Theological Fragments: The Heart of Christianity

“This is the true meaning of Christianity, that we are justified by faith in Christ, not by the works of the Law. Do not let yourself be swayed here by the wicked gloss of the sophists, who say that faith justifies only when love and good works are added to it. …When a man hears that he should believe in Christ, but that faith does not justify unless this ‘form,’ that is, love, is added, then he quickly falls from faith and thinks to himself: ‘If faith does not justify without love, then faith is in vain and useless, and love alone justifies; or unless faith is formed and adorned by love, it is nothing.'”

–Martin Luther, Lectures on Galatians (1535), LW 26, 136.

Theological Fragments: The Justifying Gift (and Favor)

“According to the Formula of Concord (FC) the doctrine of justification (iustitia fidei coram Deo) includes only God’s favour, that is, imputed righteousness. Justification is the same as absolution, the declared forgiveness of sins.

“…Contrary to Luther, however, the FC excludes gift, the renewal of a Christian and the removal of sin, from the doctrine (locus) of justification. The FC indeed mentions gift, but at the same time it defines the gift in a radically limited sense compared with Luther. The gift is faith: the right knowledge of Christ, confidence in him, and the security that God the Father considers us righteous because of the obedience of Christ. So, gift means in the FC only the reception of forgiveness, knowledge of faith, and confidence (fiducia), a gift that I would call donum minimum.

“The FC then excludes from gift everything else that according to Luther is included in it. Regeneration, renewal (renovatio), vivification (vivificatio), and God’s presence in the sinner (inhabitatio Deo) do not belong to the doctrine of justification but are consequences of God’s declarative act (imputed righteousness). According to the FC, the indwelling of God is not that righteousness by which we are declared righteous. The indwelling of God follows the antecedent of justification by faith. This means that God is not really present in a Christian when declaring him or her righteous through faith for Christ’s sake.”

–Simo Puera, “Christ as Favor and Gift,” Union with Christ: The New Finnish Interpretation of Luther, edited by Carl E. Braaten and Robert W. Jenson (page 45)

A Brief Introduction to Confession and Absolution

Justification by Faith in Action

By John T. Pless

Justification is both a problem and solution. Oswald Bayer has described human existence as forensically structured[1]. That is to say, that life demands justification. Listen to the way people respond when confronted with a failure. It is the language of self-defense, rationalization, or blaming. No human being wants to be wrong. Or listen to the eulogies delivered at the memorial rites for unbelievers. They are, more often than not, attempts to vocalize why the deceased person’s life was worthwhile. They seek to justify his or her existence. If one is not justified by faith in Christ, one will seek justification elsewhere in attitude or action.

To confess your sin is to cease the futile attempt to self-justify. Rather it is to join with David in saying to God: “Against you, you only have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight, so that you might be justified in your words and blameless in your judgment” (Psalm 51:4). In confession, the sinner acknowledges that God is right. It is to agree with God’s verdict: Guilty.

But to speak of guilt requires some clarification today for another word has come to attach itself to guilt. So we speak of guilt feelings. Guilt is seen as the subjective reaction of the doer to the deed, i.e., how I feel about what I have done[2]. But this is not the case with the Scriptures use of the word guilt. In the Bible guilt has not so much to do with emotions as it does with what happens in a courtroom when a judge declares the defendant, “guilty.” The criminal may or may not have reactions of remorse, regret or shame. It doesn’t matter. The verdict of the judge establishes the reality. God’s word of law unerring establishes His judgment. There is no appeal.

To deny the verdict means that the truth is not in us says the Apostle John. But denial can never bring release. Only God’s absolution can release from the accusation of the law and unlock the sinner from his sins. Lutheran theology is nothing if it is not realistic! Like the Scriptures, Lutheran theology does not start with notions about human freedom and the potential (great or small) that human beings have. Theologies that start with assumptions about human freedom end up in bondage[3]. Lutheran theology begins with man’s bondage in sin and ends up with the glorious liberty of the Gospel. The bondage to sin is not a slight defect that can be corrected by appropriate self-discipline. Neither is it a sickness that can be cured by the appropriation of the medication of regular doses of God’s grace. Sin is enmity with the Creator that carries with it God’s verdict of guilt and a divinely-imposed death sentence. To be a sinner is to be held captive in death and condemnation. The distance between God and humanity is not the gap between infinity and the finite but between a Holy God who is judge and man who is the guilty defendant.

Confession is the acknowledgment of this reality. So in rite of individual confession and absolution we pray: “I, a poor sinner, plead guilty before God of all my sins. I have lived as if God did not matter and as if I mattered most….”(LSB, 292). The sin is named not in an effort to “get it off my chest” but to acknowledge it before the Lord to whom no secrets are hid. Where sin is not confessed, it remains festering and corrosive, addicting the sinner to yet another go at self-justification. Confession admits defeat and so leaves the penitent open for a word that declares righteousness, a verdict which justifies. That word is called absolution. It is absolution alone, says Gerhard Forde that is the answer to absolute claim of God who is inescapably present to the sinner.[4]

The focus in confession and absolution is not on the confession per se, but on the absolution. Disconnected from the absolution, confession turns into just another effort to save ourselves. Then the old Adam begins to reckon that he is right with God because his confession was so completely sincere or deeply heartfelt. Or that he has been so pious and courageous to make individual confession a part of his regular spiritual discipline. In the medieval church, the requirement of no less than an annual trip to the confessional booth and the enumeration of specific sins had transformed confession into a spiritual torture chamber rather than an occasion for broken bones to be made glad in the Word from the Lord: “I forgive you all your sins.” It is at this point that Luther filters the old practice of private confession through the sieve of the Gospel so that it could be reclaimed for the sake of terrified consciences. Thus Luther develops five major points in his “A Brief Exhortation to Confession” included in the Large Catechism:

  • Confession should be voluntary and free of papal tyranny.
  • The practice of confession ought to be free of the unreasonable and tortuous demand that the penitent be able to enumerate his sins.
  • People should be taught how to use confession evangelically for the comfort of terrified consciences.
  • Christian liberty ought not be used as an excuse for setting private confession aside.
  • Private confession stands with other forms of confession in the church (fifth petition of the Lord’s Prayer where we confess to God and the neighbor).[5]

These pastoral themes are reflected in Luther’s short order of confession included in the Small Catechism.[6] The insertion of a short order of confession between Holy Baptism and the Sacrament of the Altar was intended by Luther to catechize people in the evangelical use of confession and absolution. “Luther’s discussion of confession, along with the shape of his liturgical rite, shows how he redefines its essence and practice so that it ceases to be a burden and instead becomes an instrument by which the Gospel is conveyed personally to an individual”[7]

In this new version of an ancient rite, the pastor is not there as an ecclesiastical detective to flush out hidden transgressions or an inspector who must assure that standards of quality control are indiscriminately applied to penitential acts. Neither is the pastor a therapist trafficking in slogans of affirmation, a ministry of presence (whatever that frightening term might mean!), or a coach to get you enabled for a sanctified life. No, the pastor is here as the ear and the voice of the Good Shepherd. His words of forgiveness are not his own, but the Lord who has sent him (see John 20:21-23).

The ear of the pastor becomes the grave that forever conceals the corpse of sin. It is buried there never to be disinterred. In fact the pastor’s ordination vow puts him under orders never to divulge the sins confessed to him. Never means never. Pastors learn to practice God’s own forgetfulness of sins (see Psalm 103:9-14). Sins confessed to the pastor are sealed away in silence.

But the pastor’s lips are not sealed. He has a verdict to announce on the basis of the death of the Righteous One for the unrighteous. Your sin is not loaded on your own shoulders. It is carried by the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. He takes it to Calvary. There it was answered for in His own blood.  His verdict is the absolution: “I forgive you all your sins in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.” That is justification in faith in action. “Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (Romans 5:1).


Appendix: Theses on the Seal of Confession

  1. The pastor hears confession by virtue of his office as Christ’s servant. Thus the pastor is both the ear and mouth of Christ for the penitent. It is Christ who hears the sins that are confessed to the pastor and it is Christ who absolves sinners through the word spoken by the pastor (Luke 10:16, Small Catechism V)
  2. Ordination places the pastor under orders to forgive and retain sins (John 20:19-23). This is the work of the office. He is not set in office as a servant of the state but of the church. In this office, the pastor must render unto God, the things that belong to God (Matthew 22:15-21). That is the pastor is obligated to render faithfulness to God in the stewardship of the means of grace.
  3. In the ordination vow, the candidate solemnly promises to perform the duties of the office in accordance with the Holy Scriptures and the Lutheran Confessions. The candidate explicitly promises “never to divulge the sins confessed to you” (Lutheran Service Book Agenda, 166) Men should make this vow only after careful and prayerful study of the Sacred Scriptures and the Book of Concord. This vow is made coram Deo with the knowledge that such vows are promises made to God Himself (see Numbers 30:1-2; Ecclesiastes 5:1-7).
  4. This vow obligates the pastor to complete and utter secrecy in respect to the sins that are confessed to him for God Himself removes these sins from the penitent and remembers them no more (see Psalm 103:8-12). “For the sake of timid consciences and to preserve the integrity of confessional conversations, the pastor promises in his ordination vows ‘never to divulge the sins confessed to him’”. (LSB-A, 39).
  5. For a pastor to reveal sins that have been confessed to him contradicts the forgiveness bestowed by Christ. This renders the pastor a hireling who is no longer capable of the trust of Christ’s Church and, therefore, must be removed from office (Ezekiel 34:1-11). When a shepherd exhumes that which Christ has buried in the forgiveness of sins, he exposes the sheep entrusted to his care to a variety of dangers, not the least of which is the temptation to unbelief and despair. A pastor who is unable to keep the promises of the ordination is not above reproach (I Timothy 3:2) and is untrustworthy (Proverbs 11:13).
  6. The silence that the pastor must keep may inflict upon the pastor severe pangs of conscience and possible legal action. Nevertheless, the pastor is not authorized to break the silence imposed upon him by the office. He may not forsake his sheep when threatened (John 10:11-13). This is a cross that it laid upon the pastoral office. If civil authorities seek to force the pastor to speak of sins that have been confessed to him, he must resist rendering unto Caesar that which belongs to God alone (Matthew 22:15-21).
  7. In his teaching and preaching, the pastor will need to catechize his people regarding the seal of the confession so that they have the confidence to confess their sins and receive absolution without the fear of betrayal.
  8. The confessional seal does not mean that the pastor has no legal or moral obligation to report or give testimony to immoral or illegal activity that may be reported to him or discovered by him in contexts outside of confession. A distinction is made between what is confessed to the pastor by a penitent and what is revealed to the pastor by one seeking protection from abuse or harm.

[1] See Oswald Bayer, Living by Faith: Justification and Sanctification, trans. G. Bromiley (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2003), 1-9.

[2] On this point see the discussion of Werner Elert, The Christian Ethos, trans. Carl Schindler (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1957), 163-173. Elert traces the subjective understanding of guilt to F. Schleiermacher.

[3] On this point see Gerhard Forde, The Captivation of the Will (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2005), 21.

[4] Gerhard Forde, “Absolution: Systematic Considerations” in The Preached God: Proclamation in Word and Sacrament, edited by Mark C. Mattes and Steven Paulson (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2007), 153.

[5] The Book of Concord: The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church edited by Robert Kolb and Timothy J. Wengert (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2000), 476-480.

[6] The Book of Concord, 360-362.

[7] Charles Arand, That I May Be His Own: An Overview of Luther’s Catechisms (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2000), 169.

—————————-

For Further Reading

Girgensohn, Herbert. Teaching Luther’s Catechism – Volume 2, trans. John W. Doberstein. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1960

Krispin, Gerald. “Philip Jacob Spener and the Demise of the Practice of Holy Absolution in the Lutheran Church” Logia (Reformation 1999), 9-18

Kuhlman, Brent. “Holy Absolution: Rejoicing in the Gift” Lutheran Forum (Fall, 1997), 29-33

Peters, Albrecht. Kommentar zu Luthers Katechismen-Band 5. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1994

Pless, John T. Confession: God Gives Truth. St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2006

Pless, John T. “Your Pastor is Not Your Therapist: Private Confession-The Ministry of Repentance and Faith” Logia (Eastertide 2001), 21-26

Rittgers, Ronald K. “Luther on Private Confession” in The Pastoral Luther: Essays on Martin Luther’s Practical Theology edited by Timothy J. Wengert. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2009, pp. 211-230

Rittgers, Ronald K. The Reformation of the Keys: Confession, Conscience and Authority in Sixteenth-Century Germany. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2004


John T. Pless is a professor at Concordia Theological Seminary, Fort Wayne, IN.

A Lutheran Influence (Part 3)

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III. Justification/Good Works and Eucharistic Presence: A Case Study

Justification/Good Works. Justification might rightly be characterised as the most important doctrine for Luther and the Lutheran Reformation. It was elevated to the status of (and still holds today for much of Lutheranism) the doctrine on which the Church stands or falls. In the Augsburg Confession, justification is treated in the fourth article:

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).[1]

What needs to be highlighted in the AC’s teaching on justification is that human beings “cannot be justified before God by their own strength, merits, or works”. Instead, humankind is “freely justified for Christ’s sake through faith”. The stress of the AC is upon teaching that humans cannot earn salvation nor justify themselves in God’s eyes. It is only through faith (in the promises of God) that humans are justified on the basis of Christ’s justifying and salvific work.

In The Ten Articles (1536), which were penned shortly after the English delegates returned from Wittenberg and hence were influenced by The Wittenberg Articles, we read that justification “signifieth remission of our sins and our acceptation or reconciliation into the grace and favour of God…our perfect renovation in Christ.”[2] They proceed to state that sinners attain justification “by contrition and faith joined with charity…not as though our contrition or faith, or any works preceding thereof, can worthily merit or deserve to obtain said justification…” Instead, it is only the grace and mercy of the Father, promised to us for the sake of His Son, and the merits of his blood and passion, that are the only sufficient causes of our justification.[3]

Here we see the effects of the Wittenberg meetings upon the English doctrinal formulations as it is stressed that justification signifies the remission of sins and his or her acceptance and reconciliation into the grace and favour of God, or “our perfect renovation in Christ.” What is interesting is the stressed laid upon the role of good works in the life of a human being, both before and after justification, which is given much ink in The Ten Articles. It was stated that sinners attain justification by contrition and faith “joined with charity.” If this statement was left as it is, Lutherans probably would object, saying that our good works in no way contribute to our justification. But here we might see even more of the Lutheran influence as The Ten Articles precede to make the important caveat that works which precede our justification can in no way merit said justification. Instead, stress is laid upon the duty of the justified following his or her justification, stating that we must have good works of charity and obedience to God. Further, while the attainment of everlasting life is conjoined with justification “yet our good works be necessarily required to the attaining of everlasting life…”[4]

The Lutheran reformers were not blind to this vital, and possibly contentious, relationship between faith and good works, for they were “falsely accused of forbidding good works.”[5] They proceeded to confess that “our works cannot reconcile God or merit forgiveness of sins and grace…”,[6] hence dealing with the status of works prior to justification. But as the Ten Articles would later proceed to do, so to the framers of the AC treated of works subsequent to a sinner’s justification, stating “Our teachers teach in addition that it is necessary to do good works, not that we should trust to merit grace by them but because it is the will of God.”[7] While there is great consonance between the AC and The Ten Articles on both works prior and subsequent to justification, one could quibble that the traditionalist views of Henry still worked their influence in the statement of The Ten Articles due to the confession that our good works are “necessarily required to the attaining of everlasting life.”

According to Gerald Bray, The Ten Articles “remained part of the Church of England’s official statements until 1553, when they were superseded by The Forty-two Articles of Edward VI…”[8] In The Forty-Two Articles we find the articles treating of justification and good works separated. In Article 11, “Of the Justification of Man”, we read that “Justification by only faith in Jesus Christ, in that sense, as is declared in Homily of Justification, is a most certain and wholesome doctrine for Christian men.”[9] Apart from appealing to the Homily of Justification, these articles leave the source of justification simply to “only faith in Jesus Christ.” What The Forty-Two Articles do make explicit in Article 12 is the place of good works done before justification: “Works done before the grace of Christ and the inspiration of his Spirit, are not pleasant to God, forasmuch as they spring not of faith in Jesu Christ, neither do they make men meet to receive grace, or…deserve grace of congruity…”[10] This is quite a bit more explicit and finds consonance with Article XX of the AC, where it stated that “whoever trusts that he merits grace by works despises the merit and grace of Christ and seeks a way to God without Christ, by human strength…”[11]

In 1563 & 1571, under the reign of Elizabeth I, The Thirty-Eight Articles and Thirty-Nine Articles respectively were issued. The wording of The Forty-Two Articles was replaced in 1563 with, “We are accounted righteous before God only for the merit of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ by faith, and not for our own works or deservings. Wherefore, that we are justified by faith only, is a most wholesome doctrine, and very full of comfort, as more largely is explained in the Homily of Justification.”[12] Here justification is more fully explained than in The Forty-Two Articles, with stress laid upon the merit of Jesus Christ, by faith only and not by our own works or merits. This same wording and confession is replicated in The Thirty-Nine Articles.

The article on works before justification in The Forty-Two Articles becomes Article 13 in both the 38 and 39 Articles with virtually no change to the wording. What is added to The Thirty-Eight and Thirty-Nine Articles is a confession of “Good Works”, Article 12, and is consonant with the Lutheran reformers teaching on the same. Article 12 reads, “Albeit that good works, which are the fruits of faith, and follow after justification, cannot put away our sins, and endure the severity of God’s judgement; yet are they pleasing and acceptable to God in Christ, and do spring out necessarily of a true and lively faith, in so much that by them a lively faith may be as evidently known, as a tree discerned by the fruit.”[13] This same confession of the place of good works is found once again in Article 20 of the AC, where it reads, “…through faith the Holy Spirit is received, hearts are so renewed and endowed with new affections as to be able to bring forth good works.”[14]

In this first instance, regarding the articles of justification/good works, we can evidently see great consonance and a growing congruence between the confession of faith in The Augsburg Confession and documentary developments of The Church of England. While there might have a Henrician influence on the earlier documents, with vestiges of a semi-Pelagians “works righteousness”, later developments are much more consonant with the Lutheran insistence on justification being by grace alone through the merits of Jesus Christ and good works being necessary for the Christian life but not determinative of a person’s justification.

Eucharistic Presence. Contrary to the consonance witnessed between the AC and the documentary developments of the Church of England in regards to justification and good works, in the area of the presence of Christ in the Eucharist we find less congruence. The Augsburg Confession is quite straightforward in its confession regarding the Lord’s Supper, and simply states, “Our churches teach that the body and blood of Christ are truly present and are distributed to those who eat in the Supper of the Lord. They disapprove of those who teach otherwise.”[15] Luther was just as succinct in his own explanations of the presence of Christ in the Sacrament, most notably in his Small Catechism where he writes, “Instituted by Christ himself, it is the true body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, under the bread and wine, given to us Christians to eat and to drink.”[16]

Significantly, as a result of the meetings in Wittenberg in 1535, the English delegates were part of the formulation of The Wittenberg Articles, which, on the issue of the Lord’s Supper, read, “…we firmly believe and teach that in the sacrament of the Lord’s body and blood, Christ’s body and blood are truly, substantially and really present under the species of bread and wine, and that under the same species they are truly and bodily presented and distributed to all those who receive the sacrament.”[17] While these articles never attained official status for the Church of England, their wording did make its way into official texts.

For instance, in The Ten Articles of the same year (1536), we read, “…we will that all bishops and preachers shall instruct and teach our people…that they ought and must constantly believe, that under the form and figure of bread and wine, which we there presently do see and perceive by outward senses, is verily, substantially and really contained and comprehended the very selfsame body and blood of our Saviour Jesus Christ…and that under the same form and figure of bread and wine the very selfsame body and blood of Christ is corporally, really and in the very substance exhibited, distributed and received unto and of all them which receive the said sacrament…”[18] Much of the wording used here in The Ten Articles is verbatim from The Wittenberg Articles. By 1538, in The Thirteen Articles, nothing had changed as it reads, “Concerning the eucharist, we continue to believe and teach that in the sacrament of the body and blood of Christ, the body and blood of Christ are truly, substantially and really present under the forms of bread and wine. And that under these forms they are truly and really offered and administered to those who receive the sacrament, whether they be good or evil.”[19]

By the time we reach The Forty-Two Articles one can rightly judge that the language of Eucharistic presence has softened. Article 29, “Of the Lord’s Supper,” states, “Insomuch that to such as rightly, worthily and with faith receive the same, the bread which we break is a communion of the body of Christ, likewise the cup of blessing is a communion of the blood of Christ.” While this might be a softening of earlier language and confession, what follows is quite explicitly a rejection of the previous “real presence” language of the 10 and 13 Articles: “Forasmuch as the truth of man’s nature requireth, that the body of one and selfsame man cannot be at one time in diverse places, but must needs be in one certain place; therefore the body of Christ cannot be present at one time in many and diverse places. And because, as Holy Scripture doth teach, Christ was taken up into heaven, and there shall continue until the end of the world, a faithful man ought not either to believe or openly to confess the real and bodily presence, as they term it, of Christ’s flesh and blood, in the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper.”[20]

This quite explicit rejection of the bodily (corporeal) presence of Christ in the Sacrament was removed in both The Thirty-Eight and Thirty-Nine Articles, yet its sentiment remains in the Book of Common Prayer today.[21] Added to both The Thirty-Eight and Thirty-Nine Articles though, in absence of the deleted section quoted above, is the confession that “[t]he body of Christ is given, taken and eaten in the supper only after an heavenly manner; and the mean whereby the body of Christ is received and eaten in the supper is faith.”[22] Here we once again see a distancing from the earlier strong affirmation of the bodily presence of Christ in the Eucharist and an embracing of more Reformed, or Zwinglian, conception of Eucharistic presence compared to a Lutheran one.

One final aspect of the development of Eucharistic presence remains in the doctrinal development of the Church of England. It was quite explicitly stated in The Thirteen Articles that “…under these forms they are truly and really offered and administered to those who receive the sacrament, whether they be good or evil.” In other words, the belief of the communicant does not affect the presence of Christ in the Sacrament. But in The Thirty-Nine Articles, the following was added as Article 29, “Of the Wicked which do not eat the Body of Christ in the Use of the Lord’s Supper”: “The wicked, and such as be void of a lively faith, although they do carnally and visibly press with their teeth, as St Augustine saith, the sacrament of the body and blood of Christ; yet in no wise are they partakers of Christ, but rather to their condemnation do eat and drink the sign or sacrament of so great a thing.”[23] While such a teaching does not find explicit treatment in the Augsburg Confession, later Lutheranism would reject it in the Formula of Concord: “We believe, teach, and confess that not only the genuine believers and those who are worthy but also the unworthy and the unbelievers receive the true body and blood of Christ; but if they are not converted and do not repent, they receive them not to life and salvation but to their judgment and condemnation.”[24] And so we see, contrary to the evidence displayed in regards to the articles of justification/good works, the article on Eucharistic presence represents a divergence in earlier agreements between the Lutherans/The Augsburg Confession and the documentary developments of The Church of England.

Overall, we have seen that either in official discussion (in 1535-36 in Wittenberg) or in documentary influence, the Church of England was heavily influenced in its reformation by the German Reformation. While some of this influence waned over time, as in the teaching on the Eucharist, some it remained and actually became more explicit, as in the doctrines of justification and good works. Other articles of faith deserve the same analysis as offered here (ecclesial authority, cult of the saints, images, etc.), and while this essay has been limited in scope it is the hope that it has at least displayed that further analysis is necessary and would bear fruit today in discussions between Lutherans and Anglicans.


[1] The Augsburg Confession, Article IV

[2] Documents of the English Reformation, ed by Gerald Bray, (Cambridge: James Clarke & Co Ltd: 1994), 170.

[3] Documents, 170.

[4] Documents, 170.

[5] The Augsburg Confession, Article XX.1

[6] The Augsburg Confession, Article XX.9

[7] The Augsburg Confession, Article XX.27

[8] Documents, 162.

[9] Documents, 291.

[10] Documents, 292.

[11] The Augsburg Confession, Article XX.10

[12] Documents, 291.

[13] Documents, 291-2.

[14] The Augsburg Confession, Article XX.29

[15] The Augsburg Confession, Article X

[16] Martin Luther, The Small Catechism, VI.2

[17] Documents, 137.

[18] Documents, 169.

[19] Documents, 192.

[20] Documents, 301-02.

[21] The Book of Common Prayer, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 262. “…and the natural Body and Blood of our Saviour Christ are in Heaven, and not here; it being against the truth of Christ’s natural Body to be at one time in more places then one.”

[22] Documents, 302.

[23] Documents, 302-03.

[24] The Formula of Concord, VII.7

A Lutheran Influence (Part 2)

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II. A documentary development of The Church of England

Contrary to what one might assume, given the isolation of the British Isles from the mainland continent of Europe, England was not isolated from the Continental Reformations. Also, the English Reformation was not simply a program of Royal Supremacy. Instead, the initiation and advance of Reformation ideas and convictions in England did not begin with, nor completely depend upon, royal actions.[1] Instead, the roots and groundwork were already in existence in England for the fostering of Reformation ideals and principles.

Hugh Latimer
Hugh Latimer

Possibly as a result of Lollard influence, there was an anticlerical flavour to the religious situation of England when the Reformation principles of the continent made their way across the channel. The clergy were already being accused of both economic and sexual aggrandizement.[2] In 1532, Hugh Latimer gained notoriety for preaching against veneration, adornment and lighting of images, the invocation of saints, and the doctrine of purgatory. In response, the prior of the Dominicans in Bristol was mobilized against Latimer, but he discovered that Latimer was more against the abuse of things than the things themselves.[3] If these instances of existing Reformation principles are at all indicative for the whole of the country, then England presented fertile ground for the planting of Lutheran seeds. This being the case, the writings of Martin Luther were still officially anathematised on 12 May 1521 and Cardinal Wolsey led a burning of his books in London. Ironically enough, by this time the first group of English Lutherans were already meeting at the White Horse Inn in Cambridge.[4]

An ‘indirect’ Lutheran influence upon the prayer life of the English people proved to be an appointee of Thomas Cromwell, William Marshall.  In 1534 He issued an English “Primer” which was heavily dependent upon the works of Luther, omitting the Litany of the Saints and the Dirge, containing no other prayers to the dead and an attack on the legends of the saints. In the same vein as Latimer, Marshall would reissue the “Primer” within a year, claiming that he did not think that the Virgin Mary and the saints shouldn’t be prayed to, but instead he was wary of abuses of such things. Accordingly, he restored the Litany and the Dirge.[5] This same principle was also to be discovered in September 1535, in a book that encouraged the taking away of images. This was a translation of Martin Bucer’s “Das Einigerlei Bild”, which was a key Reformation text in Strasbourg. And yet, once again, the tract did not encourage the abolishing of images, but in typical Lutheran fashion, it allowed that images were appropriate as long as they were not worshipped.[6]

Another major Lutheran influence upon the Church of England was the English-Lutheran Robert Barnes. In 1528, during a period of persecution under Henry VIII, Barnes fled to Germany for safe haven. While there, Barnes published a book of Lutheran theology in English, which made its way across the channel and into English hands. According to Carter Lindberg, it is telling for the climate of the English Church at the time, that Thomas More (a staunch Catholic and traditionalist) found not the doctrine of justification by faith alone to be most objectionable in Barnes’ book, rather the article that challenged the authority of the pope caused More the greatest consternation.[7]

At the Convocation of Parliament in 1536, Latimer was chosen to give the opening sermon which amounted to a litany of ‘Catholic’ offences. On the fourth sitting day the conservatives lodged their objections and just over a fortnight later Convocation agreed to a set of Articles aimed to put an end to diversity of opinion over doctrine and practice. These Ten Articles were the first official doctrinal formulation of the Church of England. They are significant for affirming only three of the traditional seven sacraments (baptism, penance and the Eucharist) and for a formulation of the doctrine of justification by faith, but also for allowing the veneration of images, the cult of the saints and intercessions for the dead.[8]

In 1537, the Bishops Book was compiled under pressure to authoritatively explain the teaching of The Ten Articles for preaching and catechising. Behind the drafting of this document fierce battles raged between radical and traditionalist bishops. In some ways The Bishops Book proved to be less open to reforming interests than The Ten Articles, speaking of seven instead of three sacraments and reaffirming traditional teaching on purgatory and prayers for the dead, but on the other hand it was more radical then The Ten Articles with regards to images, forbidding any bowing down to or worshipping of them.[9] It has been suggested that statements in both The Ten Articles and The Bishops Book portray the influence of Cranmer and his desire to include some “Lutheran tonic” to the traditional distillation. Cranmer did much to model Henrician formularies of faith on the German confessions and articles, including most importantly The Augsburg Confession and The Wittenberg Articles.[10]

 Probably the most significant Lutheran influence upon the development of Reformation doctrine in the Church of England came as a result of Henry’s excommunication by the pope in 1538. This action forced Henry’s hand politically, already at odds with both France and Spain, to engage in serious discussions with the German princes of the Schmalkaldic League.[11] In order officially to join the League, the princes (mostly Lutheran), required authorial subscription to The Augsburg Confession. This proved to be too high a price for Henry. It has been said that he might have been willing to sign the confession on condition of his first being admitted into the League. While no ‘official’ unity was reached between England and the German princes, the actual process of discussion and The Augsburg Confession proved to be highly influential on the development of The Thirteen Articles (1538), and the later Forty-Two Articles (1553) and Thirty-Nine Articles (1571).[12]

 Eventually the foreign threats of the French and Spanish died down and, as the negotiations with the Schmalkaldic drug on, Henry decided that it was time to focus on religious uniformity within his own borders. In an effort to stamp out non-conformity he issued the Act of The Six Articles, which took steps towards reaffirming Roman Catholic dogma.[13] As a result of this move–the ceasing of officials talks with the Lutherans–English Lutherans like Barnes become dispensable and he was consequently burnt at the stake with two other English Lutherans.[14]

During this same period, another voice of Reformation principles was making itself heard through the printing press. Along with his biblical translations, William Tyndale also made available to England the works of Luther, most notably his prefaces to biblical books. Since Luther was still anathematised in England, Tyndale published his prefaces without using Luther’s name. Ironically, Thomas More never realized the ruse and Luther’s prefaces were even included in the royally approved Matthew’s Bible.[15]

As we move to the reign of Edward VI we find that the official persecution of Protestants ceased. Under the guidance of the King’s uncle and Regent, Edward Seymour, Protestant moves were made such as repealing most of the treason and heresy laws, including The Six Articles.[16] It was also during this time that Bucer, recently exiled from Strasbourg for his refusal to be part of the Augsburg Interim (1548), arrived in England at the behest of Archbishop Cranmer and was appointed Regis Professor at Cambridge in 1549. Bucer exerted his theological leanings–notably a way between the Lutherans and Zwinglians–on the Book of Common Prayer.[17]

It was during this same period, the reign of Edward, that Cranmer exercised his greatest influence upon the religious situation in England. Probably the most note worthy example of the Archbishop’s sway was The Book of Common Prayers tone-setting-endeavour to avoid the extremes in both doctrine and liturgy. The revision of 1552 alleviated the ambiguities which had given the Catholic/traditionalist party concessions in the 1549 edition–most notably, the Eucharist was now formulated in more Zwinglian, memorial terms.[18] Lindberg notes that “[l]ikewise in 1553, Cranmer produced a statement of faith for the English church that represented a compromise between the Lutheran and Calvinist theologies. These Forty-Two Articles (1553) were the foundation for the later Thirty-Nine Articles that defined the Church of England under Elizabeth I, and continue to influence the Anglican Church today.”[19]

Queen Elizabeth I
Queen Elizabeth I

We now arrive at the reign of Elizabeth I (skipping over the reign of Mary due to the fact that no significant doctrinal statements were formulated or issued during her time in which neither The Augsburg Confession or the Lutherans had any (at least positive) influence). During her reign, Elizabeth stressed both theological and confessional unity in her dealings with the German princes. She is even said to have stated her acceptance The Augsburg Confession, although she never signed it herself.[20] Elizabeth’s main goal was moderation: a pursuit which she hoped would give England a certain amount of stability after the tumultuous and contradictory reigns of Edward and Mary. She strove to hold both Catholics and Protestants in check by fostering an “Anglican” settlement in both doctrine and practice. Lindberg makes the claim that under Elizabeth such things as Catholic vestments and liturgy were allowed in order to speak to the illiterate in an Anglican style of worship, while the literate Protestant group were able to hear Reformation principles in both sermons and prayers, all set within the framework of a Reformed theology motivated by The Thirty-Nine Articles.[21]

Significantly, in 1559 Parliament passed the ‘Act of Supremacy’ which recognized the monarch as head of the English of Church. Wisely and perceptively, discerning the tension caused by the title of “Head”, Elizabeth took the title “Supreme Governor” instead of “Supreme Head”. Four years later, at the second Parliament of 1563, the Act of Uniformity was reaffirmed and measures were passed to ensure its enforcement. It was at this time that The Forty-Two Articles were revised into The Thirty-Nine Articles. “The Articles were designed to accommodate the major evangelical theologies by denying transubstantiation on the one hand, while remaining open to the range of Lutheran and Calvinist interpretations.”[22] Under Elizabeth, the official liturgy and confession remained moderate. The aim of the endorsed liturgy and confession was to express reformed theology without alienating Catholics and traditionalists. Still, it can be discerned that both the Elizabethan liturgy and confession issue from a ‘third way’ associated with the likes of Bucer and Melanchthon.[23]

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[1] Carter Lindberg, The European Reformations, (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers Ltd, 1996), 309.

[2] Lindberg, 310-11.

[3] Eamon Duffy, The Stripping of the Altars, (New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 1992), 379-81.

[4] Lindberg, 311.

[5] Duffy, 381-82.

[6] Duffy, 386.

[7] Lindberg, 312.

[8] Duffy, 389-92.

[9] Duffy, 400-01.

[10] Peter Newman Brooks, Cranmer in Context, (Cambridge: Lutterworth Press, 1989), 27; Diarmaid MacCulloch, Thomas Cranmer: A Life, (New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 1996), 161.

[11] Lindberg, 312; W. Ian P. Hazlett, The Reformation in Britain and Ireland: An Introduction, (London & New York: T & T Clark International, 2003), 41-42..

[12] Lindberg, 313.

[13] Lindberg, 313.

[14] Lindberg, 313.

[15] Lindberg, 314-15.

[16] Lindberg, 321.

[17] Lindberg, 321.

[18] Lindberg, 322.

[19] Lindberg, 322.

[20] Lindberg, 325.

[21] Lindberg, 326.

[22] Lindberg, 327.

[23] Hazlett, 61.

A Brief Introduction to Justification (Part 3)

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By Dr Mark Mattes

The Relationship between Sin, Law, and Death

Because of our sin, humans seek to be their own gods for themselves…trusting in their own ability to chart the course of their lives.  Luther called this ambitio divinitatis.  Even the spirituality of the old Adam is nothing other than the godlessness of self-idolization.  Luther expresses sin not primarily as failures of omission or commission but as being “curved in on oneself” (incurvatus in se).  God is in the business of opening up the incurvated and delivering them from the problem their own egos have become for them.

jakob_engelFor that reason, as old beings, we encounter God in a struggle.  We want to control both our destinies and the destinies of others.  Thereby we fight with God, just like the patriarch Jacob did at the ford of the Jabbok.  Apart from God’s word of promise, we encounter God as “naked.” And we object to this God.  He has not offered us the courtesy of asking for our counsel and, at some point, we eventually will actually hate this God, whom we perceive as an enemy.  In light of the promise, faith can even be said to be the “creator of divinity” (fides creatrix divinitatis) (LW 26:227).  Faith looks not to the “naked God” (deus nudus) with whom we (as naked sinners) struggle in a fierce battle of recognition (WA 40/II:330).  Instead, it looks to the “preached God,” a word of promise that actually imparts the reality of Christ and his grace.  Words for Luther are not merely descriptors or directives and labels for feelings but can actually bring reality, a new reality, especially as the gospel word of promise which forgives, imputes, and frees.  For Luther, grace doesn’t perfect nature, elevating the finite to the infinite, but instead liberates nature, sets us free from our drive to control others, our lives, even our own thoughts.

The Medieval system assumes that the law is do-able, given for our salvation.  All we need is grace to help us get on the way.  Why would God give commandments that would only condemn us?  Surely that doesn’t make any sense.  But for Luther, the law was never given by God for salvation.  It isn’t a path by which the old being can attain God or eternal life.  For Luther, faith, which is itself granted by God in the promise which delivers God’s forgiveness unites us with Christ.  We have been co-crucified with Christ.  Commenting on Galatians 2:20, Luther writes:

“But Christ is the Lord of the Law, because He has been crucified and has died to the Law.  Therefore I, too, am lord of the Law.  For I, too, have been crucified and have died to the Law, since I have been crucified and have died with Christ.”  How?  Through grace and faith.  When by this faith I am crucified and die to the Law, then the Law loses all its jurisdiction over me, as it lost it over Christ.  Thus, just as Christ Himself was crucified to the Law, sin, death, and the devil, so that they have no further jurisdiction over Him, so through faith I, having been crucified with Christ in spirit, am crucified and die to the Law, sin, etc., so that they have no further jurisdiction over me but are now crucified and dead to me” (LW 26:165).

The justifying word first reduces us to nothing-condemns us even at our best-so that God recreates a new being, new person, in Christ.  The core of this person is freed not only from the accusation of sin but also–at least as one is in Christ–from our incurvation and the law’s accusation.  We are “perfectly free lords of all subject to none” as Luther says in the Freedom of a Christian (1520).  Paradoxically, we are simultaneously just and sinful (simul iustus et peccator).  If there is any growth to be had in the Christian life–loving God and neighbor more–it will only be achieved when the person is liberated from his or her own incurvation.  Only an external word (verbum externum) of promise from God can do that because there is nothing in the sinner, including one’s spirituality, that isn’t already an expression of such incurvation.

Luther makes it very clear that our death and resurrection in Christ is not something that we can do.

“But here Paul is not speaking about being crucified with Christ by imitation or example-for imitating the example of Christ is also being crucified with Him-which is a crucifixion that pertains to the flesh.  1 Peter 2:21 deals with this: ‘Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in    His steps.’ But he is speaking here about that sublime crucifixion by which sin, the devil, and death are crucified in Christ, not in me.  Here Christ does everything alone.  But I, as a believer, am crucified with Christ through faith, so that all these things are dead and crucified to me as well” (LW 26:165).

We are not left intact when we are in God’s hands.  Nor does Jesus’ crucifixion do away with our own death.  Instead, the death we die through faith in Jesus is the death.  The death at the end of our lives, for Luther, is a slight matter compared to this.

Two Kinds of Righteousness

Hence, for Luther, faith is a painful matter.  All of humanity is judged as condemned when Jesus dies on the cross and all of humanity is objectively justified in his resurrection.  In faith we experience our death as self-centered, controlling people and the rebirth of an entirely new person who passively experiences God’s work in him, and gives God the glory which is due him in this very passivity.

As receivers of God’s love, we are opened from the inside out.  God’s word comes into the core of the person and breaks down all defenses before God-especially in light of our mortality.  The person of faith–no longer centered on himself but living for God and the neighbor–is opened up to the world.  Christian righteousness is two-fold: passive before God and active in love toward the neighbor and (we can infer) the whole creation.  Our salvation is that we are being restored to creation.

“Faith…is a divine work in us which changes us and makes us to be born anew of God, John 1[:12-13].  It kills the old Adam and makes us altogether    different men, in heart and spirit and mind and powers; and it brings with it the Holy Spirit.  O it is a living, busy, active, mighty thing, this faith.  It is impossible for it not to be doing good works incessantly.  It does not ask whether good works are to be done, but before the question is asked, it has already done them, and is constantly doing them” (LW 35:370).

These two kinds of righteousness, the passive and the active, Luther called “our theology” (LW 26:7).

The most important theological task of the Christian is discernment.  Do others need to hear God’s expectations, law, an afflicting word? Or, do they need to hear a word of comfort, consolation, forgiveness, and thus gospel.  The proper distinction between law and gospel Luther calls an art.  Our justification is accomplished in the speaking of it: it is something that must be declared to the sinner.  And the sharing of this good news actually delivers the goods of forgiveness.  Where there is forgiveness there is also life-because our lives are given the very shape or form (forma) of Christ himself.  God’s favor is his gift: God’s external word imparts the reality of Christ into believers, allowing them to honor God for his own sake and loving neighbors for their own sake.  For Luther, it is no longer a matter of love which needs to shape the matter of our faith or “color” it as medieval theologians put it.  Instead, Christ himself is imparted through the word to our being and he shapes our lives.  Christ is not only the object of our faith, but also the subject.  Christ Jesus is our Lord.  In this light, justification by grace alone through faith alone is not to be understood as an “existential” relationship of the self, harmonizing itself to itself, but as a distinctively eschatological word with powerful ontological overtones.  Christ remains an alien resident within us, conveying an alien righteousness.  Just as God’s word originally spoke and speaks creation into being so God’s word of promise granted in Jesus Christ bespeaks a new creation out of the nothingness of sin and death.  We have an alien righteousness and live as new beings out of the life of another: Jesus Christ, crucified and risen.

While Luther felt kinship with Augustine’s affirmation of grace, he acknowledged an “imperfection” in Augustine’s thinking (LW 34:337-38).  Grace is not an infusion that jump starts our life of holiness.  Instead, by means of God’s accusing law, we die.  God offers no salvaging or reclaiming the old being.  Through the promise, we are reborn and live from a gifted but alien righteousness.  Jesus Christ–greatest sinner–is the sinner who justifies all other sinners.  To hold out hope for salvaging the old being is nothing other than to “bury Christ,” to make him ineffective, and to deny the cross.  In preaching that delivers the goods-that actually conveys God’s embrace of the sinner directly “you belong to me for Jesus’ sake”-the risen Christ is active to gather his people into Christian community, enliven them with gifts, nourish and sustain their new life, and send them forth to embody the golden rule in the world.  Although Luther shared with late medieval theologians a vocabulary which had developed over time, the grammar and syntax are now different.  It is grace alone and faith alone which are salvific.  Likewise, the semantics of justification is different.  The promise is itself a word that gives what it promises instead of directing or describing either internal experience or external reality.  The word of promise alters us by opening a new being, one not curved in on the self; and thereby the world itself is altered.  Now the matter becomes: share this word of promise, since it truly belongs to sinners.

For Further Reading

Bayer, Oswald.  Living By Faith: Justification and Sanctification.  Translated by Geoffrey Bromiley.  Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 2003.

Bayer, Oswald.  Martin Luther’s Theology: A Contemporary Interpretation. Translated by Thomas Trapp.  Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 2008.

Bayer, Oswald.  Theology the Lutheran Way.  Edited and Translated by Jeffrey Silcock and Mark Mattes.  Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 2007.

Forde, Gerhard.  A More Radical Gospel: Essays on Eschatology, Authority, Atonement, and Ecumenism.  Edited by Mark Mattes and Steven Paulson.  Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 2004.

Forde, Gerhard.  The Preached God: Proclamation in Word and Sacrament.  Edited by Mark Mattes and Steven Paulson.  Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 2007.

Forde, Gerhard.  Justification by Faith-A Matter of Death and Life.  Philadelphia: Fortress, 1982.

Iwand, Hans J.  The Righteousness of Faith According to Luther. Translated Randi H. Lundell.  Eugene, Oregon: Wipf & Stock, 1982.

Jüngel, Eberhard. Justification: The Heart of the Christian Faith.  Translated by Jeffrey F. Cayzer.  Edinburgh: T& T Clark, 2001.

Kolb, Robert.  “Contemporary Lutheran Understandings of the Doctrine of Justification: A Selective Glimpse” in Justification: What’s at Stake in the Current Debate.  Edited by Mark Husbands and Daniel Treier.  Downers Grove, Illinois: Intervarsity, 2004.

Kolb, Robert and Charles Arand.  The Genius of Luther’s Theology: A Wittenberg Way of Thinking for the Contemporary Church.  Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker, 2008.

Mattes, Mark.  The Role of Justification in Contemporary Theology.  Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 2004.

Paulson, Steven.  “The Augustinian Imperfection: Faith, Christ, and Imputation and Its Role in the Ecumenical Discussion of Justification” in The Gospel of Justification in Christ: Where Does the Church Stand Today? Edited by Wayne Stumme.  Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 2006.

Paulson, Steven.  Luther for Armchair Theologians.  Louisville: Westminster/John Knox, 2004

Walther, C. F. W. Proper Distinction Between Law and Gospel: Thirty-Nine Evening Lectures.  Translated by W. H. T. Dau.  St. Louis, Missouri: Concordia, 1929.

A Brief Introduction to Justification (Part 2)

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By Dr Mark Mattes

Defining the Protestant View of Justification

The Lutheran understanding of justification, developed in contrast with the late medieval theologians, is most concisely stated and summarized in article IV of the Augsburg Confession (1530), written by Philip Melanchthon (with Luther’s endorsement):

“Furthermore, it is taught that we cannot obtain forgiveness of sin and righteousness before God through our merit, work, or satisfactions, but that we receive forgiveness of sin and become righteous before God out of grace for Christ’s sake through faith when we believe that Christ has suffered for us and that for his sake our sin is forgiven and righteousness and eternal life are given to us.  For God will regard and reckon this faith as righteousness in his sight, as St. Paul says in Romans 3[:21-26] and 4[:5]” (Book of Concord, 38:1-40:3).

rembrandt_abraham_en_isaac_1634In distinct opposition to the perspectives of late antiquity and the middle ages what stands out in this statement is that justification is decisively forensic, a decree of acquittal, as opposed to something God does in order to initiate a process on the ladder of ontological, moral, and mystical fulfillment.  Likewise, faith is not to be understood as a “theological virtue,” but as a state of being grasped by God’s unconditional claim and promise.  Grace is not the power behind the scenes initiating our process in mimetic growth but the very pronouncement of forgiveness itself.  Therefore, it is faith, not love that saves.  Abraham trusted God’s promise, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness, since “the righteous shall live by faith” (Habakkuk 2:4).

The Inner Logic of Imputation

Evangelical reformers and medieval thinkers both used the same terminology about justification, but the Lutheran perspective entirely subverts the inner logic of the ladder.  Hidden behind article IV of the Augsburg Confession is much theological spade work done by Luther prior to his evangelical breakthrough.  For lack of a better term, the “logic” behind the Lutheran perspective is decidedly “eschatological.”  What this means is that God’s judgment on all humanity which will be rendered on the Last Day has already been rendered in time, in a specific act, that of the death and resurrection of his Son, Jesus Christ, and is conveyed to the world through the words of a preacher.  It is on the basis of God’s own vindication of his Son, who was himself without sin, but became sin for us and so was in the end justly accused as a violator of the Torah–God’s own law–that all sinners can have assurance of eternal life.  In violating the law, Jesus Christ was faithful to his Father’s mission to rescue the “lost sheep of the house of Israel.”  In the ministry of Jesus Christ, God would embrace even those excluded by the law (prostitutes, tax collectors, prodigals, and sinners).  For that reason, God’s own Son himself was excluded and violently killed.  If the law, in the hands of those who are self-justifying, even with all its good intentions eclipses God’s promise in Christ alone, it must have its limits, and even its end (as both telos and finis).  For Luther, Jesus Christ is the “greatest sinner” in that he bears the sins of us all.  His death is the death of our sin.  But his death is also the end of the law as accusation–Jesus’ resurrection places us sinners on a path outside the accusations of the law so that we might live by faith before God and before the world.

The gospel is itself not a “new law,” one which would be do-able since we have the “super-added gift of the Holy Spirit” to empower us.  The gospel as grammar is not a directive at all, nor is it information about reality as such, nor is it a description of the landscape of our inner lives or spirituality.  The gospel’s grammar is that of a promise (promissio), a commitment on the part of God to be for us (pro nobis).  The Gospel, then, is not merely a way of incorporating gentiles into the covenant which God has already established with the Jews, as the “New Perspective” on Paul would have it.  But as a “stumbling block” to the Jews and “foolishness” to the Gentiles it is the power and wisdom of God for both Jews and Gentiles who are equally guilty under the law, whether revealed as the Torah or discerned in nature (1 Corinthians 1:18-25).

That justification is forensic, a decree of acquittal, is often thought to be problematic.  If it is a purely objective pronouncement of God’s favor to sinners for Jesus’ sake, then how are our lives changed?  How does justification actually make a difference for peoples’ lives and in the world?  Hence, how justification can somehow be “effective” is a matter quickly raised.  In light of Luther’s critique one might suspect that this question arises from a concern to keep the human will intact and preserve the continuous existence of the person.  That God’s forensic word is effective seems counter-intuitive.  That it is effective can be understood only when we realize that this word of promise delivers the goods of forgiveness of sin, life, and salvation despite the fact that when we look at ourselves we still see sin.  This word is the very in-breaking of God’s new era promised in the scriptures.  The efficacy of the forensic word is not found in what we do to change our lives, but instead in how God’s word opens us up from the inside out so that we are not so concerned about ourselves, including our own salvation.  Faith depends upon hearing God’s promise; it does not rest upon seeing its own improvement.  Instead, free of such egoism, we can honor and love God for his own sake and work for the well-being of our neighbor and this good earth.

grunwld12God’s justification of the sinner is decisively eschatological.  In the resurrection of Christ, God imputes righteousness to the world for Jesus’ sake.  But this imputation has two aspects.  When God imputes righteousness to us, he makes us to be sinners at the same time.  If we have been imputed to be righteous, it is only because we first have been condemned as sinners.  In a sense, we are not only justified by faith–in trusting God’s promise of mercy to sinners–but in faith we also confess our own sinfulness.  For it is not our own self-evaluation by which we can understand the depths of our sin but instead God’s own judgment of our lives.  Justification is forensic, a decree, delivered as a message through a preacher:  “You are found condemned and guilty before God’s law.  You are a sinner and you bear the mark of death.  But, for Jesus’ sake, you are forgiven and acquitted.  He has borne your sin and death for you and has exchanged your loss with his own life.”  The Christian life is not primarily a growth in righteousness-getting better at our efforts to be godly.  Instead, God imputes ungodliness to all and everything human, including our very best, so that he might have mercy on all.  Jesus’ cross is a judgment on us–and it judges not only our worst, but, ironically, our best.  It was our best that sent Jesus to the cross.  Our condemnation of him was on the basis of our best virtues, aptitude, and potentiality.  This means, that for Luther, as for Paul, we are completely dead in trespasses and sins, and left with no basis for any self-justification whatsoever.  Just as Christ, who knew no sin, became sin for us, we too are become thorough sinners in justification.

The core Lutheran insight about human nature is that our sin is best disclosed in that whoever we are, we are inherently self-justifying.  This is why, if we would understand human nature aright, we must look to the doctrine of justification by faith.  It alone discloses what it means to be human–one who is from the first and at the core–completely receptive, dependent on God for life.  We are not primarily human in what we do or fail to do but to whom we are related and from whom we receive, God himself as the source of life.  Our righteousness before God is a receptive life (vita passiva).  A practical consequence of this reasoning is that we must distinguish who a person is–as one fundamentally related to God–from what a person does.  In contrast to Athanasius (293-373), God became human not so that we might become divine, but so that we–through faith–might become human ourselves but with death behind us once and for all.

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