Forde on the Law and the Christian Life

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1. Law changes to fit the times: “We do not possess absolute, unchangeable laws. If the law no longer takes care of this world, it can and must be changed. As even Luther put it, we must write our own decalogue to fit the times. ”

2. Hiddenness: “The attempt to break the hiddenness is precisely the dangerous thing . . . . The goodness or Christianness of one’s life should be hidden even from oneself . . . .”

3. Totus/totus: “Thus the simul iustus et peccator as total states would seem to militate against any talk of progress in sanctification.”

I. The Law

Forde, G., “Postscript to The Captivation of the Will,” Lutheran Quarterly (19:1, Spring 2005) p.78.

The only way to overcome the problem of the hiddenness of God not preached is by God preached. But that will not happen by attempting to infer God’s will from the law.

Forde, G. “The Viability of Luther Today. A North American Perspective,” Word & World 7 (1987) 22-31, p.27.

The gospel, precisely because it is unconditional defeats the devil in both righteous and unrighteous, establishes the end, and thus opens up the possibility for the proper use of the law, a political use, for the time being. This political use of the law, opened to view and established by the gospel of justification by faith alone is, I believe, one of the most significant and at the same time neglected aspects of Luther’s theology in confronting the quest for justice.

Law is to be used for political purposes, i.e., for taking care of people here on earth in as good, loving, and just manner as can be managed. Reason, i.e., critical investigation using the best available wisdom and analysis of the concrete human situation in given instances, is to be the arbiter in the political use of the law.

Forde,  G., “Lex semper accusat, Nineteenth-Century Roots of Our Current Dilemma,” in A More Radical Gospel, (ed. Mark C. Mattes and Steven D. Paulson. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans 2004) p.49.

There is little chance, too, then, of really arriving at a positive atti­tude to law. For it is the supernatural pretension of law, its unbreakable ab­soluteness that makes it unbearable and drives man in his endless quest to be rid of it. When it has an end, however, a real end, one can see its positive use. In view of the end in Christ we can see that the law is intended for this world and that a new kind of goodness is possible, a goodness in and for this world, a “civil righteousness.” Faith in the end of the law establishes the law in its proper use.
To say this is not, it must be insisted, to defend the status quo or to fall into the old trap of unqualified obedience to the state. That kind of thinking arises only when one has not grasped what faith in the end of the law means — both on the part of its proponents and its critics. For faith in the end of the law leads to the view that its purpose is to take care of this world, not to prepare for the next. That means that we do not possess absolute, unchangeable laws. If the law no longer takes care of this world, it can and must be changed. As even Luther put it, we must write our own decalogue to fit the times. Furthermore, whenever anyone, be he reaction­ary or revolutionary, sets up law or a system by which he thinks to bring in the messianic age, that is precisely the misuse of law against which Chris­tians must protest. That is why, I would think, not even revolution is en­tirely out of the question for the Christian if that appears the only way to bring about necessary changes. But it must be a revolution for the proper use of the law, for taking care of this world, in the name of purely natural and civil righteousness and not in the name of supernatural pretension. That is to say, it must be a positive revolution and not a revolution of nega­tion.
It is too much (or perhaps too little?) to say, I think, that respect for law must be the political religion of the nation. That seems to imply that law is an absolute before which we must all unquestionably bow. It would be better to say that care for the proper use of the law must be our constant and never-ending concern in this world. For we are not called merely to be law-abiding, but to take care of this world, and law must be tailored to as­sist in that task.

Forde, G., Address to the 8th International Luther Conference, 1993.

Theologically both before and after the Reformation the most common domesticating move has been the attempt to qualify the Pauline claim that Christ is the end of the law to those of faith.  “Reason,” as Luther would put it, simply cannot entertain such an idea, the idea that in Christ the law comes to an end, that law is over and freedom begins.  As we have seen, freedom as usually conceived needs law as the mediator of possibility.  What shall we do if there is no law to tell us what to do?  But is Paul then wrong in his claim?  Theologians as usual, however, found a way to have their cake and eat it too.  They made a distinction in the content of the law – something Paul had never done – a distinction between the ceremonial or ritual laws on the one hand and the moral law on the other. Then they proceeded to say that Christ was the end of the ceremonial law but not the moral law.  Christ ended the necessity, that is, for sacrifice, circumcision, food and ritual regulations, etc., but not the demands of the moral law (e.g., the decalogue).  Christ died, it seems, to save us from the liturgiologists!  One might grant, of course, that that is no small accomplishment, but the price does seem a bit high!

“Fake Theology: Reflections on Antinomianism Past and Present,” dialog 22 (1983) 249.

Covert antinomianism, seen in this light, comes in many different forms. Early in Christian history some tried to accommodate to law by altering the law’s content, arguing that while ceremonial law came to an end with Christ, the moral law did not.
Nervousness about the effectiveness of the gospel in the confessional generation of Protestantism re­sulted in the positing of an added function of the law: a “third use” by the “reborn Christian.”  The gospel does make a difference, supposedly, but only such as to add to the function of the law. But the function is really a watering-down and blunting of the impact of the law. Instead of ordering and attacking, law is supposed to become a rather gentle and innocuous “guide.” More recent biblical exegetes do something of the same sort when they try to comfort us with the information that to the ancient Israelite law was really not so bad but as part of Torah a blessing.
In ethics we seem readily to take to contextualizing, or rather easily modifying, law to accommo­date our preferences. No doubt laws do need to be changed to fit the times. But it would seem that they should be changed to attack sin in the new forms it takes, not to accommodate it. Under the guise of concern for ethics, morality, and justice, law is watered down and blunted to accommodate our fancies. When there is no end in sight that is the only way we can make peace with law.
But once again, this is fake theology. If overt antinomianism is impossible, covert antinomianism is even more so. It will not work. The law just changes its tack and becomes, if anything, worse. Is there any comfort in the idea that the ceremonial law ends, but not the moral? And what, finally, is the difference between them? Are the first three commandments ceremonial or moral? Does the law attack any less just because theologians say it is a friendly guide? Or does that only make matters worse? Is the idea that Torah was a blessing to ancient Israel of any comfort to a twentieth-century gentile?  Have we really escaped from anything by all the contextualizing and interpreting and relativizing?  Or have we succeeded only in bringing the voice of despair closer?

Forde, G. “Justification and This World,” Christian Dogmatics II, p. 447.

Unable to rhyme Matt. 5:17-18 with Rom. 10:4, the dogmatic tradition has experienced nothing but trouble over the law. When one does not see that “heaven and earth” do “pass away” in the eschatological fulfillment an­ticipated and grasped by faith, and that just such fulfillment is the end and the goal, Paul and Matthew are at irreconcilable odds. Unable to grasp this fulfillment as end, the tradition for the most part had to indulge in what was strictly forbidden by both Matthew and Paul: tampering with the con­tent of the law to arrive at a compromise. The result was the idea that in Christ the ceremonial laws of the Old Testament were abrogated (thus throw­ing a sop to Paul’s claim that Christ was the “end” of the law) while the “moral” law was not (thus supposedly satisfying Matthew’s claim that not one iota or dot would pass away until “the end”). But that is patent nonsense which only confuses the issue further and completely obscures the eschatology involved. Neither Testament makes that kind of distinction between ceremonial and moral law. Indeed, it seems that in most instances, ruptures of the ceremonial law are more serious than those of the moral law. Furthermore, the tradition was left with the problem of deciding just what was moral and what was ceremonial. Are the first three commandments, for instance, moral or ceremonial? One might, of course, as happened most generally, try to set­tle on the decalogue as the moral law. But there is a good deal in the Old Testament and the New outside the decalogue which might also qualify as moral and ethical material of the highest quality. Who is to decide?
The outcome of such confusion was, in general, that natural law became the arbiter. Natural law decides what is moral and what is not. But therewith the fate of the church’s understanding of law was sealed, as well as of its eschatological outlook. Natural law became the structural backbone of the theological system, displacing eschatology. Without eschatology however, the church had to take over administration of the law and reduce it to manageable proportions, distinguishing “mortal” and “venial” transgressions of law, applying it casuistically to this or that case, separating what ought to be done by everyone from what might be done by the more serious and dedicated.  In short, under the guise of being for the law the church tended to become covertly antinomian.  As a result, the question of law never ceased to bother, and outbreaks of reformation in the name of the gospel became the recurring fate of the church.

II. Hiddenness

Forde, “Justification and Sanctification,” Christian Dogmatics II (Fortress, 1984) pp. 440-41.

The teachings of Jesus and the injunctions in the Epistles must be viewed in the same light.  They are posed from the escatological perspective. They have to do with what one who is slain and made alive by the eschatological word does and is to do. One cannot expect that such teachings will be generally understood or approved by the children “of this age.” That is not because Christians are so much the paragons of virtue that the world scoffs at their strictness and rigor – that Christians try to be perfect examples of that virtue which the world generally approves but does not want to be ‘too serious’ about.  It is rather because the Christian life will be hidden from this world and inexplicable to it. Sometimes – perhaps most of the time – the Christian life will appear to follow quite ordinary, unspectacular courses, no doubt too ordinary for the world.  But sometimes it will appear to go quite contrary to what the world would deem wise, prudent, or even ethical.  Why should costly ointment be wasted on Jesus?  Would it not be better to sell it and give it to the poor?  Should not Jesus’ disciples fast like everyone else?  Why should one prefer the company of whores and sinners to polite society?  Why should a Christian participate in an assassination plot? The Christian life is tuned to the eschatological vision, not to the virtues and heroics of this world.
It has become something of a platitude among religious people that the Sermon on the Mount sets forth the sort of ideal life the world might aspire to and admire. On the contrary, the Sermon on the Mount is one of the most antireligious documents ever written, because of its eschatological perspective…. The religious and the virtuous are not on the list and in all likelihood would not wish to be.  Indeed, the attempt to break the hiddenness is precisely the dangerous thing . . . . The goodness or Christianness of one’s life should be hidden even from oneself . . . .

“Justification by Faith Alone: The Article by which the Church Stands or Falls?” dialog 27 (1988) p. ____.

To begin with, to state the obvious, if we are justified sola fide (and here the sola is most important) any attempt so to describe or prescribe what is necessary for Christian existence and the object with which such existence has to do as to make it accessible or given other than to faith alone is a mistake.

III. Totus/Totus

Justification by Faith: A Matter of Death and Life (Fortress, 1982) p. 54.

The person is “transported” to use a modern idiom, taken away from sin when the radical nature of the justifying act sets the totally just (totus iustus) over against the complete sinner (totus peccator) . . . .

Excerpts from Forde, “Christian Life,” in Christian Dogmatics II.

p. 407

The assertion of “justification by faith” in the sixteenth-century Reformation can be understood only if it is clearly seen as a complete break with “justification by grace,” viewed according to the synthesis we have been describing, as a complete break with the attempt to view justification as a movement according to a given standard or law, either natural or revealed. For the reformers, justification is “solely” a divine act.

p. 430-31

We can best attack the problem by asking whether in Luther . . . it is possible to discover any distinctive ideas about sanctification or Christian growth.  The simul , it is to be recalled, was posited precisely to counter the idea that justification is to be synthesized with ideas of progress according to law.  The justifying act unmasks and exposes all our pretense about becoming virtuous persons, by the very fact that it is an unconditional divine imputation to be received only by faith. To be justified by God’s act means to become a sinner at the same time. The totality of justification unmasks the totality of being a sinner.  Thus the simul iustus et peccator as total states would seem to militate against any talk of progress in sanctification.
There are many utterances of Luther’s which reject all ideas of progress.  Sanctification must simply be included in justification because the latter is a total state. Sanctification is simply to believe the divine imputation and with it the totus peccator ….
From this point of view the way of the sinner in sanctification, if it is a movement at all, is a movement from nothing to all, from that which one has and is in oneself to that which one has and is in Christ.

p. 434

Faith, however, born of the imputation of total righteousness, begets the beginnings of honesty as well.  Such faith sees the truth of the human condition, the reality and totality of human sin, and has no need to indulge in fictions.

p. 435

Imputed righteousness is eschatological in character; a battle is joined in which the totus iustus moves against the totus peccator: The “progress” is the coming of God’s kingdom among us.


“If you lose your ‘virtue,’ what will protect you then?” Luther’s advice in such situations was: “Be a sinner and sin boldly, but believe even more boldly.” The point is not to go out and find some sins to commit. The point is rather not to be deceived by the glitter of ideals, of sanctity and piety, by the quest for the Holy Grail. Christ and Christ alone has dealt with sin and saves sinners.

Luther Quotes:

“For if we have Christ, we can easily establish laws …. Indeed, we would make new decalogues, as Paul does in all the epistles, and Peter, but above all Christ in the gospel” (“Theses Concerning Faith and Law,” [1535] LW 34:112, ##52-53).

“There are also other extraordinarily fine rules in Moses which one should like to accept, use, and put into effect. Not that one should bind or be bound by them, but (as I said earlier) the emperor could here take an example for setting up a good government, and just like the Sachsenspiegel by which affairs are ordered in this land of ours.  The Gentiles are not obligated to obey Moses. Moses is the Sachsenspiegel for the Jews. But if an example of good government were to be taken from Moses, one could adhere to it without obligation as long as one pleased etc.” (“How Christians Should Regard Moses,” [1525] LW 35:167).