Is the gospel threatened in the modern world? It’s easy to imagine that now, more than ever, the good news of Christ’s death and resurrection is needed. Our weary, chaotic, technologically-transformed world is in need of what the gospel offers to the broken and disobedient. On the other hand, the moral mayhem of modern life raises a question for Christians: is the law more threatened now than the gospel? The cultural shifts since the Enlightenment have exported the political rhetoric of tolerance into the realms of culture and personal life. “The personal is the political,” as the fashionable phrase from the 1960s captures so well.
Seeing tolerance as the central value in politics and public life has led to a permissive and decadent indifference to personal sin in western societies – or so we often hear. People living in Europe and North America aren’t guilty about the same things as previous generations. This is especially clear in the changing attitudes toward personal behavior. Sexuality is the most obvious example of this. Rhetoric about the individual’s self-ownership of the body is everywhere. Others are not to judge the legitimacy of the choices people make but must simply tolerate those decisions – whatever one’s personal judgments about the behavior might be.
If tolerance is the highest value, then the natural law of God’s creation is pushed aside. No longer does it have the esteemed place it used to in our understanding of a good and moral life in this world. Ancient and classic ethical theories – like natural law or virtue ethics – no longer shape the way people make decisions for themselves or provide an accounting of their behavior. From a Christian perspective, in which God is the one who has made and ordered the world, modern tolerance seems to require setting aside the law’s standard.
So how should the church respond to this kind of chaos? Has the modern world taken too strong a dose of the gospel as its inheritance from the Reformation? Did it take the gospel too seriously in the realm of law and politics? These questions aren’t new. They were asked of Luther from the very start of his career. His view of Christian liberty has been blamed for the wars of religion that tore Europe apart in the century following the Reformation.
Anxiety over moral chaos is tempted to think that the gospel must be deemphasized and the law reemphasized in order to supply the proper balance.
But Luther isn’t the libertine antinomian he’s sometimes accused of being. It’s hard to blame contemporary society’s moral chaos on Luther, at least directly. He never wavered in his commitment to preaching the law in the pulpit and its application in civil and political life. The more crucial question is whether a society can imbibe the gospel too deeply. Can the gospel be preached so intensely that it preaches people right into hell? Anxiety over moral chaos is tempted to think that the gospel must be deemphasized and the law reemphasized in order to supply the proper balance.
One problem with this anxiety is that law and gospel don’t need to be balanced but distinguished. We might explain the distinction in terms of balance for ease of communication, but in a technical sense, we’re not offsetting one with the other – like in a recipe. Law and gospel aren’t ingredients that interact with each other to create a desirable mixture. If I bake cookies with too much sugar, they’ll be too sweet. But I can’t preach a sermon that’s too sweetened by the gospel. Instead, law and gospel must be preached at full strength and properly distinguished. The Holy Spirit will use them as he sees fit, and the preacher is merely the voice the Spirit uses to get the job done.
Modern secular culture in the West is not too saturated with the gospel. Forgiveness of sin isn’t the source of its moral chaos. Consequently, disordered culture and public life isn’t an occasion to pull back on the proclamation of the gospel, but to apply the law. The law’s required application doesn’t mean forgetting the gospel. Rather, we should encourage Christians to pursue their various vocations out in the world. We should commend people to their responsibilities to friends, neighbors, family, and civic relationships. Christians especially should be encouraged to participate in public life in their work and engagement with culture and the tasks of governance, whatever kind of political system they live under. The loss of functioning moral values in public will not be fixed by cutting people off from the forgiveness of sins. Instead, we must encourage believers to embrace their vocations and responsibilities in this world, knowing that creation won’t be fully renewed until Christ comes again.
Another problem with thinking the gospel isn’t threatened is the subtle legalism that really does permeate modern culture. Just because modern people aren’t saddled with the same guilt of their ancestors doesn’t mean they’re guiltless, either. Indeed, modern people are as guilty and ashamed as anyone else in history, even if the things they worry about have changed. Wherever there are sinners, so too is the guilty conscience given by the law. So here is an opening for the gospel in a supposedly chaotic world. Preachers of the word will always have the task of placing Christ in the conscience as long as there are sinners who live with worry, terror, fear, and guilt.
The solution to moral chaos isn’t to double-down on the law as if it could give us a perfect society or bring about the transformation of the old world into the new. Preaching conformity to the Ten Commandments is important, but doing so isn’t going to create some sort of distinctly Christian culture. We also must not moderate our preaching of the gospel, worrying that it will give people the wrong impression. Instead, the church has a responsibility to preach both commands and promises at full strength and without confusion. Doing so will not make this world perfect. But Christ will be faithful to the promises he makes now – which include his promise to remake this world.