One of the hot issues on the Lutheran blogosphere is good works. There tend to be two positions in Lutheranism right now on this topic.
Now first, let me define the term Law, since some of the people who come here aren't Lutheran. Lutheran's divide the Bible into two parts...the Law and the Gospel. The Law is not simply the Torah, the Gospel is not simply Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. The Law is ANYTHING in the Bible which tells us what WE should do. The Gospel is ANYTHING in the Bible which tells us what Christ did FOR us.
Two very important things, because ONLY the Gospel saves us, and in regards to our salvation, there is NOTHING that we do to help save ourselves.
Now another key point to Lutheran theology is that we are only saved through the Holy Spirit. Through the preaching of the Word and the administration of the Sacraments (Holy Baptism and Holy Communion), He brings us to faith (we don't choose Christ) and sustains us in that faith. We are a new creation, and throughout the rest of our lives in dealing with the devil, the world, and our own sinful flesh, the Holy Spirit is continually strengthening us and leading us through the Word and the Sacraments.
Now one of the basic Lutheran teachings about the Law is that it has three uses. We often will categorize them according to First Use, Second Use, and Third Use.
The first use of the law is this: That it restrains sin -- and applies to unbelievers as well as believers. By teaching that there is right and wrong and penalty for right and wrong, evil is somewhat contained. This is clearly shown in the society that the Jews set up where anyone in their midst was punished for breaking God's law, sinners were looked down upon rather than glorified, etc. This law, we have written on our hearts. Deep down, we all know right from wrong but choose whether to ignore it or not.
The second use of the law is more important: It shows us our sin. When we really look at the law, we see we can in no way live up to God's standards of keeping it. This is the most important use of the Law because it leads a person to repentance and to a desire for the Gospel. If the Gospel does not follow when a person is truly contrite, then they can become despairing. This also plays a strong roll once we come to faith. When we look at the law, we know we fall short, so we are constantly returning to the forgiveness that was won on the cross.
The third use, as I was taught in confirmation, is that now that we are believers, the law tells us how we are to live. We are still going to sin and fall short. We are never going to do it perfectly, but we return to Christ for forgiveness. The Holy Spirit himself has the role of sanctifying us (teaching us) and guiding us in how God wants us to live. He also gives us the strength to do so through the Word and Sacraments.
The debate, as I see it, is this. There is one group that maintains that the only use of the law is to show us what Christ did for us. These verses are not there as examples to show us how we are supposed to try to live. The Holy Spirit living inside us and teaches us that and works through us to accomplish His will.
(If I am wrong in how I portray this position, please correct me).
The other position, which I believe is held by most Lutherans, is that when we are washed in the waters of Holy Baptism and we have faith, we are regenerated by the Holy Spirit. As long as we have our sinful flesh, that regeneration will never be perfect, but that WE begin to want the things that God wants. We want to do what He wants us to do. So when we see the things in the Bible where it tells us to love our neighbor or refrain from immoral practices, or to strive after things, WE are actually striving and struggling to do this. The Holy Spirit is guiding us through the Word, even these words of Law, and making us want to do them. But that we are indeed part of that, because through the regeneration of the Holy Spirit, we are constantly being brought closer into we should've been before the Fall, but that it is a long process that will not reach its culmination until we are in Heaven with God.
The reason why I struggle with the first position is that there are some statements of Law which clearly apply to us and not to Christ, because they are telling us to follow Him, be like Him (Be imitators of me just as I also am of Christ - I Corinthians 11:1 comes to mind as one of many). The Bible also tells us clearly to "do this" or "don't do this" and holds us accountable for that.
The other issue is when I read Luther. Let's take the Ten Commandments. Every single explanation to every commandment (from the 2nd on) starts out with "We are to fear and love God SO THAT WE do not.........but (and then tells us what we are supposed to do)."
Now I agree that the 2nd use always applies here. When I look at the Ten Commandments, I am convicted of my sin. I know I have broken the commandment, and I surely haven't gone beyond and shown love to my God or my neighbor. But then there is this.
Luther and Melancthon (in the Augsburg Confession and its Apology) clearly point out that we cannot fear and love God unless we have faith. If we do not have faith, we respond with either despair or anger toward God. When we have faith, we do fear his judgement and what can happen if we give ourselves over to sins and let them rule over us, but we also love Him as our dear father, and this mirrors the relationship we have with our parents. We fear getting in trouble - and sometimes that is motivation enough to do well, but we also love them and don't want to hurt them, and so we try to please them as well. Not because they will withdraw their love from us, but because that relationship is based on love. Generally more mature love from the parent, and growing love from the child.
Is our obedience perfect? Nope. Not at all. And often as parents, we see efforts at obedience from our kids and overlook the faults in execution. God does this as well. I can't keep His law perfectly. I am going to have bad or selfish thoughts in the process, or I am not going to do exactly what I want, and at times I rebel. But when we are saved in Christ, the imperfect obedience is reckoned as perfect obedience. IN NO WAY does this contribute to our salvation. But even though they aren't perfect, God is still pleased from the good works that come from faith. He is pleased with us, and He forgives whatever part falls short.
Now that is my understanding of how good works work. And not being able to grasp the position that we have no part in our sanctification, I do have a question that has been the key point of my struggle with these two perspectives....
If the only purpose of the law is to show us what Christ has done, then by what means does the Holy Spirit use to sanctify us?
Because I see the Law being a part of that. Being saved, I want to please God, but I have to know HOW to do His will and what I am supposed to do. The Holy Spirit works through God's Word and through the Sacraments to strengthen my faith and forgive my sins and to constantly sanctify me....but isn't one of the ways He does it through the Word is when I read something like " and there must be no filthiness and silly talk, or coarse jesting, which are not fitting, but rather giving of thanks" (Ephesians 5:4). One time, it can convict me, because I might have been silly or coarse at one time or another. The next time, when I am in a situation where I might be tempted to do so, maybe that time the Holy Spirit reminds me of this verse that I have read, and I refrain from doing so. I see that as the Holy Spirit sanctifying me through the third use of the law regarding this particular verse.
The problem that I see is that if the Holy Spirit is not using God's Word to lead us to a life of sanctification, then how do we distinguish between what is the Holy Spirit and what is our own whim or will? I see a risk of if the indwelling of the Spirit is guiding us completely outside the Law in what we should be doing as far as good works, then we might simply be in the exact same place as the very people we criticize who claim that God told them what to do and what to say regardless of what Scripture says.
These are just some thoughts that have been going on in my head for some time. I am not fixated on the Christian living section at the local bookstore, but I have read Luther, Walther, Chemnitz, and the Book of Concord, and the idea that we are to pay attention to what we do and strive to do good and avoid evil is something that comes up a myriad of traditional Lutheran writings. The fear is always that focus on works will take our eyes off of Christ's saving grace. But our good works are supposed to flow from that, not distract us from it. Without faith, these works amount to nothing, but that doesn't mean that we don't need to be taught what is good and what is bad, and I believe that God uses the Law to guide us to that. When I do something because I want to do love God and my neighbor, that might be law-based, but it is done out of faith.
I am not always perfect with theological terms. I am not always perfect in expressing myself, and I admit, I am not where I should be in understanding. I am writing this because I would like to understand more where the differences are in these to perspectives, and learn to understand both more clearly. So I would love discussion here, but polite discussion.