The Enduring Relevance of the Doctrine of Justification
By Rolf Preus
I received my invitation to speak to you today with mixed feelings. On the one hand, I was honored to be asked to speak on the enduring relevance of the doctrine of justification. On the other hand, I was a little
daunted by the subtitle that the Rev. Fehrmann gave to my essay which
is, and I quote from his letter of November 3, 2000,
Why the Lutheran confessors
divided the Western church over this teaching; why this doctrine is
the only source of assurance of personal salvation and perseverance
in the faith, why the doctrine of justification is the only instrument
for changing bad attitudes in human hearts and therefore the only foundation
for praiseworthy motives and true good works; why this doctrine continues
to cause division in the Christian Church.
thought to myself, Well thats great, maybe John would like to write
the paper for me while hes at it. It sounds like the title of a book
written by a 19th Century German theologian. Now Norwegians
are somewhat different than Germans. Among the Germans, the ability
to categorize, analyze, synthesize, and write long compound sentences,
will most likely get you where you want to go. In the Missouri Synod
you wont get a position at the seminary if you dont have a doctors
degree. In the Norwegian Synod you wont get a position at the seminary
if you do have a doctors degree. Call it a vestige of Pietism. Among
the Norwegians it is bad to be overeducated. The Germans of course
cant understand this.
I can explain it. Even as God is incomprehensible, that is, not comprised
of a number of attributes that when combined become his essence, likewise
theology is also simple as to its essence. Theologians can construct
systems, of course, and they can make distinctions between different
parts of theology. In fact, they love to do this. But truth is essentially
simple. Error is what is complicated.
simple truth, the foundational truth, of Christian theology is the blood
of Jesus shed for us for the forgiveness of sins. I think that this
is obvious. It leaps off the pages of the Bible. It is the center
of the drama of Christs passion. It flows into Christs institution
of the office of the ministry and literally creates the church from
which his ministers are born and which they are to serve. It is the
very heart of St. Pauls theology. It grounds sacramental theology
in Christs atonement where it belongs and from which it cannot be severed.
Baptism reveals, as Luthers hymn puts it, the wonders of his precious
blood and by so doing assures us of Gods own pardon. And, of course,
it is the essence of the Sacrament of the Altar that tells us in what
specific manner Jesus wants us to remember him, namely, as he sheds
his blood for us for the forgiveness of sins. This is simple.
said, Given and shed for you for the remission of sins. St. Paul
said, being justified freely by His grace through the redemption that
is in Christ Jesus (Romans 3:24) and being justified by His blood
(Romans 5:9). The meaning is the same. It has always been the same.
This is why God clothed Adam and Eve -- covering their shame -- with the
skins of animals whose blood was shed. This is why Abel offered a bloody
sacrifice. This is why God provided a ram to be offered on Moriah instead
of Isaac. This is why God required so much shedding of blood in the
worship of his Old Testament Church. This is why the angels witnessed
the sprinkling of blood on the Mercy Seat. And this is also the only
place where theology can be relevant. If the blood and righteousness
of Jesus are not relevant, the Christian faith is not only irrelevant:
it is absurd. Unless justification is the illuminating truth through
which every other topic of theology must be seen, theology itself will
become not only irrelevant, but downright harmful as well.
has to do with the nature of God and the nature of man. The whole theological
enterprise faces a major problem at the outset. God wants to talk about
himself while we want to talk about ourselves. Only when we are talking
about the justification of sinners by the blood of Jesus do both kinds
of talking take place at the same time. The only way theology can be
relevant to man is if it is centered in where God and man are joined
together. This is only where the blood of Jesus is given and shed for
the forgiveness of sins.
point of contact between God and man is where all Christian theology
must focus if it is to have any relevance at all to Christians. The
heart of all Christian theology is the very same as the point of contact
between God and man. This is what we are saying when we say that justification
is the chief topic of Christian doctrine. We mean more than that this
article is the touchstone by which we determine whether we have correctly
understood all other articles. We mean that theology is personal. All
theology must flow into and out of where God imputes Christs righteousness
to the sinner and the sinner receives this forgiveness through faith.
Where this faith is born the theologian is born and this is where the
theological task is permanently anchored. There is no other legitimate
orientation for theology than the care of the soul burdened by sin,
death, doubt, fear, and the wrath of God. The heart of theology must
hit the heart of man or it is irrelevant. The doctrine of justification
is relevant precisely because it hits our heart. Furthermore, if theology
or God talk is to remain relevant, it must always be talk about how
God and man are reconciled. If it is not, it will deteriorate into
either academic speculation or moral posturing.
me make my point crystal clear. The central article of the faith is
not the doctrine of the Holy Trinity. It is not the doctrine of the
incarnation of the Son of God. It is not the doctrine of the sacramental
presence of Christ among us. It is not the doctrine of the indwelling
of the Holy Spirit, the mystical union, baptismal regeneration, or the
real presence of Christs body and blood in the Lords Supper or anywhere
else for that matter. The central article of the faith is the justification
of the sinner by grace for Christs sake through faith. I am talking
about forensic justification. God renders a verdict upon us. On the
basis of the active and passive obedience of his incarnate Son offered
up vicariously for us, God tells us that we are righteous and that makes
theology is to be relevant, it must talk about the individual who is
engaged in the talk. Nobody wants to talk about a theology that doesnt
involve him. This is why the heart of theology must hit the heart of
man. If you wont meet the needs of his sinful heart with the doctrine
of justification, the void will be filled with something else than Gods
doctrine. We are by nature incurably works-righteous and legalistic.
So naturally, theology that relates to man will be works-righteous and
legalistic theology. Moralism is always relevant. The more godless
things become in our country, the more relevant moralistic, legalistic,
work-righteousness will become. It relates to people. It touches their
hearts. You ask the average person what kind of doctrine is relevant
to his life, and it will likely be a teaching on how he may do, perform,
achieve, or accomplish a particular moral good. If the doctrine doesnt
yield moral improvement, it does not relate and is not relevant.
legalistic impulse is stronger than our will to resist. Self-justification
does not flow from holding formally to an incorrect doctrinal formulation
as if we could prevent it from occurring by holding to the correct doctrinal
formulation. It flows rather from what the Formula of Concord calls
the deep, wicked, abominable, bottomless, inscrutable, and inexpressible
corruption of [our] entire nature in all its powers, especially of the
highest and foremost powers of the soul in mind, heart, and will. (FC
SD I 11) This means that theology will always be perverted to serve
the carnal will of the theologian. You can count on it. It is a false
dream to assume that one can construct a doctrinal formulation that
will somehow keep theology from being perverted. Doctrine will always
be turned into a legalistic defense of carnal pride and a legalistic
weapon of spiritual tyranny. This is what sinners do to Gods word.
theological enterprise would be different if we were angels. Perhaps
if we werent burdened by our own sin, we could change the focus of
theology to something a bit more elevated than the bitter sufferings
and death of Gods Son. Perhaps theology could then be focused upon
the essence and the energies of God, or on the Trinitarian nature of
all theological truth, or on the implications of the personal union
for the full deification of the Christian through his participation
in the Lords Supper, or maybe even on the beatific vision itself.
I suppose there are many more pleasant things to ponder than Christs
bloody sacrifice to appease Gods burning wrath. There are more noble
human aspirations than to be a poor, miserable sinner. God has more
to say to us than the words that absolve us. He has more to give to
us than the righteousness of Christ. Perhaps we could focus elsewhere
than on our sin, Christs blood, and forensic justification.
we were angels or if we were in heaven. But we are neither, and so
the only way doctrine can be relevant is if it relates to us where we
live. And since our heart is unbearably wicked, if theology were to
be centered inside of our heart, it would of necessity become the occasion
for idolatry. But theology must hit our heart or we just wont care
about it. It must hit our heart. It must go to our heart. It must
penetrate our heart. But the very essence or center of our theology
cannot be located within us. As soon as it is it becomes perverted.
is at this point that evangelical Lutheran theology faces its fiercest
criticism from all sides. The classic Roman Catholic criticism is that
our doctrine of justification is a legal fiction that has God saying
we are righteous even though we are not. What could be more irrelevant
than a legal fiction, a theology that exists only in a false abstraction?
Thus they call our doctrine merely forensic as if it is only words
and not reality. The Eastern Orthodox argue in a similar fashion.
They claim that our merely forensic doctrine of justification ignores
the deeper christological essence of Christianity and binds the Christian
truth to an essentially negative paradigm. Jesus becomes merely the
solution to our problem. They are quite critical of our merely forensic
doctrine of justification.
can we make of this merely forensic criticism of the Lutheran doctrine
of justification? Whenever anyone uses the word merely to describe
forensic justification, as if there is anything mere about the word
of God that tells me I am righteous, I would like to remind such a person
of how utterly impossible it is for an enemy of God to do theology.
God talk must be relational. It must involve a personal relationship.
Our personal relationship with God is established by God when he tells
us that we are just or righteous. This is how he justifies us. He
tells us that Christ Jesus died for us and that for his sake our sins
are forgiven and righteousness and eternal life are given to us. God
talks and so it is. There can be nothing mere about God talking.
God said, Let there be light! What happened? Oh, well that was a
mere word! Just a verbal thing! I see! So the light that lightened
the world before the sun was created was just a verbal fiction? Was
it only a pretend or what if kind of light? What lunacy! (No pun
intended.) Forensic justification effects what it says because Gods
word is almighty.
man does not receive the things of the Spirit of God. So says St. Paul.
Any doctrine that is relevant to natural man must needs be a distorted,
demonic doctrine designed to salve the flesh with lies. This is why
we must let God relate his teaching to us where he relates himself to
us and that is where he applies the blood of Jesus to us and penetrates
our hearts with his word of grace. The fact that we are involved here
in a life and death battle against the father of lies and murderer of
souls should be sufficient motivation for us to keep the doctrine of
justification pure from any admixture of human reasoning. This means
that the theological task is a serious business. It is too serious
to be left to theoreticians and academics. Theological abstractions
can be useful only as a shorthand means of communicating between theologians.
Theology in its proper sense, however, can never be abstract. It is
always concrete and personal. Why, we could even say it is existential!
It penetrates into my soul and it conquers my heart and it raises me
from death and it provides for me the truth that makes me free and keeps
is what evangelical Lutheran theology does.
is nothing wrong with putting our Lutheran doctrine into so called scholastic
terms with all of the various categories of thought this involves.
This is not really a bad idea and can be very useful in teaching Gods
word. What we may not do is to conceive of theology as an academic
discipline that may be divorced from the actual care of souls.
we insist on the relevance of the doctrine of justification we are saying
that God relates to us as he teaches us. He does not relate to us in
any other way than by teaching us. There is something strange about
the notion that Christian doctrine can be gotten right as one activity
and then shared with others as another activity. Doctrine is a verbal
noun. It begins as a verb and becomes a noun by derivation. God teaches
us his holy word. This teaching is called doctrine. This teaching
is always directed to us as sinners redeemed by Christs blood and absolved
in Christs resurrection from the dead. This teaching is always Gods
almighty word. This teaching always conveys to us the Teacher. Even
to conceive of Christian doctrine as an abstract system of religious
or spiritual truths is to ignore the very heart of Christian doctrine
and turn it into the plaything of professional theologians who need
not be bothered with the care of souls. The notion that the theological
task is something in which only professional theologians may be engaged
is the Protestant version of sacerdotalism. The people of God are warned
away from the theological task until they have passed a test. God talk
becomes captive to the academy, college, or seminary. Joe and Jane
Christian are shut out.
is not theology in the Lutheran sense if it is not relating God to man.
We live on every word that proceeds out of the mouth of God. Lutheran
theology views the pure doctrine as the medicine for the soul of every
Christian. To disconnect theology as an academic work from theology
as the care of souls is to distort its very essence. Dogmatic theology
is practical theology. Dogma relates God to man. It is God relating
to man. The doctrine of justification is the means by which God relates
to us throughout our lives. This doctrine is not relevant because someone
who is a communications specialist has made it so. It is not relevant
because a minister with good interpersonal skills has learned how to
relate it. It is relevant because this doctrine is how and when and
where God comes to us in love and reveals himself to be our gracious
Father so that we may embrace him in faith and rest confident in his
love. It is relevant because it relates God to us in the only way we
can know him. We cannot know him apart from him teaching us his heavenly
doctrine. To deny the essentially relational character of all Christian
doctrine is to set up a dead orthodoxy which is no orthodoxy at all.
caricature of orthodoxy, which we may call the orthodoxist approach
to theology, views doctrine as a tool that must be supplemented with
professionally acquired skills so that it may be used properly to relate
to the needs of people. The tool must be sharp, accurate, and of excellent
quality. But a tool is only as good as the skill of the one who is
using it. And so we have expert theologians who must also learn how
to relate that theology to real people in their real needs. The doctrine
of justification is the key component in this system of pure doctrine
that serves as the tool of the skilled practitioner of the theological
trade. This is why the pure doctrine is so important to the orthodoxist.
He cannot use an inferior tool and be expected to do a good job. In
this orthodoxist approach, the theologian must learn and accept this
pure doctrine which becomes for him the beginning of the theological
task. After getting the doctrine right and placing justification at
its center, the theologian is ready to make it relevant to people in
their needs. And these are two distinct tasks. First you get your
theology straight. You learn the various topics of theology, how they
all hang together, and why you must firmly maintain every article that
you have learned. But, of course, the pure doctrine is not enough.
It is only a tool, albeit a vitally important one, for the professional
minister. He must also become adept at various administrative tasks,
interpersonal skills, homiletical fluency, and so forth.
living voice of God is thus turned into a set of doctrinal abstractions
that must be supplemented by various skills. Doctrine serves an essentially
legal function for the professional minister who looks to the creeds
and confessions of the church only when he wants to check on his own
work to see if he is doing anything that needs correcting. The Lutheran
minister who takes the orthodoxist approach doesnt look to the Lutheran
Confessions to receive spiritual sustenance and nurture from his fathers
in the faith, but simply to show him if and when his ideas, practices,
or methods run afoul of the doctrinal standards. But since he has already
learned the doctrinal rules, he need not constantly refer back to the
orthodoxist approach takes theology away from those to whom it belongs.
It also makes orthodoxy a human achievement and an occasion for boasting.
The so-called Wauwatosa theologian, J. P. Koehler, recognized this in
his day. He criticized what he called the bravado of orthodoxy in
which intellectualism makes comprehension more important than faith.
(The Wauwatosa Theology, Vol. II, pages 237ff) The Wauwatosa theologians
criticized the repeat after me theology of their day and sought to
approach the Scriptures anew and reinvent the Lutheran doctrinal wheel
as it were. It would be an irony indeed if some of the less fortunate
formulations of the Wauwatosa theologians were made into a test of
orthodoxy for Lutherans one hundred years later. While they certainly
had a valid criticism of what they called fathers theology it is
naïve to assume that any generation of Christians can avoid parroting
there is nothing wrong with parroting the fathers. There is nothing
wrong with talking as we have been taught to talk. God teaches us his
doctrine through men and women who learned how to talk from others and
if we dismiss them with disrespect we will surely dismiss the teaching
as well. The solution to the orthodoxist approach is not to retreat
one inch from either our doctrine or the sound formulations of it offered
by the fathers. It is certainly not to approach the biblical text all
alone without the sound direction of the Lutheran Confessions. It is
to regard the theological task and the pastoral task to be one and the
orthodoxist approach gives way to the reaction known as gospel reductionism.
The gospel reductionist looks at the orthodoxist preoccupation with
crossing every theological T and dotting every doctrinal I and bemoans
the fact that the gospel itself becomes buried underneath a system of
orthodoxy. They see the self-congratulatory pride that is the orthodoxist
spirit. They see that something is wrong, and they surmise that doctrinal
inflexibility is what is to blame. They argue that since the gospel
is really all that matters, inasmuch as it is what saves us, every other
doctrine must be shown to impinge upon the gospel in some way before
it can be imposed upon the church. When the gospel reductionists at
Concordia Seminary in St. Louis a generation ago were confronted with
the demand that they affirm biblical inerrancy, they sincerely could
not see how such a doctrine affected the gospel of justification. How
could a legalistic doctrine dealing with a rigid correspondence theory
of truth that reduces all divine revelation to a list of human propositions
be the foundation for the saving gospel of Jesus Christ? Unthinkable!
They honestly believed that the imposition of biblical inerrancy from
a synodical authority forced the gospel of justification into a legalistic
form of gospel reductionism remains popular today. We are told that
we must show how a particular biblical truth relates to the gospel before
we assert it as dogma. The logic appears to go like this. God saves
us by his gospel. All doctrine relates in some way to how God saves
us. Therefore if we cannot demonstrate how a particular article of
the faith pertains to the gospel, we mustnt insist upon adherence to
it. If we do, we are following a legalistic or scholastic or Reformed
hermeneutic instead of respecting the hermeneutical role of the doctrine
of justification in Lutheran theology.
reductionism of every stripe is simply the sanctification of unbelief.
The God who in talking to us justifies us by Christs blood has many
things to say. He says them in the Bible, the book that he wrote.
When he says what he says we dont need to know how it relates to our
justification. The point is that since God says it, it must relate
to us. Since it is from God and it relates to us it must relate to
justification because God relates to us as he justifies us. This is
how he makes us his children. Children listen to their Father and believe
what he says. To assert that the doctrine of justification is the chief
article that relates to every other article of the faith is true, not
because we can demonstrate this by our own theological systems, but
because of the very nature of theology itself. All Christian theology
is talk of or about the God who justifies us. This is how justification
relates every other article of the faith to us.
I prove how the ordination of women attacks the doctrine of justification
before I condemn the practice as shameful? Of course not! St. Paul
said it was disgraceful. That settles it. Ah, but you must develop
a more iconic understanding of the ministerial office and demonstrate
how the ministers maleness has implications for the gospel itself!
This will yield a more evangelical reason for the apostolic injunction
against women pastors. It will make the all male ministerium a gospel
mandate rather than a law prohibition. Thus you will relate the doctrine
of justification to the doctrine of the ministry.
this is not how justification is relevant. This is the old orthodoxist
opinion that caused the Wauwatosa reaction nearly a century ago and
the gospel reductionist reaction a generation ago. We dont have to
relate theology to theology. We can leave that up to the Calvinists.
They do a far better job of it than we do anyway. We relate theology
to people. Thats where it relates. It is only in relating theology
to people that theology coheres within itself. It can be no other way.
am not saying that theology does not relate to itself as an organic
whole. It does. It does so, not as a system in which each part fits
neatly into its proper place, but as a body of doctrine the heart of
which is the justification of the sinner by grace for Christs sake
through faith. Since the heart of all theology is also the only possible
point of friendly contact between the holy God and us sinners, the theological
enterprise is always personal. As we look inside ourselves and see
what God hates, we may not find our personal assurance of salvation
within ourselves. This is why we must keep on hearing the pure gospel
preached. This is why we must keep on eating the body and the blood
of Jesus given and shed for us for the remission of sins. This is why
when we are faced with doctrinal perversions that displace the centrality
of justification in our doctrine and in our faith we must respond as
must not imitate either the Reformed on the left or the Catholics on
the right. We have seen that the doctrine of justification is relevant
because the only possible meeting place between God and man is where
the blood of Jesus is shed. This is what makes Lutheran theology relevant.
We have the blood and we know what the blood is for. The Catholic doctrine
is irrelevant because while they have the blood they dont know what
it is for. The Reformed doctrine is irrelevant because while they know
what the blood is for, they dont have it. The Catholics teach a High
Church form of Pietism that is more corporate and sacramental. The
Reformed teach a Low Church form of Pietism that is more personal and
informal. Pietism is Pietism, however. They all agree in seeing the
relevance of Christian doctrine in how that doctrine results in the
believer doing good things. The Roman Catholics talk about faith formed
by love. The Eastern Orthodox talk about theosis. Robert Nordlie and
Phil Bickel talk about progressing from the faith that saves to the
faith that obeys. Its all the same thing.
locates the center of theology in the authentic experience of faith
within the individual believer. It is rightly concerned about true
faith flowing into true obedience. It makes a cardinal error, however,
in setting out to ensure that this happens. It moves the focus of theology
from the giving of God to the receiving of man. The Lutheran Pietists
agreed that God gives to us the righteousness that avails before him
and that we receive this righteousness through faith alone. They refused
however to subordinate the personal faith that receives to the heavenly
doctrine that gives. Thus the pure doctrine of justification gave way
to the pure faith of the justified. The Christ for us gave way to the
Christ within us.
the concern of the Pietists for the phenomenon of faith and the certainty
of that faith is precisely what leads them into legalism as they seek
out more and more external evidences of the sincerity of the faith.
Faith that looks at faith becomes doubt. It looks within to where the
problems are. Only the faith that looks to Christ can be certain.
And Christ, while he lives in us, does not justify us by what he does
in us, but by what he did for us on the cross and what he gives to us
in his gospel and sacraments.
Lutherans in America will always fall under the influence of the prevailing
American versions of Reformed theology. This is because they have already
rejected the relevance of the doctrine of justification. They think
this doctrine is relevant primarily in the changed lives that result
from it. Thus they are required to judge the gospel by means of evidence
discerned by the law. Doctrine becomes a legalistic enterprise. For
confessional Lutherans, the doctrinal emphasis has always been the for
us character of the gospel which flows into the to us nature of the
means of grace. Doctrine is not primarily law. It is gospel. When
God teaches us, he gives us Jesus. And the Lutheran understands this
teaching in terms of the means of grace. Being taught, he is given
by God the very righteousness that he needs. Lutheran theology recognizes
that Christ will never really be understood as being for us unless
he is given to us in the very clearly identifiable means of salvation:
the gospel and the sacraments of Jesus. And, of course, when the for
us character of the atonement flows into the to us nature of the
means of grace, Christ remains Immanuel: God with us.
the doctrine of justification is to relate to us in our need, we must
continually reaffirm sound Lutheran Christology and sacramental theology.
A discussion of the divine attributes of Christ being communicated to
his human nature may appear to be somewhat arcane, but this biblical
teaching is vital as a foundation for the proclamation of the gospel
and the administration of the sacraments. This is not mere quibbling
with historic Calvinism. This is fundamental. Stated simply, there
is no God but the God revealed in the flesh of Jesus. Since the Calvinists
insist on locating God apart from Christs flesh, we must emphasize
the significance of the communication of the divine attributes to the
human nature of Christ. This is called the personal union. Christ
is one person, indivisible. His human nature shares in all of the attributes
of his divine nature.
false Christology of the Reformed does great harm to their teaching
of the gospel. They refuse to locate God only where God has chosen
to be located. Thus, their doctrine of justification, which in most
aspects of it is quite sound, will necessarily be set aside, off in
a corner somewhere where it cannot really flow into the preaching and
piety of the church. If God can be found apart from Christs flesh,
folks will look for him apart from Christs flesh. This is human nature.
The Lutheran knows that the doctrine of grace and justification through
faith alone is grounded in and flows out of biblical Christology. Calvinism,
on the other hand, can conceive of Christs divinity apart from his
flesh so it must ground its doctrine of grace elsewhere than in what
is accomplished for us in the divine flesh of Christ alone. Such an anti-incarnational conception requires Calvinism to safeguard the doctrine
of grace by means of their doctrine of Gods decrees. It doesnt
work. Gods sovereignty is a rotten foundation for his grace. A sovereign
God cannot bear my sicknesses and carry my sorrows. Only an incarnate
God can do that. The sovereign God is a mean bully that nobody really
likes at all. Because hes sovereign were stuck with him. Its not
as if we can get away from him. If we could, he wouldnt be sovereign
after all, would he? But we surely dont much want to flee for refuge
to such a God. And, of course, few people do. This is why Calvinism
– despite its clear and often beautiful expressions of Christs atonement
and the doctrine of justification – also breeds legalistic and sectarian
opposition. Arminianism, which rejects the divine decrees of Calvins
God, is seen as a kinder and gentler version of the Protestant faith.
As hostile as it is to historic Calvinism, however, it couldnt have
arisen without it. And it has never been able to overcome Calvins
fundamental error on Christology. Calvins rationalistic denial of
the so-called genus maiestaticum (the divine attributes being
communicated to Christs human nature) has had incalculably serious
consequences for Protestantism. We Lutherans need to be made aware
of these consequences.
incarnation is where to locate grace because grace is always centered
in Jesus and in his suffering for us. Since the Reformed will put the
Son of God where the man Jesus is not, the mystery of the incarnation
cannot relate to them. It doesnt flow into the saving mysteries of
the here and now, namely, the pure gospel and sacraments of Christs
church. For the Reformed, the incarnation has no immediate practical
importance, except perhaps as a dogma which is logically necessary to
the atonement and which must be believed if one is to be a Christian.
When it comes right down to it, Reformed theology has Jesus absent from
bad Christology has dire consequences for Reformed sacramental theology.
Just as God the Son may be present when and where the Son of Man is
absent, so also the gospel and sacraments may be present when and where
the Holy Spirit himself is absent. Since this can be, it will be.
There go the means of grace. They know what Christs blood does, but
they dont know where it is. They cannot depend on the means of grace.
Therefore the doctrine of justification, while true enough, doesnt
relate to them. It is information. It is not God giving the righteousness
of Jesus to sinners through the means of grace.
theology has a hard time relating Jesus blood and righteousness to
people. Thats not surprising when you consider that Jesus isnt really
there and the doctrine of the real absence of Christ does tend to make
atonement and justification theology rather irrelevant. So they fall
into a kind of revivalistic type of piety in which they come into contact
with Christs blood by means of a dramatic religious encounter. This
is often combined with the rigorous application of relevant principles
for Christian living that they have gleaned from the Holy Scriptures.
Whether a strategy for Church Growth, overcoming financial challenges,
empowering wounded healers, teaching men to keep their promises, or
even making an entire synod comprised of over two and a half million
souls functional again, the spiritual principles approach to theology
is an effort to bring Christ to bear on problems when Christ himself,
that is, Christ in the flesh, is not available. Of course, the most
prominent feature of the so called Church Growth Movement is the spiritual
gifts doctrine that teaches the church will grow as the individual
members discover and use whatever spiritual gifts they have. While
God established the initial contact with you when you came into contact
with the atoning blood of Jesus, this relationship will continue to
be strengthened as you find a certain interior gift and use it to relate
to God and to the church. The spiritual gifts doctrine is just another
form of Pietism. When you believe that God is relevant to you primarily
by what he does inside of you instead of what he gives to you, the real
point of contact between God and man is lost and all doctrine is irrelevant.
We are left to discover a relevance by coming up with busy body religious
rules for success and then blaming the Holy Ghost for our own inventions.
As we return to our liturgical and sacramental heritage as Lutherans, however, it is vital that we do so as Lutherans. The threat from the Reformed left leaves us without the blood. The threat from the Catholic right is even more dangerous. It leaves us with blood that doesnt flow into a forensic justification and thereby deceives us with false promises.
It is bad enough to have Jesus absent from us so that we must content
ourselves with a Holy Spirit who makes us jump through spiritual hoops
in order to relate to God. It is even worse to have Jesus present with
us without hearing him tell us what we need to hear.
Catholics have the blood but have never quite figured out what it is
for. Rome denies that God reckons to faith the righteousness of Christ
and thereby justifies the sinner. While they have a fine doctrine of
redemption on paper, it doesnt inform their doctrine of justification.
They have a rich doctrine of the incarnation. They see the incarnation
made manifest in the sacramental life of the church, indeed they define
the church in sacramental terms. But they have a fatal and incurable
bias against the justification of the sinner being effected by means
of God telling the sinner here and now that his sins really are fully
and finally forgiven for Christs sake. They wont back off of their
essentially sanative or transformational model of justification that
has God pronouncing the person righteous on account of the righteousness
that inheres in the individual. So while Rome and the Orthodox do indeed
teach a sacramental presence of Christ the Savior here on earth with
his holy church, they dont permit Jesus to say what Jesus wants to
say. They have the blood but dont know what it is for and when we
tell them they insist on changing the subject. The Reformed have their
scriptural principles for Christian living. Rome and the Orthodox have
their sacramental presence. Neither can join the blood shed to those
for whom the blood was shed. Neither can teach a relevant theology
without descending into the very same morass of legalism. And as we
have seen, legalism is always very relevant.
I would like to suggest to Lutherans who want to claim our liturgical and sacramental patrimony that we may only do so as we subordinate every other doctrinal assertion, theological consideration, and churchly reform
to the task of bringing the atoning blood of Jesus Christ to the individual
sinner by means of the teaching, preaching, and sacramental bestowal
of the forgiveness of sins. We cannot understand the Lutheran teaching
on the office of the ministry or on the sacraments of Christ unless
we understand this in relation to the article on justification and in
subordination to it. I know that a pastor is a minister because God
justifies me through the gospel the pastor preaches and the sacraments
he administers. He doesnt justify me through the administrative or
bureaucratic work of a synodical president who is ordained or through
the loving discipline and teaching of useful skills that come from the
parochial school teacher who is not ordained. This is how I know that
neither a synodical president nor a parochial school teacher is a minister
in the proper sense of that term. Likewise, we must reject any talk
about a sacramental presence of Christ among us that militates against
a clear understanding of forensic justification by the imputation of
Christs righteousness to the sinner. The article on justification
serves as a hermeneutical check on all our theology. One side argues
in favor of the priesthood of all believers and the other side argues
for a more sacramental understanding of ordination. I would urge all
sides to use justification as the interpretive principle to understand
the ministry, the liturgy, the sacraments, and everything else so hotly
debated among Lutherans today.
who want to reconnect with the liturgical life of the historic church
may profitably consider the writings of such theologians as Aidan Kavanagh
and Alexander Schmemann. However, the confessional Lutheran will subject
their contributions to a rigorous test. The centrality of justification
in the body of Christian doctrine and its unique role in Gods care
of the soul requires extraordinary care in applying to Lutheran theology
the liturgical insight of men who reject the Lutheran doctrine of justification.
I am not sure that this has always been done.
are hearing more and more these days of our Lords incarnational and
sacramental presence in the church. Lutherans are telling us that Christ
is present in the sacramental life of the church. What do they mean
by this? When Rome or the Orthodox speak of the sacramental life of
the church they do so in service to an alien theology that rejects the
confessional Lutheran doctrine of justification. In Roman Catholic
theology, the church is Christs sacramental presence in the world.
Lutherans dont talk about the sacramental life of the church. We talk
about the administration of the sacraments. In this way we keep the
focus on the actual bestowal of forgiveness where God has chosen to
give it. When Lutherans start to talk of Christs real presence and
are not specifically talking about the sacramental union of Christs
true body and blood with the elements of bread and wine they are changing
the standard meaning of words. I know what a Catholic means when he
says that Christ is present in the sacramental life of the church.
I dont know why Lutherans are talking about Christs incarnational
presence in the sacramental life of the church. When everything is
sacramental, nothing is sacramental. Its like the everyone a minister
claim. We find that it leaves no one as a minister. For us Lutherans,
the sacraments are powerful means of salvation not because they ensure
Christs incarnational or sacramental presence among us, but because
they give us the forgiveness of sins.
forgives us our sins when we go to the Lords Supper. This is the chief
benefit of the Sacrament. This is not what Rome teaches. It is what
Luthers Small Catechism teaches. Luther asks three questions about
the Sacrament of the Altar: What is the benefit of such eating and
drinking? How can bodily eating and drinking do such great things?
And, Who then receives such sacrament worthily? The answer to every question is the same, Given and shed for you for the forgiveness of
sins. Nowhere do you see a clearer connection between the atonement
of Christ then and there to the justification of the sinner here and
now than you see in the Lords Supper. We go to the Supper to be justified.
We go to hear Jesus tell us that our sins are forgiven because he died
for us. And should we wonder how serious Jesus is about this declaration
of our justification (so that we are not seduced by the Catholic deceit
that this is a mere forensic justification) Jesus graciously puts
into our mouths the same body that bore our sins on the cross and the
same blood by which our sins were forgiven. The Lords Supper relates
to us because it is God justifying us. The heart of Christian doctrine
meets the heart of the penitent at the Altar. God justifies us by Christs
blood. We eat and drink Christs body and blood and thereby can know
without any doubt that we are righteous.
is nothing wrong with using theological imagery that reflects on the
incarnation of the Son of God and restoration through him to the image
of God. Incarnational terms such as wholeness, wellness, restoration,
and so forth are useful in describing the Christians sanctification.
Still, we are not perfectly whole. We will not fully experience the
recreation until the resurrection. But we most certainly are perfectly
righteous right now. This is what the Lutheran doctrine of justification
teaches us. When we speak, therefore, of the Lords Supper, we should
be teaching the doctrine of the vicarious atonement of Jesus and the
justification of the sinner who receives by faith the forgiveness of
sins won by Christs blood. It is theologically inadequate to talk
in terms of an incarnational presence of Jesus in the sacramental life
of the church for the purpose of restoring our fallen image to wholeness
Lex orandi, lex credendi! The way of prayer is the way of faith! This little truism has become a rallying cry for confessional Lutherans who argue for retaining the historic liturgy of the church and for purifying our Lutheran liturgy from some of the Reformed dross that has attaches itself to it. By getting the liturgical life of the church straightened out, the purity of the gospel will surely follow. Lex orandi, lex credendi!
Yes, but we must not forget that the historic liturgical churches within
the Roman and Orthodox communions have been wallowing in the mire of
legalism for centuries now. The Bible, not the liturgy, is the norm
of Christian doctrine. When we teach the centrality of justification
both as the topic that informs all other topics of the faith as well
as the place where God himself gives himself to faith, we will love
the churchs liturgy because we love the blood and righteousness of
Jesus, the forgiveness of our sins, and the boundless mercy of our Father
in heaven revealed in the bitter passion and death of his beloved Son,
Jesus. Retaining the historic liturgy, having the Supper more frequently,
and inviting the penitent to receive personal absolution of the sins
that beset him must all be done for the purpose of God meeting sinners
and absolving them through the blood of Christ the Lamb of God. Where
the paschal blood is poured, deaths dread angel sheathes the sword!
Now I can know the God who made me. He can relate to me and I to him.
dare not ward off the Low Church pietism of the left with the High Church
pietism of the right. Either side severs the merits of Christs blood
from the personal faith of the Christian. The left does it by denying
that Christ is really present. The right does it by denying that the
blood of Jesus really does take away all of our sin. The left and right
both force the Christian to relate to God by what God does inside of
him. Looking for Jesus in my heart or looking for Jesus in the sacramental
life of the church makes no difference. Corporate pietism is no better
than individualistic pietism. In either case we are looking for the
solution where the problem is.
is relevant because we are not righteous in ourselves and yet we must
be righteous or shrink in terror before the holy God. It is relevant
because it is how God relates to us. This doctrine brings us forgiveness
of sins, peace with God, the desire to please God in body and soul,
and the confidence that we are going to heaven some day to see face
to face the One whose righteousness covered us and sheltered us from
the moment we were baptized. The enduring relevance of the doctrine
of justification cannot be expressed any better, I think, than in these
words from the hymn, One Thing Needful, with which I will close this afternoon.
I have naught, my God to offer,
Save the blood of Thy dear Son;
Graciously accept the proffer:
Make his righteousness mine own.
His holy life gave He, was crucified for me;
His righteousness perfect He now pleads before Thee;
His own robe of righteousness, my highest good,
Shall clothe me in glory, through faith in His blood.
(ELH 182, stanza 6)
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