Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Justification, is it just forensic?

Pontificator has another thread on justification, and of course N.T. Wright makes another appearance. Over and over again, the issue is whether or not justification is only forensic, or if we are, in effect, transformed by justification in addition to its "forensic" dimension. Interestingly, Dr. Martin Luther but it most succinctly: "So what happens when we are justified? Better yet—what happens at baptism? We Lutherans retain and defend the ancient doctrine of baptismal regeneration."

That's right, justification is not "merely" forensic. It also means rebirth, since we believe we are reborn in Baptism. Along with our justification comes the Holy Ghost and a change of the person. Does this make justification "intrinsic" and therefore the Lutheran distinction between justification and sanctification becomes moot? Let's see:

Augsberg Confession IV:

"Also they teach that men cannot be justified before God by their own strength, merits, or works, but are freely justified for 2] Christ's sake, through faith, when they believe that they are received into favor, and that their sins are forgiven for Christ's sake, who, by His death, has made satisfaction for our sins. 3] This faith God imputes for righteousness in His sight. Rom. 3 and 4. "

So, it seems we are justified when we believe we are justified before God for Christ's sake, and not because of our own efforts. That sounds extrinsic to me--we are received in favor because of something outside us. So, how can we receive this gift through faith?

Epitome II--Free Will

"With this Word the Holy Ghost is present, and opens hearts, so that they, as Lydia in Acts 16, 14, are attentive to it, and are thus converted alone through the grace and power of the Holy Ghost, whose 6] work alone the conversion of man is. For without His grace, and if He do not grant the increase, our willing and running, our planting, sowing, and watering, all are nothing, as Christ says John 15, 5: Without Me ye can do nothing. With these brief words He denies to the free will its powers, and ascribes everything to God's grace, in order that no one may boast before God. 1 Cor. 1, 29; 2 Cor. 12, 5; Jer. 9, 23."

So, the Holy Ghost opens hearts through the preached word of salvation in Jesus Christ. That sounds intrinsic.

We hear the word, we believe the word, we are justified, all by the free gift of God through the Holy Spirit. A baby is justified in his Baptism apart from any works he has done. Sometimes justification is mentioned as an occurrence in the past, as in 1 Cor 6:11. This makes no sense if we are also justified only when we cooperate with the Hoy Ghost. Nor does it mean that the Scriptures only speak of justification in the past tense, as we see in Romans 2:13 we may speak of justification as a future event too. In my opinion, this makes a lot of these types of discussions academic. If we can point to our Baptism as when we were justified, doesn't that necessitate a distinction between justification and sanctification? And if justification is a future event, doesn't that necessitate some change in the person from when he was not justified to when he is?

As I pointed out in my post about N.T. Wright, we really do mean that when we hear the Gospel and believe that we are justified by faith. We are reborn, as Dr. Luther says above. That is a change, a really big change.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Some thoughts on N.T. Wright

I am drawn to polemical discussions of doctrine, especially with the two big "traditional" churches, the Eastern Orthodox Churches and the Roman Catholic Church. I have been posting recently in Fr. Kimmel's pontifications blog in the "Justification: declarative or transformative?" thread. In this thread, N.T. Wright, and by extension the "New Perspective on Paul" have been brought up to prove that the Reformation was based on a fundamental misunderstanding of the Pauline epistles, traced back to St. Augustine.

I don't want to get into the details of the New Perspective on Paul, but I do want to point out that in at least one place, Bishop Wright has not understood the fullness of what Lutherans believe. In fact, he said something very Lutheran while denying that it is Lutheran.

Lutherans believe that we are justified by faith, forensically justified in fact. But this justification brings with it benefits, including victory over sin, death and the devil. In other words, Lutheran justification entails more than merely God's declaration we are just for Christ's sake. It is not simply a legal fiction, it is an active declaration, just like the declaration God made when he said "Let there be light..and there was light". There is no justification without works--though works are not the cause of our justification. When we are justified, we are transformed, because we are reborn. Any way, bishop Wright wrote:

When he (St. Paul) describes how persons, finding themselves confronted with the act of God in Christ, come to appropriate that act for themselves, hr has a clear train of thought, repeated at various points. The message about Jesus Christ and his cross and resurrection--the "gospel", in terms of our previous chapters--is announced to them; through this means, God works by his Spirit on their hearts; as a result, they come to believe the message; they join the Christian community through baptism, and begin to share in its common life and its common way of life. That is hoe people come into relationship with the living God.

If you say this is what you mean by justification by faith, I reply that we must take note of the fact that when Paul is setting out this train of thought, as he does (for instance) in 1 Thessalonians 1, he does not mention justification.
Again, leaving aside bishop Wright's broader critique of the Western/Augustinian/Lutheran reading of St. Paul, it is a fact that we believe faith comes by hearing the Gospel, or the cross and resurrection proclamation as bishop Wright says. When we believe that proclamation, we are justified before God. And interestingly, when we are justified, we are of the children of Abraham, or, the ones to whom the promises pertain. In other words, that is what we mean by "justification by faith".

This is a quibble to be sure, as Bishop Wright's teaching does not depend on this particular statement being true. None the less, it seems a lot of non-Lutherans try and place a template upon Lutheranism which does not fit.

Monday, March 19, 2007

Lutheranism: Too clannish, cliquish and negative?

An excellent post by Pr. McCain. In it, he asks if we are too clannish, and especially if we are too quick to point out the deficiencies of others, instead of our own treasures. Our treasures are legion, some of them are:

  • A sacramental theology, which allows us to have something objective to cling to
  • A church-centered economy of salvation, were we live out our faith in a community of like minded believers
  • The cross, which gives us insight into the suffering in the world, though God is a God of love
  • Undiluted, no nonsense forgiveness of sins for Christ's sake
  • Salvation for babies, too
  • Great music, which also teaches
  • Pot luck!
These are just off the top of my head. I do believe Pr. McCain is correct though, we should share what God has given us, and we need not be ashamed of our heritage. Feel free to add your own.

Friday, March 16, 2007

St. Patrick's Day thoughts

March 17th is St. Patrick's day. Because his feast day has been turned into either a Irish nationalist celebration, or a day of parades and corned beef dinners, we can lose sight of what a Christian hero he really is.

Patrick was captured as a teenager and brought to Ireland, a pagan land at that time. According to his own testimony, he did not have faith before is enslavement in Ireland. St. Patrick continued in daily prayer while he was a slave. He humbly sought forgiveness from Christ, and he accepted his temporary vocation as a slave, of all things.

And there the Lord opened my mind to an awareness of my unbelief, in order that, even so late, I might remember my transgressions and turn with all my heart to the Lord my God, who had regard for my insignificance and pitied my youth and ignorance. And he watched over me before I knew him, and before I learned sense or even distinguished between good and evil, and he protected me, and consoled me as a father would his son.
When an old sin was brought up to his face, he remembered the forgiveness offered by his Lord

Hence, therefore, I say boldly that my conscience is clear now and hereafter. God is my witness that I have not lied in these words to you.

This is just a taste of his faith and humility, of his prayer life and love for the people of Ireland.

It is a good thing to remember the saints on their feast days, their examples give us a guide, though not an infallible one, for our lives as Christians. One thing that struck me about St. Patrick was his intense prayer life, and his humble acceptance of his enslavement as punishment for his earlier faithlessness. I think such things as an intense prayer life, and our accepting of the cross we have to bear, are important lessons for us to remember this St. Patrick's day, while we chew on the corned beef and soda bread.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Christ, the particular thing

I saw this on "Confessing Evangelical"

"He was asked once by a Hindu professor what it was that he had found in Christianity, as he put it, that he had not found in his old religion. 'I have found Christ,' said Sadhu Sundar Singh. 'Oh yes, I know,' said the professor rather impatiently. 'But what particular doctrine have you found or principle that you did not have before?"

“The particular thing I have found,” replied Sadhu Sundar Singh, “is Christ.” (The actual story is that Sadhu Sundar Singh saw Christ in a vision, so Christ really found him!)

Yes, it is about Christ. When we are in Christ, when we have the peace that surpasses all understanding, when everything else is stripped from us, we cling to Christ. One of my favorite events in the Gospels is Jesus' healing of the man who was born blind. He had "found Christ" and no one could shake his simple faith. St. John wrote "Whether he is a sinner I do not know. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see."...."Jesus heard that they had cast him out, and having found him he said, 'Do you believe in the Son of Man?' He answered, 'And who is he, sir, that I may believe in him?' Jesus said to him, 'You have seen him, and it is he who is speaking to you.' He said, 'Lord, I believe,' and he worshiped him."

The simple faith of this man, born blind, in the face of interrogation, is a good example of the faith we should have in the great Physician, "All I know is that I was blind, and now I see!"

Wednesday, March 7, 2007

Newman, I hardly knew you

Sometimes we can know that there is just something wrong with an idea, we can even explain why we believe it is wrong. We can see that it is not workable. Perhaps we cannot see the depth of its wrongness until we get to its cleanest exposition. That is what happened when Ken pointed me to Cardinal Newman's "Faith and Judgement". I believe CardinalNewman is simply wrong about faith. I actually found some themes I agree with in this essay, for instance that we do not start with knowledge, but with faith. I do believe, however, that he is wrong when he equates faith with submission to authority, indeed faith consists of that for him.

I read this essay, expecting some pretty tough arguments in favor of the preferred apologetic against anyone who disagrees with the pope: that only those who are in the RCC and submit to the authority of the Majesterium (or the EOC, depending on the individual RC) truly have faith, because their faith is based on authority, and not on what they themselves decide. All else is "private judgement", a mere opinion held, and as that is not really faith at all. If one's faith is based on "private judgement", one cannot believe in the Words of God, and one does not have the same faith as that of the early Christians, who all believed based on the authority of the ones preaching to them and not on the message they preached.

First, I will say that Cardinal Newman seems to be arguing against a naive view of the Scriptures as something from which we are free to extract whatever teachings we wish, and when a new idea pops into our heads, we are free to believe that is truth too, abandoning our previous truth in light of our new interpretation. This is not the Lutheran way of using the Scriptures, though. Newman writes:

...he who believes that God is true, and that this is His word, which he has committed to man, has no doubt at all. He is as certain that the doctrine taught is true, as that God is true; and he is certain, =because= God is true, =because= God has spoken, not because he sees its truth or can prove its truth.

That pretty well sums up the Lutheran way of understanding the Scriptures--first we are Christians, then we can understand what the Scriptures teach us. In other words, we believe the Scriptures are true because they are God's Word, because they testify of the same Christ we believe through the proclamation of the Gospel--the proclamation of his life, death and resurrection and the remission of sins and felowship with the Father that flow from that. Our certainty starts with the promises God made throughout history, as recorded in the Old and New Testaments. That we do not start with the Scriptures or any other plain text, Lutherans and Cardinal Newman agree, we are not to read the Scriptures and start extrapolating ideas about God and the world apart from faith. Where the difference lies is in Newman's idiosyncratic way of using the word "faith".

Lutherans believe faith is trust in God, "He who believes and is Baptized will be saved", and for Lutherans, the object of this faith is the person and work of Jesus Christ, true God and true man, born of the Virgin Mary; who was crucified, died and was buried and rose again as Lord of Life. He who believes these things will be saved. For Lutherans, belief in the message preached by the preacher is faith. Faith in this promise is the gift of God, and not the product of "private judgement" or one's decision, or even of gleaning truth from the Scriptures. It is primarily a spiritual thing, a reorientation of the will. In fact, for Lutherans, "deciding to follow Christ" is ruled out until we are awakened by the Gospel through the Holy Ghost. We don't "decide" anything until we are reborn.

For Cardinal Newman however, it is not enough that one believes the promises, it is not enough even to believe this faith is a supernatural gift; one must believe the promises based on the authority of the one preaching, or one does not actually believe the promises because one does not have the faith of the first Christians. Newman writes:

Now, is it not certain that faith in the time of the Apostles consisted in submitting? and is it not certain that it did not consist in judging for one's self....

...how then were men to receive it? why did so many embrace it? on the word of the Apostles, who were, as their powers showed, messengers from God. Men were told to submit their reason to a living authority...

...The simple account of their remaining as they are, is, that they lack one thing,--they have not faith; it is a state of mind, it is a virtue, which they do not recognise to be praiseworthy, which they do not aim at possessing...

First, it seems that that Newman changes the focus from the message to the messenger, for even if one believes the message, it makes no difference unless one believes in the messenger's authority. He goes even further and says that any Protestants who believe in e.g. the Flood, do so out of habit and not because they actually conform their views to God's revelation in the Scriptures, whereas the Catholic believes these things because of faith, defined as submission to the authority of the Roman Catholic Church. (It seems to me it would be hard to find a Catholic who believes in the Flood through faith these days, but I digress). Where we agree with him is that God's message of salvation needs to be spoken by people, we are saved through means, not unmediated action by God; he uses his creation to bring us to faith in him. However, Newman is wrong to imply that faith comes because of submission to a teacher. Indeed, he goes on to say that unless one is in submission to authority, one does not believe in anything when he writes "..that since they have not this faculty of religious belief,no wonder they do not embrace that [the RCC], which cannot really be embraced without it [faith]. They do not believe any teaching at all in any true sense..." So, another difference between Lutheran doctrine and Newman's teaching is that for Newman, faith is in an important way a command, whereas for Lutherans, the Gospel proclamation is an invitation to believe in Jesus Christ, so we may live. There s a huge gulf between starting with power and authority and starting with God's invitation to eternal life in glory.

When the Apostles preached, according to Newman, people believed their message because of the authority of the Apostles, because of their miracles, because they perceived their words came from God. I will leave aside for the moment the semi-Pelagian implications of a hearer "deciding" someone's words are from God based on their assessment of the person, and instead describe why I believe Cardinal Newman's use of "faith" is just plain wrong. If anything, the message the Apostles preached was a story about a man who was executed and put to shame; yet this same man is God, rose again and will give eternal life to all who believe in his message of salvation. That is all they seem to be about, unless they have to face some controversy. Faith did not consist of submission to the Apostles, but belief in their message of salvation in Jesus Christ. Faith consists of belief in the person and work of Jesus Christ, we "submit" because we become his sheep when we believe the message they bring of Jesus Christ. The Gospel is a stumbling block to the Greeks because it does not conform to reason, it is an offense to the Jews because the idea of God hanging on a tree to die, i.e. suffering humiliation, is utter nonsense. No human authority is able to overcome these objections to the Gospel, only God can do that. Finally, when Jesus said "Repent and believe the Good News", are we really to believe that the Good News is submission to authority? Shouldn't the "good news" be good news?

Monday, March 5, 2007

Lutherans in Madagascar

I saw this over on Pr. McCain's blog, Cyberbrethren. While we do have our problems in the LCMS, I always feel a little better when I read stories like this. With all our problems, we still manage to pass on the Gospel to others, to "tradition" them. And I often read of flourishing Lutheranism in countries poorer than ours, while we struggle here in the USA. I suspect it has to do with modernity.

Friday, March 2, 2007

The Law seen through the Gospel

An end has come; the end has come; it has awakened against you. Behold, it comes. Your doom has come to you, O inhabitant of the land. The time has come; the day is near, a day of tumult, and not of joyful shouting on the mountains. Now I will soon pour out my wrath upon you, and spend my anger against you, and judge you according to your ways, and I will punish you for all your abominations. And my eye will not spare, nor will I have pity. I will punish you according to your ways, while your abominations are in your midst. Then you will know that I am the LORD, who strikes. (Ezekiel 7:6-9)

Passages like these can cause difficulties for believers and non-believers. What could be more frightening than an omnipotent being saying he will repay me, and pitilessly at that, for everything I have done? That this omnipotent being will strike at me, and do so because I deserve it? It is not a comforting thought to say the least. There has to be a way out!

There are three ways we may try to deal with this.

First is to deny what the words have to say. We may deny that this passage is applicale to us because our sins are not so bad, compared to the other guy's sins. We may also deny that these words are God's words, because God is love, and he is not actually wrathful against sinners, so this passage is not saying that he is really wrathful, that is contrary to his nature. Perhaps we may judge God, and ask why he would be pitiless, surely God has evolved enough to be beyond pity, and he always feels good and affirms others. Or we may say we would not deign to worship such a savage, tribal deity. Such a deity is not really worthy of our worship, so we will not worship him.

Second, we may realize that we deserve God's wrath, and redouble our efforts to obey him. Surely we can cleanse ourselves, surely we can obey what he commands, because he would not command anything we could not obey. And once we have cleansed ourselves, once we have removed the plank from our eye, we can go to our neighbor and teach him how to obey God as we do, because now we can see clearly. After all, our neighbor would not want to have an omnipotent being pitilessly pursuing him for his failures.

Third, we may simply despair. After all, if an omnipotent being is out to get us, where will we run? We may, as St. John said in Revelation, simply ask the hills to fall on us, because who can hide from God when the day of his wrath has come? (Revelation 6:15-17) This despair could also drive us away from even considering there is a God at all. Then in our unbelief, we will mock him and bring even more wrath upon us. Or we may simply go on sinning, as it doesn't make much difference, we are doomed anyway; eat drink and be merry!

The first is an attempt to explain the "difficult" passage away by changing their meaning. This is the path of "liberalism" and philosophy.

The second is an attempt to justify ourselves before God. When we try to justify ourselves and we tell ourselves we have attained a measure of righteousness often we turn this into legalism. This is the path of the Pharisee.

The third is an attempt to dull the pain by denying reality. We may simply throw our hands into the air, or grow angry at God because we cannot obey him. This leads to atheism, something Luther flirted with because he began to hate God.

These types of passages, being "law" in Lutheran parlance, do not need to be explained away, nor do we need to boot-strap ourselves to please God, nor do we need to see God as a monster because he is just and punishes sin and sinners. They stand as part of God's revelation, just like the passages we like, the ones which tell us God loves us, that he died for us, that he will forgive us for the sake Of Jesus Christ. The Gospel, or the forgiveness of sins for Jesus Christ's sake, does not change the meaning of a passage so much as change how we see it. Because of the promises God made, we see these judgements against us not so much as something we inevitably will suffer, but as something we rightly deserve which, for the sake of Jesus Christ, God will not apply to us. When we read of God ordering the extermination of the Canaanites, we do not see a viscous God, but think "Ah, if only they would have repented, then they would really know who the Lord is!" When we hear of our crucified Lord, we think "Ah, Lord, it was I who placed you there! Have mercy on me, forgive me so I might serve you as I ought!", not "Look what a cruel God he is!", "How can a good god do such a thing?" We should see the Scriptures as a testimony about Jesus Christ, which he himself said they were. That means we believe the law as well as the Gospel, neither one obliterating the other. God is indeed merciful, and his judgement against sinners is because of us and our open rebellion against him, not because of his cruelty. It is with the eyes of faith we see God's mercy in the sacrifice of his Son, and it is with they eyes of faith we see what God has revealed to us in the judgement passages of the Scriptures--not that he wants to punish us, but that he loves us so that he would stay his hand from this if only we would believe and repent.

We as Christians rejoice in God's unmerited mercy toward us, our God who dies for those who rebel against him, even while they rebel.