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Antinomianism and Legalism: Three Streams of Confessional Lutherans

Three streams.

There are three streams that have flowed into current confessional Lutheranism. (There are more, but for present purposes, these three are sufficient to consider.)

Stream One.

Those born, baptized, raised, confirmed, and still living in confessional Lutheranism.

Stream Two.

Those born, baptized, raised, and confirmed in Lutheran synods that went antinomian. Examples would be the ALC, the LCA, and the ELCA. In those synods, there have been teachings like Joseph Fletcher’s Situation Ethics and 1622 other forms of antinomianism.

Stream Three.

Those born, dedicated, raised, rededicated, rededicated, and rededicated until their rededicators broke in the Evangelical denominations. In those denominations, there have been teachings like Keswick Theology and 1622 other forms of legalism.

Now the pool of confessional Lutherans are having trouble understanding each other. Those who have come out of Evangelicalism have difficulty understanding why other Lutherans would want to let legalism take over their current confessional synods. Why would they want the LCMS, WELS, ELS, TAALC, and other confessional synods to become Evangelical? It is an existential threat, because the Law was killing them in Evangelical churches, and if the Law destroys confessional Lutheranism, there will be nowhere to go.

Those who have come out of apostate Lutheranism have difficulty understanding why other Lutherans would want to let antinomianism take over their current confessional synods. Why would they want the LCMS, ELC, TAALC, and other confessional synods to become like the ELCA? It is an existential threat because, under Situation Ethics and the like, doing away with the Law also did away with the Gospel, and if the antinomianism destroys confessional Lutheranism, there will be nowhere to go.

Much of the debate takes the form of pin-balling between the bumpers of personal experiences. Those in Stream Three form their current theology partly from the corpus of Lutheran doctrinal literature, and partly from reaction to Evangelicalism. Too large of a dose of the new mixture is simply reactionary against Evangelicalism, which takes the form of reacting against the Law.

Those in Stream Two form their current theology from their Lutheran homes, confirmation studies, lives as life-long Lutherans, and their reaction against Situation Ethics and the other forms of antinomianism that destroyed their childhood synods.

Each of those streams has gone through a destruction. The former ALC-like types have gone through the destruction of their childhood synods and have had to leave their families for the faith. The former Evangelicals have gone through the destruction of their inner lives as they tried and failed to reach the mirage of the deeper spiritual life.

It is hard for former Evangelicals to understand that to have experienced the destruction of one’s synod is as devastating as to experience the destruction of one’s inner life. But, because the Lutheran faith is extra nos, when you take that destruction on its own terms, it is every bit as devastating.

Some of us can be tempted to form our theology as reaction to Situation Ethics and antinomianism. Others of us can be tempted to form our theology as reaction to Keswick Theology and Evangelicalism. We must remember that neither reaction is Lutheran and neither is Christian. Neither is sola scriptura. Neither lets Scripture form our theology. Experience would forming it. We must not be so far down into the weeds of our personal experiences that we cannot see we are living reactionary lives.

To often we cannot hear what others say. We hear our experiences instead. When some Lutheran says we should teach or exhort the Law and tell people the Gospel does not make us free to hate our neighbors by breaking the commandments of the Second Table, we hear Evangelicalism, Keswick Theology, and 1622 other forms of legalism, even though no one said keeping the Law is necessary for justification. We then go on to refute something they never said, and the conversation, like ships passing in the night, never makes contact.