Toward the end of his life, Martin Luther was asked by his friends what they should publish of his works. He told them that they should throw all of it on the rubbish pile save for two; the Small Catechism and the Bondage of the Will.
If Luther’s wishes had been followed, the world would have been robbed of the rich treasure that comprise Luther’s music, commentaries and defenses of the Evangelical faith. Yet, one has to wonder about the two works Luther placed above all of those.
The Bondage of the Will was written as a response in open dialogue with one of the greatest humanist minds, Desiderius Erasmus. Erasmus argued for the “divine spark” concept in regards to salvation. Luther argued that man has no free will in regards to salvation and that man has ‘apparent free-will’ in regards to things ‘below him’ So, it is said that Luther’s book “out-Calvins Calvin”. In other words, Luther’s argument strengthens the concept of Election and irresistible grace, two important components of Reformed Christianity.
The human will is in bondage to sin, and cannot free itself. However, this bondage takes different forms. It is not as if people who commit gross sins (immorality) are the only sinners. Luther asserted that it was those who committed internal sins who were the greater sinners, noting the opposition of the religious elites toward Jesus (some of the Pharisees) as well as their treatment of poor sinners (those who were societal rejects).
And so we come to pastoral practice. The landscape of American Christianity has an abundance of concerns that are distilled into the preaching on Sunday morning (or, evening or once-a-month). It is there that you can most clearly understand the doctrine of a church. It is there that you can hear the approach to theology as well as the application of that theology to the life of Christians. It’s not just what is said, it is also how it is delivered.
What I find most concerning in American Christianity is the final portion of the sermon. The pastor has just spent the majority of the sermon explaining a passage of scripture. He/she has also tried to put it into words that the congregation can relate to. But, in the end, there are those inevitable ‘applications’. How are they to be worked out in our lives?
It is actually the moment our flesh looks forward to the most. The thing we can do. The thing we can aspire to. The thing we can evaluate ourselves and others by. It is where ‘the rubber meets the road’.
A great author of Christian books, R.C. Sproul wrote a book entitled Pleasing God. Now here is where it gets personal (or ‘bloggy’ if you prefer). I read this book as I was escaping the theology of Lordship salvation. R.C. does such a wonderful job giving examples of people in each chapter, then following it up with scriptural points in Law and Gospel. If he just let the Gospel be the last part of each chapter, the impact on the bound conscience would have been greater.
Unfortunately, he added a few lines at the end of each chapter that were part of the Reformed ‘guilt-grace-gratitude’ model. In other words, he left you with a little law to follow.
Fortunately, for me, I merely ignored those last few sentences and basked in the light of the clear Gospel clearly proclaimed. It set me on a new foundation and set me free in Christ. I never looked back 21 years later.
The binding of Christian conscience is the most damaging aspect of American Christian preaching. Despite having peerless doctrine, a preacher can undo all of the good work that Christ is working in the lives of His people when the sermon ends with law.
Don’t think that I am picking on R.C. only. Much worse than that are those who confuse the Law (demands, commands and expectations of God) with Gospel (the purely free and radically alien gift of forgiveness and righteousness earned for you by Christ alone). I would take a Sproul any day over a John MacArthur.
Binding Christian conscience does not produce righteousness. It is simply the replacing of ‘impossible demands’ with ‘applicable’ moral and behavioral expectations. To the troubled conscience this serves to place them under the yoke of slavery they just escaped when you gave them the good news.
It happens in every denomination, every Sunday, everywhere. Millions of Christians who are not living in the radical freedom and blessing that Christ has won for them. What a tragedy! “If the Son sets you free, you are free indeed!” But the preaching leads one back to his/her own vomit. It leads them back to their flesh to be ‘sanctified’. The karmic cycle of spiritual death is perpetuated, and the Christian is left in burden, fear, anxiety and despair. The assurance that Hebrews 11:1 is lost.
May God have mercy on us. May He remind you that you are a new creation in Jesus Christ. May you recall your baptism where your flesh was drowned and you were resurrected a new woman or a new man. May God the Father keep you in the Gospel of His son who has already sanctified you. Any remaining work is His to do. Jesus Christ, after all, is the ‘author and perfector of [your] faith’. He is your sanctification, justification, righteousness, living forgiveness and life. He is the key to unlock your bound heart.
Christ have mercy.