26 May 2009

Luther: Three Kinds of Obedience

A few years ago I mentioned my discovery of, and reproduced in large measure, C. S. Lewis' essay 'Three Kinds of Men,' found in his book Present Concerns. Perhaps the two most important pages I have read outside Scripture (see also here); at least, I can't think of anything that would rival it. Lewis says there are not two ways to live: living for oneself vs. living for God. Rather there are three: living for oneself, living for oneself by being good, and truly living for God by enjoying him. Since then I've found a similar way of thinking in Thomas Aquinas, F. B. Meyer, and Soren Kierkegaard. Jonathan Edwards gets at the same reality in his own way, though not with the clear threefold taxonomy as these others. I was delighted tonight to discover a similar way of understanding obedience (and a similar taxonomy) in Luther.

In 1521 the reformer preached a sermon called 'The Three Kinds of Good Life for the Instruction of Consciences,' found in vol. 44 of LW.

He says there are 'three kinds of conscience and three kinds of sin, as well as three kinds of the good life with three kinds of good works' (235). The first kind 'is concerned only with outward works' (235). 'As a result of this kind of teaching, people become hardened and blind' (236). '[T]heir holiness is circumscribed by their five senses and their bodily existence. And yet, this very holiness shines brighter in the eyes of the world than does real holiness' (238). This is the Pharisee, the person who does the right things but with a rotten heart.

The second kind of person has a well-developed conscience. It understands 'humility, meekness, gentleness, peace, fidelity, love, propriety, purity, and the like' (239). Such people, however, 'set about them in the wrong way' (240). They 'maintain a pious posture not out of their own desire, but because they fear disgrace, punishment, or hell. . . . And this false ground is so deep that no saint has ever fathomed its bottom.' Such people have a sensitive conscience, unlike the first kind, but they follow it not from godliness but self-love. Luther then prepares to transition into the third kind of person. 'God does not just want such works by themselves. He wants them to be performed gladly and willingly. And when there is no joy in doing them and the right will and motive are absent, then they are dead in God's eyes' (240). Luther explains that none of us can rise above this second kind of person of our own ability.

The third kind of person is different not in externals but is qualitatively different in the heart--this person wants to obey. They are characterized by two realities, says Luther: self-denial and the Holy Spirit. He then concludes: 'When the Spirit comes . . . look, he makes a pure, free, cheerful, glad, and loving heart, a heart which is simply gratuitously righteous, seeking no reward, fearing no punishment. Such a heart is holy for the sake of holiness . . . and does everything with joy' (241-42).

The helpfulness and profundity of all these thinkers is their articulation of that middle way, between all-out rebellion and glad gospel obedience, of (where we all live) begrudging obedience that obeys like paying a tax, hoping that afterward we'll have some money to spend on ourselves, and failing to see that such 'obedience' is just as much a rejection of the gospel as open rebellion.


Gavin Ortlund said...

Dane, this is very interesting and very helpful. Would you agree that in our time Tim Keller has advanced this understanding a lot? I appreciate you reproducing these quotes and definitely feel that these three-fold way of looking at obedience helpfully shows what true, inner piety is supposed to look like. Thanks.

Dane Ortlund said...

Definitely Gav. Keller has helped so many of us. Among the small number of preachers I've been exposed to, Keller and Dad are the two with the most penetrating grasp of this sort of 'disobedient obedience.'

Amidst all the similarity, though, the diff b/n Keller's (usual) articulation and, say, Lewis' (or Edwards', or, here, Luther's), is that Lewis pivots his three kinds of living around desire, and Keller (usually) around acceptance/approval. I.e. Lewis says: some don't want to obey, so don't; some don't want to obey, but do; some want to obey. Keller: some don't care about God's approval, so they live it up; some care about his approval, so they obey; some know they already are accepted. But of course the two paradigms significantly overlap, and Keller does at times speak of the new desires that gospel Christians, but not Pharisees, have.

Ryan Phelps said...

Thanks so much for your blog and especially your work here on the three ways (found it through Justin Taylor's).

How would you preach/teach Psalm 1? Dick Lucas preached on this Psalm numerous times and often called his sermons "Two Ways to Live." And he preaches the Psalm that way. And that seems to be missing something, especially in light of the gospel.

So my question is, how would you preach the third way from Psalm 1? The "blessed man" could, it seems, be religious. But the Psalmist doesn't mean for us to understand him that way.

Ok, I've said enough. If you get the chance, I'd love you take.

Dane Ortlund said...

Hi Ryan. Thanks for your comment. Interesting question. A couple things come to mind.

1. There is nothing inherently wrong about describing life as two basic options. We don't need to be Keller fanatics who push his helpful ideas into the realm of trumping all others, etc. Three ways to live is not the be all and end all of biblical interpretation of obedience. It is one very illuminating way to see things.

1. The kind of righteousness described in Ps 1 is clearly internal (not artificial, external, Pharisaic). 'His delight...' 'He is like a tree planted by streams of water.' 'The Lord knows the way...'

3. If we were to try to apply the three ways to live to Ps 1, I would see 'the righteous' as the third kind of man (i.e. it is really righteous, not self-righteous) ,and 'the wicked' as those who fall into either the first or second kind of man. I.e. the wicked are those who reject God outright ('sinners'?) as well as those who make a pretense of faith and service yet are rotten on the inside ('scoffers'?).

4. Interesting that the alternative to the wicked, sinners and scoffers is not doing all sorts of good activities, but delighting in God's Word.

5. In being helped by Luther's and Keller's and others' three ways to live, we should not let that slip into the wrong thinking that all moral effort, strictness, passion, zeal, meditation on the law of the Lord day and night, etc, are to be avoided. As I meditate on the law of the Lord day and night, I will be planted and steadfast in a way that I never could be if I did not meditate in this way. That's just the way it is. And it's not Pharisaism to believe and enact that. It's the way God has structured life, and we do well to submit to it and pursue it with all our might.

Agony Siwela said...

Thanks for the insights, very helpful in understanding obedience,