In recent years, we have seen rapid shifts in our culture. These can leave us wondering about our condition as we stand before God. Gene Edward Veith Jr. discusses this question in his book The Spirituality of the Cross, third edition. Read an excerpt below.
When we stop speculating and look to what God Himself has to say in His Word, we find that our condition is more problematic than we might have thought. The Bible indeed requires moral perfection. It holds up sublime moral truths and explores God’s radical hatred of every kind of wrongdoing. Not only does it demand perfection, it goes on to intensify what that perfection entails. Not only external actions but internal feelings and motives must be absolutely pure. Jesus during His Sermon on the Mount condemns not only adultery but lust, not only murder but anger—promising the same judgment for both (Matthew 5:21–30).
The Law of God as unfolded in Scripture must make the most upright moralist squirm. With sufficient willpower, we might control our behavior, though that is difficult enough to do consistently. But how can we control what is happening inside us—the anger, lusts, and self-regard that threaten, if what the Bible says is true, to undo the merit of all our good deeds? Such feelings are not even matters of the will; they arise even against our wills, seemingly out of our control.
Disobedient from the Fall
The Bible demands that we be righteous, but then tells us that “all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment” (Isaiah 64:6). We learn that we are fallen, complicit in the disobedience and curse of Adam and Eve (Genesis 3). In the New Testament, two short verses demolish each brand of human spirituality: “There is no one righteous, not even one [so much for moralism!]; there is no one who understands [so much for speculation!]; there is no one who seeks God [so much for mysticism!]” (Romans 3:10–11, NIV).
A genuine confrontation with God’s Law destroys complacency, security, and every shred of self-righteousness. Guilt rises up in the gorge, and fear at the horrible prospect of eternal punishment, the fires of hell reserved for those who disobey the awful righteousness of God. To be sure, one response would be to deny it all, to insist that I really am a good person, that there is nothing wrong with my vices, and that God’s Word isn’t true at all. But the Bible speaks with an authority that is difficult to evade, and in one’s heart of hearts God’s Law rings true. Admitting one’s failures—and agreeing with one’s condemnation—is the first step of Lutheran spirituality.
Lutherans and God's Law
For Lutherans, God’s Law has many “uses”—to restrain evil in society and to serve as a guide for the Christian life—but its “spiritual use” is to cut through our layers of self-deception so that we realize just how lost we really are. In biblical language, the Law brings with it the “conviction of sin,” inspiring “repentance.”
The language of spirituality is so often the language of power, of ecstasy, of supernal bliss, that the spiritual use of the Law may well seem negative, depressing, and unpleasant, and indeed it is. Especially today, when guilt is treated like a pathology, and self-esteem is considered the definition of psychological health, the notion that spirituality begins with such a negative, self-effacing, even despairing experience seems strange indeed.
Prelude to the Gospel
But the Law is the prelude to the Gospel. Those broken by the Law are convinced of their need and of their inability to save themselves. Then the message that God does it all comes as an astounding relief, as good news (which is what Gospel means). Those who despair of achieving perfection by themselves can hear the message of the cross—that they can find totally free forgiveness through the work of Jesus Christ—and cling to it, desperately, with every fiber of their being. Then they become open to God’s life-changing gifts.
When they do so, they are justified by faith. Christ’s righteousness is counted as their own. The Law’s demands for moral perfection are thus satisfied, vicariously but effectively. Christ’s death counts for any punishment they deserve. They are utterly forgiven, released from fear, filled with gratitude for the sheer grace of God. Their illumination comes not from their own speculation, but from an encounter with the Word of God. They are connected to Christ not in a mere mystical sense, as if they ascended into the spiritual realm, but actually, as Christ descends into their lives through Word and Sacrament. They are now in Christ, who said, “I am the way [so much for moral- ism!], and the truth [so much for speculation!], and the life [so much for mysticism!]” (John 14:6). As a result, through Christ, the will, the intellect, and the spirit are all set free.
Blog post adapted from The Spirituality of the Cross: The Way of the First Evangelicals, third edition, copyright © 2021 Concordia Publishing House. All rights reserved.
Continue reading about Lutheran spirituality, Law, and Gospel, in The Spirituality of the Cross.