the law, captive to legalism! (something that our old Adam is no doubt eager to do – along with living as he pleases, of course)

This is incorrect (more on why below).  That said, I indeed sympathize and identify with them!  Who does not, after all, get inspired when reading Martin Luther’s introductory comments to the book of Romans?[vi] These Radical Lutherans point us to something good here: they are eager for the Christian life to be a life of spontaneous love!  A life of love where one – because of the love of God in Christ they have experienced – because of the peace with God that they know – more or less naturally does real good for their neighbor’s sake!

So I also have profound sympathies with persons who want to de-emphasize the 10 commandments and things that sound like them. After all, did not Jesus say that the Golden Rule summed up the Law and the prophets, and that the 10 could be reduced to the greatest two? Did He not highlight love of God and neighbor?

He most certainly did! At the same time though, the 10 commandments are able to be summed up by the two greatest commandments precisely because they describe, in part, what real love looks like. This is why we not only say that the Christian is the one who lives in love, but lives in the law (as the Lutheran Formula of Concord states) – because the law shows us love (and yes, Jesus is the One who most perfectly embodied the 10 commandments).

This - and so much more - fulfilled in Christ, to Whom it pointed. (William Holman Hunt: The Scapegoat, 1854).
This – and so much more – fulfilled in Christ, to Whom it pointed. (William Holman Hunt: The Scapegoat, 1854).

Further, in Hopman’s article he not only wrongly bases his entire system on Luther’s understanding of the third commandment and its provisional nature, but also a faulty understanding of the relationship of the ceremonial law to the moral law. In spite of what God directly revealed in Acts 10 (namely, that He had ceremonial practices that He was rescinding) and which was dealt with by the church in Acts 15[vii], Hopman simply asserts that “Paul knew well that circumcision was a matter of the law” and makes no distinctions regarding it’s provisional nature vis a vis the moral law. [viii] That said, it is Paul himself who, throughout the New Testament, makes a distinction between what has been called the “ceremonial law” (Eph. 2:14-15, Acts 10:9-16, Col. 2:16-17) and the “moral law” (Rom. 13:8-10, James 2:8, Rom. 2:15, Matt. 5:17-19). While the whole of the law has been fulfilled on our behalf in Christ (Rom. 10:4) – that it may now be fulfilled in the Christian’s own body (Rom. 8:4) – it is only the “shadows” that Paul talks about that have been abolished (see Eph. 2:14-15).

In other words, God rescinds some of the ceremonial practices – things like feasts, sacrifices, offerings, laws of cleanliness and purification – that he himself had instituted in order to set His people apart from the other nations. In the times of the Old Testament, Gentiles were certainly invited to find hope in Israel’s God (think of the books of Ruth and Jonah) and yet these ceremonies also tended to divide Jew and Gentile (even as they, arguably, also made it possible for the prophesied Christ to come from a distinct and identifiable people not rich in earthly power). Bringing all of these ceremonies to fulfillment in Himself, these are the “dividing wall” Christ came to abolish.

Hopman closes his article in the following way:

“The gospel is not only the end of laws that do not apply to Christians. Faith is also the end of all natural and moral law or whatever terms one would use to describe laws that apply to us. Those who live by faith have been born again of water and the Spirit and live a new life beyond the Law and its condemnation. The Law no longer applies in any way in faith itself. Faith is Jesus Christ himself living in us. As he is now risen from the dead, the Law no longer has any rights over him. And so it shall be for us one day. We do not have a dialogue with the gospel (Westhelle), but instead it flows over us in a life-giving flood. Until the day of the resurrection, we live by faith, but we also live in the body and need the Law to discipline us. (bold mine)

I do not doubt that a Lutheran could believe this and be completely orthodox. It sounds good to me!  The problem, however, is what is not said – and the door is left open for doubt regarding the eternal nature of God’s law – not to mention confident activism to abolish God’s Law as revealed in the Scriptures.

Surely, everyone who calls themselves a Radical Lutheran should be able to see these problems. And surely, there may be some who would be eager to distance themselves from Hopman’s arguments. That said, I hope you at least agree with me that all of this should invite much reflection on our parts (and there is a lot more food for thought in the footnotes).

C.F.W. Walther - succumbing to legalism?
C.F.W. Walther – succumbing to legalism?

Many Radical Lutherans will especially be eager to distance themselves from the teachings of Nadia Bolz-Weber when it comes to how she treats God’s Law (which means of course, that they will be considered legalists by her as well as many less theologically liberal than her). Nevertheless, they also want to distance themselves from their more conservative brethren (perhaps people who think the Synodical Conference was, for the most part, a really good thing). They do not see these brothers as working to voluntarily lay aside, in love, their freedom for the sake of external and internal unity in God’s church. They only can see coercion and legalism here.

Well, if it is legalism to not only encourage but urge brothers and sisters to limit their Christian freedom for the sake of other brothers who are highly conscientious of showing proper respect, and doing things in an orderly fashion, and have an unmistakable gravitas about their piety – all because we can’t really effectively reach persons and show mercy unless such concerns are left behind – then, “yes”, I suppose I am a legalist and Pharisee.

So, at this point do I think I should then insist to my Radical Lutheran brothers: “Then have the courage to say so!” (as St. Louis LC-MS professor Ed Schroeder did back in 1972)

Not really.  I can think of three reasons off the top of my head, seeking the “best construction” (I pray it is not extreme naivete on my part!):

  • Because you also believe that Christ can save legalists – and, by the grace of God – you do not despise me but pray for my salvation as well
  • Because I also am not eager – nor do I want to be hasty – to tell you that I think you severely endanger your soul when you take little or no time to listen to and adjust to the real, genuine, and pious concerns of brother Christians
  • Because you will admit you don’t like it when those more liberal than you say the same thing about the respect and order issues that you think are worth everyone’s concern

Always eager to create more chasms in Christ’s church, I think that these are all things that Satan does not want us to think and meditate about. At the same time, when we are determined to not lose sight of these things, I think he is eager to get us to think that they are the only things that matter – and that it is not important to really try and listen to one another, love one another, and pray for one another – so that we might be as united in our own eyes – and a watching world’s – as we already are in His, through the blood of His Son (Eph. 5:26 – justification)

Even as He still looks to refine us (Eph. 5:27 – sanctification) for His Name’s sake. That Christ and His reconciliation might be known without hindrance to all (II Cor. 5).




[i] The linked post dealt with “Bad Boy Lutheran pastors” in particular. Connection to Radical Lutheranism? Not all Radical Lutherans are Bad Boy Lutherans, but all Bad Boy Lutherans are Radical Lutherans. Read the post for more.

[ii] “We ask questions like, “does this law apply to me/us?” If it does not apply to us, we are free to ignore it, just as Christians do not ascribe any special holiness to Friday night and Saturday. However, we are careful to look for natural and moral laws that apply at all times and places until kingdom come.”

[iii] “Often life is best served by applying the Law leniently. Often Law needs to be applied in different ways at different times and places. This does not mean that the Law ever ceases to function or that its essential content ever changes (Forde 1995).”

[iv] Westhelle, Vitor. Luther on the Authority of Scripture. Lutheran Quarterly 19(2005): 373–391.

[v] The idea is that as our understanding of God’s world grows, we also mature in our moral outlook, leaving less constricting ways behind. Again, I don’t believe that Pastor Hopman has anything like this in mind, but certainly there are many who do. When he says “we are careful to look for natural and moral laws that apply at all times and places until kingdom come” and

“To say that Lutherans should obey the natural law is not to say that they should follow the natural law tradition coming out of Aristotle and today publicized by journals like First Things. The best way for Lutherans to think of natural law is in its simplest sense, as devoid of philosophical baggage as possible. Here the Lutheran theologian becomes an observer of the world. For example, Luther, who hated Aristotle, simply noticed that human beings need rest and said so commenting on the Third Commandment.”

…there are certainly persons eager and ready to drive the truck through the crack in the door. The Reformers approach to Aristotle overall was certainly more nuanced than this.


“Faith is not that human notion and dream that some hold for faith. Because they see that no betterment of life and no good works follow it, and yet they can hear and say much about faith, they fall into error and say, “Faith is not enough; one must do works in order to be righteous and be saved.” This is one reason that when they hear the gospel they fall-to and make for themselves, by their own powers, an idea in their hearts which says, “I believe.” This they hold for true faith. But it is a human imagination and idea that never reaches the depths of the heart, and so nothing comes of it and no betterment follows it.

Faith, however, is a divine work in us. It changes us and makes us to be born anew of God (John 1); it kills the old Adam and makes altogether different men, in heart and spirit and mind and powers, and brings with it the Holy Ghost. Oh, it is a living, busy, mighty thing, this faith; and so it is impossible for it not to do good works incessantly. It does not ask whether there are any good works to do, but before the question rises; it has already done them, and is always at the doing of them. He who does not these works is a faithless man. He gropes and looks about after faith and good works, and knows neither what faith is nor what good works are, though he talks and talks, with many words, about faith and good works.

Faith is a living, daring confidence on God’s grace, so sure and certain that a man would stake his life on it a thousand times. This confidence in God’s grace and knowledge of it makes men glad and bold and happy in dealing with God and all His creatures; and this is the work of the Holy Ghost in faith. Hence a man is ready and glad, without compulsion, to do good to everyone, to serve everyone, to suffer everything, in love and praise to God, who has shown him this grace; and thus it is impossible to separate works from faith, quite as impossible as to separate heat and light from fire. Beware, therefore, of your own false notions and of the idle talkers, who would be wise enough to make decisions about faith and good works, and yet are the greatest fools. Pray God to work faith in you; else you will remain forever without faith, whatever you think or do.” (found here)

As regards our sanctification, desiring and pursuing to be more spontaneously obedient is what we get to do (even if we know it does not feel like it’s a get to).

But that doesn’t sound spontaneous!  Well, spontaneous good works are certainly the ideal – where we believe the Gospel and “naturally” do good more or less unconsciously  Talking more about this with pastor friends, I think that there are a few aspects to this question. First of all, there is, as my pastor told me, the “spontaneous action of the New Man which nonetheless is hampered/limited/restricted imperceptibly  by the Old Adam.” Here, as an analogy, one might think of the “ballet dancer or musician who is always pursuing perfection but is limited by his or her own physical abilities. Yes they truly want to play/move flawlessly and must do so spontaneously to come close to any type of success–and years of proper practice certainly help!–, and yet they will always be limited by their body/mind, etc. ***often without their own awareness of that limitation*** (stars mine).” Again, what this means is that “the New Man can actually do good works, and does good works which nonetheless are always hampered both perceptibly (Rom. 7!) and imperceptibly by the Old Adam.”

So there is that way of looking at it. And then there is also the matter of what is going on inside of the Christian, also dealt with by Scripture.  And here the partim is how we must look at the Christian man (using language like Luther does, for example, about being 1/2 sinful and 1/2 holy….).  This can help us understand why we are so often not spontaneously obedient – joyfully running in the paths of the Lord’s commandments – like we, according to our inner man, long to be. Ideally, we don’t even need the law to describe for us what our new life in Christ looks like, or to jog our memory, or even to inspire us! While Luther talks about spontaneity in the passages from the 4th Antinomian Disputation theses, it is in the other Disputations where Luther responds to student’s challenges where he talks about the “Thomas Christian” (see Pastor Sonntag’s paper on third of the law in those same Disputations – of which he is the translator) where there is a fight going – which will result in the purging of sin and the doing of good – which is certainly not spontaneous in the way that we might be thinking. Rather, what is often spontaneous is simply the desire and will to fight – in the power afforded by the Gospel that gives us peace in justification – so that good, and not evil, can be done: so Christians obey willingly without coercion, *due to their putting their old man in its place – by their new man* (not Christ, but the new nature that wills – “not my will…” – to cooperate with Christ’s Spirit) who is eager to do so, and *spontaneously does so more or less consciously*.

In my conversation with Pastor Hopman, he argued on the basis of these same Antinomian Disputations (Thesis 35-38 of the 4th set of theses) above:

“Luther confesses that faith actually does them “without the law.” After Luther says this he concludes “In sum: The law is neither useful (utilis) nor necessary (necessaria) for justification or for any good works…” “Any” (ulla) is an exclusive word. It can’t simply be dealt with by referring to other disputations, which allegedly somehow contradict it.”

Here is how I responded:

I am not disagreeing that faith does them without the law as the motivation.  What Luther means is that the law is not necessary for *justification*, primarily, and that it is not necessary or useful for sanctification, insofar as it is considered apart from the Gospel which is ultimately the only thing, ground, that can motivate us.  That is absolutely right.  Pastorally, it is only a confusion of Law or Gospel if a) the person being addressed believes they are justified by their works (here, first use of the law and teaching needs to be done) ; or b) exhortations to do the law are not grounded in “the mercies of God” (Rom. 12 ff.) ; or c) you are insensitive to the fact that you are putting burdens on people: for example, overestimating what certain persons are able to do when it comes to those things they really should do (here I am thinking about being patient when working with someone who is trying to overcome bad habits, not excusing their sins, but trying to overcome them, albeit not with the more immediate success all would like to see) or unbendingly expecting them to do things that they may do, but are not required by the law to do.

[vii] Lutherans are not Roman Catholics. When the well-known Reformed Pastor Jason Stellman converted to Roman Catholicism years ago, he said that the decision in the Acts 15 council showed an “authoritative and binding pronouncement that was bound in heaven even as it was on earth”. In Stellman’s argument the impression is given that if one would not submit to this they would certainly have been in danger of excluding one’s self (or perhaps automatically excluded one’s self?) from the Church and Christ. I wrote at the time: “In sum, I think it is tragic when concessions which were made to preserve unity in the body of Christ (like what happened in Acts 15) become reduced to arguments for the sovereignty of just one part of the body – to whom all other parts must submit or face uncertainty as regards their salvation in Christ.” (see here: https://infanttheology.wordpress.com/2012/07/26/rc-convert-jason-stellmans-perception-of-lutheranism/)

[viii] More context:

“Finally, disagreements about matters involving the Law are not necessarily merely legal controversies. They can reveal differences in the Gospel and faith. Here the great biblical example is the controversy surrounding circumcision in Galatia. Paul knew well that circumcision was a matter of the law (Galatians 2:16, 21, 3:2, 10–13, etc.), but when the super apostles told the Galatians they must be circumcised Paul did not merely engage in a dispute about the extent to which Christians must obey the law. Instead he discerned that something greater was at stake and accused the super apostles of preaching a false gospel (Galatians 1:6–9). Furthermore, he made circumcision the occasion for eternal judgment, telling the Galatians that if they allowed themselves to be circumcised Christ would no longer be of any benefit to them (Galatians 5:2).”

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