Clear and Present Danger

Clear and Present Danger is not just a good book and later movie but got its start in the Supreme Court of the U.S. (SCOTUS) way back in 1919. Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., writing the unanimous opinion for the SCOTUS in the case Schenck v. United States, gave us the clear and present danger test. It states in essence that there are times when the 1st Amendment right to free speech may be restricted. The test was actually refined through additional cases as a means to protect speech unless the immediate threat of illegal activity was present.

The question in every case is whether the words used are used in such circumstances and are of such a nature as to create a clear and present danger that they will bring about the substantive evils that Congress has a right to prevent. It is a question of proximity and degree.  (emphasis added)

Martin Luther (Lucas Cranach the Elder 1526)

In Luther’s introduction to his commentary on Galatians, he articulates his own test for clear and present danger when it comes to matters of theology.

I have taken in hand, in the name of the Lord, once again to expound this Epistle of St. Paul to the Galatians: not because I desire to teach new things, or such as you have not heard before, but because we have to fear, as the greatest and nearest danger, that Satan take from us the pure doctrine of faith and bring into the Church again the doctrine of works and men’s traditions.  (emphasis added)

There are areas where people can have theological differences, but whenever the gospel itself is being compromised then we must rise up to define and defend it. Why?

If this doctrine is lost, then is also the whole knowledge of truth, life and salvation lost.

Consider the danger that is present when someone teaches that people are right before God on the basis of the “works of the law” (active righteousness).

There is a danger to:

  • the one teaching “another gospel” whom Paul tells to ‘go to hell’ (Gal 1:8-9)
  • the people who are led astray by this false teaching and find themselves without Christ (Gal 5:4)
  • the preservation of the gospel itself (2:5)

In order to understand and defend the gospel, according to Luther, we have to know the difference between two types of righteousness. That which is active and that which is passive.

An active righteousness, as defined by Luther, is one that is achieved through our natural strength and abilities. It is earned through work and effort and is contrary to grace.

A passive righteousness is one that is not worked for. It is achieved by the strength and abilities of another and we receive it by grace through faith. This righteousness is contrary to works.

In contrasting these two forms of righteousness Luther asks a question and then emphatically answers it:

Do we then do nothing? Do we do nothing at all for the obtaining of this righteousness?

I answer, Nothing at all.

If we do nothing then is passive righteousness received by all? Though it is available to all, sadly, not all receive it. In order to receive this righteousness, nothing is done. However there must be an apprehending of this righteousness through faith. Is faith a work, thus making passive righteousness a form of active righteousness? No. Not according to Paul.

Now to the one who works, his pay is not credited due to grace but due to obligation. But to the one who does not work, but believes in the one who declares the ungodly righteous,his faith is credited as righteousness. … For this reason it is by faith so that it may be by grace (Rom 4:4-5, 16 NET)

Notice that work and grace are contrasted and considered incompatible. One can’t work for something and say it is by grace. Yet, “not working”, grace, and faith are all shown to be similar and in agreement with each other. No matter what we may think about faith, it is clearly not a “work” or activity that is in conflict with grace.

If we do nothing but have faith then are good works contrary to this form of righteousness? May it never be! One who has accepted passive righteousness should show love and goodness ‘how and wheresoever the occasion arise’. For it is good works that are the “true religion” and are how a follower of Jesus is going to be identified (James 1:27; John 13:35; 1 John 4:8). These good works, which are the expected result of having received passive righteousness, should not be mistaken as the means to earning or keeping what was provided by grace.

Yet we know that no one is justified by the works of the law but by the faithfulness of Jesus Christ.  And we have come to believe in Christ Jesus, so that we may be justified by the faithfulness of Christ and not by the works of the law, because by the works of the law no one will be justified. (Gal 2:16, NET)

The next post will examine Paul’s defense of the gospel in Galatians.

I seek not active or working righteousness, for if I had it, I could not trust it, neither dare I set it against the judgment of God. Then I abandon myself from all active righteousness, both of my own and of God’s law, and embrace only that passive righteousness, which is the righteousness of grace, mercy, and forgiveness of sins. – Luther

[Continue reading through the series: part 3]

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