Saturday, January 21, 2012

Is the gospel purely forensic?

In the continuing discussions in the Reformed camp over the issue of union with Christ and its relation to justification, one of the questions that has consistently risen is that of the definition of the gospel. Is the gospel the forensic doctrine of justification? Is it solely defined as imputation of righteousness and forgiveness on the personal ordo salutis?

It is often the assumption that the Lutheran approach to the gospel consists purely of subjective justification of the sinner without ontological or transformational categories. It is pure legal declaration. But is this portrayal of the Lutheran position accurate?

The Smalcald Articles make it apparent that for Luther, the center of the gospel is the objective work of Christ in history for us. This is how Luther defines the "chief article" of the Christian faith:

"That Jesus Christ, our God and Lord, died for our sins, and was raised again for our justification, Rom. 4:25.

2] And He alone is the Lamb of God which taketh away the sins of the world, John 1:29; and God has laid upon Him the iniquities of us all, Is. 53:6.

3] Likewise: All have sinned and are justified without merit [freely, and without their own works or merits] by His grace, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, in His blood, Rom. 3:23f

4] Now, since it is necessary to believe this, and it cannot be otherwise acquired or apprehended by any work, law, or merit, it is clear and certain that this faith alone justifies us as St. Paul says, Rom. 3:28: For we conclude that a man is justified by faith, without the deeds of the Law. Likewise 3:26: That He might be just, and the Justifier of him which believeth in Christ." (Part II: Article 1)

Both objective and subjective justification constitute the gospel. Luther is also not willing to dismiss the effective change in the believer's heart as something foreign to the gospel. He states later in the Smalcald Articles of the doctrine of justification,

"I do not know how to change in the least what I have previously and constantly taught about justification. Namely, that through faith, as St. Peter says, we have a new and clean heart, and God will and does account us entirely righteous and holy for the sake of Christ our Mediator. Although sin in the flesh has not yet been completely removed or become dead, yet He will not punish or remember it." (Part III Article 13:1)

Not only is regeneration an aspect of the gospel for the Lutheran church, but also the Christian's adoption as God's child. As Melancthon writes in the Apology, “Since we receive forgiveness of sins and the Holy Spirit through faith alone, faith justifies. For those reconciled are counted as righteous and as God’s children.” (Apology IV:II:86)

Chemnitz also defines the gospel as something broader than simply imputation and forgiveness in his Loci Theologici, “For the Gospel contains the promise of the Spirit of renewal, who writes the Law into the heart of believers, Jer. 31:33. It also teaches how the beginnings of obedience, although imperfect and contaminated in many ways, are pleasing to God in those who are righteous for the sake of Christ." (Loci Theologici II-III, 826)

The gospel is the message of Christ for us and his accomplished salvation in his life, death, and resurrection. This brings imputation, forgiveness, adoption, eschatological vindication, and the Spirit who renews hearts. Hopefully this helps clarify some of these issues in the ongoing dialogue.


Jared said...

Good thoughts, Jordan. Maybe one way to focus it is that those who are informed of the Lutheran doctrine of salvation should recognize that all those aspects you mentioned are certainly and crucially present, but that the order of them and relation to each other is where the difference lies. So it's less of a question of whether the gospel is only forensic and more of a question of whether it's primarily or first forensic, with the other aspects of the ordo subordinate to justification.

Shari said...

Nicely put. It clarifies for me, again, that nothing WE do can merit salvation. But being a regenerated man, Christ is being formed in us so that we begin to do the good works that He desires for us to do.

Jordan Cooper said...

Jared, I think this is accurate. For us the forensic always has priority because only the forensic contains the perfect righteousness which avails before God. The tranformative is always a result of the forensic wherein God makes the reality of justification apparent in our works of love for our neighbors.

Jared said...

Yes! On a cursory reading of Pieper, Mueller, and Forde, that seems consistent. I have often wondered what a Lutheran systematic would do with Murray's distinction of definitive sanctification (in union) and progressive sanctification (which is what I feel is often referred to in broader evangelicalism, Lutheranism included).

Anonymous said...

Where the Reformed go wrong is looking at the transformative for proof that the forensic has occurred. Thank you for the clarification on the Lutheran doctrine.

Jordan Cooper said...

Jared, regarding definitive sanctification, I have seen some Lutherans argue for an objective, definitive aspect of sanctification while rejecting progressive sanctification altogether. Forde for example does this (though using Forde as illustrative of Lutheranism is somewhat like using Barth as illustrative of Reformed theology). The majority of Lutherans have not distinguished between definitive and progressive sanctification. Personally, I think definitive sanctification and justification are synonymous and don't need to be seen as two separate benefits of the ordo.

William said...

"Where the Reformed go wrong is looking at the transformative for proof that the forensic has occurred."

Hello, I'm not a Calvinist or a Lutheran but I do think that Reformed may not be getting a fair
hearing on this point.

Scripture itself says that we know whether or not we are in Christ (and thus have the forensic) based on the "proof" of the transformative:
1 John 2:3 And hereby we know that we know Him, if we keep His commandments. 4 He that saith, I know him, and keepeth not his commandments, is a liar, and the truth is not in him; 5 but whoso keepeth His word, in Him verily hath the love of God been perfected. Hereby we know that we are in Him

2 Corinthians 13:5 5 Try your own selves, whether ye are in the faith; prove your own selves. Or know ye not as to your own selves, that Jesus Christ is in you? unless indeed ye be reprobate. ASV

And certainly Luther agreed with these Scriptural principles throughout his works, in noting that we know whether or not we or others have faith, Christ, and justification based on the fruits (i.e. transformation or sanctification).

One of many, many examples of how for Luther, sanctification is a true and necessary sign and testimony of being in faith and in Christ (and thus justified). i.e. without it, true assurance is not possible (and forbidden by Luther as it is by Scripture).
"2. Victory over the devil is the sign of the true Christian. Thereby we may know men are born of God, may distinguish them from the false children who enjoy but the semblance of God's Word and never experience its power. Such are mere "mondkinder" (moon-children)--still- born, destitute of real divine life, or divine power. It cannot be said we have been born of God when we continue in our old dead and worldly course, and as before lie and live in sin at the devil's pleasure. No, as children of God we must resist the devil and his entire kingdom. If, then, instead of overcoming the world you allow it to overcome you, then, boast as you may of faith and Christ, your own conduct testifies that you are not a child of God."

Of course, we must look to Christ and His merits as the ultimate ground of our assurance, but if we don't see sanctification occurring in our lives then we can have no true assurance that we are partaking in Christ and His merits.

God Bless,
W.A. Scott

Anonymous said...


I am no expert on Luther by any stretch of the imagination. And I don't think we can take all the words of any man, even Luther, as gospel. Could he have contradicted himself at times over his many years of voluminous writing? Sure, it's possible. I am not saying that he is here, just that it's possible.

But back to your point, what sort of measurement would we be using to figure out if we are changing enough or becoming sanctified enough? Whatever it is, it is not God's standard which requires perfect obedience to His law. I used to be a real big sinner, but now I'm a...real big sinner. We have to use God's law to measure ourselves. Giving up bad habits does not mean we are somehow less guilty of condemnation. Throw in a little pride at our accomplishments and we may even be more so.

Jordan has written a good article on 1 John and assurance. You should check it out. As for the sermon you posted, Luther definitely says some things that I am uncomfortable with on first read. I'll have to go back and mull it over. Thanks for the link.


William said...

Hello Nick,

I agree we are all completely condemned by the Law no matter how sanctified we may become (and I will definitely join you in confessing that I'm also a big sinner). However the question of "how much sanctification" kicks in when it comes to whether we have the true faith that alone partakes in the only One Who has fulfilled the Law.

Luther provides in sum the Scriptural answer to "how much sanctification is enough" in the Smalcald Articles:
It is, accordingly, necessary to know and to teach that when holy men, still having and feeling original sin, also daily repenting of and striving with it, happen to fall into manifest sins, as David into adultery, murder, and blasphemy, that then faith and the Holy Ghost has departed from them [they cast out faith and the Holy Ghost]. For the Holy Ghost does not permit sin to have dominion, to gain the upper hand so as to be accomplished, but represses and restrains it so that it must not do what it wishes. But if it does what it wishes, the Holy Ghost and faith are [certainly] not present. For St. John says, 1 John 3:9: Whosoever is born of God doth not commit sin, ... and he cannot sin. And yet it is also the truth when the same St. John says, 1:8: If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.

The Apology of Augsburg likewise.
But since we speak of such faith as is not an idle thought, but of that which liberates from death and produces a new life in hearts, [which is such a new light, life, and force in the heart as to renew our heart, mind, and spirit, makes new men of us and new creatures,] and is the work of the Holy Ghost; this does not coexist with mortal sin [for how can light and darkness coexist?], but as long as it is present, produces good 65] fruits, as we will say after a while.

As Luther says, when sin is permitted to "have dominion; to gain the upper hand so as to be accomplished" (or, as the Apology says, when we are in "mortal sin"), then "the Holy Ghost and faith are [certainly] not present."

This is what the Scriptures teach throughout. Christians who have permitted their old man or sin to once more take dominion (making themselves again slaves to sin) have lost the true faith and are outside of Christ, and therefore under condemnation (until they repent).
Rom 6:15 What then? Shall we sin because we are not under law but under grace? May it never be! 16 Do you not know that when you present yourselves to someone as slaves for obedience, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin resulting in death, or of obedience resulting in righteousness?
Rom 8:12 So then, brethren, we are under obligation, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh— 13 for if you are living according to the flesh, you must die; but if by the Spirit you are putting to death the deeds of the body, you will live. 14 For all who are being led by the Spirit of God, these are sons of God. NASB

William said...


The Scripture, of course, is the only infallible place to go in determining whether or not sin is in dominion in our life. The Scripture lays out what signs accompany the true faith and what signs accompany a faith that has died (i.e. that has become a false faith or "faith of devils").

Galatians 5, for example, has a lengthy list both of sinful states that a saving faith cannot coexist with ("those who practice such things will not inherit the kingdom of God") as well as the fruits of the Spirit that accompany a true faith.

Gal 5:16 But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not carry out the desire of the flesh. 17 For the flesh sets its desire against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh; for these are in opposition to one another, so that you may not do the things that you pleasure. 18 But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the Law. 19 Now the deeds of the flesh are evident, which are: immorality, impurity, sensuality, 20 idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, outbursts of anger, disputes, dissensions, factions, 21 envying, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these, of which I forewarn you, just as I have forewarned you, that those who practice such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. 22 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. 24 Now those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. NASB

There are many other clear examples from Scripture. One of the clearest and most difficult is the absolute promise of Christ (repeated a number of times in the Scripture) that those who will not forgive will not be forgiven. Simply put, a true faith (which partakes continually in the remission of sins) necessarily produces the fruit of forgiveness. Where bitter unforgiveness (which is essentially an act of hatred or spiritual murder) is in dominion, there is no true faith and therefore no remission of sins.

Of course, these sins are never completely absent from us in this life, and even our good works are tainted by sin. The question is whether sin has gained the dominion in our life--and no simplistic solution is provided for this question in Scripture. This means that we don't have a clear-cut minimum threshold we can hang around at. It also gives teeth to the serious words of God, to "work out your own Salvation with fear and trembling" (Phil.) and "pass the time of your sojourning here in fear" (1 Peter). That said, true and full assurance of Salvation is not only possible but readily attainable to anyone who will look away from the world and to Christ as his hope.

Also, I think one of the greatest signs of a well-grounded faith is the awareness that all our best works are as filthy rags so that we look continually to the alien righteousness of Christ as the only source of our righteousness before God. I've noticed that it is generally when I'm really (though very imperfectly) fighting against sin and striving to live according to God's Word that I am aware of how sinful I am, how greatly I need Christ's alien righteousness, and how assuring and comforting the Gospel is. On the other hand, when I'm lax in my walk with Christ I tend to care much less about my sinfulness and about the great need I have for the imputed righteousness of Christ.

God Bless,

William said...

As for Jordon's interpretation of assurance in relation to 1 John. I think he makes some great points. Ultimately I have to agree with Luther (who agrees with the reformed), however, on the interpretation of 1 John--namely, that it says that Christians must judge their works to gain assurance of saving faith or of the genuineness of their faith.

For instance, Luther on 1 John 3:16 "We know that we have passed out of death into life, because we love the brethren."

"We know." John says plainly, "From the fact that we love the brethren, we know we have passed out of death into life."
"Love of the brethren is the test whereby we may ascertain who are the true believers. The apostle directed this epistle especially against false Christians; many there are who extol Christ, as did unbelieving Cain, and yet fail to bear the fruit of faith. John's reference is not to the means whereby we pass from sin and death to life, but to the proof whereby we may know the fact—not to the cause, but to the effect.

And Luther continues likewise in this and his other sermons on 1 John.

God Bless,
W.A. Scott

Anonymous said...


You seem to be waffling back and forth between objective assurance and subjective assurance. Either you can look to the cross or you can't. I know you understand that the cross is the means of our salvation, but this is different than having it the means of our assurance. If you are looking to your faith, your works, or your affections for your assurance, then, you must understand that ultimately your faith is in those things, and in the cross only secondarily.

It's always dangerous when you're quoting selectively from any author. As I said before, I am no expert on Luther. I'm sure Mr. Cooper could better fill you in on the complexities of his thought, if he feels so inclined.

I adhere to the Book of Concord, which teaches concepts of law and gospel, sanctification, and assurance that are different than what you're writing. Not that you should really be bothered by that, as you're not a Lutheran.

Suffice it to say that I don't believe the scriptures teach the pietism that you're advocating. I have enjoyed the discussion, but as I said before, I don't really know enough about Luther's writings to engage you further. Thanks for putting my mind a workin'. God bless.

William said...

Thanks for your reply Nick. While I'm not a Lutheran, it's certainly not the case that I'm taking Luther out of context. I would encourage you to read for yourself the entire sermon I linked to (it contains numerous excellent points on this matter, that I unfortunately don't have room to post here). Luther is very consistent on his exegesis of 1 John and other similar passages of Scripture. Also, I'm only emphasizing the "subjective" requirement for assurance here, because it's being questioned (hence, I haven't been talking much about the far more important and central objective grounds).

Going back to the point. A fair reading of Luther (and Scripture) makes it clear that it is impossible to truly continue to have objective assurance on the basis of Christ's alien righteousness if you are found devoid of the "subjective" evidence (and, thus "subjective" assurance) that you have a real faith (by which you may partake in the finished work of Christ). Luther therefore requires the "subjective" testing of whether faith is "real" and not is "simulated." As Luther says: "Let no one presume to think he has passed into life so long as he is devoid of love and the fruits of faith." Of course, for Luther a false or simulated faith can never partake in the alien righteousness of Christ and renders any supposed "objective" assurance of Salvation empty and false (and a dangerous deception).

As Luther said (repeatedly in this sermon and in his other works):
27. It is not sufficient to boast of having passed from death into life; there must be evidence of the fact. Faith is not an inactive and lifeless thing. When there is faith in the heart, its power will be manifest. Where power is not in evidence, all boasting is false and vain. When the human heart, in its confidence in divine mercy and love, is thrilled with spiritual comfort, and also warmed into kindness, friendliness, humility and patience towards the neighbor, envying and despising none but cheerfully serving all and ministering unto necessity even to hazarding body and life—when this is the case, then the fruits of faith are manifest.

Such fruits are proof that the believer has truly passed from death into life.
Granting that faith does justify, the next question is whether the faith is real or simulated, being merely a deceptive show and unsupported claim. The clear information imparted by the apostles is, that love, indeed, does not deliver from death, but that deliverance from death and the presence of life becomes a matter of sight and knowledge in that love has been wrought.

William said...

29. John draws to a close by showing the opposite side of the picture, in that he addresses earnest words that re-echo like peals of thunder to those who make the carnal boast of being Christians while destitute of love. He cites several facts as evidence that where love is lacking, necessarily faith and deliverance from death are absent, likewise. Thus no opportunity is given for self-deception or a frivolous excuse based upon wordy boasting of one's faith. The reality of the inner life is known by the presence of love, which in turn attests the presence of faith in the heart.

"He that loveth not abideth in death."
30. Here, in clear, decisive words, the conclusion is expressed that no man may boast of life unless he has love. If it is true that faith must be active, it is conversely true that the absence of fruitage demonstrates one's continuance in the old Cain-like manner of existence, torpid and dead, bereft of solace and the experience of God's grace and life. Let no one presume to think he has passed into life so long as he is devoid of love and the fruits of faith. Let him become serious, and in alarm make ready to become a true believer, lest he remain in eternal death and under greater condemnation than those who have never heard the Gospel.

Apology of Augsburg goes so far in relating assurance of Salvation to the evidence of good works that it states that good works are "signs" like Baptism and the Lord's Supper* that provide "manifold consolation" of the great promise of remission of sins, thereby "excit[ing]" us and "admonish[ing] us to believe more firmly that our sins are forgiven (just as Baptism and the Lord's Supper do). Therefore the godly "embrace," "rejoice," and "exercise" themselves in the "signs and testimonies of so great a promise" as they do in the Sacraments.
And yet Christ often connects the promise of the remission of sins to good works, not because He means that good works are a propitiation, for they follow reconciliation; but for two reasons. One is, because good fruits must necessarily follow. Therefore He reminds us that, if good fruits do not follow, the repentance is hypocritical and feigned. The other reason is, because we have need of external signs of so great a promise, because 155] a conscience full of fear has need of manifold consolation. As, therefore, Baptism and the Lord's Supper are signs that continually admonish, cheer, and encourage desponding minds to believe the more firmly that their sins are forgiven, so the same promise is written and portrayed in good works, in order that these works may admonish us to believe the more firmly. And those who produce no good works do not excite themselves to believe, but despise these promises. The godly on the other hand, embrace them, and rejoice that they have the signs and testimonies of so great a promise. Accordingly, they exercise themselves in these signs and testimonies. Just as, therefore, the Lord's Supper does not justify us ex opere operato, without faith, so alms do not justify us without faith, ex opere operato.

*Note, I am certainly not implying here that the Apology is teaching a mere symbolic view of the Sacraments (Baptism, of course, is for the remission of sins and the Lord's Supper contains the true Body and Blood of Christ).

(Please read the entire sermon-note, it's not the
same one I quoted from earlier).

As to whether the teachings of Luther, the Apology, etc. are in accordance with Scripture is an issue we'll just have to agree to disagree on. God Bless, W.A. Scott

p.s. I apologize for all the sloppy writing in this and other posts.

William said...

Correction: the sermon of Luther that I quoted from was not the same that I quoted from in my "1st post" (although I did quote from it in a prior post).


Anonymous said...

I so much wish we could just leave it with the Heidelberg Disputation. "The love of God does not find, but creates that which is pleasing to it. The love of man comes into being through that which is pleasing to it."

Of course the Gospel Word is effective. But the effects are a pale shadow of the Gospel.