Failure Is Not a Virtue

“Christian, you cannot obey the Law. Your certain failure is a means to show forth the grace of God when you repent.”

“We don’t need more lists of how to be a better spouse/parent/Christian. We need more grace.”

“My life strategy for today: fail, repent, repeat.”

Sounds good, doesn’t it? These sorts of statements compose a growing body of commentary that regards the Law of the Bible as a crushing burden, not just for the unbeliever, but for the believer as well. Enough with “checkbox Christianity,” these voices tell us. No more “how to’s” on righteousness. In the righteousness department you are an epic fail, so toss out your checklists and your laws, and cast yourself on grace.


Failure Gets a Makeover

In recent years church leaders have rightly spoken out against moralistic therapeutic deism, which is really just a fancy name for legalism—the idea that we earn God’s favor through external obedience to a moral code. Moralistic therapeutic deism, as in the days of Jesus, pervades our culture and even our churches. It’s as harmful today as it was when Jesus spoke against it 2,000 years ago.

As a response to this skewed view of Law, some have begun to articulate a skewed view of grace—one that discounts the necessity of obedience to the moral precepts of the Law. I call this view “celebratory failurism”—the idea that believers cannot obey the Law and will fail at every attempt. Furthermore, our failure is ultimately cause to celebrate because it makes grace all the more beautiful.

These days, obedience has gotten a bad name. And failure has gotten a make-over.

Interestingly, Jesus battled legalism in a different way than the celebratory failurist does. Rather than tossing out the Law or devaluing obedience to it, he called his followers to a deeper obedience (Matthew 5:17-48) than the behavior modification the Pharisees prized. He called for obedience in motive as well as in deed, the kind of godly obedience that is impossible for someone whose heart has not been transformed by the gospel in the power of the Holy Spirit. Rather than abolish the Law, Jesus deepened his followers’ understanding of what it required, and then went to the cross to ensure they could actually begin to obey it.

Set Free to Obey

The gospel grants both freedom from the penalty of sin and freedom to begin to obey (Rom 6:16). And what are we to obey? The Law that once gave death now gives freedom. God’s Word teaches us that behavior modification should absolutely follow salvation. It just occurs for a different reason than it does in the life of the unbeliever. Modified behavior reflects a changed heart. When Peter says we have spent enough time living as the pagans do, surely he means that it is time to stop disobeying and begin obeying. Paul tells us that grace teaches us to say no to ungodly passions, not merely to repent when we fail to say no. He goes on to say that we are redeemed, not from the Law, but from lawlessness (disregard for the Law). If, as John attests, all sin is lawlessness (disregard for the Law), ought we not to love the Law (Psalm 119:97) and meditate on it day and night, as those who desire deeply to cease sinning? When Jesus says ”Go, and sin no more,” don’t we think he means it?

Any profession of faith not followed by evidence is empty (James 2:14-26). And faithful profession without faithful obedience is spiritual schizophrenia. It is to affirm that God exists and then to turn and live as if he does not.

Celebratory failurism asserts that all our attempts to obey will fail, thereby making us the recipients of greater grace. But God does not exhort us to obey just to teach us that we cannot hope to obey. He exhorts us to obey to teach us that, by grace, we can obey, and therein lies hope. Through the gospel our God, whose Law and whose character do not change, changes us into those who obey in both motive and deed. Believers no longer live under the Law, but the Law lies under us as a sure path for pursuing what is good, right, and pleasing to the Lord. Contrary to the tenets of celebratory failurism, the Law is not the problem. The heart of the Law-follower is.

Obedience is only moralism if we believe it curries favor with God. The believer knows that it is impossible to curry favor with God, because God needs nothing from us. He cannot be put in our debt. Knowing this frees us to obey out of joyful gratitude rather than servile grasping.

Imagine telling your child, “I know you’ll fail, but here are our house rules. Let me know when you break them so I can extend grace to you.” We recognize that raising a lawless child is not good for the child, for our family, or for society as a whole. We don’t train our children to obey us so they can gain our favor. They already have our favor. We, being evil, train and equip them to obey because it is good and right and safe. And how much more does our heavenly Father love us?

Moving Beyond ‘Fail and Repent’

We must not trade moralistic therapeutic deism for celebratory failurism. Sanctification is about more than “You will fail, but there is grace for you.” Growing in holiness means that we fail less than we used to, because at long last we are learning to obey in both motive and deed, just as Christ obeyed. There is a difference between self-help and sanctification, and that difference is the motive of the heart.

Earnest Christians look to their church leaders and ask, “Teach me to walk in his ways.” We owe them an answer beyond, “Fail and repent.” We owe them, “This is the way, walk in it.” This way is often delineated by lists—a list of ten don’ts in Exodus 20, a list of eight do’s in Matthew 5, a list of works of the flesh (Galatians 5:22-23) and spiritual fruit (Galatians 5:22-23) in Galatians 5, and so on. These lists crush the unbeliever but give life to the believer. They make straight the paths of those who love them, and though this way is narrow, it leads to life.

The Law becomes a gracious means of conforming us to the image of the Savior. We love the Law because we love the God of the Law, who has engraved it on our hearts. We do not start our days planning to fail, nor do we celebrate failure. Rather, we set our faces like flint and resolve by the power of the Spirit to obey.

I delight to do your will, O my God;

your law is within my heart. — Psalm 40:8

  • the Old Adam

    This is what we expect our leaders to tell us, “You are free in Christ!”

    No ‘how-to’ lists. For that is not freedom…but more law.

    • Chris Julien

      I expect our leaders to tell us what we find in the NT. Anything other than that is a distortion of biblical guidelines.

      Romans 8: 12-17 follows Romans 8:1-2.

    • Dan

      We need the indicative (free in Christ) and the imperative (go and sin no more) from the pastor.

  • Lisa

    This is excellent!

  • Sondra Krantz Kraak

    Thank you. Thank you. You’ve articulated the emotions and frustrations of my heart. Having just taught a Bible study on the Ten Commandments, having always loved Psalm 119, having been a recovering striver-for Christ–this is exactly what needs to be proclaimed. I’m encouraged also as a mom in how I teach grace, obedience, and law to my children.

  • Dan Dosch

    Amen & Amen, Mrs. Wilkin.

    I’ve wrestled with the doctrine of obedience for some time now and it’s been hard to reconcile the “celebratory failurism” with the clear, new covenant demands on believers’ lives. I can appreciate the fact that people want to emphasize just how big God’s forgiveness is, but at some point it really does distort the Scriptures (and confuses the dailylights out of young disciples like me).

    “There’s no other way to be happy in Jesus but to Trust and Obey” as the old hymn goes; we need it and the broader society needs it. Walking faithfully will bring us life, and we will bring this life to the nations, as Israel failed to do, by being faithful to God’s faithfulness manifesting itself through us.

  • Justin Davito

    Thanks for posting this! I recently blogged twice about failure and wanting people to look to Jesus when we fail. I like what you said though, we should sin less than we use too!


  • Andy

    “The Law becomes a gracious means of conforming us to the image of the Savior.”

    I disagree. The Law is powerless to conform us to the image of Christ. Only the Spirit has the ability to make us more like Jesus.

    • RStarke

      I get the disagreement, but if I can use a kid analogy – the Law functions as the mold for our conforming – like one of those playdoh molds my kids used to use. If Jesus fulfilled/embodied the Law, then our becoming like Him, as the Holy Spirit helps us see him and love him and want to reflect him, is what’s in view here.

    • Chris Julien

      Does the Spirit do this in some sort of hocus-pocus mystical magic moment, or through the means of the word, ie. as we read God’s word and see his commandments therein?

      No one is talking about the law without the Spirit, and so “Spirit” or “law” is a false dichotomy here.

  • Kenton Slaughter

    Amen to this. Failure (falling into sin) is NOT a virtue. But, it lacks proper biblical nuance to simply say that we are freed to obey the Law. Paul says, “But now we are released from the law, having died to that which held us captive, so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit and not in the old way of the written code.” (Romans 7:6 ESV)

    Notice that we are still to serve. We serve God, but no longer under the Law of Moses, but by the Spirit of God.

  • Kenton Slaughter

    Regarding “moralistic therapeutic deism”, I’ve found that it really isn’t legalism at all. Legalism would be trying to obtain eternal life by one’s own “righteous works”. Moralistic therapeutic “theism” doesn’t really have this (or God’s approval) as it’s object. Rather, it’s about doing the right things to make one’s self happy in this life only. And in that case, it’s just humanism wrapped in theistic cloth. It is entirely human centered, with God only existing for the sake of human beings.

    Legalism carries with it some recognition of God’s righteousness, His judgment, and His promised deliverance, which is why I say, contrary to those who regard failure as more desirable that obedience, that legalism is only symptomatic of people who have acknowledged God’s Law – I.e. Christians and Jews (and perhaps Muslims). It is not, as some have claimed, the default, predominant condition of all humanity. That would be lawlessness and sinfulness (the furthest thing from what we call legalism).

    • Dan Dosch

      And that puts the Law in its proper covenantal context.

      Bravo Mr. Slaughter, great analysis.

  • Eric

    This blog makes a very good observation that failing is not God’s intent for his people. However, there are some points made that could use further thought:

    1. “The Law becomes a gracious means of conforming us to the image of the Savior.” This is not true because of:

    Heb 7:19 NASB (for the Law made nothing perfect), and on the other hand there is a bringing in of a better hope, through which we draw near to God.
    Heb 10:1 NASB For the Law, since it has only a shadow of the good things to come and not the very form of things, can never, by the same sacrifices which they offer continually year by year, make perfect those who draw near.

    2.”Obedience is only moralism if we believe it curries favor with God.”

    So we already have favor let us be more specific. Who has favor with God? Christ (Mark 1:11) And then that was imparted to us how?
    Heb 11:6 NASB And without faith it is impossible to please Him, for he who comes to God must believe that He is and that He is a rewarder of those who seek Him.
    So he is pleased with those who are exercising faith. There was no mention of faith in this blog. Is faith passive? Do we get saved and then we are automatically walking by faith? There are regular exhortations to walk by faith and to continue in the faith. So trusting God is intentional and critical. We should be clear that it is not by the law that we are made righteous, it is through Christ who will fulfill the law in us and then we will walk in a way that is free from sin.

  • Aaron Neumann

    I’m in the middle of reading Extravagant Grace, by Barbara Duguid, and I’m afraid it falls into this category of “celebratory failurism.” I do think the theological foundation of the book is not Biblical and therefore faulted, however the book does address the big question that the above post overlooks: What about all of those good Christian men and women out there who are strong believers, working out their faith, following spiritual disciplines, and loving God who STILL have sin in their life that seemingly cannot be conquered, either by their own will or with the power of the Holy Spirit? It can be very frustrating for these people as they seek holiness but are constantly trumped by their sinful and worldly “flesh”. Are we, as repeat offenders seeking holiness, just to live in continual struggle and disappointment of repeated failure? We know we are saved, but we want to be holy!

  • Chuck

    Thanks, Jen. This is sensible, gracious, and wise. Unfortunately, those with a short-sighted view of grace will cry foul. But, as you point out, grace is big – it justifies and transforms; it forgives and gives a new heart. Well done.

  • Bryan

    Are there true Christian whose lives aren’t marked by daily repentance? Martin Luther’s first thesis of the 95 theses that sparked the Reformation was: “When our Lord and Master, Jesus Christ, said “Repent”, He called for the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.” Our need to repent implies that we sin daily and we recognize the need to acknowledge to God that we’ve broken his commands and trust that we are forgiven and cleansed from all unrighteousness.

    I think the author brings up a good point in that people can stop striving to obey Christ if failure itself becomes a virtue. But is it true that we can ever “move beyond failing and repenting”? The Lord Jesus taught us to pray daily for forgiveness. The apostle Paul in Romans 7 spoke of wrestling with his sinful nature, even though he delighted in the Law of God in his inner being.

    I believe we err if we start to think we are “morally improving” or somehow “pulling off” obedience to the law on our own. The law is guide for Christians, but it should push us to further and further dependence upon Christ, greater humility, stripping away our idols and trusting God’s amazing grace through the cross. It is the work of the Holy Spirit in the believer who writes the Law on our hearts and enables us to walk by the Spirit in obedience to it.

  • adam

    Failure is not a virtue and yet it is proof of our constant need for a savior. It is proof that we are not completed works. It is proof of just how precious his Life Death and Resurrection is. It is proof that confession and repentance will mark the lives of true Christian.

  • Rosa

    This is very true and this type of “don’t even try to be good” theology (which was taught by Martin Luther) is one of the things that drove me out of Protestantism back home to the Catholic Church because I realized that the Bible does not teach the doctrines of the protestant revolutionaries. James 2:24 clearly says: You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone.” Just believing the gospel – “faith alone” – is not actually a scriptural or apostolic doctrine, and was a 16th century invention by a scrupulous monk who was scandalized by gross immorality in the church and didn’t quite understand the true teachings of Christ’s Church. Indeed – we are saved by grace alone, through “faith working through love.” (Galatians 5:6) God, by His grace, transforms us and sanctifies us, and then crowns His own merits in us which He has graciously given us. We do not save ourselves – God alone saves us. But the way He saves us is to sanctify us. That is the true teaching of Scripture and the true teaching of Christ’s one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church.

  • Rosa

    This is very true and this type of “don’t even try to be good” theology (which was taught by Martin Luther) is one of the things that drove me out of Protestantism back home to the Catholic Church because I realized that the Bible does not teach the doctrines of the protestant revolutionaries. James 2:24 clearly says: You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone.” Just believing the gospel – “faith alone” – is not actually a scriptural or apostolic doctrine, and was a 16th century invention by a scrupulous monk who was scandalized by gross immorality in the church and didn’t quite understand the true teachings of Christ’s Church. Indeed – we are saved by grace alone, through “faith working through love.” (Galatians 5:6) God, by His grace, transforms us and sanctifies us, and then crowns His own merits in us which He has graciously given us. We do not save ourselves – God alone saves us. But the way He saves us is to sanctify us. That is the true teaching of Scripture and the true teaching of Christ’s one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church.

  • danieltb

    The Written Code [Ro 7:6] never becomes any gracious means to conform you to Christ. What are you talking about?
    You are conformed to Christ when you behold Him [2 Co 3:18]. Some people might say that is one and the same as when you receive the Word of Grace (since He is that Word–and leaving that Word is the same as deserting Him [Gal 1:6]). Jesus the Word is to take the place of the Law of Moses in our minds as what we trust and boast in as the means of living in righteousness [Gal 6:14] (presumably, his intention is–in contrasting those who trust and boast in flesh and Law-“obedience” against his trusting and boasting in the Cross through which he was **crucified to the world** [the world is where sin, which is not from the Father, is 1 J 2;15,16–where “provision for the flesh” is “made” Ro 13:14–which must mean that “the Cross” was a means of attaining to righteousness or freedom from “sin”]–was to contrast two ways of thinking and methods of reaching righteousness [of course all of that which comes before it–chapters 1 through 5–bear this out]).
    The Law was “the Ministry of Condemnation” [2 Co 3:9] to condemn sinners as incapable of producing anything which could qualify as “good”–IN ORDER to herd them to the Messiah through whom they might finally “work the works of God” (which are actually “good”). Only what GOD does is good. Paul didn’t want a righteousness from the Law but counted it as dung [Php 3:1-9]. We are not under the Law because it applies only to living people [Ro 7:1]–and we died with Christ. We are not under the Law because it was not made for righteous people but for sinners [1 Ti 1:9] (again, to condemn them [2 Co 3:9] to lead them to Messiah [Gal 3:21-24])–and we are righteous. Paul explicitly said he wasn’t [1 Co 9:20] so why are you? I hope you understand that I mean this tenderly: it is not a Pauline doctrine to be under the Law. We are under Grace–and for that reason only we will not be mastered by sin.

    (The reason Paul refutes “Let us sin that more grace may come” is as a response to a dissenter or someone who might be deceived by satan while reading his words: 1. The Law came in that transgression might increase 2. But where sin abounded grace abounded more 3. Shall we say ‘Let us sin that more grace may come [since I just said that when we were sinners and the Law made transgression increase–and where sin abounded grace abounded much more]?’ Never!)

    IF, however, **what we call** “Grace” does not end in holiness, then we can be certain that we do not know what “Grace” is. We can know for certain that we need to ask God for a greater understanding of what “Grace” actually is–we need to perfect our “definition” of the word. We need to recognize we DO NOT have “Grace” (not the way Paul had it– and not in a way which leads to victory over the world [1 J 5:4] and all the sin that is in it [1 J 2:15,16]), instead of emptily CLAIMING to have it.
    THAT BEING SAID, we by no means go to the Law to obtain grace–don’t we “approach the throne” for that?–except if we are receiving a greater understanding from God concerning the Gospel of Grace.

    • d camp

      The issue here is motivation. The author is not suggesting that God’s commandments justify or are the ultimate motive for our service. When Jesus said, “Do this til I come,” or “Don’t be unequally yoked,” etc., did He not mean for us to do those things? Certainly obedience requires the grace of God, but doesn’t our union with Christ also necessitate prayerful and loving obedience? Wasn’t that the source of Jesus’ joy? (John 15:9-11) No one is denying the priority of grace, but what is its ultimate purpose if not fellowship and obedience to our Lord. The specifics of commandments in the NT vs the Mosaic Code have changed, but the principle of loving obedience to God’s word as a response to God’s work of grace in us has not.

    • David

      No one here is arguing for salvation on any other grounds than grace. But you must bear in mind that initial salvation carries with it a call to personal discipleship, which will include pursuit of holiness and obedience to God’s commands.
      Just a brief sampling of the imperative language of the New Testament:
      Matthew 7:21-27
      Luke 6:46-49
      Romans 6:8-14
      Romans 12:9-21
      Romans 13:8-14
      Galatians 5:16-6:2
      Ephesians 4:17-32
      Philippians 1:27
      1 Timothy 4:7-10
      James 1:22-25
      James 2:14-20
      1 John 2:9-11
      The language of abiding, obedience, striving, suffering, and putting off/on are all over the New Testament. Rejoice in all the indicatives; heed the calls of the imperatives. We have been regenerated, received the Holy Spirit, and been given the Word of God so that we may understand, believe, and obey. And by His grace and through His power, we will.

  • moebergeron

    This statement is misleading the reader.

    “The Law that once gave death now gives freedom.”

    Please give serious thought to the following passages. You are confusing the Law of Christ with the Law engraved upon tablets of stone. James has no intention to return to the Law covenant for sanctification.

    There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. 2 For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death. 3 For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, 4 in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit (Romans 8:1-4 ESV)

    6 But now we are released from the law, having died to that which held us captive, so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit and not in the old way of the written code. (Romans 7:6 ESV)

    Now if the ministry of death, carved in letters on stone, came with such glory that the Israelites could not gaze at Moses ‘face because of its glory, which was being brought to an end, 8 will not the ministry of the Spirit have even more glory? 9 For if there was glory in the ministry of condemnation, the ministry of righteousness must far exceed it in glory. 10 Indeed, in this case, what once had glory has come to have no glory at all, because of the glory that surpasses it. 11 For if what was being brought to an end came with glory, much more will what is permanent have glory. (2 Corinthians 3:7-11 ESV)

    What then? Are we to sin because we are not under law but under grace? By no means! 16 Do you not know that if you present yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness? 17 But thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed, 18 and, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness. 19 I am speaking in human terms, because of your natural limitations. For just as you once presented your members as slaves to impurity and to lawlessness leading to more lawlessness, so now present your members as slaves to righteousness leading to sanctification. 20 For when you were slaves of sin, you were free in regard to righteousness. 21 But what fruit were you getting at that time from the things of which you are now ashamed? For the end of those things is death. 22 But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the fruit you get leads to sanctification and its end, eternal life. 23 For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 6:15-23 ESV)

    6 But now we are released from the law, having died to that which held us captive, so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit and not in the old way of the written code. (Romans 7:6 ESV)

  • KC

    You are right, failure is not a virtue. I don’t believe that anyone would ever say that nor is there anyone saying that right now. The fact is that failure is a reality. And to recognize failure is the real virtue.

    I think you have confused the law and the gospel here. It seems that you have lowered the bar of the law to a reachable standard so that the law now becomes “good news.” The gospel is the only “good news” that we have in delivering us from the crushing burden of the law. If we could operate without failure, we would have no need for Christ.

  • awt

    I agree with much of what the writer says above. Particularly about failure not being a virtue and Christ not freeing us from the curse of the law in order to live lawless lives, but to empower us to “put to death the deeds of the flesh” as Rom 8 tells us. Amen. Behind every Gospel indicative of Paul’s was an imperative to follow Jesus into ways of obedience His Spirit has empowered us to walk in.

    However, I think it’s very important when using words like “Law” and speaking of our being called to obey “the Law” and it’s gracious means of conforming us to the image of Christ – that we make sure we are very clear about what we mean. There are at least 600 plus “Laws of God” in the Bible. Which of these are we – if any – obligated to live by? For what purpose? And which are we – if any – allowed to ignore – and to what purpose? Why are we “not under Law”? Why is the Law “the ministry of condemnation” in Paul’s theology in 2 Cor 3-4 and what is the new life of the Spirit that he contrasts with the old way of the Law? How do we “fulfill the law” through Christ in Rom 8? Why is the power if sin in the law in 1 Cor 15? Why did we die to the law – that which we formerly were “married” to in Rom 7?

    “Law and Gospel” is not an easy subject and I think it’s best when using the word “Law” and speaking of our obligation to it and its conforming power to be very careful to we explain what we mean.

    However – there are some valid and nourishing things in the above article.

    • d camp

      Some have turned the abolishment of the Mosaic code as covenantal document, often used legalistically by an unbelieving people, as a pretext to deny or minimize the importance of obedience to the revealed will of God in general, even commandments in the NT. Was David sanctified by the law or faith?

  • Kenton Slaughter

    For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age, waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works. (Titus 2:11-14 ESV)

    God’s grace trains us:

    1) to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions

    2) to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives

    3) to wait for our blessed hope: the glory to be shared with us by our great Savior

    4) to be zealous for good works.

  • Kenton Slaughter

    The saying is trustworthy, and I want you to insist on these things, so that those who have believed in God may be careful to devote themselves to good works. These things are excellent and profitable for people. (Titus 3:8 ESV)

    But as for you, teach what accords with sound doctrine. Older men are to be sober-minded, dignified, self-controlled, sound in faith, in love, and in steadfastness…

    Likewise, urge the younger men to be self-controlled. Show yourself in all respects to be a model of good works, and in your teaching show integrity, dignity, and sound speech that cannot be condemned, so that an opponent may be put to shame, having nothing evil to say about us…

    Declare these things; exhort and rebuke with all authority. Let no one disregard you. (Titus 2:1-2, 6-8, 15 ESV)

    Grace does not negate instruction or rebuke.

  • onpoint

    This is a theological assertion, not a Scriptural one: “The gospel grants both freedom from the penalty of sin and freedom to begin to obey (Rom 6:16). And what are we to obey? The Law that once gave death now gives freedom.”

    Here’s what the New Covenant Scripture really says:

    “Not under the Law. Dead to the Law. Free from the Law. Released from the Law. No longer serving in the old way of the written code. Now no condemnation. Set free from the Law of sin and death. The Law is not of faith. No longer under a guardian. Mount Sinai, bearing children for slavery. Cast out the slave woman and her son. Ministry of death, carved in letters on stone (10 Commandments), has come to have no glory at all, being brought to an end. Ministry of condemnation. Abolishing the Law of commandments expressed in ordinances. This He set aside, nailing it (Law) to His cross. There is necessarily a change in the Law as well. For the Law made nothing perfect. In speaking of a new covenant, he makes the first one obsolete. The Law has but a shadow of the good things to come instead of the true form of these realities.

    “But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the Law.”

  • Binx

    Part of the problem with pieces like this is that they only make sense if the writer “name’s names’ and identifies specifically who and what has prompted the piece.

    As someone who attends a church that advocates a version of the theology Mrs. Wilkin is opposing in her piece, let me try to thread a needle. I am basically on the Tullian/White Horse Inn/Mockingbird side of this discussion, as I believe – with Luther – “lex semper tyrannus.” The law always accuses. It cannot save – it can only condemn.

    That said, Mrs. Wilkin is correct to note that churches can fail their people when they do not have an adequate answer to the question “How now shall we live?” (Thank God for Francis Schaeffer) Paul clearly called his people to task for their behavior, and it is not inappropriate for a pastor to do so today. And yet one almost never finds a church that manages to “preach the law” without letting the Gospel get bounced off the wagon. It may work in fits and starts, but for the most part, you’re either preaching one or the other – rarely are the two preached in harmony, which begs the question … should they be preached together in the first place? And where the law is preached, whatever the intention of the pastor, the end result is almost always pride in our works and failure to see that Christ Jesus is in fact the author, perfecter and finisher of our faith.

    • Kenton Slaughter

      The thing is, Hebrews provides “indicative” and “imperative” quite successfully, and so in our theology and preaching we ought to reflect the same:

      Therefore, while the promise of entering his rest still stands, let us fear lest any of you should seem to have failed to reach it.

      Let us therefore strive to enter that rest, so that no one may fall by the same sort of disobedience.

      Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession.

      Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need. (Hebrews 4:1, 11, 14, 16 ESV)

      We seek grace to help us to obey, and in obeying, we strive (against temptation) to enter God’s future rest.

    • Chuck


      If our good works and obedience, along with our pardon, are gifts of God’s grace, then how does preaching about obedience bounce the gospel off the wagon?

      The main problems here, especially for those mentioned, are a shriveled definition of “gospel;” a conflation of “law” with any command in Scripture; and a confusion of “self-righteous works” with any human action.

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  • Nathan100

    A super article by Jen Wilkin. As a Lutheran, I am excited when I see men like Tullian Tchividjian emphasize things like the proper distinction between law and gospel. I really do think it is something the whole church needs to be more aware of and here I recommend C.F.W. Walther’s classic work (it is quite amazing and insightful). That said, I do think that many of the Lutheran authors he has read (I’ve seen a list of books that he recommends) are not fully in line with the classical Lutherans like Luther, Chemnitz and Gerhard. While these latter men upheld the law as continuing to be a large influence in the Christian’s life, later Lutherans say things like “the law only accuses” (as opposed to always accuses – i.e. insofar as we are still sinners – old Adam). Further, while the old Lutherans were not afraid to talk about the reality of progress in sanctification in this life (even as they said that we ourselves will often only see increased sinfulness when we look inside!), these new Lutherans are (men like Gerhard Forde).

    Persons interested to learn more about this debate in Lutheranism should give a listen to Jordan Cooper’s podcasts – he is a former Calvinist who does a super job digging deep into the issues.

    I have also talked about these matters quite a bit on my own blog “theology like a child”. I recommend seeing the short piece I did “Silent no more: Luther lays down the law on how to preach the law (200 proof version)”.

  • Russ K.

    Babes, little children, need alot of rules… and constant reminders of those rules, from clear superiors.

    Mature adults do not.

    They have come to know the heart behind those rules, and can simply see it at play in life….not as something rote, nor mystical, for they simply know their Father in shared Love.

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