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On Law, Sin, and Gospel: a Discussion of a Theology of the Cross



by Tim Fisher




A great deal of the church’s debate about homosexuality is dominated by juridical appeals to Scripture. Debators for each view point to scriptural passages as “proof” of whether or not God commands against same-sex sexual behavior. These attempts often fall into proof-texting of the usual sort, where individual passages are isolated from the whole in order to prop up one assertion or discredit another. On the one side, debaters do not preach but shout Romans 1, where homosexual persons are said to have “exchanged natural relations” with the opposite sex and are “consumed with passion for one another.” On the other side, Galatians 3:28 is held up as a shield: “No longer male and female!” 

Yet even the best and most comprehensive of these attempts fall into proof-texting of another, broader, and more dangerous sort. This is where scripture is used as a means, as Gerhard Forde writes, to “see through the created world and the acts of God to the invisible realm of glory beyond it.”[1] Theologians—conservative and liberal, traditional and revisionist, armchair and professional—too often practice what the Lutheran reformers called a “theology of glory,” where it is assumed “there must be a ‘glory road,’ a way of law, which the fallen creature can traverse by willing and working and thus gain the necessary merit eventually to arrive at glory.”[2] That is, such theologians think they can use the law as a lens by which they, as readers of Scripture, can distinguish what God finds good from what God finds bad.

This is presumptuous. This is legalism. Given Christ, this is idolatry. What can be known about God—namely, Christ—is plain to these theologians, because God has shown it to them on the cross. Yet they dishonor God by looking past Christ, striving to sit in the judgment seat. No, the theology of glory, which assumes a preponderance of the law, is not the way. It is futile thinking. As Luther could write, “Moses is dead. His rule ended when Christ came. He is of no further service.”[3]

Luther continues: 

If I were to accept Moses in one commandment, I would have to accept the entire Moses. Thus the consequence would be that if I accept Moses as the master, then I must have myself circumcised, wash my clothes in the Jewish way, eat and drink and dress thus and so, and observe all that stuff. So, then, we will neither observe nor accept Moses.[4]

In Luther’s thinking, not all of the laws given to Moses are to be considered binding on contemporary Christians. Moses “makes sins of things that are in their nature not sins,” says Luther. They are “to be regarded as foolish and useless.”[5]

In spite of this statement, Luther does not toss out all Mosaic teaching. Far from it. The Ten Commandments, for instance, formed an extremely important part of Luther’s thought. But, for Luther, the Ten Commandments are binding not because they are commanded by Moses, but because they “agree with nature.” This natural law, to use a loaded term, is written on the hearts of all people, including Gentiles. In being written on the heart, this law is known to us not because of its revelation in the Old Testament, but because it is apparent to us from being “of the world.” We Gentiles don’t even need to be “in the world, but not of it,” in order to know the natural law. We don’t even need Christ to know it.

So Moses is out as commander, but still in as Scripture. When dealing with the Mosaic writings, as with any part of Scripture, it is important to keep cultural, historical, and contextual issues in mind. This, in part, is what Luther means when he refers to Scripture’s “literal” meaning. “It is not enough simply to look and see whether this is God’s word, whether God has said it,” he writes. “[R]ather we must look and see to whom it has been spoken, whether it fits us. That makes all the difference between night and day.”[6]

Furthermore, not all of what the reformers called “the law” is to be found among the works attributed to Moses; nor can it be equated with the Old Testament. In the New Testament, Luther reminds us, “there are also given, along with the teaching about grace, many other teachings that are laws and commandments. . . .  Similarly in the Old Testament too there are, besides the laws, certain promises and words of grace . . . .”[7] There is some of both in each grouping of texts, and we are warned against simplistic ghettoizations of either. Given this, we might be tempted to discern “lawful” text by its linguistic form. Romans 1:18-32 certainly sounds like law, doesn’t it? But such an approach is too simplistic as well. A particular passage can be read as law or as gospel, depending on its effect on the reader.[8]

Whether it be found in the Old or New Testament, what distinguishes law is that it reveals our sin. Thus law shows us the utter necessity of Christ. It serves the demands of faith and love or it serves the devil. “[F]aith and love are always to be mistresses of the law and to have all laws in their power. . . . None of them can be valid, or be a law, if it conflicts with faith or love.[9]  “Since then all law exists to promote love, law must soon cease where it is in conflict with love.”[10] 

What we need, then, is to approach law in the proper way. Among the Lutherans, Gerhard Forde has written most cogently of the proper approach to questions of law and promise: we must be “theologians of the cross.”

Theologians of the cross  . . .  understand that the only move left is to the proclamation that issues from the story [of Christ]. The final task is to do the story to the hearers in such a way that they are incorporated into the story itself, killed and made alive by the hearing of it.[11]

For such theologians, the cross is not transparent. The cross is not something one looks through to see the great, divine abstractions beyond it (eternity, the good, omnipotence, etc…). Instead,   a theologian of the cross sees things as they are, acknowledges what is seeable. Seeing things as they are is to know our sin and fall into Christ’s hands. The end of the law is Christ. The reformers teach that the extent to which we recognize the true end, to the extent we trust in Christ as the end, we show our “obedience” to Christ.

Thus the goodness and badness of an act is determined not by our adherence to the law but rather by the faith of the person doing the acts. No human is able to judge another’s faith and love. We might be able to view the physical act itself and its effects, but we cannot see the faith from which the acts arise. Only God can be the judge of godly obedience. Therefore, the reformers teach an ethics characterized by two “kingdoms”: the kingdom which stands “before God” and the kingdom which stands “before man.”[12]  Before God, all the faithful can do is offer their acts up to God, who will do with them what God will, who will judge them as God will. Before God, all we can do, in Luther’s fine phrase, is “sin boldly.”  Bold sinning is what we must do given our seemingly paradoxical two-natured selves: we live simultaneously as sinner and saint. There is nothing humans do that is not sin; there is nothing we can do to disqualify us from salvation. As Erik Gritsch and Robert Jenson write,

The Christian lives in an interim situation—between the ascension and the second coming of Jesus. “Faith”—the relationship of absolute trust in what God did in Christ—determines what is “good” in this situation. Consequently, there are no absolute, eternal, or ethical norms by which the Christian is adjudged good or evil. There is only faithful obedience to God through concrete acts of love in the world.[13] 

In faith, and thus in obedience, there is no “biblical foundation” per se for the goodness or badness of our acts. We might talk all we want about our churches pursuing a “bible-based”  ethics, we can moralize all we like about being obedient to Scripture, but this is all glory-talk. This is, at best, nonsense. Forde writes, “[N]o law of any sort can be imposed upon us simply on the grounds that it is biblical, or even that it is commanded by God. Christ is the end. Legalism is over.”[14]

Still, while law is to be properly distinguished from gospel, it is not to be excised from it. Forde is quick to point out that since Christ ends the law, the law is not to be simply ignored. This is important: If the law is discarded there remains no need for Christ. Speaking specifically about the law and sexual behavior, Forde writes

But only Christ is the end of the law and only when Christ conquers all does law stop. One must be grasped firmly by this, particularly with regard to sexual behavior, because when we come up against laws that call our behavior into question we usually attempt by one means or another to erase, discredit, or change the laws. We become antinomians. If we don’t like the law we seek to remove or abolish it be exegetical circumlocution, appeals to progress, to genetics, to the authority of ecclesiastical task-force pronouncements, or perhaps just the assurance that “things have changed.”[15]

We need to understand law as it is put to its proper uses. There are, for the most part, two proper uses distinguished in Lutheran thought: the civil use and the theological use. Regardless of the terminology, both uses come from, and are governed by, God. The theological use is well articulated by Luther, and I won’t presume to improve on it:

The purpose [of Moses, of law] was to burden the consciences that the hardened blindness would have to recognize itself, and feel its own inability and nothingness in the achieving of good. Such blindness must be thus compelled and forced by the law to see something beyond the law and its own ability, namely, the grace of God promised in the Christ who was to come. Every law of God is good and right, even if it only bids men to carry dung or to gather straw. Accordingly, whoever does not keep this good law—or keeps it unwillingly—cannot be righteous or good in his heart. But human nature cannot keep it otherwise than unwillingly.[16]

Theologically speaking, the law is commanded by God in order to break down our egotistical willfulness, so that we may yearn for Christ’s grace. Following Forde, the question, then, is not “What exactly does Romans 1 mean?” or “Exactly whom is it addressing?” but rather, “Who shall deliver us? How can the voice of the law be stilled?”[17]

We might, however, sense a disconnect at this point. On the one hand, the law is not to be expunged. The law constantly accuses, pushes us to Christ. We need to pay attention to it. And how do we know what the law says? From reading Scripture, of course—which, we should note, includes everything which the term “reading” might imply: exegesis, philology, translation, history, etc…. On the other hand, Scripture is not to be construed as definitive of the law. It cannot, in itself, tell us what is good or bad. We must try all our actions in the court of “what is good for the neighbor,” the court of loving concern for others. (To get away from legal metaphors, we should perhaps not call this a “court” but rather a committee meeting, where we should privilege not the judicial or legislative functions, but rather the executive. This is the “civil use” of the law, which discerns how the law—that is, our faith—might be concretely carried out in the world.) Well, then what’s the point of reading Scripture?  If  it’s true that we cannot define sin on merely Scriptural grounds, then what are we to do with the idea that “every law of God is good and right?” If we are not to fall into biblicism, where the text and not Christ becomes the end, how are we to avoid inserting ourselves—our learned interpretations, our contextualizations, our re-translations, our rationalizations—as the end?

Forde’s caution against changing Scripture to suit our contemporary needs, to act as if a perceived change in “how things are” calls for a re-write—or even worse, a deletion—is well founded. Yet while he is right to say we have no safeguard against the law except for the cross, what neither his nor the reformers’ theology provides is a systematic means by which to shield ourselves from the responsibility of discerning what is “foolish and useless” in the law and what is usefully revealing of our sin. As John Nordin writes, “[T]he Lutheran confessions do not define what the law is, only that we should keep it. We still have all the fundamental hermeneutical questions of how we find law and what is sin.”[18] Forde’s caution against antinomianism provides no reliable precaution against our leaning on the written law to decide sin. We still must read Scripture, all of it, and ask about particular passages, “Do they apply to us?”

Of course, Forde knows this necessity better than many, although his only direct admission is found buried in a footnote: “[F]or now we are cast back upon the appropriate civil use of the law and the way in which the civil threatens to turn over into the theological use, driving us always to Christ.”[19] In actual practice, then, there is more to do with the law than reading it and feeling convicted. Appropriately (and, for that matter, faithfully), Forde’s argument about the morality of homosexual behavior turns not on a mere recitation of the familiar clobber texts but on a “civil-use” argument. He argues that homosexual behavior and relationships are bad for the neighbor. While it is easy to dispute the particulars of his reasoning,[20] we nevertheless must keep in mind Forde’s powerful assertion: that the authority of Scripture does not come from its nature as text but from its nature as cross. Scripture holds up the cross for us but does not throw the book at us; yet we still must read the book. Thus there comes about in reformation thought a “secularization of morality.” Gritsch and Jensen write:

The unconditional gospel speaks peculiarly about God in that it announces that he refuses to fill [a law-enforcing] function, insisting on settling our final worth by his own considerations independent of our works. This cuts the chain [of law]. Thinking from the gospel, we will answer the question, “Why should we obey God?” with, “If you must ask, no reason.” And then we will answer the question, “Why should we do the good?” with, “Because it is good.”[21]

So, away with merely scriptural justifications for ethical discernment. Away with such statements as “Sex, Marriage, and Family” (adopted by the Lutheran Church in America in 1970), which judges homosexual behavior to be sin based on an interpretation of Genesis. Away with “Human Sexuality and Sexual Behavior” (adopted by the American Lutheran Church in 1980), which judges homosexual behavior to be sin based on the “traditional interpretations” of the standard collection of scriptural passages. Away with “Vision and Expectations,” which makes no argument at all, but only restricts.

Still we must retain every verse of Scripture.

What, then, should we do with a passage such as Romans 1:18-32? Forde suggests that we begin by reading it. Let’s do just that, and let’s focus on the following: 

Their women exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural, and in the same way also the men, giving up natural intercourse with women, were consumed with passion for one another. (26-27)

In reading this passage, I don’t see how it applies to committed, monogamous, chaste, same-sex sexual relationships. I don’t see how the people involved in such relationships are “consumed with passion for one another.” Consumed is a word of considerable severity, and I don’t see such severity in the relationships of the lesbian and gay people I know. Professor David Fredrickson is helpful here with the original Greek text.[22] What the NRSV renders as “consumed with passion,” is translated by Fredrickson as “ignited in their orexis.” As Fredrickson argues, these are Stoic philosophical terms, lifted straight, as it were, from the Stoic handbook. In Stoic thought, orexis  is not sexual passion per se but rather denotes a “propension” for something, an “appetite.” Fredrickson calls on Clement of Alexandria to make the distinction, who writes: “They who are skilled in such matters distinguish propension [appetite] from lust; and assign the latter, as being irrational, to pleasures and licentiousness; and [appetite], as being a rational movement, they assign to the necessities of nature.”[23] Thus it is only when the appetite is excessive, when it is “ignited” and out-of-control, that we should consider it “unnatural.” In Stoic thought, ignition, or severe burning, is not something that comes from within a person—from the heart or soul or even one’s own flesh—but rather it is something that “invades from outside and overwhelms.”[24] 

Regardless of the origin of the ignition, what’s clear is that, in Romans, Paul introduces an element of insatiability into his discussion of the “unnaturalness” of same-sex behavior. Some critics, including Robert Gagnon[25], have argued that Paul is simply speaking here of one’s obedience to God being overwhelmed by the passions of the flesh—that is to say, doing what we want to do rather than doing what God wants us to do. In contradiction to this view, we note that when Paul speaks of the sinful flesh and its passions in many other places, he uses different terms. Only in Romans 1 do we find Paul using the Stoic categories of  “burning” and “appetite” (orexis) in a context of sexual desire; only here do we find these terms used in a context of any sort of sin. If it were true that for Paul these categories are merely stock phrases for discussing sin and disobedience, of which same-sex sexual behavior would presumably be but one example, why would Paul not have used them in a similar capacity elsewhere? The Stoic context, which is largely concerned with a specific philosophy of desire/appetite/burning/satiation—a philosophy foreign and unacceptable to contemporary Christians—is too strongly present to be so easily discounted as determinative for our translation.

Yet we need not subscribe to the Stoic principles underlying the Romans passage in order to find some use in it. Paul’s sense of “insatiability” remains helpful to us today. With the idea of insatiability in mind, we can suggest two broad conclusions. First, we cannot, in true witness and good faith, label all homosexual relationships as characterized by an insatiable, burning lust. It just isn’t true for all. Even though some make the claim that all homosexual relationships are by definition so characterized, it is impossible to discern from the Romans text whether or not Paul thought so. Given such interpretive limitation, we cannot—should not—insert our own prejudices into the text. As Forde teaches, we must let the text itself speak, not some other text that seems to suit our mood.

Second, we must, in true witness and good faith, admit that the sin of some, but by no means all, homosexual relationships (we would hardly call them relationships, but rather “encounters”) is precisely exposed by Paul’s identification of insatiability. In fact, distinct sub-cultures exist today which celebrate promiscuity. We should not be surprised that such sub-cultures have tended to explicitly deny Christ and embrace idolatry, tossing all religion and faith into a dustbin labeled “heterosexist oppression.” We must acknowledge this for what it is: sin. It is sin not because Romans says so but because such behavior hurts the entire community. Note well: similar sub-cultures exist among heterosexuals as well. A quick search of the Internet using the word “adult” or “swinger” should provide sufficient testimony to this fact. 

The Romans text speaks quite forcefully to us today, convicting heterosexuals and homosexuals both. I stand with Forde: let’s keep Romans 1:18-32 on the books. Let’s remember our proper place when we put it to its appropriate use.


Grace and peace,


Tim Fisher

Minneapolis, MN

January 2003



[1] Forde, On Being a Theologian of the Cross (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1997) , 12.

[2] Forde, On Being a Theologian of the Cross, 12.

[3] Martin Luther. “How Christians Should Regard Moses.,” vol. 35, Luther’s Works, Vol. 35 : Word and Sacrament I, ed. Jaroslav Jan Pelikan, Hilton C. Oswald and Helmut T. Lehmann, Luther’s Works, Vol. 35, Page 165 (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1999, c1960).

[4] “How Christians Should Regard Moses,” 164-165.

[5] Luther, Martin. “Prefaces to the OT,” vol. 35, Luther’s Works, Vol. 35 : Word and Sacrament I, ed. Jaroslav Jan Pelikan, Hilton C. Oswald and Helmut T. Lehmann, Luther’s Works, Vol. 35, Page 239.

[6] Luther, M. “How Christians Should Regard Moses,” 170. 

[7] Luther, M. “Prefaces to the Old Testament,” 237.

[8]See Ebeling, Gerhard. Luther: An Introduction to His Thought (Philadelphia, Forterss Press, 1972), 133.

[9] Luther, M. “Prefaces to the Old Testament,” p. 240.

[10] Luther. Sermon for the Seventeenth Sunday after Trinity; Luke 14:1-11. Taken from volume V:159-168 of The Sermons of Martin Luther, published by Baker Book House (Grand Rapids, MI, 1983).

[11] Forde, On Being a Theologian of the Cross, 13–14. 

[12] See the excellent chapter on the Christian life in Lutheranism: the Theological Movement and its Confessional Writings (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1976) by Eric Gritsch and Robert Jenson, to which my discussion is greatly indebted.

[13] Gritsch and Jenson, Lutheranism, 141.

[14] Forde, Gerhard. “The Normative Character of Scripture for Matters of Faith and Life: Human Sexuality in Light of Romans 1:16-32.” Word and World, 14:3 (Summer 1994), 308.

[15] Forde, “Law and Sexual Behavior,” Lutheran Quarterly, 9:1 (Spring 1995), 5.

[16] Luther, M. “Prefaces to the Old Testatment,” 244.

[17] Forde, “The Normative Character of Scripture . . .”, 307

[18] Nordin, John. “A Biblical Justification for Accepting Homosexuality” (7th draft), 21. Available at

[19] Forde, “Law and Sexual Behavior,” 22, f22.

[20] For instance, Forde argues that people’s “genital sexual activity . . . must itself be seen in the light of one’s vocation to serve God and the neighbor through a life of love in the world. . . . . . Same-gender sexual relations cannot fulfill this vocational calling.” Predictably, Forde claims that heterosexual sex, even when it is practiced without procreational intent, is to be defined as God-directed, since heterosexuals take part in God’s work “symbolically.” Forde takes his conclusion from Genesis and biology: “persons of the same gender cannot become one flesh in the sense of . . . a unity in difference.” To argue this way is at once a  failure and a triumph of the human imagination: a failure, in that human “difference” is reduced to a penis in relation to a vagina; a triumph (albeit pyrrhic), in that the notion of “unity in difference” imagines Scriptural conclusions that reach beyond Scripture. The less generous among us might be inclined to point out that Forde’s civil use argument, as it relates to heterosexual couples who decide not to have children but rather to participate symbolically, hardly leaves Genesis as it is. In effect, Forde inserts: “Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother, puts on a condom, and clings to his wife. . . .” While Forde warns of the dangers of searching for loopholes to allow for homosexual behavior, he takes care to find loopholes for heterosexual behavior.

[21] Gritsch and Jenson, 147.

[22] Fredrickson, David. “Natural and Unnatural Use in Romans 1:24-27: Paul and the Philosophic Critique of Eros.” In Balch, David L. Homosexuality, Science, and the “Plain Sense” of Scripture (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans).

[23] Clement of Alexandria, as quoted in Fredrickson, 213.

[24] Fredrickson, 211.

[25] Gagnon, Robert A.J. The Bible and Homosexual Practice: Texts and Hermeneutics. (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2001).