Justification Rev. Rolf D. Preus Steadfast Lutherans Conference Zion Lutheran Church Tomball, Texas February 17, 2017
Rev. Rolf D. Preus
Steadfast Lutherans Conference
Zion Lutheran Church
February 17, 2017
The words, “the article,” identify the topic of this conference. It is the topic of our faith. A topic is what you talk about. You preach it. You teach it. You confess it. We call it the central article, the article on which the church stands or falls. It is the chief topic of the Christian religion. It is the topic of justification or the forgiveness of sins. First, let us examine this topic of Christian teaching as we confess it in the Augsburg Confession. Then, let us address contemporary challenges to it.
We confess in article four of the Augsburg Confession:
Our churches also teach that men cannot be justified before God by their own strength, merits, or works but are freely justified for Christ’s 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).
Our churches teach. Nothing is more personal than your faith. The just shall live by his faith; not by another’s faith. But if you are the only one who holds the faith you hold you hold to a false faith, that is, a delusion, a deception, a lie. The faith each individual Christian personally holds is the faith that the church teaches. Our churches teach.
Our churches teach it. It is not the personal opinion of individual Christians. It is not the insight of gifted teachers. Our churches teach it. Our churches are gatherings of Christian people who hear the voice of their shepherd. The voice of their shepherd is focused on this specific topic, the topic of our justification before God and the forgiveness of all our sins.
Our churches are Christian congregations. It is true that the “our churches” of the Augsburg Confession were territorial churches and not isolated congregations. It is also true that any grouping of congregations, whether identified as a territorial church, a synod, a diocese, or whatever, has its churchly identify on account of the churches, that is, the Christian congregations that form it. The church is where the gospel is purely preached and the sacraments are rightly administered. This happens locally. It happens in congregations. This is where sinners who cannot be justified by their own strength, merits, or works are freely justified for Christ’s sake through faith. Through faith in what? Through faith in the gospel that tells them that they are received into favor and their sins are forgiven on account of Christ who by his death made satisfaction for their sins. This gospel is taught.
Christian congregations teach. The ministry of the word is not a free-floating office of men who, like Paladin, stand ready to ride into town to preach. Ordination is not enough to make a man a pastor. Our churches teach. The ministry is bound to the church and the church is the congregation of saints. The ministry doesn’t derive from the congregation, but neither can it exist apart from the congregation. It is established by Christ. It belongs to the congregation. It exists to serve the congregation. When the preacher preaches the gospel of justification by grace alone, through faith alone, for the sake of the merits and mediation of Jesus, the entire congregation is teaching it with him. Churches are people: Christian people, both preachers and hearers.
Our churches teach that men cannot be justified before God by their own strength, merits, or works. Men are justified before men on the basis of their own strength, merits and works. But God is not a man. The man who successfully obtains the favorable verdict of his fellowman succeeds because no man can look into the heart of another to see what is there. Jeremiah writes,
The heart is deceitful above all things,
And desperately wicked;
Who can know it? (Jeremiah 17:9)
Only God can. Man cannot. In the beginning, God created man in his own image. Fallen man creates gods in his own image. He imputes his thoughts to God. This is why he tries to obtain God’s verdict of righteousness by his own strength, merits, and works. This is how he obtains approval from men. Why should God be any different?
But God sees what man cannot see. God sees into the heart and he sees the desperate wickedness that lies within. At no point is that wickedness more desperate and wicked than in the act of self-justification. To offer up to God your own works as a basis for him to justify you is to insult him. It is to deny your sin before him who sees it clearly. It is to dismiss the incarnation, obedience, suffering, and death of Jesus as of no account. It is to pretend that your obedience is a fit substitute for God’s grace. It is desperately wicked.
And so our churches teach that the doctrine of the free will, the doctrine of works righteousness, the doctrine of human merit, that is, the doctrine of Freemasonry, Judaism, Islam, Roman Catholicism, many forms of Protestantism, Rationalism, Mormonism, Unitarianism, and a multitude of other religions is false, pernicious, destructive, dangerous, poisonous, and just plain wicked. The devil invented it. Every effort at self-justification before God is an affront to his divine majesty, his love, his grace, and his beloved Son who is established on Mount Zion as the King of kings and Lord of lords.
Our churches condemn all those who teach that human merit assists in obtaining from God his verdict of justification. We do not join with them in any joint religious activity. Such unionism is incompatible with what our churches teach. It is incompatible with a genuine love for the pure gospel.
Our churches teach that men are freely justified for Christ’s sake through faith. Freely means that God is free in justifying us. We are not in control. God is. Freely means that God doesn’t require anything of us in order to justify us. He justifies us freely. Freely means that it is for Christ’s sake. Christ alone has made satisfaction for our sins. Thus, God freely justifies us for Christ’s sake.
It is through faith. Faith in what? Faith that we are received into favor and that our sins are forgiven on account of Christ, who by his death made satisfaction for our sins. Faith receives Christ. It justifies on account of what it receives. It does not justify because of what it does. It does not justify because from it comes fruit that is pleasing to God. It does not justify because it will, in the end, culminate in our glorification in heaven. It justifies on account of what it receives. It receives the favor of God and the forgiveness of sins on account of Christ. In receiving Christ, it receives God’s favor and the forgiveness of sins.
We are justified through faith. Faith is knowledge. It is taught. Faith is assent. It agrees to what is taught. Faith is trust. It trusts in the gospel that is taught. Faith is confidence. It is confidence because it is pure receptivity.
If our faith were directed toward itself, it would not be confidence. It would be doubt. This is because, while faith is pure, created as it is by God, it exists in the heart that is not entirely purified and won’t be in this life. So faith cannot consider itself as a phenomenon and find confidence in itself. Any consideration of faith as it lives within our hearts entails, of necessity, a consideration of what exists alongside of faith. What is that? Sin! Doubt, lust, rebellion, deception, arrogance, covetousness – and the list goes on. Faith does not look inside of itself for assurance. It looks outside of itself to the promise it receives. It is pure receptivity.
Faith does not believe that if it believes God will receive us into his favor and our sins will be forgiven. Faith believes that we are received into favor and that our sins are forgiven on account of Christ. How is that so? He has made satisfaction for our sins. That’s why we are forgiven. Knowing that he has made satisfaction for our sins is how we know that our sins are forgiven and we are received into God’s favor on account of Christ.
There is no forgiveness of sins without the vicarious satisfaction of Christ. There is no vicarious satisfaction of Christ without the forgiveness of sins. To speak of the free forgiveness of sins for Christ’s sake while denying that Christ offered up his life to the penal justice of God to satisfy God’s wrath is to preach a false gospel that cannot deliver what it says. The efficacy of the word is contingent on the efficacy of the blood. Without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness. The blood is shed to propitiate God. Were Jesus not the propitiation for our sins our sins would not be forgiven. We confess that Christ has made satisfaction for our sins. He has satisfied the demands of God’s law. To argue that this puts the law in charge of the gospel and so must be rejected by evangelical Lutherans is to rip both law and gospel away from him whose word they are. It is to substitute philosophical pictures for theological reality. God is in charge of the law and God’s wrath against lawbreakers must be placated or he will damn them all to hell forever. Only his only begotten Son, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit of the Virgin Mary and was made man, could placate God’s wrath by offering to him, as the representative of the whole human race, the obedience his law required and by suffering the punishment that the whole human race deserved to receive on account of their disobedience to that same law. There is no justification without the vicarious satisfaction.
There is no vicarious satisfaction for our sins without the forgiveness of sins. To preach the vicarious satisfaction of Christ is to preach the forgiveness of sins. To teach that Christ has paid the price for forgiveness and that God has not forgiven is to teach contrary to the Augsburg Confession where we confess that justifying faith is faith that we are received into favor and that our sins are forgiven on account of Christ, who by his death made satisfaction for our sins. We believe this because it is so. It isn’t so because we believe it.
But isn’t it faith that is imputed as righteousness? Doesn’t the text say that? It says, “This faith God imputes as righteousness in his sight.” So then, if God reckons faith as righteousness then we can hardly speak of God reckoning righteousness before there is faith to receive it. This is what has been argued. What do you think of this argument? If God imputes faith as righteousness, then righteousness cannot be imputed until there is faith.
Let us turn to the Formula of Concord to see what it says about God imputing faith as righteousness. We read in FC SD III, paragraphs 12-14:
Thus the following statements of St. Paul are to be considered and taken as synonymous: “We are justified by faith” (Rom. 3:28), or “faith is reckoned as righteousness” (Rom. 4:5), or when he says that we are justified by the obedience of Christ, our only mediator, or that “one man’s act of righteousness leads to acquittal and life for all men” (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.
The righteousness is the vicarious satisfaction of Jesus. Faith is the only way this righteousness can be received. This is why the apostle writes that faith is reckoned as righteousness. Faith is righteousness according to a figure of speech known as a metonymy. Righteousness is called faith because faith receives the righteousness. It isn’t a righteousness you do. It is a righteousness you receive through faith.
Faith receives what is given to faith to receive. Faith comes by hearing. What is given faith to receive is given in the form of words, promises, and declarations. Justification is verbal. It is forensic. It is an official declaration. It belongs to a judicial procedure. It is spoken. God says you are righteous. That makes it so. Faith receives the promise and by trusting in it has it as its own.
Let us now consider five contemporary challenges to this doctrine:
1. The polemic against polemics
2. The replacement of justification with another topic
3. The denial of objective justification
4. The denial of the vicarious atonement
5. The rehabilitation of the Roman papacy among us
1. The Polemic against Polemics
In the Augsburg Confession, we say: “Our churches also teach . . .” In the Formula of Concord, we say: “We believe, teach, and confess . . .” Whenever we do, we affirm and deny. We confess what we believe on the basis of the Holy Scriptures, and we condemn contrary teachings. Even as the Lord Jesus told his disciples in the last chapter of Matthew to teach the baptized to hold onto, that is, to guard, that is, to protect everything he commanded they be taught, we hold onto, we guard, and we protect the pure doctrine entrusted to us. This is fundamental to the theological and the pastoral task.
This is why we must confront the contrary spirit that has been blowing throughout our Lutheran circles for the past several decades. It is an anti-polemical spirit. As an example of this, let me refer to the late August T. Mennicke, who served as President of the Minnesota North District of the Missouri Synod and as First Vice President of the Synod. He travelled through the Synod on behalf of President Ralph Bohlmann, criticizing those pastors who saw the gospel (and I quote him) “as something to be guarded and protected, rather than shared.” He went on to argue against arguing. His argument against arguing with the gospel was that this militated against effective sharing of the gospel.
I would argue that Rev. Mennicke was precisely wrong. The very opposite is true. To attack false articulations of the gospel is a very effective way of communicating it. To attack errors is to set the truth into bold relief. Not only are polemics not harmful to the sharing of the gospel, they are essential to it. The gospel is fighting words. Polemics provide a foil by which to enhance the beauty of the gospel, confirm its truth, and clarify its substance. Effective polemics attack false teachings. At times these false teaching must be identified by the names of their most prominent advocates. The Augsburg Confession is the most irenic of the Lutheran Confessions, yet in its very first article, it condemns no less than five false teachings by the names of their advocates.
One of the greatest catechetical hymns ever written is “Salvation unto Us Has Come,” by Paul Speratus. It represents the Lutheran way of sharing the gospel, beginning with a positive assertion, followed by a rejection of its antithesis. Here are the first four lines:
Salvation unto us has come
By God’s free grace and favor.
Good works cannot avert our doom,
They help and save us never.
This is how the truth is confessed, taught, and preached. We guard and protect the truth by fighting against what is contrary to it. Luther was a master at this. He blended the didactic, the devotional, and the polemical into one. This is the spirit of confessional Lutheranism. It cannot be bridled by rules of politico-ecclesiastical correctness. The sword of the Spirit, the word of God, is an offensive weapon. Teaching and confessing the gospel is a fight that we Lutherans love to fight. As we sing:
Rise! To arms! With prayer employ you,
O Christians, lest the foe destroy you;
For Satan has designed your fall.
Wield God’s word, the weapon glorious;
Against all foes be thus victorious.
For God protects you from them all.
Fear not the hordes of hell,
Here is Emmanuel.
Hail the Savior!
The strong foes yield
To Christ, our shield,
And we, the victors, hold the field. (LSB, 668, stanza 1)
2. The Replacement of Justification with another topic
The second contemporary challenge to the pure teaching and preaching of justification among us is the replacement of the central article with a different topic of doctrine. The so called Evangelicals make conversion the central topic. Calvinists make God’s sovereignty the central article. Rome makes its moral theology the central topic. Among Pietists and Existentialists, the central topic may be the experience of faith, or sanctification.
We Lutherans teach that justification is the central article. When we say that it is justification, we are not saying it is not redemption, salvation, propitiation, or reconciliation. All of these soteriological terms are basically synonymous and they entail one another. They go together. But there is a reason why we use the term justification when we identify the central article.
Justification has a special status for a particular reason. Justification joins the work of Christ and the work of the Holy Spirit. It joins them together in the heart of the Christian. Where the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith is where the vicarious atonement, redemption by Christ’s blood, the propitiation by which God is reconciled to us, becomes the personal possession of the individual Christian. Justification is a word from God. It is grounded in the redemption, that is, in the propitiation, in the vicarious atonement. All of this is located in the second article of the Creed. It falls under the doctrinal topic of Christology. It is the work of Christ. Justification is where the work of Christ for us and the work of the Holy Spirit in us are joined together.
Listen to how Luther identifies the chief article in the Smalcald Articles:
The first and chief article is this, that Jesus Christ, our God and Lord, “was put to death for our trespasses and raised again for our justification” (Rom. 4:25). He alone is the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29). “God has laid on him the iniquities of us all” (Isa. 53:6). Moreover, “all have sinned,” and “they are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus, by his blood” (Rom. 3:23-25).
Inasmuch as this must be believed and cannot be obtained or apprehended by any work, law, or merit, it is clear and certain that such faith alone justifies us, as St. Paul says in Romans 3, “For we hold that a man is justified by faith apart from works of law” (Rom. 3:28), and again, “that he [God] himself is righteous and that he justifies him who has faith in Jesus” (Rom.3:26).
Nothing in this article can be given up or compromised, even if heaven and earth and things temporal should be destroyed. For as St. Peter says, “There is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12). “And with his stripes we are healed” (Isa. 53:5).
On this article rests all that we teach and practice against the Pope, the devil, and the world. Therefore we must be quite certain and have no doubts about it. Otherwise, all is lost, and the pope, the devil, and all our adversaries will gain the victory. (SA Part II, Article I, Tappert, page 292)
Here Luther cites texts that speak of redemption, atonement, and justification. They belong together. They are essentially the same. Luther makes the point that all of this must be believed if it is to be obtained. It cannot be obtained by any work, law or merit. It must be received through faith. This is why justification through faith alone is the central topic of Christian doctrine. Justification is where Christ’s vicarious work on the one hand, and faith on the other, are joined. When we speak of the righteousness that avails before God we speak of faith. When we speak of faith we speak of the righteousness that avails before God.
We may not permit any other topic to take the place of justification by faith alone. The incarnation of God is essential to the Christian faith, but it is not the central article. The devil confessed Jesus as the holy one of God. The antichrist confesses Christ as true God and true man. That one is not an Arian heretic does not make one a Christian.
Neither is the doctrine of theosis a fit substitute for justification through faith alone. To teach that God became a man so that we may be deified is a far cry from teaching that God became a man to be the propitiation for our sins.
The sacraments are central to Christian faith and piety, but sacramental theology is not the central article. When preachers preach on the sacraments they should preach the vicarious atonement. They obtain their efficacy from it. They are subordinate to it. Baptism saves because it is joined to the death and resurrection of Jesus, which are our salvation. The Lord’s Supper gives us forgiveness of sin, life, and salvation, because the body and blood we eat and drink were given and shed for the forgiveness of sins once and for all on the cross. You cannot preach the benefits of Holy Baptism and the Lord’s Supper without preaching about the blood and righteousness of Jesus.
Theological trends come and go. It’s hard to keep up with them. For a while, it was the presence of Christ. Then it was Christ present in faith. And then there is our recreation in Christ. Some say the heart of it all is the theology of the cross. I suppose we must get our suffering in there somehow. We wouldn’t want to be promoting a health-wealth gospel now, would we? Others say it’s the proper distinction between the two kinds of righteousness, that is, between the two kingdoms, which helps provide preachers with a bit of respectable cover for butting into civil affairs they do not understand that invariably involve them in some kind of unionistic compromise. And then, of course, we have the Witness, Mercy, Life Together slogan, which may gain positive attention for the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod, but says nothing resembling God’s justification of the sinner by reckoning to him the obedience-wrought, blood-bought righteousness of Jesus. Luther’s Seal beautifully symbolizes the central article. It doesn’t draw attention to us.
If the central article is going to be central, Christ’s obedience and suffering for the forgiveness of our sins must be at the heart of our preaching and our faith. It is here that we see ourselves for what we are. Nothing else matters unless this is central. As we confess in the Formula of Concord:
In the words of the Apology, this article of justification by faith is “the chief article of the entire Christian doctrine,” “without which no poor conscience can have any abiding comfort or rightly understand the riches of the grace of Christ.” In the same vein Dr. Luther declared, “Where this single article remains pure, Christendom will remain pure, in beautiful harmony, and without any schisms. But where it does not remain pure, it is impossible to repel any error or heretical spirit.” FC SD III 6, Tappert page 540
Doctrine is a verbal noun. It isn’t doctrine unless it is taught. When we confess the necessity of keeping this topic pure, we also confess the necessity of keeping it central. Justification cannot be given merely lip service. Listen to Luther, from his 1535 Lectures on Galatians:
Besides, the question of justification is an elusive thing – not in itself, for in itself it is firm and sure, but so far as we are concerned. I myself have had considerable experience of this, for I know how I sometimes struggle in the hours of darkness. I know how often I suddenly lose sight of the rays of the Gospel and of grace, which have been obscured for me by thick, dark clouds. In other words, I know how slippery the footing is even for those who are mature and seem to be firmly established in matters of faith. We have an understanding of this, because we are able to teach it; and this is a sure sign that we have it, for no one is able to teach others what he himself does not know. . . But when in a struggle we should use the Gospel, which is the Word of grace, consolation, and life, there the Law, the Word of wrath, sadness, and death, precedes the Gospel and begins to raise a tumult. The terrors it arouses in the conscience are no smaller than was the tremendous and horrible spectacle on Mt. Sinai (Ex. 19:16). Thus even one passage in Scripture that presents some of the threats of the Law overwhelms and swamps any other comfort; it shakes our insides in such a way that it makes us forget justification, grace, Christ, and the Gospel. So far as we are concerned, therefore, this is a very elusive matter, because we are so unstable. (LW 26 63-64)
There is no substitute for justification, not because it fits into a theological system as hub of the wheel with all of the spokes protruding from it, but because unless we are forgiven of all our sins, at peace with God, clothed in the righteousness of Jesus, so that the omniscient God sees no sin in us and every accusation of the law against us is silenced, we cannot understand theology. We will distort it so that we may be justified, but we will get it wrong. Justification must be at the center because it set our hearts at peace. Only a friend of God can speak rightly about him.
3. The denial of objective justification
It was not until the 19th century among the Lutherans of the Synodical Conference that the terms objective justification and subjective justification became common terms to identify the two sides of justification. Objective justification is the teaching that, for the sake of Christ’s vicarious satisfaction, God has reckoned the whole world to be righteous. Since Jesus died for the whole world, and bore the sin of the whole world, God has justified the whole world. Subjective justification is the teaching that this justification or forgiveness is received through faith alone. The objectively true verdict of justification precedes faith. Faith receives what is so. Faith doesn’t make anything so. It is not the catalyst that activates God’s forgiveness, as if God is ready and willing and able to forgive and is awaiting our faith as our permission to do so. Faith is rather the reception of the forgiveness that was declared by God when Jesus died and rose again.
Subjective justification is justification through faith alone. It is only through faith that an individual Christian obtains and possesses the forgiveness of sins. The verdict of justification was rendered by God in raising his Son from the dead. In explaining how it was that Abraham’s faith was imputed to him for righteousness, St. Paul writes in Romans 4:23-25,
Now it was not written for his sake alone that it was imputed to him, but also for us. It shall be imputed to us who believe in Him who raised up Jesus our Lord from the dead, who was delivered up because of our offenses, and was raised because of our justification.
The resurrection of Christ is God’s verdict of justification upon the whole world. But this declaration of God must be received through faith if one is to be personally or subjectively justified. To believe in Him who raised up Jesus our Lord from the dead is to believe that that resurrection is our justification.
Romans 4:5 teaches objective justification.
But to him who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is accounted for righteousness.
Nowhere in the Scriptures are the ungodly identified as believers or are believers identified as ungodly. But justifying faith believes in the God who justifies the ungodly and it is precisely this justification by which the ungodly is brought to faith and becomes godly.
Objective justification is taught in 2 Corinthians 5:19,
God was in Christ reconciling the world unto himself, not imputing their trespasses to them, and has committed to us the word of reconciliation.
The word of reconciliation is the proclamation of objective justification. The non-imputation of sin is the imputation of righteousness as the Apostle makes clear in Romans. The message of the gospel is not a message of potential forgiveness that God withholds until the recipient meets the condition of believing. The message of the gospel is the declaration of forgiveness so that the object of justifying faith is not faith but the gospel that faith receives.
Deniers of objective justification in the 19th century usually advanced some form of synergism as a part of their objection to this biblical truth. Synergism is the notion that the unregenerate makes some sort of contribution to coming to faith, even if it be ever so little, such as his own lack of resisting the Holy Spirit. Deniers of objective justification in the 20th and 21st centuries often affirm divine monergism in conversion. This does not make their error any less serious, however. Every Calvinist can assert divine monergism in conversation, but he cannot consider the gospel proclamation as the assurance of his salvation because he cannot know, except by the evidence of his faith and the fruit it produces, that he is one of the elect. The Lutheran who denies objective justification can argue that he teaches a universal atonement and a universal redemption, and therefore cannot be accused of Calvinism, but if there is an atonement that does not entail as well justification and if there is a redemption that doesn’t entail as well justification, what we have is atonement that doesn’t make peace and redemption that doesn’t set free.
Justification does not become true because we believe it. It is true because God says it. And those who are condemned are condemned because they did not believe in the name of the only begotten Son of God. Jesus remains the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. Unbelief cannot negate the proclamation of John the Baptist. Let God be true and every man a liar.
It is perfectly true that the use of the words objective and subjective to distinguish between justification as it is acquired and bestowed and justification as it is received is of relatively recent vintage. The distinction these words are designed to express, however, has always been part of the church’s teaching. There is what Jesus did and its benefits. There is how we receive the benefits of what Jesus did. The two are related. Clearly, we cannot receive what isn’t there to receive. Just as clearly, to provide forgiveness is for the purpose of receiving forgiveness.
This leads us to the fourth challenge to the pure proclamation of the central article among us.
4. The Denial of the Vicarious Atonement
Beware of such words as theory and metaphor to describe the saving works of God. God doesn’t posit theories. If it is a theory, it cannot be divine doctrine. It must be a human attempt to explain a divine doctrine. Talk of theories of the atonement is talk designed to undercut the vicarious satisfaction of our Lord Jesus Christ.
The vicarious satisfaction is the teaching of the Word of God that Jesus Christ has satisfied the demands of divine justice by obeying the law as the substitute for all sinners and by suffering the penalty the law imposed upon them. The active obedience of Christ is the obedience he rendered to the law as the representative of all people. The passive obedience of Christ is the suffering he endured by bearing the curse the law threatened against all sinners. The vicarious satisfaction and the vicarious atonement are the same thing seen from different perspectives. Christ satisfied the law’s demands. Christ made peace between God and man by doing so.
The Bible teaches the vicarious atonement from cover to cover. Every time it mentions the shedding of blood in connection with the forgiveness of sins, it is teaching this doctrine. From the covering of Adam and Eve with the skins of animals, to the offering of Isaac on Mt. Moriah, to the ceremonial law of the Old Testament requiring the shedding of blood, to the beautiful depiction of the suffering servant in Isaiah 53, to the words of Jesus instituting the Sacrament of the Altar: “Given and shed for you for the remission of sins,” to those sections of Romans and Galatians where Paul lays the foundation for justification through faith alone by referring to the vicarious obedience of Christ, we see the payment of the innocent life for the guilty lives as the foundation of the Christian gospel from the very beginning. Jesus Christ is the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world.
The basic argument against the vicarious atonement is that it contradicts the love of God. A loving God does not pour out his wrath on his innocent Son. He does not demand satisfaction. He forgives freely. If you argue that while God freely forgives, forgiveness isn’t free, and that God’s justice requires him to punish sin, you are accused of imposing on God an abstract theory of justice and of holding the gospel hostage to the law.
The theological leadership of the ELCA has for a long time rejected the vicarious atonement. We read in Braaten and Jensen’s Christian Dogmatics, for a generation now the standard dogmatics textbook for seminarians in the ELCA:
But wrath cannot be placated in the abstract by heavenly transactions between Jesus and God. Nothing is accomplished for us by that. God’s wrath against us is placated only when God’s self-giving makes us his own, when God succeeds in creating faith, love, and hope. . . When one is dealing with the way things are, wrath cannot be placated in the abstract – say at the moment of Christ’s death when payment is supposedly made. Wrath is placated when the body and blood are given to us and are received in faith. It is in the giving and the receiving that wrath is placated. (Christian Dogmatics, Carl E. Braaten and Robert W. Jensen, editors, Fortress Press, Philadelphia, 1984, Volume Two, page 51.)
To teach that God’s wrath is placated when the sinner receives Christ’s body and blood in faith is to teach that faith propitiates. The denial of the vicarious satisfaction necessarily attributes to faith as it receives the blood what it denies to the blood when it was shed. By rendering the atonement a mere abstraction and identifying the reconciliation in the present mystical union only, the foundation of faith is torn out from under it. Faith feeds on itself. Fideism – defined as faith in faith – is a self-devouring process that leads to despair.
While most Missourians have neither the time nor the patience to wade through the turgid writing of Braaten and Jensen’s Dogmatics, Gerhard Førde is quite popular among Missourians, many of whom are wont to deny that Førde denies the vicarious atonement. Judge for yourself. Here is what he writes about it in his book, On Being A Theologian of the Cross.
For the most part we will, no doubt, be modest enough to admit that we cannot go the whole way on the glory road without the help of grace. But then Christ gets called into the scheme to make it work. Christ and the cross are taken up into abstract doctrines. The result is that the cross too is looked upon as though it were transparent. Theologians of glory will claim not only to be able to see through creation but also to see through the cross to figure out the final “Why.” Why did Jesus have to die? Apparently to pay for our failures and mistakes in the pursuit of “virtue, godliness, wisdom, justice, goodness, and so forth.” Thus the cross is not really just what is visible. It becomes a launching pad for speculative flights into intellectual space, into the invisible things of God. It is not simply that a man sent from God is suffering, forsaken, and dying at our hands – as if that were not enough! – but he is a payment to God (whose justice one has supposedly peered into and figured out) in some celestial court transaction. (On Being a Theologian of the Cross: Reflections on Luther’s Heidelberg Disputation, 1518, by Gerhard O. Førde, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1997, pages 75-76.)
According to Førde, the vicarious atonement is a scheme, an abstract doctrine, speculative flight into intellectual space. Steven Paulson, a popular teacher in the ELCA, rejects the vicarious atonement as a “legal scheme.” (Lutheran Theology, Steven Paulson, 2011, published by T&T Clark, International, pages 88-92) Whereas in traditional Lutheran theology, our justification takes place both in the doing and dying of Jesus and in the proclamation of Jesus to us – and it is the very same justification! – in the theology of these deniers of the vicarious atonement (as with the deniers of objective justification), there is no justification except in the present experience of it.
5. The rehabilitation of the Roman papacy among us
The great English statesman Edmund Burke, a conservative’s conservative, wrote about the benefit of prejudice in his Reflections on the Revolution in France, published in 1790:
Prejudice is of ready application in the emergency; it previously engages the mind in a steady course of wisdom and virtue, and does not leave the man hesitating in the moment of decision, skeptical, puzzled and unresolved. Prejudice renders a man’s virtue his habit; and not a series of unconnected acts. Through past prejudice, his duty becomes part of his nature.
Historic, evangelical, confessional Lutheranism stands in opposition to the pope at Rome. The pope is not a good guy. He’s a bad guy. We don’t have to reason out all of the details and reinvent the theological wheel every time he speaks. He speaks according to his office as the antichrist who exalts himself above all that is called God or worshipped, so that he sits in the temple of God declaring himself to be God. (2 Thessalonians 2) He usurps Christ’s authority and claims it for himself. He claims in the name of Jesus that the righteousness by which the sinner is justified is not the obedience and suffering of Jesus, but rather the internal righteousness produced within the believer who becomes progressively more righteous as he cooperates with God’s grace to obtain more merit until finally he is sufficiently righteous to be identified as a saint. If the pope does not acknowledge our call and ordination as valid, it isn’t valid, and the bread and the wine that we give to Christ’s sheep to eat and to drink are not the body and blood of Jesus at all, but merely bread and wine. Thus, he presumes to rob us of the Sacrament of the Altar and the forgiveness of sins bestowed in it. He robs his own followers of the same thing, turning the Sacrament into a sacrifice, and saying that only venial sins, that is, sins that don’t damn anyone anyway, are forgiven in the Lord’s Supper, but not mortal sins. To be forgiven of those requires confession and whatever act of contrition is prescribed by the priest.
The pope at Rome teaches that you can trust in the blood and righteousness of Jesus and nevertheless be damned. He teaches that you can deny the blood and righteousness of Jesus and nevertheless be saved. When it comes to the heart of the faith, upon which our very salvation depends, he lies. Then he lies about his lies. This much we know. This is why we are prejudiced against him. We don’t trust him. We hold onto our prejudice. It keeps us from being misled.
Anti-papist prejudice is a good thing. But it is on the wane. Whether it is on account of the apparent convergence between Rome and Lutheranism as a result of Vatican II and the various ecumenical dialogues, or whether it is due to the liturgical renewal among Lutherans, or whether it is a result of the general deterioration of doctrinal substance among us that has rendered us less than competent to identify papal errors, or whether it is the triumph of the polemics against polemics, the centuries old prejudice that sustained Lutherans in their anti-papist posture has been slowly deteriorating. When Pope John Paul II died a few years ago, prayers for those mourning his death were prayed repeatedly in the chapel of my alma mater in Ft. Wayne. The consensus today among those who identify themselves as confessional Lutherans about whether the errors of the Protestant sects or the errors of the Roman papacy are worse is that they are equally bad.
Things have changed since the time of C. F. W. Walther, who wrote:
Verily, the worst sects in the Christian Church are less harmful than the Pope. For all sects without exception admit that the only way in which a person may be saved is by faith in the grace of God in Christ Jesus. All sects, by their teaching, obscure the Gospel, but they do not, as the Pope does, anathematize and curse it. Inasmuch as all sects allow this thesis, that salvation is by the grace of God, through faith in Christ Jesus, to stand, they are incomparably superior to the Papacy. They are corrupted churches, but the Papacy is a false Church. Just as counterfeit money is no money, so the papal Church, being a false Church, is no Church. Compared with the corrupted sectarian churches, the Papacy is a non-church, a denial of the Church of Christ. I am not speaking of the Roman Catholic, but of the papistic Church, the Church which submits to the Pope, accepts his decrees, and repeats his anathemas. (Walther’s Law and Gospel, pages 74-75)
Here Walther distinguishes between the Christians who are members of the Roman Catholic Church and those who submit to the authority of the pope. The latter requires one to reject the central article. That is incompatible with the Christian religion. On this there can be no compromise without sacrificing the central article altogether.
In my fourth year at the seminary, in the dogmatics class in which justification was taught, the professor made the observation, “Anyone who does not believe the pope is the antichrist can’t be very interested in theology.” He was right. If a preacher does not understand how the papal teaching on justification is incompatible with the Christian religion, he is not sufficiently interested in theology to preach it faithfully.
I am not suggesting that we preach from the pulpit that the pope is the antichrist. I am saying that unless we can distinguish between the righteousness of Christ’s vicarious satisfaction that is reckoned to faith and the internal and imperfect righteousness that consists in an inner transformation of the Christian, and to acknowledge this difference as a difference between the gospel and no gospel, we have no business preaching anything at all. The litmus test of the orthodox teaching of the central article is whether one can identify and condemn the errors raised against it by the pope at Rome and his disciples.
To acknowledge that the gospel and therefore Christians exist within the Roman Catholic Church is to recognize that the Creed, the Holy Scriptures, and portions of the liturgy and hymns contain the gospel. It is not to say that the Roman teaching of justification is not a denial of the gospel. It is. When the righteousness by which the sinner is justified is no longer the doing and dying of Jesus, there is no gospel. When faith is not trust in divine mercy that forgives sins for Christ’s sake, there is no faith. Despite all of the progress in mutual understanding achieved through the various dialogues over the years, the heart of the papal doctrine of justification is a denial of the gospel.
In a day of moral decay and confusion when huge portions of Protestantism have apostatized from the Christian religion, the pope’s church appears to be a clear voice of Christian decency, confessing as well the great mysteries of the Holy Trinity and the true deity of Christ. It may appear to be in our best interest to join with Rome in making common Christian confession in the public square, at least on matters where we agree. It is not. You cannot get into bed with the pope without compromising the central article. His entire system of authority depends of the falsity of our confession of this precious topic. Better to avoid joint theological statements of any kind with the pope’s church than to run the risk of compromising the topic on which the church stands or falls. Nothing God gives us in this life is more precious than the pure gospel.
Christ alone is our salvation,
Christ, the Rock on which we stand.
Other than this sure foundation
Will be found but sinking sand.
Christ, his cross, and resurrection
Is alone the sinner’s plea.
At the throne of God’s perfection
Rolf D. Preus
Nothing else can set him free.