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.