A Jagged Contention: Sin and the Christian

“What the apostle actually says in this text [Romans 6:12-14] is that sin shall not be able to dominate Christians. It is absolutely impossible that a person who is in a state of grace should be ruled by sin. A pilgrim traveling on a lonely road, when attacked by a highway man, escapes from him at the first opportunity. He does not want to be overcome and slain. Christians are pilgrims through this world on their way to heaven. The devil, like a highway robber, assaults them, and they go down before him because of their weakness, not because they meant to go down. To a true Christian his fall is forgiven because he daily turns to God in daily repentance with tears or at least heartfelt sighings for pardon. If a person allows sin to rule over him, this is a sure sign that he is not a Christian, but a hypocrite, no matter how pious he pretends to be.”

-CFW Walther, Law and Gospel: Thesis XVIII, pg.  320.


Question:

How does Walther’s view of sin in the Christian life work with the idea that we are simultaneously sinners and saints? Is there a danger in saying that one is forgiven because of “repentance with tears” or “heartfelt sighings?”  How are we to understand the continual nature of sin in the life of the Christian?

Share your thoughts in the comments below

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6 comments

  1. Trying to recall the various passages regarding repentance in the NT, I understand the Greek word metanoia to mean a change of mind. I don’t recall it anywhere associated with tears or heartfelt sighings. I suppose if I had just listened to a Jonathan Edwards sermon, the remembrance of my sins might very well engender tears or heartfelt sighings, but the image of the Father that I see more often in the Scriptures is the Father and the prodigal son. I don’t see the Father depicted as the angry Father, but as the gracious Father.

    I also think Walther is off on his analogy of the Christian and Satan as the pilgrim and the highway man. He may have picked that up from the Parable of the Good Samaritan, but I think that is a poor application for that Parable.

    I think what Jesus and the apostles, along with Luther, say is that Christians are to watch and Pray against the schemes of the devil, and that by prayer and the armor of God, a Christian is enable to “stand” (not run away). The problem with Walther’s statement is that the Christian can never run away from the devil because he attacks through the old Adam, the flesh.

    So, when we’re “weak”, we fall instead of stand, but the reason we fall is because in our weakness we do not watch and pray as we should.

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    1. Very well said. I think Walther is exposed for some of his struggles with pietism and American sectarians. He is attempting to be apologetic, to some degree, to an audience that includes people affected by revivals and preaching of personal holiness. Essentially, he is being affected by the Protestantism from which he wishes to shelter the Church.

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  2. As far as the “simultaneously saint and sinner” portion goes, what Walther discusses demonstrates that sin will continue to try and grasp us – and we know many times it does. But our new master, Christ, comes to deliver us. With that said, I’ve realized I don’t like the illustration. A better illustration is one who is attacked is rescued by someone who has come for the specific reason to deliver us. That is the true nature of being saint and sinner. Our sinner can only be “held at bay” when the external word is preached and forgiveness is proclaimed to us, therefore rescuing us. Only through external means (of grace) can anything be accomplished, since this is the Holy Spirit then doing this work. This illustration acts as if we have power to escape. We “cannot by [our] own reason or strength” (SC 2.3) do these things. The Smalcald Articles also say as much, “The Holy Spirit does not permit sin to have dominion, to gain the upper hand so it can be carried out, but represses and restrains it from doing what it wants.” (SA 3.3.44) Even the context of Romans 6:12-14 is the context of what Baptism does for us.

    As far as the “repentance with tears” and “heartfelt sighings for pardon” I’m reminded of a discussion I had a few year back concerning the confession of sin in DS III from LSB (pg. 5/15 from TLH) where it is confessed, “I’m heartily sorry for them and I sincerely repent of them.” We know this to be absurd talk, as if we can feel our confession and repentance, or as if any of that relies on my own ability to do so. From the way Walther makes it sound is like all that despair of sin should cease in us after our confession, otherwise we are a hypocrite. I hate to tell you this, I still feel awful many times after I’ve confessed my sin – especially since I know some of those sins I commit I will struggle with until the very day I die. This doesn’t mean though that I don’t have hope, for in fact I do have the hope because of the promise of the ultimate deliverance at the resurrection of the dead – I just may not feel it at the time. Phrases like this just bring about some lack of assurance because I’m not shedding any tears, nor do my sighs seem to be heartfelt. Questions burden our conscience, “Am I sheading enough tears? Are my sighs heartfelt enough?” This is completely counterproductive to the goal of relieving the burden of sin from the conscience.

    Language like this is really all a result of Pietism. I learned at seminary Walther’s background included delving into the doctrines of Pietism early on in his life – in Germany before his immigration to the U.S. I remember discussions at seminary about how the Pietism infiltrated some of his thinking and theology until the day he died. Passages like this would pop up in those discussions. I know he rejected Pietism, but – and not to be to “psycho”-logical – some of that sticks to the sub conscience even until the day we die, and we struggle with it the rest of our lives. I do the same with American Evangelicalism all the time, as do many others in the church. I know many Lutherans who have come from a different denominational background struggle with the same all the time.

    After looking that the Greek text, the Romans 6:12-14 passage the sense of “ will continue to struggle with the sin, but God promises that the struggle will come to and end someday. We are to look to the hope of the resurrection and the gift of our justification. We will be delivered from this vale of tears one day. The saint that was created at our baptism relies on this hope through the power of the Holy Spirit through the Word of God itself. Let’s look there instead. For in the end, with those facts in mind, sin had not and will not rule over me. Christ took it upon Himself, not me.

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  3. Walther remained pietistically influenced to the end. The result is the very opposite of what Walther intended in The Proper Distinction Between Law and Gospel: he confused the two. That’s what Pietism does. The comfort of the Gospel is replaced with doubt concerning one’s salvation.

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  4. I think some of Walther’s weakness is exposed in the language he uses. For one, he gives the devil far too much power. Our weakness is great and the power of the devil is synonymous with our weakness in the face of temptation. Were the devil so great as to assault those strong in faith, it would make sense to retreat into holy communities away from the world. That leads to his second error, the one of pilgrimage. It is a romantic and emotional argument, one echoed in the Congregationalist hymn “I am but a stranger here…” But it ignores that our heavenly citizenship is here, in the world, among mankind. The human race is not a path we tread to something better and our service to mankind is not movement closer to heaven. We do not progress. We endure, we persevere, we encourage, we grow, and we build up but we are never closer to God and heaven than we are when we are baptized.

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  5. Walther says, “It is absolutely impossible that a person who is in a state of grace should be ruled by sin.”

    St. Paul says, “I am carnal, SOLD under sin….But I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into CAPTIVITY to the law of sin which is in my members.”

    I guess it depends on what Walther means by “ruled by sin.” Paul seems to say that sin is exerting such an influence in his life that he is, at times, ruled by sin.

    For Paul, the issue is with our desires. The unbeliever has no conflict in what he desires. If he does, it is only a conflict between choosing one evil versus another. With the believer, he has a somewhat duplicitous nature. He desires to do what is right and to please God, and he even puts forth great efforts to that end. Yet, at the same time, his sinful nature remains strong and often wins the day. The believer is not “ruled by sin” in the sense that the believer can say no to sin (passe non peccari). We have to be careful, though, because that doesn’t mean that saying no to sin will be easy. The believer can say no to sin, but only with great effort. In this life, we will remain weak and frail, so that despite our best efforts, we will always fall short and must be forgiven of even our best efforts.

    It’s very dangerous to tell believers that they can just easily say no to sin and that it doesn’t require great effort. When the Christian life is portrayed in terms of constant victory over the flesh, and very little struggle, the believer will easily get discouraged. Instead, we should encourage Christians towards holy living, but we must be realistic that that goal will not be fully attained in this life, so Christians should not get discouraged.

    If we fail to encourage Christians towards holy living, we veer towards antinomianism. If we pretend that holy living is going to be easy and if we act as if we can only have assurance if we attain to a certain level of “holiness” according to our fallen perception, then we veer towards legalism. We need to be careful that we walk the middle path and remain faithful to scripture. It seems like Walther veers towards legalism a bit here.

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