What is the Gospel? What
Difference Does it Make?
as the Central Article of the Christian Religion
The Evangelical Lutheran Church
has historically claimed that the teaching of Godís word on the
justification of the sinner by Godís grace, through faith, for
Christís sake is the chief topic of the Christian religion.
Here is how it is defined in Article IV of the Augsburg Confession:
churches also teach that men cannot be justified before God by their own
strength, merits, or works but are freely justified for Christís sake
through faith when they believe that they are received into favor and that
their sins are forgiven on account of Christ, who by his death made
satisfaction for our sins. This faith God imputes for righteousness in his sight (Rom.
This definition is reiterated in
Article V on the ministry of the word, in Article VI on good works, and
indeed throughout the Augsburg Confession.
The Roman Confutation rejected the Lutheran definition of
justification, accusing the Lutherans, among other things, of adopting the
teaching of the Manicheans
who taught a bizarre form of dualism that denied the Christian teaching of
a good creation by a good God. The
false charge of Manicheanism has been leveled against the Lutherans over
the years on account of the Lutheran teaching on the total depravity of
man and his inability to do anything at all toward his justification by
But the Roman Catholic criticism
that drew the most sustained response from Melanchthon in the Apology was
the Confutationís insistence that faith alone did not justify but rather
faith that works through, that is, faith that is formed by love.
The Catholic argument was in favor of a balance between grace and
works that excluded neither but included both.
They promoted the eminently reasonably idea that one was to do what
was in him to do
and then trust that God would graciously supply what was lacking.
This is no more nor less than what any coach would expect from the
members of his team. For the
Lutherans, there could be no mixing of grace and works.
One could not rely on both. Sin
is too deep. The requirements of the law of love are too high.
No one can begin to love God until all his sin is forgiven and God
has reckoned him to be righteous. This
can only be reckoned for Christís sake whose righteousness replaces the
sinnerís sin. This can only
be received through faith. The role of faith in the justification of the sinner,
therefore, was no minor detail for the Lutherans.
At stake was not only the nature of justifying faith, but also the
glory of Christ as Mediator, the consolation of terrified consciences, the
assurance of salvation, and the trustworthiness of Godís word, that is,
of God Himself. Indeed, for
the Lutherans, every single article of the Christian teaching was at stake
in this controversy. Melanchthonís
response to the Roman Confutation in the Apology not only rejected the
Confutationís criticism of justification through faith alone, but
insisted that the article on justification as set forth in the Augsburg
Confession is the chief topic of the Christian religion.
This is how he puts it at the beginning of his discussion of
justification in Article IV of the Apology of the Augsburg Confession:
controversy the main doctrine of Christianity is involved; when it is
properly understood, it illumines and magnifies the honor of Christ and
brings to pious consciences the abundant consolation that they need. (Ap
Melanchthonís treatment of
justification in this portion of the Apology of the Augsburg Confession
remains relevant to the church of every age, as I hope to demonstrate.
True, the specific issues of the Sixteenth Century debate have
changed, but the general outlines of this doctrine as set forth here are
as pertinent to the theological scene today as they have ever been.
May we speak of the gospel and the
teaching of justification interchangeably?
When our Lutheran forefathers identified justification as the
central article of the Christian faith were they using a bit of
understandable hyperbole to emphasize the importance of the issues at
stake in the controversy of their day?
Or is this topic by its very nature central to the theological task
and to the Christian proclamation? Is
justification the gospel? More
to the point, is the gospel justification?
Or was justification merely that metaphor for the gospel on which
debate was centered when the Lutheran Confessions were written?
Perhaps in our day as we seek to overcome the prejudices of the
past we will also discover that there is no easy equation of justification
and the gospel. After all,
the Eastern Orthodox Church knows little if anything about justification
and the Roman Catholic Church says relatively little about it.
Isnít the elevation of justification as the central truth of the
Christian teaching a sectarian vestige of Sixteenth and Seventeenth
Century Lutheranism? Arenít
we better off, as Christians of the Twenty First Century, to be rid of
this anachronistic claim? Will
not insistence upon an historically bound judgment keep us from
understanding history, and worse, prevent us from overcoming in our day
some of the misunderstandings of the past?
It is certainly true that there
are features of the Sixteenth Century debate that may appear to have
little bearing on our discussions today.
Who among us is eager to discuss the difference between condign and
congruent merit? That
Melanchthon addresses such distinctions may, on the surface, suggest that
we have moved beyond that particular debate.
But this appearance would be quite deceiving.
The centrality of justification does not require running back into
the Sixteenth Century. We can
demonstrate it right here and now without reference to anything at all but
the plain teaching of the Scriptures and the compelling need for everyone
in this room to know with certainty that his sins are forgiven by God in
It is customary to refer to
justification as a metaphor. But
justification is not one metaphor among many and it may not be
particularly useful to speak of such terms as justification, atonement,
redemption, and salvation as metaphors.
True, these terms have non-theological definitions.
But this does not make them metaphorical when used theologically.
Metaphors are figures of speech that point beyond themselves to a
reality they are intended to convey.
They arenít intended to be taken literally. But these soteriological terms with which we are familiar all
teach literal truth. Consider
redemption. Jesus quite
literally redeems us. He pays
the ransom price to set us free and so we are set free from the bondage of
sin, death, and the devil. The
ransom price is real. It is
His very life. The payment is
real. He is born, lives,
obeys, suffers, and dies. The
freedom it effects is real, just as the bondage from which we are set free
is real. Consider the
vicarious atonement. Christ
becomes our substitute. By
means of what He does as our substitute He reconciles us to God.
This is not a metaphor pointing to something else.
This is the literal truth. Consider
salvation. God saves us. He rescues us from our enemies and delivers us from all evil.
These various biblical terms that we call soteriological (because
they all pertain to our salvation) are not metaphors for another reality
that cannot be expressed except with metaphors.
These are the reality revealed to us in Christ.
At the very heart of this reality is the sinnerís justification
by grace alone, through faith alone, for the sake of Christís vicarious
obedience all the way to His death on a cross.
Justification cannot be understood
apart from redemption, atonement, propitiation, reconciliation, and
salvation. In fact these
terms are roughly synonymous inasmuch as they all entail each other and
they all refer to the activity of God in Christ by which sinners become
saints and are restored to perfect communion with their Creator.
Why, then, is the article specifically on justification regarded as
the chief article of the faith?
Certainly, we do not regard
justification as the central article in opposition to redemption as if we
must choose between the two. In
the Large Catechism, after a beautiful description of the article of
redemption in his explanation of the Second Article of the Creed, Luther
concludes his comments by writing:
the entire Gospel that we preach depends on the proper understanding of
this article. Upon it all our
salvation and blessedness are based, and it is so rich and broad that we
never can learn it fully.
And it is worth noting that the
term ďjustificationĒ does not occur in Lutherís Small Catechism,
though the forgiveness of sins is mentioned several times.
In the Apology Melanchthon identifies justification with
reconciliation. There cannot
be the one without the other. The reason we usually refer specifically to
justification rather than to another soteriological topic as the central
article is because justification is where everything comes together.
Christís redemption, Godís word, our faith, the personal
possession of the forgiveness of sins, and true fellowship with God meet
in the justification of the sinner through faith alone.
What Christ has done for us, what God gives to us, and the faith
engendered within us through which we are personally forgiven of all our
sins and reconciled to God, are joined.
Justification takes place here and now by means of the word of God.
It is possible to speak of redemption, atonement, propitiation, or
even salvation without reference to that word of promise by which it is
brought to the individual and made his personal possession.
Justification, on the other hand, is by its very nature forensic,
that is, it is a judicial decree that assumes the form of a verbal
declaration. It is words.
But it is more than words. It
is divine words. But it is
more than divine words. It is
divine words that bring to us all that God promises.
The word of divine reckoning by which we are justified is the word
of God by which all of the treasures of Christ Ė expressed by such words
as redemption, propitiation, reconciliation, atonement, and salvation Ė
are given to us and become ours through faith alone.
This faith is faith in the very words that bestow these treasures. This faith is itself engendered by the words it receives. Justification
is where we meet God. It is
where God meets us. It is the
intersection of the Second and Third Articles of the Creed.
This is where Jesus and the Holy Spirit are joined together in our
faith and life. Everything
that Christ has done for us is joined to everything that the Holy Spirit
works within us. The
redemptive work of Christ, the word of God that declares us to be
righteous, and the personal faith of the Christian are all joined together
in our justification through faith alone.
as a Work of the Holy Trinity
Consider the word ďsoĒ as it
appears in the well known Bible passage, John 3:16.
This text is usually interpreted so as to say that God loved the
world so much that He gave His only begotten Son.
But the word ďsoĒ here does not mean so much.
Rather, it means ďthusĒ or ďin this way.Ē
God loved the world in such a way that He gave His only begotten
Son. It is not so much the
magnitude of Godís love that is here being emphasized, but its nature. Here we are invited into the mystery of divine love.
It is not by means of philosophical speculation about the
interpenetration of the persons of the Holy Trinity that we learn to
understand Godís love. No,
it is by looking at Christ lifted up for us.
There it is that the Holy Spirit directs us, whether at the Font
when He first fills us or from the Pulpit where He absolves us or at the
Altar where He sustains us in the true faith.
We look at Christ lifted up and we see the nature of Godís love.
There is divine love as the Son who is eternally loved by the
Father is forsaken in His suffering while He must drink to the bitter
dregs the cup of divine vengeance against all sinners.
Offense of the Cross
do no good, for example, to proclaim Jesusí death as the payment of a
great indemnity to God, to people freed Ė partly from the gospel itself!
Ė from the feudal fear of indemnities, and from conceiving of God as
supreme feudal master.
It offends the Eastern Orthodox
who teach a more mystical and synergistic notion of redemption that
dismisses as ďWesternĒ the so called ďtheoryĒ of the vicarious
atonement that has Christ paying to God what sinful mankind owes.
But anything less than the propitiatory sacrifice of Christ is
unworthy of divine love. Listen
to how the character Brand, from Henrik Ibsenís play by the same name,
describes the love of God in a conversation with his wife:
what the paltering world calls love,
The word is not bare. It is not absolute. Its almighty power is not adequately expressed merely by identifying it as coming from God, as if God could simply declare what runs counter to His own justice, truthfulness, and faithfulness. No, the almighty power of the word by which we are justified is the word that cries out from Christís blood. The power of the gospel is not the absolute power of Godís sovereign majesty, as if it were simply an afterthought that Christís incarnation, obedience, and suffering would be required. It is precisely from the righteousness of Christís vicarious satisfaction that the gospel obtains its power to save. When St. Paul says that we are saved through the word of the gospel, he says this is so because the gospel reveals the righteousness by which we are justified. The reason the gospel is the power of God to save those who believe it is because in the gospel the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith. (Romans 1:16-17) Justification is the center of it all because justification takes place by means of Godís word and Godís word is how and when and where we come to know God.
Modern Protestant Evangelicalism
emphasizes a personal relationship with Jesus that sometimes makes
Lutherans uncomfortable. We
donít want the doctrinal foundation of faith to degenerate into some
kind of a subjective experience. Of
course we donít. But
neither do we want doctrine to be confined to an academic ghetto from
which it cannot escape and find a place within our affections.
The faith by which the righteousness of Christ is received is
certainly no mere historical knowledge to which we give an intellectual
assent! It is our life with God.
The word of God is the means by which we receive forgiveness of
sins, have fellowship with Christís redemption, and experience
So then, the reason justification
by faith alone is the heart of the Christian teaching is because it is the
heart of the individual Christianís personal faith in God.
We should not shy away from emphasizing the personal relationship
each Christian enjoys with God, for if another concern than the
justification of the sinner takes central stage the central article will
be set aside for another lesser concern.
When this happens Christ is buried and Christian consciences
experience no peace.
Glory of Christ and the Consolation of the Conscience
debating about an important issue, the honor of Christ and the source of
sure and firm consolation for pious minds ó whether we should put our
trust in Christ or in our own works.
If we put it in our works, we rob Christ of his honor as mediator
and propitiator. And in the judgment of God we shall learn that this trust
was vain and our consciences will then plunge into despair. For
if the forgiveness of sins and reconciliation do not come freely for
Christís sake, but for the sake of our love, nobody will have the
forgiveness of sins unless he keeps the whole law, because the law does
not justify so long as it can accuse us.
Justification is reconciliation for Christís sake. Therefore it
is clear that we are justified by faith, for it is sure that we receive
the forgiveness of sins by faith alone. (Ap IV 156-158)
Godís greatest glory is revealed
in being merciful to undeserving sinners.
Therefore, to believe that God intends to be merciful and gracious
to us for Christís sake is to worship God rightly.
We honor God by believing that what He promises us is true.
This makes faith true worship of God.
that justifies, however, is no mere historical knowledge, but the firm
acceptance of Godís offer promising forgiveness of sins and
justification. To avoid the impression that it is merely knowledge, we add
that to have faith means to want and to accept the promised offer of
forgiveness of sins and justification.
It is easy to determine the difference between this faith and the righteousness of the law. Faith is that worship which receives Godís offered blessing; the righteousness of the law is that worship which offers God our own merits. It is by faith that God wants to be worshiped, namely, that we receive from him what he promises and offers. (Ap IV 48-49)
Far from being a mere theological
virtue which, when formed by love, contributes to the justification of the
sinner, faith transcends all virtues by virtue of what it receives from
God. The value of faith is not anything inherent in it.
It is solely in what God gives to it.
Since faith glorifies God by acknowledging Godís glory precisely
when and where God is gracious to sinners for Christís sake, faith is
true worship. God determines
what true worship is. It is
in that faith which receives from God what He promises.
This was expressed beautifully by
Luther a decade earlier in his treatise: ďThe Freedom of the
Christian,Ē where Luther describes justifying faith as clinging to the
promises of the gospel in such a way that it is ďsaturated and
intoxicated by them.Ē
This faith, formed by the gospel itself, ascribes to God what is
His and thereby worships Him as God wants to be worshiped.
It is a
further function of faith that it honors him whom it trusts with the most
reverent and highest regard since it considers him truthful and
trustworthy. There is no other honor equal to the estimate of truthfulness
and righteousness with which we honor him whom we trust. Could we ascribe to a man anything greater than truthfulness
and righteousness and perfect goodness?
On the other hand, there is no way we can show greater contempt for
a man than to regard him as false and wicked and to be suspicious of him,
as we do when we do not trust him. So
when the soul firmly trusts Godís promises, it regards him as truthful
and righteous. Nothing more
excellent than this can be ascribed to God.
The very highest worship of God is this that we ascribe to him
truthfulness, righteousness, and whatever else should be ascribed to one
who is trusted.
If the faith by which the sinner
is justified is the highest worship of God, surely the doctrine of
justification by faith alone likewise magnifies Christís glory, whereas
its denial obscures it altogether. What
honors and glorifies God is what brings comfort to the terrified
conscience, burdened by sin and guilt.
Where Christ is glorified and where the sinner is justified is the
very same place. What buries
Christ is what burdens the conscience.
The glory of Christ and the justification of the sinner burdened by
his sins are inextricably bound. This
is fundamental to an understanding of justification.
To deny that we are justified
freely for Christís sake without works is to bury Christ.
Thus they bury Christ; men should not use him as mediator and believe that for his sake they freely receive the forgiveness of sins and reconciliation, but should dream that they merit the forgiveness of sins and are accounted righteous by their own keeping of the law before God. (Ap IV 18)
What buries Christ burdens the
conscience and leaves us under the wrath of God.
In this way we are reconciled to the Father and receive the forgiveness of sins when we are comforted by trust in the mercy promised for Christís sake. Our opponents suppose that Christ is the mediator and propitiator because he merited for us the disposition of love. And so they would not have us make use of him now as our mediator. Instead, as though Christ were completely buried, they imagine that we have access through our own works, by which we merit this disposition, and then, through this love, have access to God. Does this not bury Christ completely and do away with the whole teaching of faith? Paul, on the other hand, teaches that we have access (that is, reconciliation) through Christ. And to show how this happens, he adds that through faith we have access. By faith, therefore, for Christís sake we receive the forgiveness of sins. We cannot set our love or our works against the wrath of God. (Ap IV 81)
We may not divorce the glory of
Christ from the comfort of penitent sinners.
Apart from the comfort that Godís free forgiveness provides, God
cannot be glorified. He
cannot be loved. Melanchthon
too, how can the human heart love God while it knows that in his terrible
wrath he is overwhelming us with temporal and eternal calamities? The law
always accuses us; it always shows that God is wrathful.
We cannot love God until we have grasped his mercy by faith. Only
then does he become an object that can be loved. (Ap IV 128-129)
The glory of Christ and the
consolation of the terrified conscience belong together.
This of necessity excludes the very concept of human merit, whether
it is prior to or subsequent to the reception of divine grace.
We cannot love until we are forgiven.
Itís that simple. The
Roman Catholic Church taught (and teaches) that one is justified by faith
only insofar as that faith is formed by love.
Here is how it was later set forth at the Council of Trent: ďFor
faith, unless hope and charity be added to it, neither unites man
perfectly with Christ nor makes him a living member of His body.Ē
Melanchthon points out in the Apology that such a notion of faith
that requires love to be added to it for it to meets its goal in fact
shuts out the very possibility of love. He writes:
it was very foolish of our opponents to write that men who are under
eternal wrath merit the forgiveness of sins by an elicited act of love,
since it is impossible to love God unless faith has first accepted the
forgiveness of sins. A heart that really feels Godís wrath cannot love
him unless it sees that he is reconciled. While he terrifies us and seems
to be casting us into eternal death, human nature cannot bring itself to
love a wrathful, judging, punishing God.
It is easy enough for idle men to make up these dreams that a man
guilty of mortal sin can love God above all things, since they themselves
do not feel the wrath or judgment of God. But in the agony of conscience
and in conflict, the conscience experiences how vain these philosophical
speculations are. Paul says
(Rom. 4:15), ďThe law brings wrath.Ē He does not say that by the
law men merit the forgiveness of sins. For the law always accuses and
terrifies consciences. It does not justify, because a conscience terrified
by the law flees before Godís judgment. (Ap IV 36-38)
Justification and Our Love
having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord
Jesus Christ, through whom also we have access by faith in to this grace
in which we stand, and rejoice in hope of the glory of God.
And not only that, but we also glory in tribulations, knowing that
tribulation produces perseverance; and perseverance, character; and
character, hope. Now hope
does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out in our
hearts by the Holy Spirit who was given to us.
Note the progression.
As foundational, St. Paul asserts that we are justified by faith.
Since this is so, we have peace with God.
We are reconciled to Him and He is reconciled to us because we are
righteous with the righteousness of faith, that is, the righteousness of
Christ. Since this is so we
have access to God. This
access is not to a status of uncertainty or probation before the divine
Judge. We have access to
divine grace in which we stand. We
stand before God. We are
covered with Christís righteousness.
We are living in a state of grace.
From this we can face every kind of tribulation, not merely
grudgingly or in silent bitterness, but with joy because we know for a
certainty that the suffering we face is not a sign of the displeasure of
the God whom we have offended by our sins.
It cannot be, for we are justified by Him and live at peace with
Him and have access to His grace in which we stand. The
patience and character and hope that ensue would have been quite
impossible were we not justified by faith alone.
There is no Christian character or hope apart from having received
the forgiveness of sins and being at peace with God.
The hope we enjoy is not fictitious or vain.
We wonít be disappointed by it, for the love of God is already
poured out into our hearts by the Holy Spirit.
This love is ours, it defines our union with God, it shapes our
lives, it points to our future in heaven, and it could not have come into
the heart that was running away from God.
But, while running from God is futile, it is the only thing a
terrified conscience can do. Only
Christ can stand between Godís judgment and our conscience.
First faith receives; then the
Spirit fills. To speak of any
activity of Christ or the Holy Spirit within us apart from first
establishing, as the foundation for it, the reception of the forgiveness
of sins and justification by God through faith alone is to promote a
fiction. The troubled heart
cannot love God until it learns to rest in His grace.
The Roman polemicists against the Lutheran doctrine of
justification in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth centuries called forensic
justification a ďlegal fictionĒ because it allegedly had God declaring
what was not so, telling a sinner that he is righteous when in fact he is
not. The Lutherans replied to
this calumny by insisting that the righteousness of Christ was very real,
the imputation was real, the word by which the imputation was declared to
the sinner was real, and the faith was real because it received and was
formed by the almighty word of God. The
real fiction is any notion of love for God coming from the heart of the
one who is constantly running away from God.
The only genuine indwelling of the Holy Spirit, mystical union with
Christ, participation in the divine nature, or Christian love come as a
direct consequence of the perfect justification of the believer through
faith alone. The certainty of salvation yields every good fruit of faith.
When we do not run from God but embrace Him and His promises in
faith, we continue to receive from Him the righteousness by which we are
justified. This faith has no
depth, height, width, or dimension at all.
It is a mathematical point. It
receives every good and perfect gift that comes from God, and it flows
into every good thing that will be done by the Christian.
But the faith cannot be defined except with reference to what it
receives, for it is in receiving that it obtains its nature as faith.
Certainty of Salvation
have shown thus far, on the basis of the Scriptures and arguments derived
from the Scriptures, was to make clear that by faith alone we receive the
forgiveness of sins for Christís sake, and by faith alone are justified,
that is, out of unrighteous we are made righteous and regenerated men.
One can easily see how necessary it is to understand this faith,
for through it alone we recognize Christís work and receive his
blessings and it alone provides a sure and firm consolation for devout
minds. And there must needs
be a proclamation in the church from which the faithful may receive the
sure hope of salvation. Our opponents give men bad advice when they bid
them doubt whether they have received the forgiveness of sins. For in the
hour of death, what will sustain those who have heard nothing about this
faith and who believe that they should doubt about receiving the
forgiveness of sins? Furthermore,
the Gospel (that is, the promise that sins are forgiven freely for
Christís sake) must be retained in the church. Whoever fails to teach
about this faith we are discussing completely destroys the Gospel. (Ap IV
Formula of Concord and Justification through Faith Alone
the righteousness of faith before God we believe, teach, and confess
unanimously, in accord with the summary formulation of our Christian faith
and confession described above, that a poor sinner is justified before God
(that is, he is absolved and declared utterly free from all his sins, and
from the verdict of well deserved damnation, and is adopted as a child of
God and an heir of eternal life) without any merit or worthiness on our
part, and without any preceding, present, or subsequent works, by sheer
grace, solely through the merit of the total obedience, the bitter
passion, the death, and the resurrection of Christ, our Lord, whose
obedience is reckoned to us as righteousness.
The Holy Spirit offers these treasures to us in the promise of the
Gospel, and faith is the only means whereby we can apprehend, accept,
apply them to ourselves, and make them our own.
Faith is a gift of God whereby we rightly learn to know Christ as
our redeemer in the Word of the Gospel and to trust in him, that solely
for the sake of his obedience we have forgiveness of sins by grace, are
accounted righteous and holy by God the Father, and are saved forever.
Thus the following statements of St. Paul are to be considered and
taken as synonymous: ďWe are justified by faithĒ (Rom. 3:28), or
ďfaith is reckoned to us as righteousnessĒ (Rom. 4:5), or when he says
that we are justified by the obedience of Christ, our only mediator, or
that ďone manís act of righteousness leads to acquittal and life for
all menĒ (Rom. 5:18). For
faith does not justify because it is so good a work and so God-pleasing a
virtue, but because it lays hold on and accepts the merit of Christ in the
promise of the holy Gospel. This merit has to be applied to us and to be
made our own through faith if we are to be justified thereby.
Therefore the righteousness which by grace is reckoned to faith or
to the believers is the obedience, the passion, and the resurrection of
Christ when he satisfied the law for us and paid for our sin. (FC SD III
Two things need to be noted here
about justifying faith. First,
it justifies without regard to anything prior or subsequent to it.
Second, it justifies solely on account of what it receives in the
promise of the gospel. Since
this is so, we cannot place within the article on justification a quality
of faith, a fruit of faith, an activity of faith, or a participation of
faith which would make such a quality or fruit or activity or
participation a part of the justification of the sinner by faith.
Only when every dimension of faith as faith is excluded can faith
then be what faith must be if it is to be justifying faith.
Faith must be pure receptivity.
What it receives must be complete, entire, and perfect.
Its perfection is in Christ, not the believer.
True, Christ becomes ours through faith, but the Christ who is
present is faith is not our righteousness on account of being present in
faith. He is our righteousness on account of what He has done and
accomplished by His vicarious fulfilling of the law and by suffering and
dying for our sins. The
righteousness by which we are justified is our righteousness because it is
given to us and with this righteousness comes Christ.
It is our righteousness as we receive it.
But it is not righteousness because of our participation in it.
It is righteousness prior to our reception of it.
Therefore, our justification by faith must exclude as a matter of
principle the subsequent indwelling of Christ whether we call this the
mystical union or participation in Christ.
We cannot separate Christís
indwelling from our justification nor can we separate our justification
from Christís indwelling. But
we certainly must distinguish between the two as the Formula of Concord
does. Listen to how it is
stated in the Formula:
one hand, it is true indeed that God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, who
is the eternal and essential righteousness, dwells by faith in the elect
who have been justified through Christ and reconciled with God, since all
Christians are temples of God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, who impels
them to do rightly. But, on the other hand, this indwelling of God is not
the righteousness of faith of which St. Paul speaks and
which he calls the righteousness of God, on account of which we are
declared just before God. This indwelling follows the preceding
righteousness of faith, which is precisely the forgiveness of sins and the
gracious acceptance of poor sinners on account of the obedience and merit
of Christ. (FC SD III 54)
Faith rests on Christ alone, the Christ who is for us. Everything that comes about within us is consequent to the Christ for us being given to us and received through faith alone. This giving of Christ and His righteousness to us is the gospel in which we trust. God says it. That settles it. We receive it by believing what God says.
Part Two: What Difference Does it Make?
But is faith confidence?
Can faith rightly be understood as trust? I am not speaking here of trust in the absence of knowledge
and assent. Rather, I am
asking whether or not the essence of faith is confidence in the promises
that it receives. If faith is
confidence, and if faith is purely receptive, that is, if it simply
receives what is given to it to receive, then the foundation for faith
rests entirely outside itself. Faith
is directed outward to what it receives, that is, to what it trusts.
Faith doesnít examine faith in order to find itself.
Faith exists by the word and so it is always directed to the word
and if it is not directed to the word it is not faith.
The word is the word of God concerning His Son who gave up His life
for us on the cross to purchase our freedom from sin and death and hell.
That word tells us that for Christís sake and the sake of His
vicarious satisfaction our sins are forgiven, God is gracious to us, and
eternal life is given to us. The
belief that we are justified through faith alone necessitates such a view
of faith. Once we attribute
to faith a quality that brings about our justification we have redefined
faith into something else.
Point of Controversy between the Lutheran Church and Rome
Our churches also teach that men cannot be justified before God by their own strength, merits, or works but are freely justified for Christís sake through faith when they believe that they are received into favor and that their sins are forgiven on account of Christ, who by his death made satisfaction for our sins. This faith God imputes for righteousness in his sight (Rom. 3-4). (AC IV)
to say, it is not on account of our own merits but on account of Christ
that God justifies those who believe that they are received into favor for
Christís sake. (AC V 3)
by teaching that our works cannot reconcile God or merit forgiveness of
sins and grace but that we obtain forgiveness and grace only by faith when
we believe that we are received into favor for Christís sake, who alone
has been ordained to be the mediator and propitiation through whom the
Father is reconciled. (AC XX 9)
Compare these words to Canons 11
and 12 of the Sixth Session of the Council of Trent, which say:
says that men are justified either by the sole imputation of the justice
of Christ or by the sole remission of sins, to the exclusion of the grace
and the charity which is poured forth in their hearts by the Holy Ghost,
and remains in them, or also that the grace by which we are justified is
only the good will of God, let him be anathema.
If anyone says that justifying faith is nothing else than confidence in divine mercy, which remits sins for Christís sake, or that it is this confidence alone that justifies us, let him be anathema.
Clearly, Rome understood what it
was rejecting. It correctly
stated the Lutheran definition of faith as ďconfidence in divine mercy,
which remits sins for Christís sake.Ē
It correctly identified the purely receptive function of such faith
by attributing to the Lutherans the view that ďit is this confidence
alone that justifies us.Ē It
correctly defined the Lutheran understanding of justifying grace as ďthe
good will of God.Ē It
correctly understood the Lutheran teaching concerning the righteousness by
which we are justified by describing justification as ďthe sole
imputation of the justice of Christ.Ē
This was in 1545. The internal consistency of the Roman Catholic teaching over
the years, as well as the agreement of the Lutheran dogmatic tradition
with the Lutheran Confessions and Luther himself is remarkable, especially
in light of current popular claims that the breach between the Lutheran
Church and Rome on the doctrine of justification was just one big
What was at stake in the Sixteenth
Century is precisely what is at stake today.
What is it? It is
faith and it is righteousness. These
two are related. If the
righteousness by which we are justified is solely the righteousness of
Jesus, then it cannot to any degree be aided, deepened, supplemented, or
perfected by anything else. Christís
vicarious satisfaction has rendered righteous those who fell in Adamís
fall. ďBy the obedience of
one shall many be made righteous.Ē (Romans 5:19b)
The righteousness by which we are justified is wrought solely by
Christís obedience. Thus
faith serves as that purely passive reception of this righteousness that
avails before God.
a Wedge between Luther and the Lutheran Confessions
The Lutheran / Roman Catholic
dialogue has featured Roman Catholic theologians outwardly sympathetic to
Luther but intent on assigning to Luther a different view of faith and
righteousness than that set forth clearly in the Lutheran Confessions.
Consider, for example, Daniel Olivier, whose book Lutherís
Faith, was published by Concordia Publishing House.
Olivier attributes to Luther this view of how faith relates to
Christís work of redemption.
remains the exclusive action of Christ, in whom we have faith.
That faith is all that is required of us; because of it Christ can
dwell in us and accomplish in each believer the redemption of Calvary.
Roman Catholic theologian George
Tavard, active in the Lutheran / Roman Catholic dialogue in the United
States, attributes to Luther a similar view of justification.
He speaks of Christ achieving true justice, but this justice works
inside and comes from faith.
Neither Olivier nor Tavard have correctly understood Lutherís
teaching. Faith doesnít
justify because it serves as the occasion for the working of anything at
all. It justifies solely on
account of what exists entirely whole and perfect apart from faith.
Here is how Luther himself puts it lecturing on the words of St.
Paul recorded in Galatians 3:6, ďThus Abraham believed God, and it was
reckoned to him as righteousness.Ē
this is a marvelous definition of Christian righteousness: it is a divine
imputation or reckoning as righteousness or to righteousness, for the sake
of our faith in Christ or for the sake of Christ.
. . . Therefore this inestimable gift excels all reason, that
without any works God reckons and acknowledges as righteous the man who
takes hold by faith of His Son, who was sent into the world, who was born,
who suffered and who was crucified for us. . .
that righteousness is not in us in a formal sense . . . but is
outside us, solely in the grace of God and in His imputation. . . . From
this it is clear how faith justifies without works and how the imputation
of righteousness is necessary nevertheless.
Sins remain in us, and God hates them very much.
Because of them it is necessary for us to have the imputation of
righteousness, which comes to us on account of Christ, who is given to us
and grasped by our faith.
It is only fair to point out that
Luther also attributes much to faith as he freely uses faith as a metaphor
for just about everything associated with it.
Lutherís eloquence was much more poetic than conventionally
didactic. He cannot be accused of attempting to construct a systematic
theology or even of a consistent use of terms.
For this reason many theologians over the years have appealed to
Luther in support of decidedly unlutheran notions.
And thereís always plenty of evidence available!
But mining Luther for little nuggets to drive a wedge between his
doctrine of faith and righteousness and that of the Lutheran Confessions
is doomed from the start for the simple reason that the Formula of Concord
and the teaching of the great Lutheran dogmaticians preserved the same
doctrine that Luther drew from the Scriptures from about 1518 until his
If we are looking in Luther for
the systematic presentation of the later Lutherans we might be
disappointed. Lutherís writing is much more existential and experiential.
This is why, when he discusses the role of faith in justification,
he sometimes appears to attribute to it an activity that would militate
against the later Lutheran understanding of faith as purely passive
receptivity. But this is a
false appearance. The
activity of faith in Lutherís theology is pitting faith against the
judgment of God, against the demand to trust in merit, against anything
that would displace as the sole object of faith Christ and His
Lutherís mature theology is examined with respect to the role of faith
in justification you will find no dimension or quality or circumstance of
faith by which it justifies except that it receives Christ and His
Lutherís doctrine of faith and righteousness is the doctrine of faith
and righteousness taught by the Formula of Concord and the Lutheran
A Finnish theologian by the name of Tuomo Mannermaa has recently popularized the notion that Lutherís doctrine of justification is essentially no different than the Eastern Orthodox doctrine of theosis. Theosis, or divinization, teaches that the Christian participates in the divine nature by being united with the life of Christ through His body the church. The Christian is made to be like God by the indwelling of Christ. Mannermaa claims that Luther included the divine indwelling in the article on justification. When the Formula of Concord and later Lutheranism taught that the presence of God in faith was not the same thing as the righteousness of faith they broke with Lutherís teaching, according to Mannermaa. Mannermaa claims that Lutherís doctrine of justification was more christological than that of the Formula and later Lutheranism who allegedly separated Christís person from His work. Mannermaa insists that teaching that the justification of the sinner is totally forensic and consists solely in the imputation of forgiveness is to neglect the presence of Christ in faith. Mannermaa writes:
the person of Christ and that of the believer are made one, and this
oneness must not be divided; what is at stake here is salvation, or the
loss of it. In the Formula of
Concord, on the other hand, justification is defined only as the
imputation of the forgiveness of sins, whereas inhabitatio
Dei [that is, the indwelling of God, RDP] is defined as a separate
phenomenon and part of sanctification or renewal.
Itís not quite correct to say
that the Formula of Concord regards justification and the divine
indwelling as separate. The
word distinct would be better. Even
as the persons of the Trinity are distinct, we certainly cannot separate
them, otherwise we end up with three gods.
Similarly, we cannot separate sanctification from justification,
but we most certainly can and should distinguish between them.
The faith that receives the
forgiveness of sins for Christís sake is the faith in which Christ, who
is the fullness of God, dwells. There
certainly is a participation of the believer in the very nature of God.
The confessional Lutheran definition of justification in no way
questions this. But the
presence of Christ in faith is not to be confused with the righteousness
of Christ that faith receives. That
righteousness is the righteousness won by Christ when He obeyed the law,
suffered for our sins, redeemed us by His blood, and thereby fulfilled all
participation in the nature of God requires as its foundation that we are
rendered righteous by God by means of Godís declaration.
To denigrate the purely forensic nature of justification is to
undermine any possibility of the believer sharing in the divine nature.
For what fellowship can there be between light and darkness?
How can a sinner share in what is divine?
He cannot, unless God has reckoned him to be a saint and by that
purely forensic reckoning has made him a saint, not with his own
righteousness that is imperfect and tainted by sin, but with the
righteousness of Jesus that is flawless. By including the divine indwelling, participation in the
divine nature, the presence of Christ in faith, or whatever else you want
to call it as a part of the sinnerís justification is to bring
justification into doubt, replacing faith with uncertainty.
For I can know and be certain of one thing: The righteousness of my
Lord Jesus Christ passes the test. If
I must be certain of the presence of Christ within me I will of necessity
search for Christ within me and in my search I will come face to face with
my sins. This is why we must
insist that the presence of Christ in faith is not, strictly speaking,
part of our justification. Spiritual
growth and sanctification flow from justification by faith alone.
Nothing but the righteousness of Christís vicarious obedience
will do for faith. Any other
foundation is sinking sand.
I have spent a good bit of time
reviewing various challenges to the purely forensic doctrine of
justification and its teaching that faith justifies solely on account of
receiving the righteousness of Christ.
It seems that attacks on this central truth of our Christian faith
are relentless. Ironically,
Tuomo Mannermaa thinks heís offering a corrective to the theology of
Karl Holl. But when it comes
to the heart of the matter they are in agreement.
The righteousness of faith is not the righteousness offered to God
for us by Jesus Christ. But if it is not, faith cannot be confidence in the
forgiveness of sins. It
cannot be confidence in anything at all.
by Faith and Christian Vocation
This is the doctrine of vocation grounded in the doctrine of
justification. Just as Jesus
asks His disciples who they say He is, we who have received from Christ
all of His righteousness, even as he has taken upon Himself all of our
sin, must ask ourselves: Who are we?
Christians? Then the
lives we live are lived by Christians, is this not so?
What is the value of what a Christian does?
Is it in what he does? Or
is it in the fact that a Christian is doing it?
Are we saints or are we not? Lutherans
are more inclined to confess that they are sinners than to claim that they
are saints. But the fact that
we are saints is what makes what we do so valuable.
In considering the value of the vocation to which we have been
called, we can consider the things that are being done or we can consider
the one who is doing the things that are being done.
If we consider the things that are being done and ground our
understanding of vocation in such things, we will constantly be looking
for ways to elevate what we are doing so that it can provide us with the
status we crave.
Perhaps this is the source of the
proliferation of ďministriesĒ and ďdivine callsĒ in the church
these days. People want to
find a way to sanctify what they are doing.
To make it a ministry to which God calls us just might work.
But thereís a better way to sanctify what a Christian does.
That is to sanctify the Christian.
That is to define the value in what he does in his daily life not
by focusing on its inherent value but by focusing on what makes him Ė
the Christian Ė valuable. Why,
he is the treasure in the field! He
is the pearl of great price! He
is the one for whom Christ died and the one to whom God has reckoned
Christís perfect righteousness. He
is the one clothed in the garments of salvation and royally robed in the
beauty of Christís holiness. When
he does something that something is valuable for the simple reason that he
Study to be a doctor to save
lives. Study to be a minister
to save souls. Study to be a
teacher to train young minds. But
saving lives, and saving souls, and training the young do not define the
lives of those Christians who are called to do these things.
Christ and His righteousness define our lives, regardless of the
specific external form our vocation may take.
When a Christian drives a truck, sweeps a floor, cleans out a
toilet, and listens to a neighbor complain about his troubles, he is doing
good because he is good. He
can and should believe that this doing is an offering acceptable to God
because God, for Christís sake, has accepted the one doing it.
This is the heart of the Christian doctrine of vocation.
by Faith and the Bible
by Faith and Church and Ministry
Since God works justifying faith
by means of the preaching of the gospel and the administration of the
sacraments, we call these the means of grace.
They are the means through which God bestows His grace and
justifies sinners through faith. And
since those who are justified by faith constitute the Holy Christian
Church these means of grace are also the marks of the church.
The means of grace by which we are justified through faith, the
marks of the church which identify the existence of the church in this
world, and the duties of the called and ordained ministers of Christ are
all the same.
When we start defining church and
ministry in isolation from the article on justification we run into error. The purpose of the ministry is that we may obtain the faith
that justifies. There is no
other purpose. Therefore, the
duties of the ministry are to administer the means of grace.
There are no other duties. The
authority of the ministry is the word of God.
There is no other authority. In
this way Christ Himself serves His church through His ministers.
There cannot be a divine call to
do what God has not commanded. God
commands the proclamation of the gospel and the administration of the
sacraments through which justifying faith is engendered, nourished, and
confirmed. To argue for a
divine call into a ministry that is not the ministry of administering
these sacred mysteries is to argue God against God and to displace
justification as the central article.
If it doesnít pertain to justification it doesnít pertain to
This is why there cannot be any
ranks in the ministry. How
can there be ranks in an office which is instituted solely for the purpose
of exercising the authority of Christ?
Does Jesus use more of His authority here and less of His authority
there? There cannot be
greater or lesser authority to forgive sins.
The very idea of ranks among the clergy is a denial of the nature
of Christís authority on earth. The authority of Christís ministers is no more and no less
than the authority of Christ Himself to forgive sins. When the apostles argued among themselves for such ranks,
Christ reproved them for it. We
read in the Treatise on the Power and Primacy of the Pope:
reproved the apostles for this error and taught them that no one should
have lordship or superiority among them but that the apostles should be
sent forth as equals and exercise the ministry of the Gospel in common.
The church is not a hierarchy. Nor is it a democracy. It
is a communion of holy people joined together as one by virtue of the fact
that they have all received the same treasures of salvation from the same
Lord and sealed to them by the same Spirit.
This is what makes them the body of Christ.
Likewise, the stewards of these heavenly mysteries are also one.
There is not this or that or the other ministry as if I have my
ministry, Pastor Krikava has his ministry, Pastor Beinke has his ministry,
and so on. There is only one
ministry. It belongs to
Christ who is the LORD our righteousness and its only purpose is that for
which Christ instituted it: the justification of sinners through faith in
the merits and mediation of Jesus. When
the church starts inventing her own ministries that are not the ministry
instituted for the purpose of us sinners obtaining the faith through which
we are justified, then she is no longer acting as the church and her many
ministries are no more divine than any merely human imaginings.
People will always be enamored by
material wealth, pretence to power and prestige, and the admiration of the
world, but none of these things justify sinners and so they donít belong
to the church as church. Unless
justification is kept central, not only within a system of doctrine, but
more importantly, within the affection of Godís people, the church will
begin to tyrannize faith. The
freedom of the church is a freedom from being shackled by legalistic
requirements that are opposed to the gospel.
The freedom of the church is not a freedom to claim an authority
that God did not give her. The
church has no authority other than that given to her by Christ.
She has no authority to establish laws, to discipline children, to
regulate civil or domestic matters, or to do anything else that would keep
her from fulfilling the only mandate Christ has given to her: to teach all
nations by means of baptizing and teaching the baptized to hold on to
everything Jesus gives us to hold on to. For this is how God justifies sinners in the here and now and
from justifying them does all good in them and through them that will ever
There is no divinely instituted form of church government beyond that government that governs us by means of the saving gospel. Votersí assemblies, synods, constitutions, conventions, and the multitude of interrelated structures that exist where the church exists may be a blessing or a curse depending on how they are used. But they are not of the essence of the church. If the church really is the assembly of those justified by faith alone there cannot possibly be anything of an essentially churchly nature that does not have to do with the justification of the sinner. That is, if it doesnít have to do with justification, it doesnít have to do with the church.
by Faith and the Sunday Morning Experience
We are not free to do anything at all that militates to the
slightest degree against justification by faith alone.
We approach God begging for mercy.
We expect to go home justified.
We come to confess and we come to be absolved.
We come to find Jesus who was crucified for us.
We come burdened by our sins of thought, word, and deed.
We come for forgiveness. Am
I saying that we must go to church in order to be justified?
No, not if going to church is defined as the good work I must do to
be justified thereby. But
yes, I most certainly do need to hear the gospel of the forgiveness of
sins for Christís sake. This
is the source of my faith. And
this forgiveness defines the shape of the liturgy.
It is the substance of the preaching.
It is the chief benefit of the Lordís Supper.
We go to church to receive that
word by which God justifies us. If
the justification of sinners through faith is not understood as the chief
purpose of the Sunday morning gathering the historic liturgy within which
the justifying word of God is given may be set aside for something else.
But we go to church in our need, not in our strength.
We go because we must, compelled by a hunger and thirst for that
righteousness we do not possess except through faith in Him who is our
We receive and then we give. Even the giving back to God in praise serves as the vehicle
of Godís grace right back to us, that is, if we are singing the great
Lutheran chorales that are so wonderfully drenched in atonement and
justification theology. Shallow
hymns and songs that celebrate religious feelings may provide a bit of
short term comfort, but cannot withstand the assaults of the devil when he
chooses to attack our faith throughout the rest of the week.
This is why faithful pastors should not only exercise great care in
retaining the historic liturgies of the church, they should also do their
best to reintroduce to their Lutheran parishioners the great Lutheran
hymns that proclaim justification so beautifully.
It is a tragedy that these priceless chorales have largely been
lost throughout so much of the Lutheran Church today.
I encourage pastors to do their best to bring them back, not just
for the sake of a regaining a lost cultural treasure, but for the sake of
sustaining the baptized in their faith.
Difference Does it Make?
takes away from me the atoning blood of the Son of God, paid as a ransom
to the wrath of God, who takes away the satisfaction of our Lord and
Savior Jesus Christ, vicariously given to the penal justice of God, who
thereby takes away justification of sins only by faith in the merits of
this my Surety and Mediator, who takes away the imputation of the
righteousness of Jesus Christ, takes away Christianity altogether, so far
as I am concerned.
But by His grace, and His grace alone, God will preserve this doctrine among us.
Tappert, page 30 (All
citations from the Lutheran Confessions are from The Book of
Concord, Translated and edited by Theodore G. Tappert, Fortress
Press, Philadelphia, 1959).
Rev. Rolf D. Preus