Saturday, January 20, 2007

"Err on the side of the Gospel"

Permit me some more "cliche' busting" (as Petersen called it)....

We often hear in Lutheran circles that people should "err on the side of the Gospel". A couple of things are troubling about this little aphorism.

People often mispronounce the word "err". It isn't really supposed to sound like "air" but instead like, "ur".

But here's my main point:

I believe this soundbyte is used, quite often, as a smokescreen for anti-nomianism. When someone says "err on the side of the Gospel", they are often simply trying to minimize the Law.

Whether this is because we are uncomfortable applying the Law in today's ever-more-"tolerant" world, or because we are uncomfortable being accused by the Law ourselves.... either way, when we minimize the Law, the Gospel also loses.

Perhaps a better approach than "Err on the side of the Gospel" is, "Don't Err."

In other words, keep the Law and the Gospel in proper balance and distinction. Use the Law when it is needed and called for. Use the Gospel appropriately too.

Will we still err? Sure. Is there a proper way to understand "erring on the side of the Gospel"? I'm not so sure. I suppose it's better than "erring on the side of the Law". But our goal should never be to err, but to apply God's Word rightly in all cases.


Birkholz said...

This expression has bothered me for a long time. It seems to promote a mistaken understanding of both sin ("err") and the gospel.
I've found it used not only to push tolerance and permissiveness, but it can also be a sign of sloppiness and laziness. Instead of doing the difficult work of properly distinguishing Law and Gospel, it is much easier to declare the situation impossible to resolve and go with the path of least resistance.

dan lester said...

the purpose of the law is to prepare people for the Gospel. The Holy Spirit must do his opus alienum, ut faciat opus proprium, that is, the Holy Spirit must do his alien work in order that he may do his proper work. Thus, law and Gospel must both be preached but Walther notes in his final thesis, "…the word of God is not rightly divided when the person teaching it does not allow the Gospel to have a general predominance in his teaching."

Preachrboy said...

Thanks for the quote, Dan, which I am sure I've read before, too.
I would agree with Walther, of course, that the Gospel must predominate.

However, I don't think this negates what I am saying, that the phrase, "err on the side of the Gospel" is often used as a justification for anti-nomianism. Always? No. But often.

I do recognize there are sometimes difficult pastoral situations in which it is hard to know how to apply Law and Gospel correctly. So I think there is some place for the sentiment expressed here. "When in doubt, shoot for the Gospel" would be another way to say it. Are there times of doubt? Yes.

But how often is this a cop-out which lets us off the hook of struggling with the application of Law? Often, I think. That's all I'm saying here.

By the way, "general predominance in his teaching" (preaching) is also different from "particular application in a situation of pastoral care", which I find is usually the context of our little soundbyte.