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Sep 12 2007

Paul Zahl on the Greatest Need in the American Church

Question: What is the greatest, most crying need in the American church today?

Response from Paul Zahl, Retired Dean and President of Trinity Episcopalian School of Ministry and graduate of Harvard, University of Nottingham, and the University of toTübingen.

A return to a proper distinction between the Law and the Gospel. Martin Hengel used to say that, when asked what the most crying need was for the Evangelical Church of Germany. At the time, I thought it sounded more like a "thesis" than a cry from the heart.   But it was and is a cry from the heart.

We need, simply, to stop preaching the Law, and especially to Christians; and preach the Gospel. This means a movement away from that triad "Law then Gospel then Law" and towards the diad "Law then Gospel". This also means that a strictly Reformed version of Christianity is not the answer. There is a way too cerebral tilt in Reformed Christianity as it is being swallowed whole, especially on college campuses today—a way that seems to focus itself almost exclusively, in practice, on the so-called "third use of the law". This strictly Reformed version is producing "head" Christians rather than "heart" Christians and producing "teachers" rather than "preachers". I think if I hear one more 45-minute sermon that is directed to "Christians" as if they were students sitting in a classroom, I will simply explode. Die and have done with it.

It is not that we need a strictly "Lutheran" or even "Cranmerian" alternative to the seemingly attractive glow of Reformed Christianity (in the narrow sense of the world "Reformed"). What we need is Augustianian anthropology joined with an unconditional doctrine of Justification, which does not chronically morph into a doctrine of the law through fears of being somehow "antinomian". The Gospel of the Grace of God in Christ Jesus is never antinomian.

This does not bless theological liberalism, by the way. Far from it. The alternative to the "Reformed" version in my own denomination is an evangelistic and heartless theological liberalism that brooks no dissent. I know, for I have felt its wrath for thirty plus years. But the answer to liberalism is not precisionism, either, or a head trip or…45-minute expositional "sermons". There are a very few preachers who can handle such "sermons" and really make them become sermons in the heart and transforming sense. But the average minister, no! He loses his non-Christian listener absolutely and speaks to his Christian listener as if that person were somehow free to be rational and obedient to taught commands.

So again, as the question is stated in a heartfelt way, this is my answer to it. We need but one thing—the proper distinction between the Law and the Gospel, especially in the sanctification of Christians. Punkt.

Responses graciously facilitated courtesy of The Gospel Coalition

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