V1N1A3 Let's Kick Calvin Out of our Pulpits

Let’s Kick Calvin Out of our Pulpits

a commentary by James A. Frey 

If Calvin were alive and asked for preaching privileges in your congregation, you would never give him permission.  But what if you found him in your pulpit anyway?  More to the point, what if you unwittingly let him in your pulpit on almost any given Sunday?  Though Calvin is not alive, of course, you do just that when you adopt his paradigm for preaching. 


That paradigm is Law-Gospel-Law. To explain it more fully, first the Law is preached to reveal sin.  Secondly, comes a brief Gospel narrative to proclaim that Jesus died to save us all. Then, the Law is preached again, only not to accuse, but this time to instruct and guide those who have been moved by the Gospel on how to live.  For Calvin’s preaching paradigm of Law-Gospel-Law has as its goal to inform, instruct, and motivate the Christian to be more like Jesus. 


Now, I suppose one could argue here that we should strive to be more like Jesus in how we live, and a preaching paradigm that encourages us to do this is flattering, for it implies that we can do this. 


However, the Apostle Paul says, “The law brings wrath” (Romans 4:15).  Notice he does not qualify his statement by saying, its first use (curb) or its second use (mirror) brings wrath.  He simply says “the law” brings wrath.  That is because, “The law always accuses” (Apology IV, 38).  “Always” means whenever it is preached. St. Paul experienced this in his own life, for after years of faithful service to his Lord, he still had this assessment about himself,


When I want to do good, evil is right there with me…  What a wretched man I am.  Who will rescue me from this body of death?  Thanks be to God - through Jesus Christ our Lord (Romans 7:21,24,25). 


A Lutheran pastor phrased it well, “Reform a sinner, and you get a reformed sinner” (Senkbiel, Dying To Live: The Power of Forgiveness, CPH, 1994).  In other words, you still have the sinner.  Thus, the Law will always accuse him, even if he is a Christian - in fact, especially if he is a Christian, for he has heard about the love of God in Christ and still lives in rebellion against him. 


Why, then, would we want our pastor to conclude his sermons with a second preaching of the law?  Why would we want him to leave us with God’s fierce and damning accusations?  Why would we not instead want him to leave us with the sweet and comforting words of God’s forgiveness in Christ?  Why would we tolerate Calvin in our pulpits when we can have Christ instead?


Perhaps something Dr. Hermann Sasse once wrote can shed some light on this:


It is very significant that the Lutheran teaching of justification is opposed much more to modern Protestantism than to medieval or even Tridentine, Catholicism.  For this does at least recognize the merit of Christ, even if it admits to the coexistence of a human merit.  But for modern Protestantism, as it has been defined by the age of Enlightenment, the Lamb of God who bears the sins of the world no longer exists at all.  For them Christ has become merely a new lawgiver, a second Moses, who left behind him a moral and religious teaching.  And then the salvation or damnation of men depends solely upon the obedience or disobedience to these laws (Luther And The Teaching Of The Reformation).


How ironic!  Today you can find pastors who are almost paranoid about the “Romanizing tendencies” that they perceive are creeping into the Lutheran Church (e.g. chanting, clerical vestments, genuflection, an every Sunday celebration of the Sacrament, etc.).  Yet is not the danger of turning our Savior into a second lawgiver even more imminent today?  In my humble opinion, it is!


That is why I would now like to direct you to Jesus’ homiletical paradigm, which was very simple.  On Easter evening he told The Eleven, “Repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be preached in my Name” (Luke 24:47).  Christian preaching leads to repentance.  Thus the faithful minister of Christ preaches the Law, not to nudge or reform the listener, but to kill the sinner- that is, to strike him down with terrors of conscience over what he has done and even more so over what he is by nature.  Then, he preaches Christ.


However, to preach Christ is not just to talk about Christ, to review the history of Christ, or simply to insert a paragraph or two that speaks of how Christ died in order that his people might live more as he did.  Rather, to preach Christ is to preach the sinner to Christ.  Or to express it in yet another way, it is to preach the sinner to the font, where Christ is present to wash and cleanse him by his Blood.  It is to preach the sinner to the confessional, where Christ is present to speak the comforting and reassuring words of his Absolution.  It is to preach the sinner to the Altar - indeed, to preach in such a way that he hungers for the Body and Blood of Christ, that is there present in, with and under consecrated bread and wine - that he may eat and drink and be strengthened and sustained in his new life.


Of course, if a pastor is going to preach in such a way that the sinner hungers for Christ, then he would do well to follow his sermon with the meal that satisfies this hunger. But that was said in our dedicatory article.  The main point here is that if we are going to preach as our Lord instructs his ministers to preach, then let’s kick Calvin out of our pulpits!  §



The Reverend James A. Frey is pastor of Saint Paul Evangelical-Lutheran Church in Belleville, Michigan.




















Here is a letter that this article generated and our response.


Reverend James Hoff writes,


In regard to Rev. Frey's article (“Let’s Kick Calvin out of our Pulpits” January 2003), a giant leap and assumption is made when he infers that anyone who uses the Law-Gospel-Law paradigm used by Calvin is Calvinistic or Presbyterian simply because he uses the paradigm.


Rev. Frey ought not forget Formula of Concord, Article VI, on the third use of the Law. As the article states, there are indeed three uses of God's Law and that the third use, as a guide, “after they are regenerated...might have a fixed rule according to which they are to regulate and direct their whole life...” is a God-given use for the Law. That article further states: “We believe, teach, and confess that the preaching of the Law is to be urged with diligence.” And that preaching of the Law is not only as a mirror but also as a guide “in order that they may not from human devotion institute wanton and self-elected cults...” (dream up their own ideas about what it means to live for him who lived, died, and lives again for us.)

Certainly the Apostle Paul used this Law-Gospel-Law paradigm in his inspired letters. In the Letter to the Romans, for example, after preaching the Law so wonderfully and the Gospel so sweetly, he does not leave to the people to decide in what way to live. Instead he urges them, in view of God's mercy (as regenerated, living souls), to offer themselves to God as living sacrifices. He commands them to not conform to the world any longer, etc.. The Apostle was not a Presbyterian, but he does use the Law-Gospel-Law paradigm. He uses the Law as a guide for the regenerate.


Calvin did not preach the Gospel, so when he preached the Law in his L-G-L paradigm it always was intended and heard as synergistic. But when the Law and the Gospel are preached unadulterated, it enlivens us. Our flesh that clings still hates God and his Law, but, as the Apostle says, “in my inner being I delight in God's law” (Romans 7:22). It is to that inner being, and only to him, that the Law can and ought to be preached as guide, just as FC, Article VI, states.


Kick Calvin out of our pulpits. Yes! But, not because he followed the L-G-L paradigm. If that were the criterion, then we would ban the Apostle Paul and the writers of the Formula of Concord from our pulpits too. Rather, let's keep out of our pulpits anything that is in conflict with the Gospel pure, no matter who preaches it or whatever paradigm is used to preach it. Preaching the Law as a guide to the regenerate does not conflict with the Gospel.


8MM We commend you for rushing to the defense of the 3rd use of the law, but why crash through open doors? “Let’s Kick Calvin Out of our Pulpits” plainly commends it. So your concern suggests a misunderstanding of FC VI, the snippets you offer from the Epitome, notwithstanding.


FC VI asks and answers the question, “does the regenerate still need the law in this life?” Antinomians said, “no.” The Confessors said, “yes.” Why?


For the old Adam, as an intractable, refractory ass, is still a part of them, which must be coerced to the obedience of Christ, not only by the teaching, admonition, force, and threatening of the Law, but also oftentimes by the club of punishments and troubles (FC TD VI 24).


The third use is a recognition that the regenerate still needs the first and second use! Indeed, the third use of


the Law is a mirror in which the will of God, and what pleases Him, are exactly portrayed, and which should be constantly held up to the believers and be diligently urged upon them without ceasing (FC TD VI 4).


The regenerate is “not completely renewed” (FC TD VI 18) and so needs the law. His old Adam, drowned in Holy Baptism, is, as Luther says, a good swimmer. The regenerate cannot trust his judgments. He will set up his own cultus. He needs a guide for the cruciform life of Christ because the flesh desires glory. FC VI tells us


Because of these lusts of the flesh the truly believing, elect, and regenerate children of God need in this life not only the daily instruction and admonition, warning, and threatening of the Law, but also frequently punishments, that they may be roused [the old man is driven out of them] and follow the Spirit of God (FC TD VI 9).


FC VI does not set forth a preaching paradigm any different than that already spoken of in FC V, which, quoting the Apology, says,


 Therefore the two doctrines belong together, and should also be urged by the side of each other, but in a definite order and with a proper distinction (TD 15).  


This so-called “3rd use law” is not a different law. It is the same law which “always accuses (semper accusat) and terrifies consciences (AP IV 38).” It is the law in which the new man delights because its demands have been met by Christ, its accusations stilled by Holy Absolution, which instructs him in God’s will, but which still accuses him according to the flesh.


The law is and remains both to the penitent and impenitent, both to regenerate and unregenerate men, one [and the same] Law, namely, the immutable will of God, and the difference, so far as concerns obedience, is alone in man, inasmuch as one who is not yet regenerate does for the Law out of constraint and unwillingly what it requires of him (as the regenerate do according to the flesh); but the believer, so far as he is regenerate, does without constraint and with a willing spirit that which no threatenings [however severe] of the Law could ever extort from him (FC EP 6). 


Note well the words, “the difference… is alone in man.” The difference lies not in the law or in the preacher’s handling of it, as if the catlike preacher can pull out of his bag of tricks the use he wants. 


However, it seems some think they can preach a “3rd use law” that has a different impact than the 1st use*, a kinder, gentler law, (another Wisconsin Synod letter writer, a former Seminary professor, suggests not even calling it “law”!)- that lowering the volume, smiling and saying “let us” somehow lessens the impact on the flesh, its appeal to pride and its effect on a tender conscience. But the law always accuses. There is no 1st use law and another 3rd use law.


The Law is properly a divine doctrine, in which the righteous, immutable will of God is revealed, what is to be the quality of man in his nature, thoughts, words, and works, in order that he may be pleasing and acceptable to God; and it threatens its transgressors with God's wrath and temporal and eternal punishments (FC TD V 17).


(* Our non-WELS readers should note that the Wisconsin Synod generally uses the designation of 1st for the theological and 2nd for the political use, as opposed to the order in FC VI. My guess is because the theological use is the usus praecipuus.)


A clue to your confusion may lie partly here when you write “It is to that inner being, and only to him, that the Law can and ought to be preached as guide, just as FC, Article VI, states.” FC VI and the blessed Apostle Paul actually say the opposite. The inner being does not need the law. “The Law is not made for a righteous man” (1 Tim 1:9, see also 1 John 3:9).


If the believing and elect children of God were completely renewed in this life by the in-dwelling Spirit, so that in their nature and all its powers they were entirely free from sin, they would need no law, and hence no one to drive them either, but they would do of themselves, and altogether voluntarily, without any instruction, admonition, urging or driving of the Law (FC TD VI 6). 


But in this life it will always be “if”.


You seem to have confused the Christian qua (by which, or quatenus, in so far as he is a) Christian, the new man, with the Christian in concreto (as he is in the world, simul justus et peccator). The Christian in concreto still needs the law. The people to whom we preach are not “completely renewed.” We cannot, as you say, preach the law only to that inner being, and if we were able to, we wouldn’t need to! However, we are preaching to people as they are in this worldpeople hitched to that “refractory ass.” Yes, only the Christian, because he is a Christian, knows that he still needs the law because he knows he still has the flesh and gasps with Paul, “O wretched man than I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” The simul is vital here. The law is at the same time (simul) to the Christian a delight (as justus) and a condemnation (as peccator). Forgetting the simul was the error of Pietism, which considered sanctification after and thus, apart from justification.


FC TD VI is not talking about a Law-Gospel-Law preaching paradigm, but about the condition of the Christian as he is in the world. The Christian from moment to moment needs the law, needs the Gospel. The law will always be preached after the Gospel. It must! Daily our old Adam recovers from its bloody baptismal drowning, and the believer will yet again need the law, not for motivation (which so often happens under the rubric of “just preaching the 3rd use”) but for examination and evisceration.  Does the believer still need instruction in the law? Indeed. He can’t trust his judgment. The skillful preacher  makes this clear. The Christian is held in tension between law and Gospel, both of which must always be applied to him “lest he plummet pride-first into the crevasse of hell or becomes disemboweled on the rocks of despair.” But here is the issue, which, law or Gospel, is to have predominance? Which is to have the last word, the alienum or the proprium?  FC VI (!) offers this preaching paradigm


Therefore, as often as believers stumble, they are reproved by the Holy Spirit from the Law, and by the same Spirit are raised up and comforted again with the preaching of the Holy Gospel (TD 15).


What is the aim of preaching? Is it not to offer the consolation of forgiveness in Christ?  Or, is the purpose of the Gospel to serve as a springboard for a second dose of the law? Egad, the Gospel as pedagogue leading us to the law?! This is exactly what Calvin did by identifying the 3rd use as the usus praecipuus. No, the law serves the Gospel as a


schoolmaster (paidagwgov", Zuchtmeister) unto Christ that we might be justified by faith, Gal. 3, 24 and thus points and leads us not from Christ, but to Christ, who is the end of the law, Rom. 10.4 (FC TD V 24, emphasis in the original. Note, “end” is tevlo" - the law is not abolished but fulfilled by Christ!)


 Dr. C.F.W. Walther offers the Lutheran and Pauline preaching paradigm


the ultimate aim in our preaching of the Law must be to preach the Gospel. Whoever does not adopt this aim is not a true minister of the Gospel (The Proper Distinction Between Law and Gospel, CPH, p. 404).


The formulaic, and increasingly popular, “Law-Gospel-Law” preaching paradigm sends the believer home with the law, and, with the additional thought, not intended, but left by the preacher, “I guess, after all, the purpose of Gospel is to help us behave” (Calvin’s usus praecipuus). Or that this beneficium is conditioned on one’s behavior, as Dr. Herman Sasse observed in Reformed theology,


No longer is faith simply the response of man to this promise, his trust in the pledge of divine mercy; it is at the same time a response to the commandment which accompanies the promise in the Gospel. Thus the idea of faith approaches the idea of obedience (Here I Stand p. 130).


The Calvinistic Law-Gospel-Law scheme gives the Law the status of proprium officium, which Sasse writes,


[robs the Gospel] of its content, even if this was not intended. If this is done, Jesus Christ is given another office in addition to that of Savior of sinners, namely, the office of Law-giver or Teacher of morals (ibid. p. 127).


So much for WWJD!


The preacher who waves this away, because he is preaching a “3rd use law,” is blind to the power of pride, but worse, to the power of the law to crush the sensitive Christian conscience. Dr. Walther warns,


The very finest form of confounding both occurs when the Gospel is preached along with the Law, but is not the predominating element in the sermon (ibid. p. 406 emphasis in the original).


Does this mean the sermon send off can never be an encouragement to faith and love (which exhortation is but a reminder to watch out for the flesh)? Of course not. But ultimately, the goal is to leave your hearers knowing they are forgiven. Walther speaks of Dr. Luther’s paradigm,


[Luther] will regard that as a very trifling charge when people say that his preaching prevents men from doing good works, because he is sure that by his preaching he is changing men’s hearts, so that they will do good works (ibid. p 410).


The Lutheran paradigm is the Pauline paradigm, “How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the gospel of peace, Who bring glad tidings of good things!” (Rom 10:15).


So, how shall you send your hearers home, preacher? In the shadow of Sinai, or Golgotha? With Moses thundering, or Christ consoling? With the law which brings wrath or with the “Gospel of peace” having had the predominant, and last word? Pick your paradigm. We suggest this one, “Repentance and remission of sins shall be preached in His name to all nations (Luke 24:47).”  (JWB)