According to Pr. Surburg, the issues in the Great Sanctification Debate of 2013, which seems to be winding down, have been centered around 1) confusion and concerns about nomenclature, 2) arguments about whether the new man cooperates in new obedience, 3) disputes about growth and increase in new obedience, 4) some forcing and imposing an extreme form of Law and Gospel on texts of Scripture, and 5) the ever-popular dust-up regarding the third use of the Law (always my personal favorite, and yours, too - admit it!).
I certainly don't want to make light of Pr. Surburg's fine effort to get to the nitty-gritty here. He has put forth a lot of serious effort in this latest Great Sanctification Debate, and I appreciate his willingness to engage the topic and to identify what he believes to be the points of contention. However, my concern is that he, and others, have chosen to make far more out of all this than is really there. That was my concern in the Great Sanctification Debates of 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, and it remains my concern again this year. I really think it's always much ado about not much.
I could be wrong, of course. Maybe there really are confessional Lutherans among us who really don't believe that the new man cooperates with the Holy Spirit, albeit in great weakness, in new obedience. I've just never met one. Maybe there really are confessional Lutherans who don't believe there is any growth or increase whatsoever in new obedience. I've just never met one. Maybe there are confessional Lutherans who really are too dense to grasp the fact that the apostles of our Lord proclaim the Law not only to convict of sin, but also to encourage holy living. I've just never met one. Maybe there are confessional Lutherans who really don't understand that, for the new man in the Christian, the Law is a good thing in which he delights. I've just never met one.
I have met confessional Lutheran pastors who may give the impression that they might believe some of these things by over-emphasizing a theological point, usually in reaction to other Lutheran pastors over-emphasizing a different theological point, but, lo and behold, when the smoke clears, both of those pastors actually do believe, teach, and confess the same thing. I've also seen some confessional Lutheran pastors make less than salutary comments either out of frustration or to make a point, which leads others to conclude that they're crass antinomians, who must be dealt with expediently. Or, from the other side, a confessional Lutheran pastor says something that causes others to jump on him for being an obvious pietist, who, again, must be dealt with expediently. Sometimes, we confessional Lutherans can be a little childish. Not me, of course. But, others. And, when we fail to see things for what they really are and end up making mountains out of molehills, the terrorists win.
And so, while I appreciate Pr. Surburg's attempt to summarize the issues in this latest Great Sanctification Debate, and add my hearty "Amen" to much of what he has written, I take issue with his assertion that there is a "new Lutheran understanding of new obedience/'sanctification'" out there threatening the "traditional Lutheran view," or as Pr. Jordan Cooper put it on FB last week, a "new school of thought" on sanctification, the proponents/students of which he deemed "Radical Lutherans," providing one of my dear seminary professors, the Reverend Professor John Pless, as an example of such. I'm sorry, but that's just crazy talk if ever there were crazy talk.
None of this is to say that the Great Sanctification Debate of 2013 has been a total waste of time. Some good has come of it. As Pr. Surburg rightly notes, we need to be careful about what nomenclature we employ. When confessional Lutherans start talking about sanctification in a way that doesn't appear all that different from the way in which Americanized Protestants do, other confessional Lutherans are going to get grumpy. Not me, of course. But, others. When confessional Lutherans start talking about "preaching sanctification" as something that Lutheran pastors can deliberately accomplish, other confessional Lutherans are going to lose it. Again, not me, of course. But, others. And, when confessional Lutherans even hint at the suggestion that sanctification is something that comes after Jesus, as if it is not totally wrapped up in Jesus, other confessional Lutherans are going to start throwing things. Not me, of course. But, others.
In this wrap-up post by Pr. Surburg, he is very careful to make clear what he is and is not saying, and he does his best to put forth what he hears his "opponents" saying. But, I think he still has some more listening to do, as he attributes to them positions they simply do not hold (at least, not the "opponents" of whom I'm aware), as I mentioned above. Furthermore, I'm not sure what he's trying to accomplish in his second-to-last paragraph by noting, "it must of course be granted that only the Holy Spirit determines how the Law will actually be applied to the individual. Yet this does [not] remove the fact that the speaker or writer knows the goal he intends to achieve in the hearer or reader." He goes on to give the example of St. Paul exhorting husbands to love their wives (Eph. 5:25), stating that St. Paul's intention is clear - he wants husbands to love their wives. And?
This is Pr. Surburg's response to those pastors, like me, who have contended that only the Holy Spirit determines how the Law will actually be applied, and that, at the end of the day, Law is Law, and it is a dangerous thing for pastors to leave their hearers with the Law. Pr. Surburg jumps to the conclusion that this must mean that we are hesitant, or worse, that we refuse, to speak like St. Paul and the other apostles speak, and that, because of this, our theology might need to be reexamined (does he realize that a) this comes off as very condescending, as if he is the only serious theologian in the room, and b) this is a pretty serious charge, one that should not be made unless it can be clearly backed up with supporting evidence?). Of course, this is nonsense. I don't know of any confessional Lutheran pastors, whose theology Pr. Surburg worries might be in need of reexamination, who hesitate or refuse to speak like St. Paul and the other apostles. We're simply stating the truth, which Pr. Surburg nowhere refutes, that the intention of the speaker/writer/preacher, whatever it may be, does not change the fact that speaking/writing/preaching Law is speaking/writing/preaching Law. When St. Paul exhorts husbands to love their wives, even if he does so with a clear intent and in the most pleasant, lovely, non-threatening voice he could manage, it may, in fact, be heard by some husbands as the harshest, most accusatory Law ever. I think we're on extremely thin ice when we start highlighting intentions in relation to preaching the Law. What's that saying about the road to hell?
I don't think this means that the theology of Pr. Surburg differs from mine, and I'm certainly not going to claim that his theology is in need of reexamination based on this. I think, at the end of the day, we would be in agreement, which leads me back to my assessment above that this is really just another case of different emphases and talking past one another. As I said above, I may be wrong about this. I'm simply basing my assessment on what I've actually seen and heard throughout the various Great Sanctification Debates over the years. I've asked for examples from the confessional Lutherans who make the claims that there is some "new understanding" or "new school of thought" brewing among us, but I've never yet been provided with anything that would lead me to conclude that there actually is. Usually, the examples are nothing more than bad behavior or hyperbolic statements made in response to other hyperbolic statements, and almost always, upon further reflection, the apparent differences turn out to be nothing of the sort (some nuances may remain, but nothing that destroys the confession of the faith both parties hold). Maybe Pr. Surburg will provide some evidence to back up the claims he makes in his post, but until then, I'm inclined to believe that this latest Great Sanctification Debate has really been much ado about not much, as the previous six thousand were. And, I really think we should all try to remember that blog and FB posts are not detailed, theological treatises. They're usually just snippets, and often reactionary. They very rarely reveal the full extent of a pastor's theological understanding of this or that issue, and we should be a little more careful before rushing to conclusions based on them.
Also, I want to make clear that I definitely do understand that there is a very real tension we confessional Lutherans feel when addressing this issue, which comes from our colorful history. We know that both antinomianism and pietism are bad things we need to avoid, and sometimes we might seek so much to avoid one or the other that we come off as falling into the opposite pit, even if we really haven't. That's one of the reasons these arguments are good; they're reminders to all of us that these dangers still exist and still need to be avoided.
For a couple of excellent, easy-to-understand articles which bring some much needed clarity to these Great Sanctification Debates, see Pr. Todd Wilken's:
As for another Great Sanctification Debate coming to an end, my closing thoughts (and by closing thoughts, I mean, maybe my closing thoughts; I reserve the right to have future thoughts), which have always been my closing thoughts whenever one of these Great Sanctification Debates comes to an end, are best expressed by this: