By the Reverend President H. A. Preus of the Norwegian Synod
February 13, 1874
Introduction by Pastor Rolf David Preus
During the 19th Century, the Norwegian Synod was involved in a number of doctrinal controversies. The most critical issue under debate was a topic that is crucial to our Christian faith and foundational to the central teaching of Christianity. The central teaching of Christianity is justification by faith alone. God reckons lost and condemned sinners to be righteous and forgiven of all their sins, not on account of their works, but on account of the vicarious work of Jesus Christ for us all. This forgiveness is received through faith alone. This has been called the topic on which the Church stands or falls. It is taught clearly by St. Paul, the apostle, in Romans 3-5. This is how we Lutherans confess this truth in the words 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).
What is it that we are to believe? We are to believe that “[our] sins are forgiven on account of Christ, who by his death made satisfaction for our sins.” We are justified through this faith. In what does faith trust? It trusts in the forgiveness of sins declared by God for Christ’s sake. Faith doesn’t trust in itself. It doesn’t look inward to find itself. It listens to the gospel that tells us that for Christ’s sake we are received into God’s favor and all our sins are freely forgiven by God.
The object of justifying faith is not faith. It is the gospel. The gospel is true before we believe it. It does not become true when we believe it. The objective truth of the gospel of the forgiveness of sins is often referred to as objective justification. It is objectively true before we subjectively apprehend it by faith. God has, for Christ’s sake, absolved the entire world of sinners. This absolution or pronouncement of forgiveness is received only through faith and through faith alone.
This fundamental and very comforting teaching is known as objective or universal justification. It assures us that when we trust in the gospel we are not trusting in an “iffy” or conditional declaration from God that depends on something within us for its veracity. Our forgiveness – and our faith – depends on the objective truth of God’s holy word. Jesus surely is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world – the whole world. So when we, with sorrow over our sins and in fear of death and judgment, hear the gospel proclamation we should not doubt, but firmly believe, that our sins are forgiven by God in heaven.
Thank God for the faithful testimony to this precious truth by the fathers of the Missouri Synod, Wisconsin Synod, and Norwegian Synod of the 19th Century!
During the debates of those years, the Rev. Herman Amberg Preus, who served for many years as president of the Norwegian Synod, wrote the following essay. It formed a part of a larger essay written in response to criticism of the Norwegian Synod by Professors A. Weenaas and Sven Oftedahl published on January 20, 1874. President H. A. Preus had his response published in the February 13, 1874 issue of the Evangelisk Luthersk Kirketidende. He presents what is, in my opinion, the best defense of objective or universal justification that was written during those years. Unfortunately, it has remained inaccessible to those who don’t read Norwegian.
A few years ago, as I was preparing a paper to be delivered at the annual Reformation Lectures at Bethany College in Mankato, Minnesota titled, “The Legacy of Herman Amberg Preus,” the Rev. Herb Larson, a retired pastor who is fluent in Norwegian, was kind enough to send to me via email hundreds of pages of H. A. Preus’ writings, including the gem that follows. As far as I know, there are no immediate plans to have his writings published any time soon. Since there are voices in our generation that raise doubts about the wonderful biblical truth that we call objective or universal justification, and since there is really nothing new under the sun when it comes to such objections to the pure gospel, and since H. A. Preus has already answered them better than most, I thought it would be a good idea to publish on this website the response of H. A. Preus to A. Weenaas. I commend this to the reader with the prayer that through it God may strengthen you in the true faith that is centered in the justification of the ungodly by grace alone, through faith alone, for the sake of the all sufficient merits of Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!
Pastor Rolf David Preus
January 18, 2008
“The Justification of the World”
While Professor Weenaas considers “rational orthodoxy” and spiritual “exclusivism” the “heart and soul” of Wisconsinism, the actual principle which gives it life, yet on the other hand “the justification of the world” and the things said about it in the following are for him “more secondary historic phenomena,” “spiritual offsprings and manifestations of” that life-principle. In the foregoing we have seen how the professor has just invented these signs of this appalling “Wisconsinism,” “rational orthodoxy” and “spiritual exclusivism,” and applied them to our synod. When he now goes on to enumerate and to treat these things as only “offsprings” of those, then we can conclude already by what right the professor attributes to us these new signs of our synod’s “Wisconsinism.”
As the first of these off-springs the professor counts “the justification of the world” or as it is more often called, objective, universal justification. By this we understand that by raising Christ from the dead God declares him righteous and at the same time acknowledges and declares all people, the whole world, whose Representative and Substitute Jesus Christ was in his resurrection and victory as well as in his suffering and tribulation (“He was delivered for our offenses and raised for our justification”), as free from guilt and punishment, and righteous in Christ Jesus.
At the same time we maintain and teach in agreement with the Scriptures that the individual sinner must accept and appropriate by faith this righteousness earned for everyone by the death of Christ, pro-claimed by his resurrection, and announced and bestowed through the Gospel, to himself for his comfort and salvation, and that for the sake of Christ whose righteousness the troubled sinner grasps and makes his own in faith, God justifies the believer and counts his faith to him for righteousness. We teach therefore that the expressions “justification” and “to justify” are used in Scripture and in the Lutheran Church in a twofold way: 1) that justification has come to everyone, namely when we mean that justification is earned for everyone by Christ, and 2) that only the believer is justified, when a person is talking about the righteousness being received.
I do not need to express myself more precisely about justification in the latter sense here. I must only call attention to the fact that exactly this doctrine of ours about the justification of sinners by faith shows at what doubtful means Professor Weenaas must grasp when he asserts that our doctrine of the justification of the world “separates justification in Christ from faith and thereby actually from Christ himself,” in order to support his foolish case.
But that our doctrine of justification in the first sense, as a justification of everyone through the resurrection of Christ from the dead, is biblical, we prove: 1) From this, that it is expressly taught in Romans 5:18.19, where it says, “Therefore, as by the offense of one judgment came upon all men to condemnation; even so by the righteousness of one the free gift came upon all men unto justification of life. For as by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners, so by the obedience of one shall many be made righteous.”
To want to explain “all men” by “the believers,” as Pastor Eggen does (see free conference discussions at Rock Prairie, page 24), is to do violence to the Word of God. According to Professor Weenaas’ explanation “that the justification of life is appointed to everyone, has everyone as its object” (Rock Prairie free conference, page 30), the Greek word “eis” (to, over) in the last place in verse 18 is taken in a completely different sense than in the first place, without anyone being entitled to, not to mention needing so different an interpretation in the two parallel sentences. And when Professor Oftedal, who is acquainted with the Greek text and knows that there is no verb there but only the preposition eis (to), which Luther translates: “has come to all,” and our common translation of the Bible, “shall come upon all,” at a meeting in Wisconsin, so far as I remember, makes people who are not acquainted with the original text aware that “shall come” and not “has come,”°9 is written in our Bible, then it is rightly suggestive of his spiritual bias, not to speak of the fact that by such an interpretation he is headed straight toward universalism.°10
2) We prove the correctness of this teaching from the biblical teaching about redemption. Scripture teaches that Christ “is the propitiation for our sins; and not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world (1 Jo. 2:2), that he is “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (Jo. 1:29), and that in Christ God reconciled himself with the world, because he did not impute their trespasses unto them (2 Co. 5:19). If Christ has borne the sin of the world and atoned for it, then in the sight of him who gave the ransom for it, the world is loosed and free from sin and its punishment, although it remains in bondage and under the wrath of God if it remains in unbelief. As it says in the Book of Concord: “For after the whole world was subjected to sin he took away the sin of the whole world, as John testified when he said (John 1:29), ‘Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the whole world!'” (Apology, IV, paragraph 103). If God is reconciled with the whole world since he does not impute its transgressions to it but to Christ, then the world must be righteous and guiltless in his eyes. God has solemnly testified to this by raising Christ from the dead, as Paul says: “He was delivered for our offenses and was raised for our justification.” As “the Lamb of God,” Jesus was loaded with the sin of all the world, was cursed for it and its unrighteousness, and suffered death. When God awakened him from the dead he declared the guilt erased, and Christ free and righteous. However, since Christ did not bear his sins but the world’s, was condemned not for his sins but for the whole human race, so neither is Christ declared righteous for his person by the resurrection, but the whole human race for which he died and rose was thereby declared righteous by God. Just as “Christ was raised for our justification” (Ro. 4:25), thus his resurrection is the foundation on which our justification rests. Therefore Paul also says in 1 Corinthians 15:17: “If Christ be not raised, your faith is vain; you are yet in your sins.” Then the work of redemption were declared invalid, but now through his resurrection it is declared completed and valid, so that “all things are ready.” But it was everyone whom he redeemed, therefore also for the justification of everyone that he rose. The sinner is to appropriate this to him-self in faith for his comfort and salvation. But it could not possibly be the will of God that anyone should believe it and comfort himself with it, if it had not taken place, if the world was not freed from condemnation through the death and resurrection of Christ and acquitted of its sin and guilt and declared righteous. Yes, were it not so, if the world had not been declared righteous before him through Christ’s death and resurrection but he still counted their transgressions against them, then of course we were not freed from sin and its guilt through the death of Christ, then surely God declared by that that he had not been reconciled through the atoning work of Christ but still required some-thing more in order to be reconciled, then had Christ not perfectly redeemed and atoned for everyone, then would he not have become their righteousness before God either. But now, “he was raised for our justification,” since God has testified through Christ’s resurrection that he has forgiven the world its sin and declared it righteous in his eyes, and through the Gospel he proclaims this blessed message to it. Therefore God also now lets his messengers admonish the whole world to leave its unbelief and its enmity against God and to reconcile itself with God by believing, and for its comfort, appropriate this blessed message to itself that God does not count its transgressions against it but credits it with the righteousness of Christ.
Professor Weenaas also actually does acknowledge this doctrine of ours concerning justification to be “a logical, reasonable inference from the Christian teaching of the world’s redemption in Christ.” But still he rejects it and denies its truth. His reasons for this are 1) that it “has its root in orthodoxism” and 2) that it necessarily leads to “dangerous consequences” among “the less enlightened Christian people.”
Now as to the first reason, that the teaching of a universal justification “has its root in orthodoxism,” there it seems that the professor wants to prove the correctness of this assertion in this way that this teaching “separates justification in Christ from its logical and organic connection with faith and therewith from its connection with Christ himself,” and that justification thus becomes only “a logical conclusion,” “a mere supposition of the ‘pure doctrine,'” “something in the blue which cannot be caught,” but “not a personal act of God, who with his real contents brings an actual, new personal relationship.”
We have however already seen in the foregoing how unfounded the charge is that we disengage justification from faith and Christ since we base it precisely on Christ, his death and resurrection for our justification as fact which is to be proclaimed, make it possible both that faith can be conceived through the blessed message and that faith can grasp and appropriate it to oneself to his comfort, all of which is an impossibility according to the professor’s assertion. Because what does not exist as a fact cannot justifiably be proclaimed or believed as such. So it is therefore apparent that it is actually Professor Weenaas who subverts the basis of justification, Christ, by his doctrine, and faith as the means by which it is reckoned and in this way destroys justification itself.
Concerning the “dangerous consequences” of this teaching of ours we want to say a little about it later and point out that the consequences do not lie in our teaching but in the fact that people only draw them falsely from misunderstanding or ill will, just as everyone knows that many people draw the false conclusion that he is the servant of sin from the fact that Christ has become the servant of sinners, and conclude from the fact that in the Sacrament he gives his body and blood for the forgiveness of sinners, that they are saved just by going to God’s Table, even if they go in unbelief and live in security of sin.
In general the professor’s reasoning suffers from two “radical faults.” The one is that it places reason above the word of God and does not want to let it apply because it cannot be comprehended. The second consists in this that justifying faith is not considered as a plain and simple means [organon lepticon], a hand which accepts and is filled by the grace and the gifts which are already at hand, lie ready and are offered and given for nothing.
The latter is especially clear from what he says on page 112: “When our opponents speak of faith as the ‘receiving, accepting means‘ with which a sinner appropriates to himself and thus becomes partaker in the gift and treasure of the forgiveness of sins which is bestowed by God in absolution, then in any case that is only half the truth, and the full-ness and depth of the mystery, even the essentials of faith as ’justifying’ are completely overlooked.” And again: “Faith as justifying is something more than a mere ‘justifying means.‘”°11 For the professor therefore, “justifying” faith is not a mere means, the hand which grasps the merit of Christ. In his opinion faith justifies not just because it grasps Christ and his righteousness. In papistical fashion therefore he ascribes to faith, insofar as it justifies, something more. He regards it as a quality, a new nature which a person obtains through the fellowship of life with Christ into which it most certainly comes by faith but which however is hardly why he is justified, and does not cooperate toward justification either. To claim that faith as such a new nature in man is supposed to work a change in God’s disposition toward him and cause God to be gracious and to justify, is papistical.
Add to this for a third thing, that the professor stubbornly denies that justification is used both in the language of Scripture and the church in a twofold way not only of the fact that God counts his faith to the individual believer for righteousness and declares him righteous, but also of the fact that in his judgment God regards the whole world guiltless and ascribes to it the completed satisfaction of Christ for everyone, the righteousness earned for everyone.
We must now consider these basic faults of the professor a little more closely.
It can well with reason awaken our surprise that the professor here, where he accuses us of “rational orthodoxy” because we make a logical rational conclusion from the Christian teaching and from the Word of God, makes himself guilty in a rationalistic way of the gross sin of placing reason as judge over the Word of God. Yes, it must seem strange that in the same moment as he censures us for the legitimate use of reason in spiritual things he himself applies it in a way which conflicts with the Word of God and gives it an importance which it can have as little according to its essence as according to the Word of God. And yet this is the way it is.
“Justification, the conferring of grace, the forgiveness of sins on the part of God,” says Professor Weenaas, “becomes something in the blue which cannot be grasped because reason says at the same time that the world on which grace was conferred continues under the wrath of God and is lost, although justified on the part of God.” And again: “What meaning, what content, what effect does justification then get when a poor sinner actually is justified and favored on the part of God and yet is lost – can he be loosed and yet remain bound?” Because these two divine truths appear a contradiction to him which he cannot “grasp,” he rejects the one. We on the other hand do not let reason make itself lord over the Word of God like that but “take it captive under the obedience of faith.” If we come upon two truths in the Holy Scriptures which to our reason appear to contradict each other then we deny neither the one nor the other but believe and insist on both as divine truths. Thus in the doctrine of election. There we insist both that God earnestly wants everyone to be saved and that only some, the elect, are saved, and even that no one can contribute anything to his conversion but that God does everything. But because a divine mystery is here which reason cannot grasp, then the Calvinists deny the one truth that God earnestly wants everyone to be saved and say that the reason that some are saved and others condemned is to be sought alone in the will of God who from eternity has elected some people to salvation and others to condemnation, while on the other hand the papists, in a Pelagian way, try to solve the mystery by denying the second truth that man can contribute nothing to his salvation when they teach that the reason that some people are saved and others condemned is to be sought in man himself, because some people use their innate power toward conversion but others do not.
This is also what Professor Weenaas is now doing in this instance. The Holy Scriptures teach both that God has loved the whole world, that he has reconciled it, that he “does not impute its transgressions unto it” but is reconciled with it (2 Co. 5:19) and that therefore “the justification of life shall come (or, is come) upon all men” (Ro. 5:18), and on the other hand, that “the wrath of God remains upon the children of unbelief” so that whoever does not believe is bound, yes, “is already condemned,” and that “few are chosen.” Professor Weenaas now insists up-on the latter truth but denies the first. Because if God has not let wrath cease upon the world, then of course he has not loved it either. If the world is not “loosed by God” then it surely is not truly redeemed through the blood of Christ. If the world is not actually favored according to merit and justified on the part of God through the satisfaction of Christ, then neither is it true that God is reconciled with it and that “the justification of life is come upon all men.” Thus we see that it is the professor’s reason which takes offence and is scandalized by the mysteries of the Gospel.
But now because of the fact that according to Professor Weenaas’ view God is not perfectly reconciled through the death of Christ and has not let his wrath be appeased, and after having been obtained, yet the world has not been pardoned and justified, and therefore not completely re-deemed either, and “access to salvation” is not “opened for everyone,” then the professor naturally cannot proclaim this glad tidings either so that the poor sinner could and should believe it to his comfort and salvation. On the other hand he must preach “another gospel” in which the right faith, as a hand, does not merely grasp the righteousness already gained and bestowed, but obtains a deserving character as a work of a good nature. According to his new gospel the professor must preach that through his suffering and death Christ has only accomplished so much that God has now become willing to let his wrath cease and to be reconciled and to loose, confer grace, forgive, justify and open access to salvation, but that in actuality he can only do and does all this if man on his part fulfills the condition placed on him by God, namely that he is supposed to believe. And the thing which is thus supposed to be believed does not become this that God already has done this and is reconciled but that God will do it and will be reconciled when he sees the obedience and the good quality in man, that he believes. But it must however be clear even for weak eyes that according to this teaching 1) Christ did not completely redeem the world and reconcile God with it, but only began the work of redemption which a person is supposed to complete by faith and make God willing to be reconciled, while a person’s faith is first supposed to bring it about that God really becomes reconciled, however, therefore, it is well to notice, only with the believer, not with the world. Thus 2) the Gospel no longer becomes the Good News which bestows the forgiveness of sins and justification and thereby works faith which appropriates this gift to itself, but it becomes a new law which demands faith from man for complete satisfaction. And 3) faith becomes not the poor sinner’s hand which merely grasps and makes one’s own what is already prepared and at hand, namely God’s love, conferring of grace, forgiveness of sins and justification, but it becomes a fulfilling of the new law, a work of man or a new quality in him who has such a power and merit in himself that it finishes the work of redemption begun by Christ and works a change in God’s heart so that now he lets his wrath cease, becomes reconciled with the believer, loves, confers grace and justifies him. And finally 4) salvation no longer comes by grace alone for the sake of Christ, but by merit, namely by the merit of faith.
I will readily believe that Professor Weenaas has not comprehended the whole range of his teaching. Likewise that he himself has not drawn all these consequences from his doctrine. However, logic is an inexorable adversary and these consequences follow by logical necessity from the meaning he gives faith, not as a plain and simple hand which only grasps what is already at hand and is given, but as a work, a condition which works on God’s heart and calls forth something which was not there before, love, the conferring of grace and justification. But the fact that the professor gives faith such an unevangelical meaning no doubt comes from the good portion of pharisaic self-righteousness in which he still takes cover, just as also, as we saw above, from the fact that he does not take his reason captive under the Word of God in the obedience of faith but finds fault with and rejects this because he cannot grasp it with his reason.
Now when people have attempted to come to Professor Weenaas’ help and to a certain extent explain the apparent contradiction, then he will however not let such an explanation apply. Because he asks: “How can it make sense that the Holy Scriptures on the one hand teach that the whole world is acquitted by the resurrection of Christ from the dead and that on the other hand however they declare that guilt rests upon the unbeliever as long as he remains in his unbelief?” The answer is: “God considers the world in two different ways which a person must carefully distinguish between. When God looks upon the world in his Son, Christ, then he looks upon it with the most fervent love. On the other hand, when he looks upon the world apart from Christ, he cannot look upon it without consuming wrath.” But Professor Weenaas asserts here that “it is not biblical” to say that “God looks upon the world apart from Christ” but “only a new rational reasoning” which is supposed to form the rational basis for the merely rational supposition: “The justification of the world in Christ.”
The professor is obviously mistaken in this. He himself well knows that we build our doctrine of justification upon the Word of God and not at all on any rational reasoning whatsoever, and that we therefore would not come into doubt about the truth of this doctrine in the slightest way either, though we are not prepared to give any satisfactory explanation by way of any rational reasoning. But when the professor says that such talk about God looking upon the world apart from Christ is not biblical, then I shall admit that this expression itself is not found in the Bible. But that the thought is not foreign to the Bible, and in any case does not conflict with it, this I think can most easily be proven by considering how it basically was the same with God’s looking upon Jesus when he hung on the cross. He was of course then at one and the same time the Righteous One and he who was made “sin,” the Beloved of the Father, and cursed by him. How could God love and curse his Son at the same time? Actually, an unfathomable mystery is here, just as yonder with God’s attitude to the world. However, there is no contradiction here. One merely notes the fact that God looks upon his Son in a twofold way. When he looks upon him as he actually is in himself, then the Son stands before him as the Righteous One. Then he loves him. But when he looks upon him as the world’s representative, as the One who “was made sin for us,” then he pours out his wrath upon him and he curses him.
Now finally, concerning the claim that the Lutheran Church does not know of such a universal justification of the world but only uses the word “justification” of God’s declaration to the believers who appropriate the righteousness of Christ to themselves, then we willingly grant that the word “justification” is most often used in the latter way both in Scripture and by religious writers just as we also ourselves most often use it in this way. However, we cannot concede the correctness of the professor’s claim but must suppose at best that he writes from a lack of knowledge of the Lutheran Church’s use of language.
We have seen above that our doctrine is biblical, just as also that our expressions are biblical, because “justification” is surely used in the meaning employed by us in Romans 5:18 and 19. That our expressions are not foreign to the ecclesiastical use of language either is seen from the fact that “justification” and “to justify” are used in the way mentioned in our Confessions and by our religious writers. Thus, in Article 6 of The Augsburg Confession, the Apology, the Formula of Concord, also by Cyril, Theophylact, John Gerhard, Flacius, Rauppius, Dannhauer, Buddeus, G.C. Rieger, I.H. Majus, Joh. Quistorp (died in 1648 as a professor in Rostock), Olearius (died in 1715 as a professor in Leipzig), Johan Jacob Rambach (Commentary on Romans, page 322), Adam Struensee, Ph.D., Burk, Svensten And. Rohrborg (died 1767 as court preacher in Stockholm) in his Postil, pages 103, 117, 118, Rosenius in his commentary on Romans 5:18, Spener in the sermon on John Arndt’s True Christianity, page 17, and Pastor J. Dietrich (Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans, p. 81).
We proceed now to consider the professor’s second reason for rejecting this truth, namely the “dangerous consequences it necessarily leads to among the less enlightened Christian people.” These latter words already make it doubtful whether the professor means consequences which follow with logical necessity from the doctrines themselves or whether it is only consequences which “the less enlightened Christian people” ascribe to it on the basis of deficient Christian enlightenment. That the latter is however the case we must conclude from the more precise explanation the professor gives when he says: “It contributes toward the dissolution of Christianity into universalism, since it abolishes all personality and personal responsibility.” The same thing is also evident from the accounts which are given to the best advantage toward the end through the sharing of a letter from Pastor J.A. Bergh, and which are in part gossip. It is however only less enlightened Christian people who could charge it against the Gospel, so that “one sees the indifferent comfort himself, the drunkard rejoice and the impenitent die peace-fully because it is preached to them that God has forgiven everyone their sins.” Where it has been steadily emphasized as sharply as by us that this conferral of grace, forgiveness and justification of everyone in the power of Christ’s death and resurrection must be appropriated by every single poor sinner through a living faith so that he can find true comfort and be saved, where it is always so emphatically emphasized that every person who does not comfort himself in a living faith through this conferral of grace, forgiveness and justification which is offered and given him in the Gospel draws God’s wrath down upon himself as a consuming fire and is eternally lost precisely through this unbelief and con-tempt of grace, there can however be no serious talk of “universalism” or abolition of “all personality and personal responsibility” among enlightened Christian people.
Thus we have seen not only that our doctrine and the doctrine of the Lutheran Church concerning the justification of the world are biblical, as well as our doctrine of the justification of sinners by faith alone in Jesus Christ, but also that Professor Weenaas’ reason for seeing in this doctrine one of the characteristics of the “Wisconsinism” of which he accuses our synod, does not hold true, yes, that his own rejection of this scriptural doctrine actually goes together with and has its basis in his rationalistic and romanizing spiritual tendencies. And with this we proceed to the next characteristic the professor discusses. ???ual sinner.” Mt. 16:19; 18:18. “3) Householders, and dispensers of absolution in the public ministry are preachers of the Gospel, but otherwise it is all Christians,” etc. “4) Absolution consists a) not in this that the confessor sits there as a judge and renders judgment upon the confessor’s inner state; b) nor in an empty proclamation or wish of or for the forgiveness of sins either, but c) in a powerful communication thereof.” Lk. 7:48. And with regard to the effect of absolution they say, 5) that “it a) is not based upon a person’s repentance, confession and satisfaction but b) it demands faith, works and strengthens faith” (Ro. 10:17), “c) without faith it benefits a person nothing, d) although it is not for that reason a faulty key.”
Our synod as well as its teachers has maintained this doctrine, firmly grounded in the Word of God and clearly taught in the Confessions of our church as well as in Luther’s writings, especially in his treatise on “The Keys,” during all its battles and discussions up to this very day, so that I know of none of us who has taught otherwise, even if other ways of expressing it could be used over towards the various opponents.
Thus it is the same doctrine which our synod, most recently in opposition to the errors of the Norwegian-Danish Conference, confessed in the following theses at its meeting in 1874: “1) Absolution, which according to God’s command and in his name is spoken to them who long for the comfort of the Gospel, is God’s own absolving action through the servant of the Word. Mk. 15:5; 2 Co. 5:20; Jo. 20:2. 2) In absolution God speaks to the sinner the gracious forgiveness of all his sins as a gift of grace and redemption which is brought about and earned through the merit of Jesus’ blood and deposited for reception in the gracious promises of the Gospel, Ep. 1:7; Mt. 16:19; 18:18. 3) The means by which the sinner accepts, appropriates to himself and thus becomes a partaker in the gift and treasury of the forgiveness of sins which is held forth, promised and given, is faith. Ga. 2:26; Ac. 13:38.39. 4) Although absolution does not benefit without faith and although therefore an unrepentant and unbelieving hypocrite does not become a partaker in the promised gift of the forgiveness of sins, yet absolution is however it-self always an actual and valid absolution of God. He. 4:2; Ro. 3:3; 1 Jo. 5:9-12. 5) When it correctly says in the religious use of language that only the penitent should be loosed, then it does not lie in this that the steward of the office of the keys can know hearts and give a judgment about the condition of the heart of his penitent child, but only that it is their conscientious duty to give attention to the confession of the confessing person in word and life in order not to give that which is holy to dogs or to cast his pearls before swine, Mt. 7:6.”
Proofs that this doctrine is Scripture’s and that of the Lutheran Church are provided in the synodical discussions for 1861 and 1874 to which I refer.
It is against this doctrine of absolution that Professor Weenaas takes the field, since he asserts that “in close connection with the peculiar modern orthodoxistic doctrine of the justification of the world,” it is “a phenomenon of Wisconsinism’s spiritual bias.” This approach of his to the doctrine of absolution is of course a natural follow-up of the errors pointed out in his teaching about redemption and justification in the preceding section.
But how does the professor attempt to prove the correctness of this assertion of his? Yes, he sets forth the following accusations in regard to our doctrine of absolution.
1] “That by its objectivism it separates the act of God’s forgiving of sin from its organic°12 connection with faith and the Gospel.”
2] To teach that faith is the “means by which sinners appropriate to themselves and thus become partakers in the gift and treasure of the forgiveness of sins which is given by God in absolution,” is “only half the truth.” “The essential thing about the faith which justifies is completely overlooked,” and this is an “error.”
3] That “it conflicts with the fundamental teaching of Scripture about the redemption of Christ, the forgiveness of sins, repentance and faith.”
4] That our words of absolution are “a separate Gospel and not God’s words of absolution.”
5] That it is “able or apt to effectively convince the unbelieving and impenitent that they are also absolved by God, and make them secure in such a belief.”
6] That “it makes the servants of the ministry bearers and intermediaries of the gift of the forgiveness of sins in the church” and “tends toward he institution of the chief cornerstone of the papacy: the sacrament of the ministry” [see the “Open Declaration”], whose peculiar feature is of course precisely the claim that God has entrusted the power to forgive and retain sins on earth to the church’s ordained teachers,” etc.
Surely these are some serious charges which Professor Weenaas raises here against our synod. If they were legitimate, then our synod is in extremely bad shape and the professor actually is perfectly justified in charging it with this dreadful “Wisconsinism.”
But in the following I hope to prove that also here the professor lacks all grounds which could justify his attack as I proceed through his charges point-by-point.
To 1. The first thing the professor says here is that it is an historic fact that we “separate God’s loosing act [God’s absolution] from faith.”
If we compare these words of the professor with what he says on page 11, as well as with his charge against us of “universalism,” then it seems that the professor wants to claim with this that we teach that everyone to whom absolution is spoken also comes into personal possession of the forgiveness of sins and is saved whether he believes or not. Should this be the meaning of this accusation of the professor’s, then we deny it as a gross untruth which of course has already found sharp reproof also from Professor G. Johnson.
If on the other hand the professor’s meaning is only that we teach that God’s act of forgiving sin is there where the Word of sin’s forgiveness is, i.e. that God on his part forgives sin when the forgiveness of sin is proclaimed and promised in his name even if faith does not come, i.e. even if the person to whom the forgiveness is promised does not accept it in faith and therefore is not saved, then, yes, we acknowledge this as our teaching but we find the professor’s expression that it separates God’s loosing action from its organic connection with faith just as untenable as it is obscure. Nor can we see here a “false objectivism” or a “hollow, rational objectivism.”
But with what does the professor want to prove that this teaching of ours of God’s act of forgiving sin as unconditional and independent of faith is a false and dreadful doctrine? Surely with this, that he asserts that “faith is a necessary condition on a person’s part for God’s forgiveness of sin,” or that “faith comes into consideration here as the necessary condition on a person’s part for God’s loosing, sin-forgiving and absolving action toward sinners.”
Now if the professor just means by this that faith is always necessary so that a person can accept and appropriate the forgiveness of sins to himself and be saved, that therefore the forgiveness of sins which God gives does not benefit a person if he does not believe it, yes, then we agree with him in this even if we regard it as more correct to say that faith is the manner in which forgiveness is appropriated by a per-son, or as Pontoppidan expresses it in Question 417 in The Explanation: “The faith on the part of man with which he obtains the forgiveness of sins.”
But clearly the professor means something entirely different by that expression, namely this, that God made faith a condition which a person is supposed to fulfill on his part so that God on his part can promise and bestow on him the forgiveness of sins. Thus he says expressly, that “the forgiveness of sin on God’s part is only given through the word of absolution where faith is present,” that “faith is just as necessary as Christ for the forgiveness of sins through the word of absolution,” and again, “no absolution is given by God through the Means of Grace without faith, and that God on his part does not give the forgiveness of sins to anyone except to the person who believes.”
But now how does the professor prove again this doctrine of his of faith as such a condition? As far as I can see from his confusing reasoning, with the following two reasons: a) that “God’s regenerating act in Baptism and the sustenance of the Lord’s Supper and the act of incorporating into Christ are only present where there is faith” and b) that a person is justified by faith alone.
Now concerning the first of these reasons, it does not hold water. The professor’s comparison does not apply. Because the acts of God mentioned in Baptism and the Lord’s Supper which the professor calls “re-generation” and “renewal” in another place, cannot be separated from faith, because they indicate the saving effects of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper which cannot occur except in connection with faith. But God’s act of forgiving sin, which is the same thing as God proclaiming and promising a sinner’s forgiveness, is different from the effects of this act and can occur without this occurring, therefore also without faith being there. The effect of God’s sin-forgiving act, which consists in this, that the sinner has the forgiveness of sins and justification as his personal possession and his heart’s treasure, cannot be where there is no faith. On the other hand, Baptism and the Lord’s Supper are “for the remission of sins,” and God gives the forgiveness of sins through these Sacraments as well as through the Gospel and absolution even if the unbeliever despises the grace and thereby brings judgment upon himself. But when the professor says: “No absolution of God is given through the Means of Grace except through faith,” then, all things considered, he also denies the divine power of the Sacraments and in a Calvinistic manner makes them empty symbols without content.
With regard to the professor’s second reason that because a person is justified by faith alone therefore God cannot bestow the forgiveness of sins except to the believer, then it does not apply either, because “to justify” is used here of God’s act of judging, so that he declares him righteous who in faith appropriates the righteousness of Christ to him-self. Therefore, neither can God perform this act of justifying except where faith is. On the other hand, this, that God forgives sin, signifies only the action of God that he proclaims to the sinner that his sin is taken away by the death of Christ and that he therefore gives him forgiveness so that he is to believe it, but without regard to whether he has already believed it or not, so that this act of forgiving sin by God cannot only happen without faith being there but first must occur without faith being there since faith cannot be worked otherwise, or know what it is to believe.
We see therefore that the proofs put forth by the professor hardly prove that faith is a condition for God’s absolving act. With this assertion the professor surely subverts also the fundamental Christian doctrine that we are justified and saved by the grace of God alone. Namely, when a person posits something else, a condition, which he has to fulfill so that he will give him something, and this person fulfills the conditions and does what is expected of him, then he can also demand the gift as payment for works, and the other cannot say that he has given the gift by grace alone, unmerited. Thus also here. If faith is set by God as such a condition which a person has to fulfill so that God can forgive sin, then it is thereby taught that God requires of a person that he is to do something on his part first and fulfill the requirement and the commands God has placed on it in order that God again on his part can forgive sin. Clearly, a connection is made here between a per-son’s faith and God’s forgiveness, as between cause and effect. Before God will forgive, a person must first fulfill God’s requirement, i.e. believe, and because he fulfills the requirement by believing, therefore God forgives. But now if faith as a fulfillment of God’s command and requirement to people is the cause and basis for God forgiving sin, then of course he does not do this unmerited, by grace alone in the power of Jesus’ merit, but at any rate also in the power of people on their part having complied with and fulfilled God’s requirement for it.
But this teaching also leads to other dangerous consequences which the professor would rather not draw but which however necessarily follow from his assertion however much he even defends himself against them. We will consider some of them.
a) Christ’s satisfaction then does not become sufficient and the redemption completed by him not the only reason which prompts God to forgive sin. Because if this were the case, then in the very moment the reconciliation occurred, God would have been reconciled, ceased his wrath against people and forgiven them. But now it is said that before he can do this God is not properly reconciled. Therefore Christ’s reconciliation is not the only motivating reason for God forgiving sin. Therefore Christ has not fully reconciled us with God. Therefore Christ’s satisfaction is not sufficient.
b) If people’s faith is also supposed to be a reason for God for-giving sin, and forgiveness an effect of faith, then faith becomes some-thing meritorious in people, and forgiveness something which people themselves merit, at any rate alongside of Christ. But this conflicts with Matthew 3:15 where Jesus says: “Thus it becomes us to fulfill all righteousness.” We note well that the professor calls it “only half the truth” when we say that justifying faith is the means by which the sinner appropriates to himself and becomes partaker in the gift and treasure of the forgiveness of sins which is given by God in absolution and that thereby “the essential thing about faith which justifies is completely overlooked.” But in Romans 4:16 Paul says precisely: “Therefore the promise is through faith, so that it is given by grace, to the end the promise might be sure to all the saved,” etc.
c) Likewise the merit of Christ is violated when it is supposed not to be sufficient to prompt God to forgive, but something must first be rendered on people’s part, thus also the honor which is due to God for his doing everything which belongs to people’s salvation, and also the fact that he does everything by grace is divested from him and is attributed to people.
d) Since faith is worked only by God through his proclaiming to people that he forgives them and is no longer angry, then according to Professor Weenaas’ claim, this message must not be spoken to people before they have come to faith, then a person can never come to faith through Professor Weenaas’ gospel. Because then there is no Gospel of God through which it can be worked.
e) Besides, if the blessed message that God is not angry but has forgiven people must not be proclaimed to people before they have al-ready come to faith, then people surely have no forgiveness to believe in and with which to comfort themselves, even if they wanted to and could believe. Thus, therefore, according to Professor Weenaas’ teaching, the manner of people believing their sin’s forgiveness becomes an impossibility.
f) Professor Weenaas’ gospel, then, is not the old, blessed message that God is gracious, has forgiven and forgives the sinner so that he is to believe and be saved, but “another gospel,” a conditioned promise that on certain terms which people themselves have to fulfill, God will be gracious and forgive.
In summary, according to Professor Weenaas’ teaching it is impossible that people can receive the forgiveness of sins 1) by the grace of God alone, 2) for the sake of Jesus Christ alone, and 3) by faith alone.
We consider also that the Word of God surely does not say that God will give us his Son when we believe in him or on the condition that we believe in him. In 1 John 5:9 God says that he “has given us eternal life, and this life is in his Son,” and he adds that by not believing this the unbeliever “has made God a liar.” Likewise, it says in John 3:16 that God has given the world his Son so that whoever believes in him shall be saved. And Paul says in Romans 8:32: “He who spared not his own Son, but delivered him up for us all, how shall he not give us all things with him?” If God therefore has already given the world his Son, then he has also with him given forgiveness of sins and justification. Therefore Paul also says in Ephesians 1:7: “In Christ we have redemption through his blood, which is the forgiveness of sins.”
We therefore then do not first become reconciled with God when we believe. But we have already been redeemed and reconciled with God through the death of Christ, and this is to be and must be proclaimed to us in the Gospel so that we can believe and be saved (Mk. 16:15; 2 Co. 5:19.20). Thus neither shall the forgiveness of sins and righteousness first be procured for us and given us on the condition that we believe, but they are, God be praised, already procured! Through the death and resurrection of Christ the whole world is already justified before God in Christ and its sin which was laid on Jesus, the Lamb of God, is forgiven it by God in him. This Gospel is to be proclaimed to all creatures so that everyone can believe it, find comfort and be saved. If then a person has let himself be convinced of his sins by the Law so that he comes to grief and feels miserable, then it is only through such a Gospel, and only through it, that he comes to faith and obtains the forgiveness of his sins. Then he also becomes righteous and saved by grace alone, for the sake of Christ alone, by faith alone. In this way alone God also receives all the glory and man none.
Therefore, we cannot and we do not want, with Professor Weenaas, to posit faith as such a condition for God’s act of forgiving sin or place faith in such an “organic connection” with God’s absolution so that it cannot occur, except that it is already there, or that absolution is not God’s forgiveness unless it is spoken to the believer who accepts it. We most certainly do make such a connection between these two, that faith is necessary in order to accept God’s absolution and so that it can actually be “a savor of life unto life” unto salvation. We therefore teach also that over toward an obvious unbeliever a person is to use the Law and the binding key in order to lead them to the knowledge of sin and repentance without which they will not trouble themselves about the Gospel and grace (“they that are whole need not a physician, but they who are sick”). Just as we also employ private confession and announcements before the imparting of absolution to that end. But at the same time we hold firmly to it as the teaching of the Word of God, that God’s forgiveness also occurs without faith being present, in other words, that the absolution spoken in the name of God to a hypocrite (who surely does not have faith), is however God’s absolution. When the Savior warningly says: “Do not give that which is holy to dogs, neither cast your pearls before swine, so that they should not trample them with their feet,” then he presupposes as a given, that it can happen that the pearls and sacred things can be cast before swine and dogs. If that could not possibly happen, as Professor Weenaas thinks, then the Lord would not have given such a warning. For what else are the pearls and the holy things than the Gospel and the forgiveness of sins, and who else are swine and dogs than the unbelieving and the ungodly? But now if the pearls, i.e. God’s act of forgiving sin were thus bound to faith, as Professor Weenaas claims, then surely the pearls cannot be cast before swine and then neither is any such warning needed, because even if the forgiveness were then promised to an unbeliever, therefore it surely was not God’s act of forgiving sin, thus there surely were no pearls; not pearls, but only a husk were then cast before swine. The apostle Paul teaches otherwise when he says in Romans 3:3 that man’s unbelief cannot make God’s trust-worthiness of no effect.
Since Professor Weenaas is seeking to uphold this claim of his of an absolute connection between God’s forgiveness and faith, he is compelled to take a second no less doubtful and rejectable step, namely to separate God’s sin-forgiving act from God’s sin-forgiving word, the Gospel and absolution, or as he expresses himself: he (not the “ordinary Lutherans”°14 – they have never done it) “distinguishes between the word of absolution and God’s absolution.”
It is clear that with this “matchless discovery” of his the professor a) divests God’s Gospel and word of absolution of its essential content, makes it a husk without a kernel and an empty sound without power. Con-tent, kernel and power are first supposed to come into it when faith enters. But Christ says, “My words are spirit and life.” And Peter says, “We are born again, not of corruptible, but of incorruptible seed, by the word of God which lives and abides forever … but this is the word, which through the Gospel is preached to you.”
b) In that way he next makes God into a liar in his word because it is on God’s express command that the church proclaims the Gospel and imparts absolution in God’s name (Mk. 16:15; Mt. 18:18). If God then does not stand by his word when the church says on his command and in his stead: “Your sins are forgiven you,” and if he does not thereby give the forgiveness of sins which he speaks and promises, then of course he becomes a liar. When the professor remarks to this that the word of absolution nevertheless “always has the same content and the same power,” then this is a boldfaced lie, since he makes it dependent on faith whether God’s forgiveness is in the word, because if the word of absolution is without God’s forgiveness, what content, what power does it then possess? The church, the pastor cannot however forgive sin if God does not do it through their word of absolution.
c) The professor also thereby makes the servants of God’s Word into liars because they say in the name of God: “Your sins are forgiven you.” But if these words were addressed to a hypocrite, then, according to the professor’s claim, they aren’t true, because God’s forgiveness is not there. But then the servant of the Word has therefore lied. What good does it do that the professor says that “the unworthy confessor … lies both to God and man and draws down heavy responsibility upon himself”? That is true enough. But were the pastor’s absolution not God’s, then he has however also lied. Since the servants of the Word are not omniscient, therefore they cannot see faith and distinguish hypocrites from the sincere, and therefore when they speak God’s absolution they would never know for sure if they are lying or speaking the truth. Then if they wanted to be honest they would have to say we really do speak forgiveness in God’s name but we do not know whether it is God’s forgive-ness. But such a forgiveness is not forgiveness. And if a Christian congregation would be thankful for it, that would be dreadful. No, taking the office of the ministry as a whole, such speaking is an impossibility for an honest man. When the professor wants to comfort the servants of the Word here and says, “You have nothing to be afraid of. The Lord has only ‘commanded to instruct and to admonish …’ about true repentance and true faith (which occurs in confession), to hear their confession and to pronounce the forgiveness of sins to the penitent in God’s name,” then this actually sounds like a mockery of the poor servant who knows that he cannot see who is truly penitent and it becomes even worse mockery when the professor adds in the same breath: “If someone presumes to promise the forgiveness of sins independent of faith … and with the understanding that the church’s promise of the forgiveness of sins must absolutely be God’s forgiveness of sins, there a person must certainly have reason to be apprehensive and uneasy, because there he obviously is departing from the Word of God.” If Professor Weenaas asserts a thousand times that we “depart from the Word of God” when with Luther in his Small Catechism we ask a person who comes to confess: “Do you believe that my forgiveness is God’s forgiveness?” then his assertion is still a false accusation for which he shall answer on Judgment Day. And when he teaches his students to announce the forgiveness of sin and then to say to the person confessing either: “My forgiveness is God’s forgiveness because I know that you are a true believer,” or: “I do not know if my forgiveness is God’s forgiveness because I do not know if you believe,” then he is teaching them to destroy the holiness of God and to deceive poor Christian people by giving them stones instead of bread. How shall the troubled person, who surely is hovering in doubt precisely about his faith and his sincerity, find comfort in the absolution and strength in his misery through such teaching? He must surely despair completely.
But God be praised! The Lord demands something impossible from his servants as little as he charges them to say or to do something by which they make both him and themselves liars. He stands by both what he him-self says and what he commands his church and its servants to say. Thus it says in Romans 3:3: “For what if some did not believe? Shall their unbelief make the faith of God without effect? God forbid.” And in He-brews 4:2: “For unto us were the promises preached as well as unto them but the word which they heard did not help them, because it was not mixed with faith in them who heard it.” God’s word of absolution is therefore also his absolution.
The church’s absolution is also God’s absolution in spite of Professor Weenaas and The Conference, because in Matthew 18:18 the Lord says to the disciples, “Whatsoever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatsoever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” Similarly also Mark 16:19; John 20:23.
So that the reader can now also see that this doctrine of ours is not a new false doctrine but the old, Lutheran doctrine confessed clearly in the Confessions and by the fathers, and on the other hand that Professor Weenaas’ doctrine of separating God’s absolution from the word of absolution and of faith as a necessary condition for God’s absolution, is new and false and different from the old Lutheran, it will be sufficient to add several quotations.
Luther’s Small Catechism: “Confession consists of two parts: one, that we confess our sins; the other, that we receive absolution, or forgiveness, from the pastor as from God himself, and in no wise doubt, but firmly believe that our sins are thereby forgiven before God in heaven.” “Do you believe that my forgiveness is God’s forgiveness? Answer: Yes, dear Lord.”
Augsburg Confession, Article 25, paragraphs 3 and 4: “Our people are taught to esteem absolution highly because it is the voice of God and is pronounced by God’s command …” (so that we are to) “believe such absolution as God’s own voice heard from heaven.”
The Norwegian Church Ritual of 1685: “Which he follows with the laying on of hands, in the name of the Holy Trinity, speaks to him the forgiveness of his sins, not asking or with any condition if he is truly penitent, but with a certain and firm conviction” (page 63).
The pope lets absolution consist in people’s repentance and confession which he does not know about, and notwithstanding, he absolves. He says: “If I’m right, then I’m right; if I’m wrong, then I’m wrong.” But he should say: “My forgiveness of sin, which I speak to you, is not mine but God’s. If you have not repented sufficiently, then it is your fault.” Thus also when I preach I am not to say: “If a person believes it then God’s Word is true, or, if a person does not believe it it is false.” [Erlangen edition, 44, 169].
Good heavens, one dare not make the keys uncertain and questionable. One should preach most intensely and urgently that they most certainly proclaim God’s Word which is to be believed without any doubt whatsoever. It is difficult enough for a wretched conscience to believe. How can one believe at all if, to begin with, doubt is cast upon the object of one’s belief? Thereby doubt and despair are only strengthened and confirmed. … [Christ says “If you bind and loose on earth, I will also bind and loose right along with you in heaven. When you use the keys, I will also. … It shall be one single action, mine and yours, not a twofold one. … While you do your work, mine is already done. When you bind and loose, I have already bound and loosed. He binds and joins himself to our work. Indeed, he himself commands us to do his own work.”] [“The Keys,” Luther’s Works, American Edition, Vol. 40, pp. 349.365].
This is why we say there is forgiveness of sins in the Supper … on account of the word through which he distributes among us this acquired forgiveness, saying, “This is my body which is given for you.” Here you perceive that we eat the body as it was given for us; we hear this and believe it as we eat. Hence there is distributed here the forgiveness of sins, which however was obtained on the cross. [“Confession Concerning Christ’s Supper,” Luther’s Works, American Edition, Vol. 37, p. 192].
But now, since God thus ordains it and orders to absolve and to forgive, to bind and retain, also the forgiving or retaining does not apply to the power of the act, but in his power who orders and establishes it thus, namely God’s, let him now who receives it, be worthy or not [Walch, Vol. 12, 1492].
Baptism and absolution are correct, even if you do not believe in them … Yes, the keys have been trustworthy, even if you have not believed them … The keys and absolution are God’s work, therefore they are pure and true. [Erlangen Edition, Vol. 44, 168].
Thus it is true that a pastor does in truth forgive sin and guilt; but he cannot give the sinner faith which accepts and receives the forgiveness. God must give that. The forgiveness is no less as certainly true, as if God himself spoke it, let it now be grasped by faith or not. [Walch, Vo. 10, 1485. 1492]
Even he who does not believe that he is free and his sins forgiven shall also learn in due time, how assuredly his sins were forgiven, even though he did not believe it. St. Paul says in Romans 3[:3]: “Their faithlessness cannot nullify the faithfulness of God.” We are not talking here either about people’s belief or disbelief regarding the efficacy of the keys. We realize that few believe. We are speaking of what the keys accomplish and give. He who does not accept what they keys gives receives, of course, nothing. But this is not the key’s fault. [“The Keys,” Luther’s Work, American Edition, Vol. 40, pp. 366-367].
For an uncertain absolution is none at all. Indeed it is equivalent to lying and deception. [Ibid., p. 344].
God says, if it is loosed on earth it must be loosed in heaven. The pope says (in part like Weenaas), it must not necessarily be loosed in heaven, although it is loosed on earth. It is possible for the key to err. Does that not mean as much as if he said to God: “Lord, you are a liar. What we loose is done with certainty, but do you not see that we also have the clavem errantem, the wrong key?” Likewise, The third result of such teaching is the establishment of human endeavor and self-righteousness in opposition to the righteousness of Christ. [Ibid., pp. 346.349].
The promises of the Law are conditioned because they have the added condition that a person keeps and fulfills the Law perfect-ly, but the Gospel promises are promises of grace which are free of all conditions.
If someone objects: Surely faith is also demanded as a condition because of the words: He that believes shall be saved; also: With the heart one believes [Ro. 10:10]. Answer: Faith is no condition nor is it demanded as a condition, because righteousness is neither promised nor offered because its worthiness or merit, or so far as it is a work. It is only the means by which one accepts it through Christ and the blessing offered and bestowed for his sake, and thus is the instrument or the hand which grasps and appropriates to itself Christ and his blessings offered in the Gospel. [Compend. Theolog. 1582, p. 379].
In the preaching of the Law: “If you do this you shall live,” the word “if” is etiological, because obedience is the cause for whose sake eternal life is given him who keeps the Law; but in the Gos-pel promises: “If you believe you shall be saved,” the word “if” is syllogistic; because by it is meant the nature and manner for appropriation appointed by God. [Loc. De evang., para. 26]
Faith cooperates toward justification in no other way than insofar as it is the instrument with which the justifying cause [Christ] is received by us.
God’s forgiveness and the forgiveness of God’s servants ought not be separated from each other because the principal cause’s [God] and the serving cause’s [the servant of the Word] act is one and the same. Because the servants of the Word forgive sins in God’s name and God forgives sins through them as through his messenger [1 Co. 4:1; 2 Co. 5:20]. Therefore Christ says: “If you forgive someone their sins, they are forgiven them” [Jo. 20:23], and: “Whatsoever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” [Mt. 18:18], in order to prove that the forgiving and loosing which occurs through the servants of the Word is valid before God. Which is why Augustine says: “These words are more certain than all the edicts and decrees of kings.” [Bibl. Illust., on John 20:23].
Servants of the church do not forgive sins in their own name but in God’s name. Therefore this forgiving and loosing is not a mere human declaration or act, but altogether a divine act, one and the same act distributed [God’s and the servants’], just as there is only a single authority, namely, the divine, in the power of which they forgive sin. Because there is only one heavenly key with which they loose. The servant does not have one key and God another.
Private absolution does not forgive sin in any other way than that with the word of the Gospel it proclaims the forgiveness privately to every individual. This private proclamation is effective for the forgiveness of sins because it is the Holy Spirit’s act, through which God forgives sins.
These quotations could be augmented by many more. But the ones quoted must be more than sufficient to see what the Lutheran Church has always taught on this point.
But we must proceed to the second part of this first accusation of the professor. He claims that our doctrine of absolution separates God’s absolution also from the words themselves, from the Gospel.
Those who have followed our previous exposition in this section and have noticed that we definitely do not – in the way Professor Weenaas does – separate “God’s absolution” from “the word of absolution,“ will naturally immediately find this accusation of the professor’s extremely strange. The reason the professor cites can only make the matter still worse. Because when the professor insinuates that we come with a “detached Gospel,” torn from its living connection with the Word of God as a whole and that we do not apply it in its “living connection” with “the preaching of the Law,” that we “subdivide God’s truth” and “tear the individual parts from each other” so that “one no longer obtains either the truth or truths but an often logical and very systematically arranged series of theses which one can really call ‘pure doctrine,’ but which however is not ‘God’s Word,'” then he makes himself guilty of as many lies as there are accusations here. And when in this same context the professor reminds us that “the church has added confession to absolution … in order to secure as far as possible a blessed use of God’s loosing key,” then that charge really is an audacious lie. Because the professor knows how well the introduction of private confession and announcements has worked within our synod and the blessings it has brought, for the reason I mentioned, and he knows that exactly this fact together with our striving after maintaining Christian discipline has brought not so few of such people who prefer “freedom” from Christian discipline in the Conference’s arms. Therefore we do not need to waste many words on this whole accusation but can safely go on to the next.
2) The professor’s accusation took the position that when we say that justifying faith is meant, that it only teaches a “half-truth,” and that means “the essential thing about faith as justifying is completely overlooked,” and that this is an “error.” In the discussion of the previous point we have already had opportunity to refute this claim and have shown how it is based on the professor’s own erroneous view of “justifying faith.” The same is the case with the professor’s next charge where he says:
3) that our doctrine of absolution “conflicts with the basic doc-trine of the holy scriptures on Christ’s redemption, the forgiveness of sins, repentance and faith.” I have already pointed out above how on the basis of Scripture and in agreement with the Confessions of the church and the fathers we teach that “redemption” has occurred completely through Christ’s death once for all, and God is truly reconciled with the whole world, so that in his heart he has forgiven it all its sins and therefore proclaims this good news in the Gospel and absolution, and by grace alone gives the forgiveness of sins so that the poor sinner who has been crushed by the Law and feels his sin’s misery can now believe God’s gracious promise through the Holy Spirit’s working in the Gospel and appropriate Christ to himself and the justification earned by him, and the forgiveness of sins, and thus be justified and saved by God’s grace alone through faith because of Jesus Christ. On the other hand, we have also seen how it follows of necessity from the professor’s doctrine of faith as a necessary condition for God’s forgiveness and of the separation of God’s sin-forgiving act from God’s sin-forgiving Word, that the Holy Scripture’s doctrine of the Word of God, of redemption, the forgiveness of sin and faith, is subverted, and man is not justified solely by the grace of God through faith in Jesus Christ.
4) The charge that “our word of absolution is ‘a separate Gospel’ and no word of God’s absolution,” was refuted toward the close of our response to number 1. We comfort ourselves that it does not matter so much what the professor thinks and says about it, because Christ our Lord and King says: “What you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”
5) Here he says that our doctrine is “capable of effectively convincing the unbelieving and impenitent that they are also now absolved by God, and making them secure in such faith.” The last words: “making them secure,” show us that the professor not merely wants to deny that the absolution of God’s servants is God’s absolution and therefore claims that the keys must be faulty keys but that he also wants to raise the complaint against us that our doctrine of absolution leads to a dead faith and sinful security. We have proven above that the Word of God teaches that the word of absolution is God’s absolution, that unbelieving hypocrites are absolved by God through it as surely as they are redeemed by Jesus’ blood and death. We are not ignorant of the fact that ungodly people can take this absolution in vain and in the midst of their impenitence place a false confidence in it just as they do with the Lord’s Supper and the Gospel as a whole. However, this is as little the fault of absolution as of the Lord’s Supper and the Gospel. Their own impenitence and perverted will alone bear the blame. But if many people take God’s great grace to themselves in vain because of their own perversion, drag it down into the dirt, and as Paul warns in Romans 6:1ff., sin against grace, should we then therefore from fear of detracting from God’s grace, pervert his Gospel and Sacraments and erect a barrier which God has not erected around the fountain of grace in Israel so that we hinder the needy and thirsty in Zion from coming to it and “drinking the unadulterated water of life”? God forbid! Professor Weenaas is surely not the first who has blamed the pure Gospel of Christ of leading to dead faith and security. The Pharisees in Christ’s time and the papists in Luther’s time were his forerunners, and the same make common cause even today with Professor Weenaas. In no way however will it help him. The day will come when he shall give account for such a charge also.
As we know, Professor Weenaas, with many of his brethren in The Conference, teaches that absolution is a “judgmental act” by which the pastor is to “make the individual certain of his salvation” by comforting him with: “You are a child of God, you have forgiveness of your sin in Christ,” “you are a child of grace,” yes, “a member of his (Christ’s) body” (see Professors Weenaas’ and Oftedal’s, Pastors Jacobsen, Gjeldaker and Ostby’s remarks in the Third Annual Report, pages 33-39).°14 But must not the declaration by the pastor in God’s name: “You are a child of God, you have forgiveness of your sins,” applied to a hypocrite who desires and receives the absolution, necessarily lead him to the very security which the professor falsely attributes to our doctrine as its fruit? And must not an absolution which is based on the pastor’s judgment of the confessor’s faith and spiritual state place the troubled soul in the most painful uncertainty and deprive him of the divine com-fort of absolution? And when The Conference pastors arrogate to them-selves such a power to judge the internal state of the confessor’s soul, his faith or unbelief, in the name of God, and in that way appropriate to themselves divine omnipotence, then doesn’t what Luther writes apply to them: “They drive God from the throne of his majesty and put them-selves in his place”? (Walch Edition, Vol. VIII, 2045). May God have mercy on them and their poor congregations!
When to that charge against even the Gospel, the professor adds the coarse personal insinuation against us which lies in the words: “When the pastor arrogates to himself to speak the forgiveness of sins to everyone, believer and unbeliever, penitent and impenitent, etc., in the name of God,” then we want to remember that the disciple is not above his master nor the servant above his lord. If they have called him Beelzebub then it is a small matter if Professor Weenaas makes us to be that one’s servants. As did our Lord and Master we only want to say to Pro-fessor Weenaas: If we pastors have acted so wickedly and “arrogated” to ourselves to speak the forgiveness of sin to all people without distinction, unbelieving and impenitent, then prove it; but if not, then why do you strike us?
6) Here he says that our doctrine of absolution is “the most crass form of a doctrine of absolution,” that it “makes the servants of the ministry to be bearers and intermediaries of the treasure of the forgiveness of sins” and “aims at … the establishment of the papacy’s chief cornerstone: The sacrament of the ministry,” which claims that “God has given to the church’s ordained clergy the power to forgive and retain sins on earth.” One cannot be in doubt that the professor wants to say here in plain words that this doctrine of ours aims at and leads to the ungodly, rational, papistic claim that God has entrusted the power of the keys to the ordained clergy, that only ordained pastors have the right to use it, and that the use of the Means of Grace by other people is ineffectual and invalid. The professor knows our doctrine of the church and the ministry, of ordination and the spiritual priesthood. He is well aware of the fact that we teach that God has unconditionally handed over to the church, i.e. to the congregations, the believers, the keys, i.e. the power to bind and to loose, and with that, all the power in the church; that the congregations themselves therefore have the power from God to call their servants to whom they entrust on their behalf and in their stead the public administration of the keys or, the office of the ministry, that ordination is a solemn testimonial and committal of the Call that has taken place with prayer and the laying on of hands, that all believers, because they have the keys unconditioned from God should use them as God’s pastors, offer spiritual offerings and proclaim the Lord’s deeds (1 Pe. 2:5.9), yes, that for the same reason they are obligated and have the right to the public administration of the office of the keys. Just as Luther says: “From this it comes that in an emergency each one can baptize and absolve, which would not be possible if we were not all (believers) priests.” When the professor, although he knows all this, makes the above accusation, then I can see nothing else in it than a deliberate lie, a malicious slander. Or should it actually be possible that the professor’s blindness and fanaticism could go so far that he himself believes this charge? Now, in both cases, we have a bona fide complaint against him. It does not make things better that in this connection the professor cites the papacy’s judgment of pure doc-trine in Canon 8 of the Council of Trent’s 7th Session: “If anyone teaches that by the sacraments grace is not conferred ex opere operato, but that faith alone in the divine promise is able to obtain grace, let him be anathema.” Because the professor also knows that, that unlike the papists we do not condemn the correct teaching that grace is given in the Sacraments in the power of God’s institution and command, and is obtained and appropriated by faith alone. On the contrary he knows that we condemn the false teaching of the papists that grace is obtained ex opere operato and not by faith alone, but man’s work also is able to obtain grace. Let Professor Weenaas try, if he can, to point to any statement whatever from us which aims at the establishing of that papistic “sacrament of the ministry” or which supports and approves of the heresies of the papacy which I just mentioned.
In the above then we have again set forth and defended the doctrine of absolution which our synod has agreed to after thorough inquiry and publicly presented as its doctrine and confession in this so controverted point. Since the doctrine of absolution surely is in itself of the greatest importance, and since Professor Weenaas makes the most appalling charges against us precisely here, yes, says summarily that our doctrine “conflicts with the Holy Scripture’s fundamental doctrine of Christ’s redemption, the forgiveness of sins, repentance and faith,” it can perhaps not be out of place to throw some light upon “The Conference’s” position on the question of absolution.
So, what does the church body to which Professor Weenaas himself belongs teach about absolution? No one knows, not even Professor Weenaas himself! As little as he can tell us what his church body teaches about Sunday, justification, secret societies, etc., just as little can he say what its doctrine of absolution is. The fact that The Conference public-ly subscribes to the Confessions of the Lutheran Church helps little, since many of its pastors teach their exact opposite and the rest do not seem to want to place any particular weight on these aberrations.
At its last four annual meetings The Conference has discussed some theses by Pastor Gjeldaker on absolution, but people make us expressly aware that “The Conference” has not totally agreed to them. Thus they cannot be called The Conference’s theses on absolution but only the author’s. In The Conference’s annual reports there are extensive reports of these doctrinal discussions. Besides, two members of The Conference have published a report of two “general discussion meetings” in Minneapolis where justification and absolution were discussed and where several of The Conference’s members expressed themselves.
Finally, we also have their statements at the general Free Conference in 1871 and ’72 from which reports were printed of the question under discussion. But now, when one reads all this, then one does not really know whether he should laugh or cry over the sight which he meets. Professor Weenaas certainly is justified, as we saw above,°15 in saying: “From the time that ‘The Conference’ became a church body and began its doctrinal discussions it has had the fortune or misfortune, whatever one wants to call it, that both sides have been represented at a discussion of a doctrinal question.” On the question of absolution, at any rate, there reigns within The Conference’s clergy a next to Babel-like confusion. That this is not an unfair charge, I hope the following quotations will prove sufficiently. It is to be noted that what is quoted here is only a small fraction of what could be quoted. For the sake of the survey the quotations are gathered around three questions.