Unconditional Gospel?

by Fr Alvin Kimel


Am I saved? Will I be saved? These are the two questions that seem to drive discussion of justification by faith. That Catholics and classical Protestants agree that salvation is by grace alone (sola gratia) does not apparently suffice. It does not suffice, by Protestant analysis, because the Catholic sola gratia is conditioned by Church, sacraments, repentance, regeneration, and corporal and spiritual works of mercy. Hence the concern about the Tridentine doctrine of imparted righteousness. If my righteousness is actually mine, then it is something that I can lose. I bear the final and ultimate responsibility for my salvation. If I am to enjoy unshakable assurance in my salvation, then it is crucial that God, and not I, bear the ultimate responsibility. My righteousness must be external to me, imputed to me. Thus the Reformation cry, justification is by faith alone (sola fide).

Unpacking the meaning of the sola fide is not easy, because its meaning significantly differs from one denomination to another, from one theologian to another. In revivalist Protestantism, “by faith alone” turns out to mean that the sinner saves himself by his personal decision for Christ. As the Semi-Pelagian Narrow Catechism puts it:

Q: What one work is required of thee for thy salvation?
A: It is required of me for my salvation that I make a Decision for Christ, which meaneth to accept Him into my heart to be my personal lord’n’saviour.

Q: By what means is a Decision for Christ made?
A: A Decision for Christ is made, not according to His own purpose and grace which was given to me in Christ Jesus before the world began, but according to the exercise of my own Free Will in saying the Sinner’s Prayer in my own words.

Q: If it be true then that man is responsible for this Decision, how then can God be sovereign?
A: He cannot be. God sovereignly chose not to be sovereign, and is therefore dependent upon me to come to Him for salvation. He standeth outside the door of my heart, forlornly knocking, until such time as I Decide to let Him in.

This may be construed crassly (though humorously), but in one form or another, it accurately represents generic American Christianity. God loves mankind and has accomplished in Christ all things necessary for me to join him in heaven. Only one more thing is needful: I must open the door of my heart; I must say yes to Christ. Everyone who has attended the Alpha Course, please raise your hand. And it’s hard to see how one can escape this way of speaking and thinking. I have been a spiritual director for eight Cursillos and have taught several Alpha courses. These programs are structured to confront the individual with the formative decision to give his life to Christ Jesus. I have witnessed dramatic and not-so-dramatic conversions. Lives have been changed. People are re-born in the Spirit. Hearts are healed and renewed.

Yet the Pelagian element haunts me. And it is sometimes the case, not always but sometimes, that a “decision for Christ,” accompanied by a powerful renewal experience, seems to bury the individual deep in self-righteousness. The born-again Christian cannot see it, of course, but his family and friends certainly do. The born-againer is certain of his salvation. Everyone else is certain they never wish to be born again. I suspect that for about a year after my “baptism in the Holy Spirit,” I was absolutely unbearable. I so desperately wanted everyone to experience what I had experienced. It’s probably a good practical rule that anyone who is privileged with a powerful experience of the Spirit should not be allowed to speak to anyone for about a year. The silence would be a mercy to all.

Eventually there comes that moment when one no longer feels born-again. Where did the Spirit go? Was the whole experience something I conjured up for myself? Why can’t I get it back?

Reformed Christianity avoids all Pelagianism by its ruthless doctrine of double predestination. God unconditionally elects some to eternal salvation and unconditionally reprobates some to eternal damnation. The trick is discovering which camp one belongs to. Classical Reformed preaching, unfortunately, is of no help here. The Reformed preacher cannot declare to his congregation that Christ died for all, “including you,” because we know he did not. Nor can he tell any given individual “God has predestined you for glory,” because he has not been granted access to the secret counsels of the Almighty. Thus the Gospel proclamation becomes a general third-person report: “Christ died for sinners.” This does not mean Reformed evangelism is necessarily half-hearted. As J. I. Packer states, the sermons of Bunyan, Whitefield, and Spurgeon “hold forth the Saviour and summon sinners to Him with a fulness, warmth, intensity and moving force unmatched in Protestant pulpit literature.” Yet the fact remains that the Reformed believer can never know, through the preaching of the gospel itself, whether he is personally intended by God’s electing love. Consider the following passage from Packer:

To the question: what must I do to be saved? the old gospel replies: believe on the Lord Jesus Christ. To the further question: what does it mean to believe on the Lord Jesus Christ? its reply is: it means knowing oneself to be a sinner, and Christ to have died for sinners; abandoning all self-righteousness and self-confidence, and casting oneself wholly upon Him for pardon and peace; and exchanging one’s natural enmity and rebellion against God for a spirit of grateful submission to the will of Christ through the renewing of one’s heart by the Holy Ghost. And to the further question still: how am I to go about believing on Christ and repenting, if I have no natural ability to do these things? it answers: look to Christ, speak to Christ, cry to Christ, just as you are; confess your sin, your impenitence, your unbelief, and cast yourself on His mercy; ask Him to give you a new heart, working in you true repentance and firm faith; ask Him to take away your evil heart of unbelief and to write His law within you, that you may never henceforth stray from Him. Turn to Him and trust Him as best you can, and pray for grace to turn and trust more thoroughly; use the means of grace expectantly, looking to Christ to draw near to you as you seek to draw near to Him; watch, pray, read and hear God’s Word, worship and commune with God’s people, and so continue till you know in yourself beyond doubt that you are indeed a changed being, a penitent believer, and the new heart which you desired has been put within you.

Given that Christ has died only for the elect, the quest for certainty of one’s election is urgent, as any Puritan will attest.

Reformed faith is inherently reflective. After I hear the gospel, I then turn my gaze back upon myself and look for the evidences, both within my subjective experience and my moral life, that I have genuinely repented of my sins and trusted on Christ for my salvation. As Philip Cary observes, within the Reformed system assurance of salvation requires “not only the certainty of God’s promise but also the assurance that I actually believe it. For if faith is to include the certainty that I am saved, it must include the certainty that I am among the elect, which requires me to be certain that I have faith. To be assured I have faith I must perform a ‘reflex act,’ as the Puritans called it, in which I look at myself and recognize that I am a believer. But with the rather terrifying distinction between temporary and saving faith in mind, the reflex act will have to look not just at whether I believe the gospel is true but at whether that belief has had the effect on my life that true saving faith must have” (Phillip Cary, “Why Luther is Not Quite Protestant,” Pro Ecclesia [Fall 2005]: 478).

Absolute certainty may be impossible—I may be deluded or deceived by Satan—but through conjunction of the inner testimony of the Spirit and the evidences of moral fruitfulness, a practical assurance, Reformed divinity assures us, is possible. Puritan George Gillespie writes:

Our assurance of justification, adoption, grace and salvation, is virtually in a syllogistical way: Whoever believes on the Son of God shall not perish, but have life everlasting. But I believe on the Son of God; therefore, etc. Whoever judge themselves shall not be judged of the Lord. But I judge myself; therefore, etc. Whosoever loves the brethren has passed from death to life. But I love the brethren; therefore, etc. In these or the like proofs it is the Spirit of grace which gives us the right understanding and firm belief to the proposition. As for the assumption which has in it the evidence of graces, it is made good by a twofold testimony; the testimony of our consciences,(2 Cor. 1:12; 1 John 3:19-21), and the testimony of the Spirit itself bearing witness together with our consciences. And although both propositions are made good, yet we are so slow of heart to believe, that we cannot, without the special help of the Comforter, the Holy Ghost, freely, boldly, joyfully, and with a firm persuasion, infer the conclusion as a most certain truth. So that, in the business of assurance and full persuasion, the evidence of graces, and the testimony of the Spirit, are two concurrent causes or helps, both of them necessary without the evidence of graces. It is not a safe nor a well-grounded assurance without the testimony of the Spirit; it is not a plerophory of full assurance.

Yet while assurance is possible for many, it may still be unattainable for those of sensitive or scrupulous constitutions. The Reformed “gospel” creates a truly terrified conscience with its doctrines of double predestination and limited atonement: because it requires the sinner to turn introspectively to the self, the sensitive soul inevitably finds himself trapped in a bog of uncertainty, ambiguity, and self-condemnation from which he cannot extricate himself. The sensitive soul can always find evidence within himself to counter all hopes that God has chosen him for eternal gladness. He is mired in the slough of despond. The Reformed gospel cannot assuage or heal the terror it has created.

21 May 2006


The classical Reformed preacher finds himself in the awkward position of not being able to say to any given individual “Christ Jesus died for you on the cross.” He cannot directly assure the individual that he is intended by God’s electing love. What he can say is “Christ died for sinners, and if you believe, you will be saved.” Expounding on John Owen, J. I. Packer identifies four essential components of the “old gospel”:

(1.) All men are sinners, and cannot do anything to save themselves;

(2.) Jesus Christ, God’s Son, is a perfect Saviour for sinners, even the worst;

(3.) The Father and the Son have promised that all who know themselves to be sinners and put faith in Christ as Saviour shall be received into favour, and none cast out (which promise is “a certain infallible truth, grounded upon the superabundant sufficiency of the oblation of Christ in itself, for whomsoever [few or more] it be intended”);

(4.) God has made repentance and faith a duty, requiring of every man who hears the gospel “a serious full recumbency and rolling of the soul upon Christ in the promise of the gospel, as an all-sufficient Saviour, able to deliver and save to the utmost them that come to God by him; ready, able and willing, through the preciousness of his blood and sufficiency of his ransom, to save every soul that shall freely give up themselves unto him for that end.”

The Reformed gospel, therefore, is necessarily formulated conditionally: if you acknowledge yourself as a sinner and put your trust in Jesus as Savior, you will be delivered from your sins and preserved by the Spirit unto everlasting life. The Reformed gospel avoids any hint of Pelagianism because it predicates salvation on God’s unconditional election. Only those who are unconditionally predestined will, by the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit, respond to the gospel in genuine repentance and faith. Regeneration, therefore, logically precedes justification; and because only those who believe are justified, justification must be understood as a conditional reality. John Hendryx elaborates:

Regeneration, the work of the Holy Spirit which brings us into a living union with Christ, only refers to the first step in the work of God in our salvation. It is universally agreed among evangelicals, myself included, that the second step, faith in Christ, must be exercized by the sinner if one is to to be justified (saved). Therefore, justification is conditional (on our faith) … but our regeneration (or spiritual birth) is unconditional; an expression of God’s grace freely bestowed, for it is unconstrained and not merited by anything God sees in those who are its subjects. Regeneration and Justification, although occurring almost simultaneously are, therefore, not the same. Regeneration, has a causal priority over the other aspects of the process of salvation. The new birth (regeneration), therefore, is what brings about a restored disposition of heart which is then willing to exercize faith in Christ unto justification (Ezekiel 11:19; Ezekiel 36:26).

Faith is the precondition for justification; regeneration is the “necessary and efficient precondition for faith.” The new birth precedes faith and generates faith (see John Hendryx, “The Work of the Trinity in Monergism”).

As we have seen, the logical structure of Reformed faith is reflexive. To achieve assurance and security, the believer must turn back upon himself and introspectively discern the evidences of the Spirit in his life. Appeal is often made to the inner testimony of the Spirit, but given the diversity of Reformed opinion on these matters, it would be unwise for me to generalize much more. All classical Reformed theologians emphasize the necessity of assurance. In the words of John Calvin: “No man, I say, is a believer but who, trusting to the security of his salvation, confidently triumphs over the devil and death.” Yet given the logic of the Reformed syllogism, it is difficult to see how real certainty can be achieved, except by a special and immediate illumination of the Spirit.

The classical Reformed presentation of the gospel differs from the Catholic presentation on several key points. Both Reformed and Catholic agree that unregenerate humanity is incapable of genuine faith in Christ Jesus. For the Catholic, this was dogmatically defined at the Council of Orange (A.D. 529):

If anyone says that not only the increase of faith but also its beginning and the very desire for faith, by which we believe in Him who justifies the ungodly and comes to the regeneration of holy baptism—if anyone says that this belongs to us by nature and not by a gift of grace, that is, by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit amending our will and turning it from unbelief to faith and from godlessness to godliness, it is proof that he is opposed to the teaching of the Apostles, for blessed Paul says, “And I am sure that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ” (Phil. 1:6). And again, “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God” (Eph. 2:8). For those who state that the faith by which we believe in God is natural make all who are separated from the Church of Christ by definition in some measure believers. (Canon 5)

The necessity of antecedent or prevenient grace for justification was reaffirmed by the Council of Trent. But whereas the Calvinist asserts all grace to be efficacious, the Catholic distinguishes between sufficient and efficacious grace. Because God, in his infinite and unmerited love, antecedently wills the salvation of all human beings, he gives to all sufficient grace to freely assent to his universal offer of salvation. Within the depths of the soul, God restores to sinners the liberty to cooperate with him and freely will the good of salvation in Christ. Thomas Oden calls this “grace-enabled freedom” (The Transforming Power of Grace [1993], chap. 5). The fundamental principle was stated by St Augustine: “God who created thee without thee, will not justify thee without thee.” With Eastern Orthodoxy, Catholicism affirms the mystery of synergism, but a synergism that is most distinctly not semi-Pelagian. As the catechetical Compendium states: “Grace precedes, prepares, and elicits our free response” (§425).

I will discuss in future articles the nature of Catholic assurance, but I would like to note here two critical differences between Catholic and Reformed preaching:

First, the Catholic Church proclaims the universality of God’s saving will. Christ died on the cross for all sinners, for all humanity. The Catholic preacher is thus authorized, in the name of the Holy Trinity, to speak to everyone he meets: “Jesus Christ died and rose again for you!” I cannot imagine not being able to speak such powerful and comforting words. The Catholic gospel is good news spoken directly to the individual, as well as to the human collective. The sinner knows that he is intended by God’s love and mercy. The speculations of Augustine or Aquinas on predestination are not part of the gospel at this primary proclamatory level. There is a world of difference between being told “God loves you” and “God loves sinners.” The latter is third-person report about God’s love for an anonymous humanity, of which some have been reprobated by God: the hearer must infer that he is included in God’s love. The former speaks directly to the heart and soul of the hearer, thus enabling an immediate response of faith and love.

Second, the Catholic gospel does not include the promise of perseverance. The Catholic preacher cannot promise anyone that they can know, in the absence of special revelation, that they will persevere in faith and thus be saved. It remains possible for the justified to fall from grace through mortal sin. Hence the warning of the Council of Trent: “Let no one herein promise himself anything as certain with an absolute certainty; though all ought to place and repose a most firm hope in God’s help” (chap XIII). Here the council follows the consensual teaching of the early Church, including St Augustine.

It is important to note that the thesis of John Calvin that believers may and should know they are predestined to eternal glory represents a radical departure from orthodox belief. Phillip Cary explains:

Calvin’s theology is foundational for the Protestant tradition in that it is the first theology in the wake of Augustine to inculcate and systematically support the belief that Christians on earth are already saved for eternity. This requires a crucial departure from Augustine, in that Calvin must teach that individual believers can and should know they are predestined for salvation (since all who are saved are predestined to be saved, I cannot know I am saved without knowing I am predestined to be saved). We can call this, Calvin’s epistemic thesis about predestination. This epistemic thesis, not double predestination, is Calvin’s radical innovation in the doctrine of predestination. To support it, both logically and pastorally, the rest of his thinking must take a shape that is quite different from any previous Christian theology. Above all, Calvin’s epistemic thesis implies that true faith in Christ be permanent, persevering to the end. This implies (contrary to Augustine’s view) that all who truly believe in Christ receive the gift of perseverance, which implies in turn that if you know you truly believe, you can know you will persevere and be saved. (“Why Luther is Not Quite Protestant,” Pro Ecclesia [Fall 2005], 475-476)

How ironic that the gospel that J. I. Packer so confidently declares to be the “old gospel,” in contrast to the “new gospel” of “universal redemption and a universal Divine saving purpose,” is not so very old at all.

22 May 2006


“How do I get a gracious God?” This is the question that is said to have driven the young Luther. Some scholars have suggested this is inaccurate (see, e.g., David Yeago’s “The Catholic Luther”); but given that I am not a Luther scholar, I will go along with the majority position. The question of assurance, the need for assurance—this was the compelling concern for the great Reformer. How do I get a gracious God?

It’s an odd question, though. I cannot imagine the question being posed in the early centuries of the Church. Christians then simply knew God was gracious. They rejoiced in his paschal triumph over death and the Pentecostal gift of the Spirit. They were confident they would share in his Kingdom. They had been made new creatures by water and Holy Spirit. They now shared in the divine life of the Holy Trinity. Each Sunday they ate the Body and Blood of their Savior. They knew their God was a God of love and mercy, and so they lived their lives in hope. There were no guarantees, of course. They knew they possessed the power to turn away from salvation and enslave themselves once again to sin and death. And so, like the Apostle, they worked out their salvation in “fear and trembling” (Phil 2:12). Yet as far as I can tell, few suffered from a “terrified conscience.” There was no crisis of assurance.

But in the sixteenth century, one Catholic monk shook the Western world with his anfechtung and fear of divine judgment and Hell. I do not know why Martin Luther found himself incapable of enjoying the comforts of the gospel. Perhaps he read too much Occam and Biel and didn’t read enough Thomas Aquinas. Perhaps his pathologies prevented him from hearing the story of Christ as good news. Perhaps the preachers of the Church, still reeling from the horrors of the Black Plague, found that the only God they could proclaim was a deity of wrath, judgment, and fiery brimstone. But whatever the reason, Luther’s crisis of conscience led him to a revolutionary revision of the Church’s doctrine of justification: “the merciful God justifies us by faith.” Luther believed, rightly or wrongly, that his new doctrine provided the solution to his terrified conscience. Over the next decades Luther’s doctrine would be more precisely formulated as a doctrine of imputational righteousness:

Accordingly we believe, teach, and confess that our righteousness before God consists in this, that God forgives us our sins purely by his grace, without any preceding, present, or subsequent work, merit, or worthiness, and reckons to us the righteousness of Christ’s obedience, on account of which righteousness we are accepted by God into grace and are regarded as righteous. (Formula of Concord, Article III)

Though verbally similar if not identical to the Reformed formulations of justification by faith, the Lutheran doctrine differs from the Reformed in one critical way: it does not secure the salvation of the individual in the secret predestinating decrees of the sovereign God. Classical Calvinism sought to solve the problem of assurance by locating the individual’s salvation outside of the individual in God’s predestinating will. The elect will believe on Christ and be saved. Those who fall away were in fact never predestined. This appeal to predestination creates its own intractable problems for salvific assurance, requiring the individual to turn back to the self and discover within himself evidences of his election. The Formula of Concord emphatically rejects the Reformed doctrines of double predestination and limited atonement, “for they rob Christians of all the comfort that they have in the holy Gospel and in the use of the holy sacraments” (Article XI). Believers are exhorted to seek their assurance, not in the secret counsel of God, but in Christ, who is the “genuine and true ‘book of life.'” Confessional Lutheranism also stays closer to the consensual tradition by acknowledging that the justified may tragically turn from Christ and be eternally lost.

The Lutheran gospel, therefore, does not provide a guarantee that Almighty God will preserve the believer in faith. But it does unconditionally promise a right-standing with God. And it is this unconditionality that secures the assurance of the Lutheran. But how so? Here I propose that the Lutheran doctrine of imputational righteousness functions for Lutherans as authorization for believers to make unconditional promises to each other in the name of Jesus Christ. That the doctrine of imputation need not be so interpreted is evidenced by the conditionalist construals of justification in non-Lutheran denominations (“you will be saved, if you believe”); but it is so interpreted within confessional Lutheranism. Thus Melanchthon:

All Scripture should be divided into these two chief doctrines, the law and the promises. In some places it presents the law. In others it presents the promise of Christ; this it does either when it promises that the Messiah will come and promises forgiveness of sins, justification, and eternal life for his sake, or when, in the New Testament, the Christ who came promises forgiveness of sins, justification and eternal life….

Therefore men cannot keep the law by their own strength, and they are all under sin and subject to eternal wrath and death. On this account the law cannot free us from sin or justify us, but the promise of the forgiveness of sins and justification was given because of Christ. He was given for us to make satisfaction for the sins of the world and has been appointed as the mediator and the propitiator. This promise is not conditional upon our merits but offers the forgiveness of sins and justification freely…. For if the promise were conditional upon our merits and the law, which we never keep, it would follow that the promise is useless.

Since we obtain justification through a free promise, however, it follows that we cannot justify ourselves. Otherwise, why would a promise be necessary? The Gospel is, strictly speaking, the promise of forgiveness of sins and justification because of Christ. Since we can accept this promise only by faith, the Gospel proclaims the righteousness of faith in Christ, which the law does not teach…. Therefore, when a man believes that his sins are forgiven because of Christ and that God is reconciled and favorably disposed to him because of Christ, this personal faith obtains the forgiveness of sins and justifies us.” (Apology of the Augsburg Confession [IV.5, 40-45])

Melancthon’s primary concern is hermeneutical. How is the gospel to be preached? What kind of discourse is it? Melanchthon judges that gospel is properly analyzed as unconditional promise and is to be clearly distinguished from law. The promise of God gives salvation and therefore can only be apprehended by faith, i.e., by trusting the promise. The law of God commands and therefore can only be obeyed or disobeyed. If salvation is contingent upon my obedience, if my standing before God is ultimately determined by my contribution to the process of justification, then certainty of salvation becomes impossible. I may withhold my obedience. I may be overwhelmed by my sin and the burden of saving myself. My obedience will always be deemed inadequate by the holy standards of the Almighty. I am thus left with the horror of my moral failure and importence and the inevitability of eternal damnation. “For the law always accuses and terrifies consciences,” writes Melancthon (IV.38). Melanchthon’s gravamen against the Catholic Church is that it has reduced the gospel to law; it has ceased to speak promise. Robert Jenson elaborates:

“We are justified by faith alone” is not a stipulation about the anthropological conditions of justification, but about the special hermeneutical character of the gospel as a mode of discourse: that it must be be promise and not exhortation if it is to be the creative word from God that sets lives right. The Reformers’ complaint is that such authentic proclamation occurs too rarely in the Church and that this is no accident but is made inevitable by entrenched patterns of practice and interpretation. (“On Recognizing the Augsburg Confession,” in The Role of the Augsburg Confession [1980], pp. 159-160)

The Lutheran doctrine of imputation constitutes Lutheran belief and practice because it is seen as lifting from the shoulders of sinners the burden of responsibility. How does it lift this responsibility? By authorizing the making of unconditional promises: “In the name of Jesus, I say to you, your sins are forgiven.” “In the name of Jesus, I say to you, you are now justified.” Robert Jenson would also add to this promise-making unconditional promises of the future: “In the name of Jesus, I say to you, your place in the kingdom of God is assured.” In all of these promises, God assumes the responsibility for the outcome.

When the gospel is construed as unconditional promise, assurance, indeed certainty, becomes a reality in the life of the believer. We are justified by faith, because when an unconditional promise is spoken, only two responses are possible, faith or disfaith. He who believes the promise simultaneously enjoys certainty, for the promises of God are certain.

But is everyone who hears the promise justified? It would seem that the answer should be yes, but Lutherans almost universally answer no. Only those who believe are justified. What then is to prevent the scrupulous conscience from turning in on himself and asking the unanswerable question, “Do I have faith?” A couple of responses are possible. And this is where matters begin to unravel.

First response: We remind the scrupulous person that faith is not a good work. Faith points away from itself. It only has meaning in relation to its object. As Melanchthon writes, “For faith does not justify or save because it is a good work in itself, but only because it accepts the promised mercy” (Apology IV.65). Or as the Formula of Concord puts it: “For faith justifies, not for this cause and reason that it is so good a work and so fair a virtue, but because it lays hold of and accepts the merit of Christ in the promise of the holy Gospel; for this must be applied and appropriated to us by faith, if we are to be justified thereby.”

But this answer, as right as it is, does not heal the terrified conscience. While it is certainly true that faith relies upon the promise that has been spoken, is it or is it not a condition for salvation? If it is, then I need to know whether I have it. Do I truly and really trust our Lord’s unconditional promise of salvation? How much trust is sufficient? Am I justified when I’m asleep? Is faith in the promise compatible with sin? with venial sin? with serious sin? Does not my egoism and daily sinning disprove the existence of authentic faith in my life?

Second response: Don’t make the introspective turn. Keep your ears pinned to the promise of the gospel. Did you hear the gospel-speaker tell you that you must believe in order to be justified? No, you didn’t. He said, “For the sake of Christ, you are justified!” So cling to the promise, rely on the promise, trust the promise. Gerhard Forde states the the matter in full Lutheran radicality:

We are justified freely, for Christ’s sake, by faith, without the exertion of our own strength, gaining of merit, or doing of works. To the age old question, “What shall I do to be saved?” the confessional answer is shocking: “Nothing! Just be still; shut up and listen for once in your life to what God the Almighty, creator and redeemer, is saying to his world and to you in the death and resurrection of his Son! Listen and believe! (Justification by Faith—A Matter of Death and Life [1982], p. 22)

Faith, therefore, is not something one can ever find in oneself. Faith is not something one does or does not do. It is not an active verb at all. “Faith is the state of being grasped by the unconditional claim and promise of the God who calls into being that which is from that which is not” (Forde, p. 22). Thus Lutheran gospel short-circuits the turn to the self. Once having heard the gospel, I may not subsequently ask the question, “Do I have faith?” or “Do I believe?” because faith is neither an action I can perform nor an attitude I can possess nor a virtue I can exercise. Faith is a mode of eschatological life in the gospel.

Yet as powerful as this dialectical analysis of gospel and faith may be, the niggling question remains: Are all justified to whom the gospel is spoken? And few Lutherans are willing to say yes. And so it does appear that wiggle room is still left for my scrupulous conscience to destroy the assurance of the gospel. If not all are justified, then how do I know that I am not one of them? Yes, it may well be that even asking this question is an act of disbelief, but I am still asking the question. Does the asking of the question mean that I am unjustified?

Thus even though the Lutheran gospel, in all of its radical unconditionality, avoids the assurance problems entailed by a reflective faith, it still cannot prevent a determined conscience from finding that one little loophole of terror. That loophole can only be closed by recourse to deterministic universalism, a position dogmatically barred to both Lutherans and Catholics.

26 May 2006


The gospel is declaration and promise. It is declaration of God’s mighty acts in history, culminating in the incarnation, death, resurrection, ascension and heavenly session of Jesus Christ; and it is promise, spoken to ears that will hear, of that great good that is now given to them in Jesus Christ. My question is this: When the preacher announces the gospel what kind of promises is he authorized by gospel and ordination to make?

We are all well acquainted with conditional promises. Our world is structured by them. “I will do _____ for you if you do _____.” A conditional promise stipulates conditions that must be fulfilled before the promissor executes his promise. A conditional promise may or may not require action by the promisee. For example:

If the Redskins win the Super Bowl next year, I will take you on holiday to the French Riviera.

Assuming that the promisee has no power to actually influence the outcome of the Redskins’ 2006-07 season, the promisee remains uninvolved in the fulfillment of the promise. He can only wait to see if the improbable event of a victorious Redskins’ season happens. (If anyone can engineer a miracle, Joe Gibbs can!)

If you get on the Dean’s list, I will give you a new car.

If you increase your sales by 10%, I’ll give you a raise.

I will provide you room and board for the next year, unless you break the house rules.

Now things are more interesting. Here the fulfillment of the promise is contingent upon the promisee’s activity and work. By his active involvement, energy, and hard work, the promisee can determine the realization of the promise.

When a person makes an unconditional promise, on the other hand, he assumes to himself the responsibility for the fulfillment of the promise. Despite all obstacles, despite the occurrence or non-occurrence of any future event, he guarantees the promised results.

I will cover all of your credit card expenditures.

For your birthday, I will take you to Ireland.

For better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, I will never leave you.

According to one Lutheran construal of the Reformation doctrine of justification, the gospel authorizes the preacher to make unconditional promises to his hearers. Thus Robert W. Jenson:

According to the Reformation insight and discovery, the gospel is a wholly unconditional promise of the human fulfillment of its hearers made by the narrative of Jesus’ death and resurrection. The gospel, rightly spoken, involves no ifs, ands, buts, or maybes of any sort. It does not say, “If you do your best to live a good life, God will fulfill that life,” or, “If you fight on the right side of the great issues of your time …,” or, “If you repent …,” or, “If you believe….” It does not even say, “if you want to do good/repent/believe …,” or, “If you are sorry for not wanting to do good/repent/believe….” The gospel says, “Because the Crucified lives as Lord, your destiny is good.” The Reformation’s first and last assertion was that any talk of Jesus and God and human life that does not transcend all condtions is a perversion of the gospel and will be at best irrevelant in the lives of hearers and at worst destructive.

Moreover, this assertion is itself unconditional. It cannot be agreed to with moderation, as “one legitimate concern” among many, or as a doctrine to be honored on some occasions but not on others. That is what offended such admirable and reform-minded Renaissance moderates as Erasmus or Thomas More or Cajetan: the line the Reformation draws between itself and medievalism allows only the one form of proclamation on its side, and calls all deviations therefrom evil. But that is the very logic of the case. For the only way to practice a conditional affirmation of the Reformation position is occasionally to speak the gospel conditionally—whereupon the Reformation discovery is wholly denied. Either we wholeheartedly and exclusively affirm the unconditionality of the gospel-promise, or, in all that was of importance to the Reformers, we join the medieval church against them. (Lutheranism [1976], p. 42.)

Jenson describes the proposed dogma of justification as a meta-linguistic rule: so speak about Christ and the lives of your hearers that what they hear is an unconditional promise that can only be apprehended by faith. Justification is not a theory about our justification before God; indeed, it is not a doctrine at all. It is, ratherly, hermeneutical instruction on how to speak about Jesus so that one’s speaking is actually gospel.

In my judgment, Jenson’s meta-linguistic construal of justification is the only one out there really worth debating. The neo-scholastic discussions about the formal causality of our righteousness before God are not unimportant, but they also obscure the issue at stake. So what I want to know is, is the meta-linguistic dogma true? Because of its unique character as grammatical rule, there is only one way, it seems to me, to determine whether the reforming instruction in fact expresses the nature of proper gospel-speaking: we must examine past samples of ecumenical proclamation and teaching and judge whether they are characterized by the kind of promissory unconditionality of which Jenson speaks.

19 June 2006


Does the gospel authorize pastors and preachers to make unconditional promises in the name of Christ? And if yes, to whom? Our first step will be to reflect on the catechumenal-baptismal practices of the Church. When the Church is preaching the gospel to unbaptized, what does she say?

In Acts 2 the Apostle delivers his great Pentecost sermon. He concludes his sermon with these powerful words: “Let all the house of Israel therefore know for certain that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified.” The crowd cry out to Peter and the Apostles: “Brothers, what shall we do?” And Peter replies, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” (Acts 2:36-39). After announcing God’s vindication of Jesus and his enthronement as the king of Israel, Peter summons his hearers to repent of their sins and be baptized—to acknowledge Jesus as Lord and Messiah and become his disciples in the Pentecostal community through sacramental initiation, with the promise that if they do this, they will be forgiven of their sins and be filled with the Holy Spirit. The benefits of the gospel are thus presented as conditional upon conversion and baptism. This formulation of evangelistic preaching represents, I propose, the normative apostolic practice and reflects the mandate of the risen Lord: “Go into all the world and preach the good news to all creation. Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned” (Mark 16:15-16).

When Philip shares the gospel with the Ethiopian eunuch, the eunuch is led to ask, “See, here is water! What prevents me from being baptized?” (Acts 8:36) And so the eunuch orders the chariot to stop, and Philip baptizes him.

After Paul’s Damascus road encounter with the risen Christ, Ananias comes to Paul and restores to him his sight. He then urges him to baptism: “And now why do you wait? Rise and be baptized and wash away your sins, calling on his name” (Acts 22:16).

When Paul visits Ephesus, he notes that something is missing in the life of the Ephesian “disciples”:

“Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?”

And they said, “No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.”

And he said, “Into what then were you baptized?”

They said, “Into John’s baptism.”

And Paul said, “John baptized with the baptism of repentance, telling the people to believe in the one who was to come after him, that is, Jesus.”

On hearing this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. And when Paul had laid his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came on them, and they began speaking in tongues and prophesying. (Acts 19:2-6)

Even in the case where the Holy Spirit preempts sacramental initiation, as for example with Cornelius (Acts 10), the necessity of baptism is affirmed: “Can anyone keep these people from being baptized with water?” Peter asks. “They have received the Holy Spirit just as we have” (Acts 10:47).

The apostolic evangelistic norm, therefore, is gospel-repentance-baptism. But it would be wrong to think of these three elements as following each other only sequentially. Repentance and baptism belong to the gospel proclamation itself. The gospel calls unbelievers to faith, and faith is embodied in submission to baptism and rebirth in the community of Christ.

In his wonderful book The Shape of Baptism (1978), Aidan Kavanagh identifes four elements of the basic initiatory structure of the New Testament:

(1) The proclamation of the gospel.

(2) Conversion to faith in the exalted Lord.

(3) The water bath of baptism.

(4) “Life in a Spirit-filled community living by apostolic teaching, in unity with apostolic witness of the risen Christ who is exalted and now become life-giving Spirit for his people, through eucharistic prayer at home and petitionary prayer in the synagogue.”

Kavanagh succinctly summarizes: “Preceded by authentic proclamation of the risen and exalted Christos-Messiah and by conversion, Spirit baptism by water at apostolic hands initiates one into the full life of the community in which the gospel has become praxis” (pp. 22-23).

The gospel is not just a declaration of our Lord’s saving death and resurrection: it is simultaneously a summons into the community of faith in which Christ may be known and life in the Spirit may be experienced and practiced. The gospel, preached to the nonbaptized, is intrinsically conditioned by conversion, sacrament, and Church. It is a promise of salvation, given to faith and bestowed in baptism.

Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and be baptized, and you will be saved.

In the evangelistic setting, salvation, though accomplished in Jesus Christ and now freely offered, is future-event to the hearer. The realization of the gospel promises are expressly formulated as contingent upon the conversion of the hearer and his sacramental entrance into the Spirit-filled life of the Church. The hearer who refuses to repent or who refuses to surrender to the regenerating power of the churchly rites of initiation cannot expect to receive the forgiveness of sins nor experience the new life of Christ.

20 June 2006


When the gospel is proclaimed to the nonbaptized, it is conditioned by faith, repentance, baptism, Church. The hearer must respond to the gospel in specific ways in order to appropriate the blessings of the gospel. The New Testament does not provide us much information on the kind of pre-baptismal catechesis offered in the apostolic churches; but certainly ethical requirements were stipulated. Converts were told that they must reorder their behavior and live lives worthy of Christ, if they would enter into the kingdom. Thus St. Paul:

Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God. (1 Cor 6:9-11)

Here the Apostle looks back to the event of baptism in the lives of his readers, reminding them of the sanctifying change effected in their lives by the Spirit of God. I think it is safe to infer that the baptized were informed before their baptisms of the moral life expected of them as disciples of Jesus.

As the Church expanded her mission into the Gentile world, she realized that converts needed lengthy preparation for the Christian life before they were baptized. Hence a catechumenal order was developed. Catechumens were taught the basics of the gospel and equipped for faithful living in a hostile pagan world. Their catechumenate would often last one to three years. Those who practiced ways of living deemed incompatible with the gospel were expected to alter their lives and change their professions. Aidan Kavanagh elaborates on the making of catechumens, as described in the late second century document Apostolic Tradition:

Admission to ‘hear the word’ is not a mere formality: whole classes of people—such as pimps, makers of idols or amulets, and men with concubines—are not to be accepted into this class of learners, or catechumens, unless they first forsake their modes of life. The crux of this admission procedure has nothing to say about the intentions of the applicant: it is his manner of living that is to be ascertained and, apparently, nothing more. From this point on, the applicant, if accepted, into the catechumenate, will be expected to begin living in a manner befitting a Christian—a manner that will be gradually molded by the teaching, moral support, prayer, example, and ritual patterns of the Christian community itself. From this moment, the convert is regarded no longer as a pagan but as an incipient Christian. (The Shape of Baptism [1978], pp. 54-55)

By the beginning of the fifth century, a heresy had developed that directly affected the baptismal practices of the Church. St Augustine believed it was serious enough to warrant his attention. Faith and Works was the result. It is a short tract, yet illuminating for our purposes. Augustine describes this baptismal heresy:

It is the opinion of some that all men without distinction should be admitted to the bath of regeneration which is in Christ Jesus, our Lord, and that they should be admitted even though they are unwilling to change an evil and shameful life, a life notorious for manifest crimes and disgraceful deeds, and even though they declare openly and publicly that they will continue therein. If, for example, anyone is associated with a prostitute, he should not first be commanded to leave her, and then come and be baptized. But even though he remains with her, and say or even declares openly that he will remain with her, he should be admitted to baptism. He should not be hindered from becoming a member of Christ, even though he persists in being a member of a prostitute. Afterwards he can be taught how evil this is, namely, after he has been baptized; then it can be explained to him that he ought to change his life for the better. For these men think that it is wrong and even absurd that one should first be taught how to live a Christian life and then be baptized. They think rather that the sacrament of baptism should come first; the teaching concerning morals and the life of a Christian should follow afterwards.

If the baptized person fulfills the obligations demanded of a Christian, he does well. If he does not—provided he keeps the faith, without which he would perish forever—no matter in what sin or impurity he remains, he will be saved, as it were, by fire; as one who has built on the foundation, which is Christ, not gold, silver, and precious stones, but wood, hay, straw, that is, not just chaste works but wicked and unchaste works. (1.1)

Readers should recognize this heresy immediately. Today it is known as inclusivity, and it manifests itself in the practices commonly termed “open baptism” and “open communion.” Dietrich Bonhoeffer called it cheap grace: “preaching forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession.” It is grace proclaimed, in other words, as unconditional. The bishop of Hippo is scathing in his criticism.

Augustine reminds his readers that the Apostle Paul did not say put on the new man and then take off the old, but rather quite the reverse. In repentance we strip off the old man so that we might be clothed with the new in Holy Baptism. The very purpose of the catechumenate is to instruct the catechumens in “what the faith is and what kind of life is demanded of a Christian. Then, after they have proved themselves worthy, they may eat the Lord’s table and drink from His cup” (6.9).

“This is to preach Christ,” St Augustine declares: “to say not only what one must believe about Christ but also how one must live who wishes to be joined to the body of Christ; to say, in fact, everything that one must believe about Christ, not only whose Son He is, from whom He takes His divinity, from whom His humanity, what things He has suffered and why, what His resurrection means to us, what is the gift of the Spirit which He has promised and given to believers, but also what kind of members, of whom He is the head, He desires, He forms, loves, sets free, and leads to eternal life and glory” (9.14).

For Augustine, profession of faith is insufficient to justify sacramental initiation into the Church. Commenting on St Peter’s instruction to the crowd in Jerusalem (Acts 2:39), Augustine asks, “How can any person be sincerely repentant for his sins if he continues to commit adultery and other grievous sins which the lovers of this world are wont to commit?” (8.12). Repentance requires renunciation of sin and amendment of life. To admit an unrepentant sinner to baptism is to teach him the falsehood that he will enter the kingdom of God even if he continues in his sin till the end of his life. It is to lead him to damnation. Augustine offers the following catechetical counsel:

If we are not to give the sinner a false security, or even authorization to commit sin, this then, in accordance with true and sound doctrine, is the procedure that we must follow in our instructions, namely, that all who are to be baptized are to believe in God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, as is prescribed in the Creed; that they are to do penance for their sins; and that they are not to doubt that all their past sins will be forgiven them when they receive baptism. They must be told that this forgiveness is not a license to commit sin, but a release from sin; that it is a remission of sin, not a permission to sin. Then it can be truly said of them, in a spiritual sense: Behold, you are made whole; sin no more. For though the Lord, when He spoke these words, was referring to physical sickness, He knew too that this sickness in the man whom He healed was a punishment for sin. But I do not see how our opponents can say to a man: Behold, you are made whole, if they allow him to receive baptism as an adulterer and to remain an adulterer after baptism. For if adultery is not a disease, and a serious and fatal disease, then I do not know what is. (20.36)

The existence of the catechumenate witnesses to the conditionality of the gospel proclamation. The evangelical gospel summons the unbaptized to radical conversion. The catechumenate provides a time during which those who have heard the gospel may begin the process of repentance necessary for the bath of regeneration and life in the Spirit. From the font comes a new being in Christ.

Here is born in Spirit-soaked fertility
a brood destined for another City,
begotten by God’s blowing
and borne upon this torrent by the Church their virgin mother.
Reborn in these depths they reach for heaven’s realm,
the born-but-once known by felicity.
This spring is life that floods the world,
the wounds of Christ its awesome source.
Sinner sinks beneath this sacred surf
that swallows age and spits up youth.
Sinner here scour sin away down to innocence,
for they know no enmity who are by
one font, one Spirit, one faith made one.
Sinner shudder not at sin’s kind and number,
for those born here are holy.

Lateran baptistry inscription (fifth century)

Looking at the baptismal practices and teachings of the New Testament and early Church, I do not see even implicit evidence of a meta-linguistic rule of unconditionality. The unbaptized were expressly told that their enjoyment of the blessings of baptism was conditional upon their turning away from sin, and the Church refused baptism to those who would not repent.

22 June 2006


If Robert Jenson is correct, then the gospel must always be proclaimed as unconditional promise, or it is no gospel at all. We have seen that this thesis runs into serious problems when one is preaching to the unbaptized. According to the witness of Scripture and the early tradition, the gospel-promise is conditioned by repentance, sacrament, and Church: hearers of the gospel are told that if they would share in the life of the Holy Spirit, they must put away their sins, be baptized, and enter into the eucharistic, ascetical, and moral life of the Christian community. But what about the preaching of the gospel within the Church? May we speak unconditional promise to the baptized? Must we speak unconditional promise to the baptized?

St Augustine addresses this question in his tract Faith and Works. Invoking 1 Corinthians 3:11-15, Augustine’s antinomian opponents argued that through faith in Christ the baptized were guaranteed eternal salvation, despite their unrepentant continuance in sinful behaviors. They will be saved through the fire of suffering, “by means of which they will be able to obtain salvation, since they have built upon the foundation” of Christ (15.24).

Augustine finds this interpretation of Paul implausible. It contradicts the wider testimony of Scripture. Augustine readily admits that the 1 Corinthians 3 passage is hard to understand, but “we should not on that account interpret it to our own ruin, as for example, to say, in open contradiction to the teaching of Scripture, that those who live very evil lives can be sure of obtaining salvation, even if they stubbornly persist in their evil ways and do not change for the better or repent of their sins” (15.26).

Augustine offers an alternative interpretation: faith that is dead is not included in the foundation of Christ:

The foundation, which is Christ, is the construction of a wise architect. This does not need any explaining, for it is clearly said: For other foundation no man can lay but that which is laid, which is Christ Jesus. But if Christ is the foundation, then there is no doubt whatever that we must have faith in Christ, since it is by faith, as the same Apostle says, that Christ dwells in our hearts. Furthermore, if we must have faith in Christ, then certainly it must be that faith which, as the Apostle has defined it, works by love. But that faith which the devils have—for they too believe and tremble and acknowledge that Jesus is the Son of God—that faith, I say, cannot be considered as belonging to the foundation. Why not? Because it is not faith which acts through love, but faith which is expressed through fear. The faith, therefore, of Christ, the faith of Christian grace, that is, the faith which acts through love, this faith, if laid on the foundation, allows no one to be lost. (16.27)

What does Paul mean, then, when he speaks of being saved through the flames? Augustine believes that Paul is referring to the suffering entailed by the loss of those things of the world to which men and women are inordinately attached:

If these things are loved with an inordinate affection, it is hard to part with them. He, therefore, who is inordinately attached to them, even though he has faith in Christ, who is the foundation, and has that faith which works by charity, and although he does not in any way whatever esteem or love them more than his faith, nevertheless, if he has to part with them, their loss causes him pain, and this pain is, as it were, the fire by which he is saved. But the less one is attached to them, or, in possessing them, if one possesses them as though he did not possess them, the less pain he suffers in parting with them. However, he who commits murder, adultery, fornication, idolatry, and other similar sins in order to retain or acquire these things, such a person will not be saved by fire because of the foundation, but rather, having separated himself from the foundation, he will burn in everlasting fire. (16.27)

According to Augustine, therefore, the Church’s proclamation of the gospel is always conditioned, explicitly or implicitly, by the summons to repentance and the life of love. We must not so interpret Scripture that we are forced to say to “the unjust, matricides, murderers, fornicators, to homosexuals, menstealers, liars, perjurers,” all you need to do is believe in Christ and you will be saved (16.29). “Let us not promise those who live wicked and shameful lives,” Augustine writes, “that they will suffer only a temporary punishment of fire because they have known the way of justice. It had been better for them, as Scripture so clearly says, if they had not known it” (25.47). We must rather hold fast to the true doctrine of God that “a Christian’s life should harmonize with the sacred character of baptism, and that eternal life should not be promised to anyone who is either not baptized or not leading a good life” (26.48). The righteousness of the Christian must exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees.

Morals and faith are intertwined within the life of love. No person can love God unless he has been born anew in the waters of Holy Baptism. By the Spirit the love of God fills our hearts; by the Spirit God becomes in and for us our true good. When the root of charity is planted in our hearts, the regenerate believer begins to delight in the law of God. As Augustine writes in his Letter and the Spirit, “When charity itself is shed abroad in the heart of believers, we have the law of faith, the Spirit giving life to the lover” (29). Love for God is necessarily expressed in love of neighbor. He who does not love his neighbor does not truly love God. Thus no works can be judged meritorious before baptism; but they do become meritorious after baptism.

I believe it is fair to say that St Augustine would have found incomprehensible the meta-linguistic construal of justification. That we are justified by grace and not by our works Augustine taught the Church catholic. But he also knew, with the Church, that the continuance in the state of justification requires our continuance in that love that now forms our souls. Hence it is crucial that the Church also warn believers that their final salvation is dependent upon their obedience and fidelity. The Church cannot unconditionally promise the Kingdom of God to those who refuse to repent of grave sin. The Christian who says to the unrepentant murderer, you are forgiven and are destined for heaven, has not spoken the gospel to that individual. He has, rather, deceived him. I have yet to find any Church Father who either disagreed or would have disagreed with Augustine’s understanding of salvation; nor have I found within the early tradition any samples of gospel-proclamation that embodies the kind of unconditionality that is, according to the meta-linguistic rule, essential to proper proclamation of the gospel. I am thus forced, quite against my inclinations and druthers, to question the claim that the gospel must always be proclaimed as unconditional promise.

29 June 2006


What is the relationship between the preaching of forgiveness and the preaching of repentance? Until you have wrestled with this question, you haven’t plumbed the depths of the evangelical assertion that salvation is by grace alone. If we treat the sola gratia as simply a scholastic problem of relating divine agency and human agency, it becomes a matter of interest only to theologians. But the sola gratia is and should be of burning concern to all Christians and their pastors.

At Faith and Theology, Kim Fabricius writes:

The gospel itself is not “Repent and be forgiven”—that is sheer legalism—but “You are forgiven, and therefore now free to repent.” Even pagans say, “If you’re sorry, I’ll forgive you.” More to the evangelical point, how can we repent of sin when sin is only known as sin forgiven, when we can only know ourselves as sinners in the light of grace?

I first encountered this formulation of repentance and forgiveness in the scattered writings of Scottish theologian James B. Torrance. Torrance distinguishes between evangelical repentance and legal repentance:

Legal repentance is the view that says, “Repent, and IF you repent you will be forgiven!” as though God our Father has to be conditioned into being gracious. It makes the imperatives of obedience prior to the indicatives of grace, and regards God’s love and acceptance and forgiveness as conditional upon what we do—upon our meritorious acts of repentance. Calvin argued that this inverted the evangelical order of grace, and made repentance prior to forgiveness, whereas in the New Testament forgiveness is logically prior to repentance. Evangelical repentance on the other hand takes the form that, “Christ has borne your sins on the Cross, therefore repent!” That is, repentance is our response to grace, not a condition of grace. The good news of the Gospel is that “There is forgiveness with God that he might be feared” and that he has spoken that word of forgiveness on the Cross—but that word summons from us a response of faith and penitence. (“The Vicarious Humanity of Christ,” in The Incarnation, ed. Thomas F. Torrance [1981], p. 142.)

I like this distinction between evangelical and legal repentance and have preached it from the pulpit since my ordination; yet I confess that doubts have niggled at me. These doubts have increased exponentially since my conversion to the Catholic Church. When the Apostle Peter confronted the crowd on Pentecost, he did not declare to them, “You are forgiven for your sins; therefore repent and be baptized”; rather, he said, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38). In other words, he directed them to a sacramental event in and by which they might put put aside their disbelief and sin and receive the freely offered gift of forgiveness. The summons to baptism is thus included in the gospel message itself. The heathen are not told that they are already forgiven because of what Christ has done for them. They are told to enter the sacramental waters in which they will be forgiven. Forgiveness is something that is done to them. It is a divine word that is spoken to them at the moment they surrender themselves to Christ in repentance and faith.

Evangelistic preaching (i.e., preaching to the nonbaptized), therefore, does not quite fit into Torrance’s categories. Our repentance, of course, does not persuade God into forgiving us. God has indeed already borne away our sins on the cross. He has reconciled mankind to himself in Jesus Christ. The sacrifice has been offered. Atonement has been achieved. Yet there remains the divine summons to conversion and baptism. The nonbaptized are not truly forgiven and reconciled to God until they believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, amend their lives, and enter into the sacramental life of the Church. Sinners do not earn God’s forgiveness by repentance and baptism. Our heavenly Father does not need to be placated or propitiated. But forgiveness only becomes a reality when the sinner has acknowledged his sin and surrendered himself to Christ and the way of discipleship. C. S. Lewis elaborates:

Now what was the sort of “hole” man had got himself into? He had tried to set up on his own, to behave as if he belonged to himself. In other words, fallen man is not simply an imperfect creature who needs improvement: he is a rebel who must lay down his arms. Laying down your arms, surrendering, saying you are sorry, realising that you have been on the wrong track and getting ready to start life over again from the ground floor—that is the only way out of a “hole.” This process of surrender—this movement full speed astern—is what Christians call repentance. Now repentance is no fun at all. It is something much harder than merely eating humble pie. It means unlearning all the self-conceit and self-will that we have been training ourselves into for thousands of years. It means killing part of yourself, undergoing a kind of death…. Remember, this repentance, this willing submission to humiliation and a kind of death, is not something God demands of you before He will take you back and which He could let you off if He chose: it is simply a description of what going back to Him is like. If you ask God to take you back without it, you are really asking Him to let you go back without going back. It cannot happen. (Mere Christianity [1952], p. 49.)

Consider the parable of the prodigal son. It is clear in the parable that the Father is eager to be reconciled to his son. He yearns for his son’s return. He aches for the healing of their relationship. Each day he looks down the road, hoping to see his son. In one sense one might say that the Father has already in his heart forgiven his son, yet reconciliation cannot occur until the son comes to his senses and makes the journey home. The son must repent. If he does not, the two remain estranged and there is no forgiveness. It is this repentance, this return home, that makes forgiveness and the restoration of relationship possible.

Holy Baptism is precisely this moment of return, that moment when the conversion of the sinner and the forgiveness of God meet and are joined. Baptism simultaneously absolves the sinner and opens to him a new life as an adopted son of the Father. But that moment cannot happen unless the sinner turns back to God.

What about the preaching of forgiveness to the baptized? Does Torrance’s distinction accurately describe the preaching and praxis of the Church catholic? As far as I know, no one has done the kind of historical research necessary to answer this question; but my very, very limited research suggests that Christian preachers have not hesitated to declare to the baptized that God’s forgiveness is, in some sense, conditional upon their repentance (see my series “How unconditional is unconditional?”). After all, Jesus also used conditionalist language on occasion:

If you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins. (Matt 6:14-25)

If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. (Matt 16:24)

If you want to be perfect, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. (Matt 19:21)

I tell you, whoever acknowledges me before men, the Son of Man will also acknowledge him before the angels of God. But he who disowns me before men will be disowned before the angels of God. And everyone who speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but anyone who blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven. (Luke 12:8-10)

Unless you repent, you too will all perish. (Luke 13:3, 5)

If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters—yes, even his own life—he cannot be my disciple. And anyone who does not carry his cross and follow me cannot be my disciple. (Luke 14:26-27)

When we turn to the letters of St Paul, we find the Apostle to the Gentiles declaring to the baptized the decisive significance of their baptism: you have died with Christ in baptism and therefore sin no longer has power over you (Rom 6), yet this freedom is dependent on continuance in the life of the Spirit: “You, however, are controlled not by the flesh but by the Spirit, if the Spirit of God lives in you. And if anyone does not have the Spirit of God, he does not belong to Christ” (Rom 8:9). The eschatological indicative of who we now are in Christ, by faith and baptism, is foundational, yet there remains the problem of sin. When Paul commanded the expulsion of the sexually immoral man (1 Cor 5), was he not declaring that the individual had lost his baptismal justification and needed to repent to be forgiven and reconciled, both to God and the Church?

The Apostle John certainly knew the necessity of repentance by the baptized to obtain the forgiveness of sins: “If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:8-9).

The invitation to the eucharistic General Confession in the Book of Common Prayer reflects the usage of John: “Ye who do truly and earnestly repent you of your sins, and are in love and charity with your neighbors, and intend to lead a new life, following the commandments of God, and walking henceforth in his holy ways: Draw near with faith, and make your humble confession to Almighty God, devoutly kneeling.” The prayer of confession is then followed by an absolution in the subjunctive mood, as opposed to the indicative mood: “[May] Almighty God our heavenly Father, who of his great mercy hath promised forgiveness of sins to all those who with hearty repentance and true faith turn unto him, have mercy upon you, pardon and deliver you from all your sins, confirm and strengthen you in all goodness, and bring you to everlasting life, through Jesus Christ our Lord.” Both the invitation and absolution explicitly assert repentance as a condition for forgiveness. With the sacerdotal requirement that the absolution may only be spoken by a priest or bishop, the absolution approaches an absolute declaration of divine forgiveness; yet it stops just short, precisely because, I suggest, the priest does not know whether each member of his congregation has in fact repented of their sins. The confession is general and so the absolution must be conditional and deprecatory. John Calvin, it might be noted, makes a similar point in his critique of auricular confession:

Nor does it belong to the priest to know for certainty whether or not a sinner is loosed, but to Him from whom acquittal is asked; since he who only hears can ever know whether or not the enumeration is full and complete. Thus there would be no absolution, without restricting it to the words of him who is to be judged. We may add, that the whole system of loosing depends on faith and repentance, two things which no man can know of another, so as to pronounce sentence. It follows, therefore, that the certainty of binding and loosing is not subjected to the will of an earthly judge, because the minister of the word, when he duly executes his office, can only acquit conditionally, when, for the sake of the sinner, he repeats the words, “Whose soever sins ye remit;” lest he should doubt of the pardon, which, by the command and voice of God, is promised to be ratified in heaven. (Inst. 3.14.18)

In his Strasbourg liturgy, Calvin directed the following absolution to be said: “Let each of you confess that he is really a sinner who has to humble himself before God. He must believe that the heavenly Father will be gracious to him in Jesus Christ. To all who have repentance and who seek Jesus Christ for their salvation, I pronounce forgiveness in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.” In Geneva, in response to pressure from his congregation (“No one can forgive sins but God alone”), he substituted a statement of forgiveness in place of the absolution.

Neither Calvin’s formula nor Cranmer’s formula quite satisfy James Torrance’s construal of evangelical repentance.

5 July 2006


Is the gospel to be proclaimed in the form of unconditional promise? Some Lutherans (Robert Jenson, Gerhard Forde) and Reformed (James Torrance, Thomas Torrance) insist that it must be; otherwise it is not the gospel. Yet as we have seen, it is difficult to document this practice in the Church, including the Churches of the Reformation and their offspring. The paucity of such preaching argues strongly against the unconditionality rule.

Grammatical rules are grounded in actual speech; they describe the normative patterns of discourse within a given language. When a grammarian declares that a verb must agree with the subject of the sentence in number, he is not simply offering an opinion; he is describing how the English language works for purposes of effective communication. His assertion is proven or disproven by appeal to the actual speech of competent speakers of the language. “Do not split an infinitive” is an example of a bad grammatical rule: it was an attempt by grammarians to impose Latin grammatical rules on a language that works differently. Split infinitives are common in most varieties of English and indeed are often desirable or necessary. There is a difference between saying, “To boldly go where no man has gone before” and “To go boldly where no man has gone before.” The necessity to split the infinitive is clear in the sentence “John has tried consciously to stop fretting about his career.” As George Bernard Shaw famously mocked, “This is something up with which I will not put.”

Analogously, the meta-linguistic stipulation of unconditionality, at least in its strong form, looks and feels like a prescriptivist imposition upon Christian discourse: it does not accurately describe how Christian evangelists and pastors have in fact proclaimed and enacted the gospel for the past two thousand years. This is particularly true, I think, for the Catholic and Orthodox traditions.

The unconditionalist claims that conditional construals of the gospel promote works-righteousness and lead sensitive souls into the despond of despair. I readily acknowledge that this sometimes occurs. It appears to have happened, for example, in parts of the late medieval Western Church and in 17th century Puritanism. But almost always, besides sin and pathology, one can identify theological, ecclesial, and social factors that have contributed to these unfortunate pastoral consequences. Neither works-righteousness nor despair is a necessary consequence of normal gospel-speaking. Are you, like the Pharisee in our Lord’s parable, tempted to pride because you seem to be blameless before the moral Law? Then St Augustine has good counsel for you: “What merit, then, does a man have before grace, by which he might receive grace?—–when our every good merit is produced in us only by grace and when God, crowning our merits, crowns nothing else but his own gifts to us.” Are you tempted to despair of our sins? Do you fear God’s condemnation? Then St Anselm instructs you to so speak to God: “Lord, I interpose the death of our Lord Jesus Christ between my sins and thee.” The catholic tradition contains the pastoral, homiletical, and ascetical resources to address the many problems and crises that attend Christian living.

How is it possible for Catholicism and Orthodoxy, at least when they are spiritually healthy, to proclaim the sola gratia within a conditionalist homiletical structure, while avoiding the negative consequences of works-righteousness and despair? The answer came to me last week while re-reading Robert Jenson’s article “The ‘Sorry’ State of Lutheranism” (dialog [Fall 1983]):

Repentance is inseparably acknowledgment of my old life and confident prayer for God’s gift of a new one; it is, indeed, the descriptively ungraspable identity of these two acts. And that is to say, morally, repentance in respect of any particular course of sin is inseparably regret for how I have acted and—not resolve to do better but—simply beginning to act differently. What has happened to much Lutheranism is that repentance has been set in a christologically and eschatologically deprived context, so that the word of absolution and the word of promise are two words, and the backward look of regret and the forward look of moral expectation are separately practicable.

The evil is not an insufficient emphasis on the law. The evil is in a peculiar “Lutheran” vacuity of the gospel. If we ask where Lutheran congregations learn to stop worrying and love their sins, we need look no further than the standard sermon-outline of Lutheran preaching…. In the standard Lutheran sermon, there will first be an analysis of some aspect of fallen human life, often very well done. Then will come the “gospel”-part: “To be sure, we must recognize that we cannot by our own reason or strength do differently. Never mind, for Jesus’ sake God loves you anyway.” The “gospel” has no content of its own, it consists only in a cancellation of the previous “law.” (p. 281)

The problem, according to Jenson’s diagnosis, is the reduction of justification to the cancellation of the law; but why has this reduction occurred? Jenson’s answer is surprising: because the Reformation Churches have abandoned the sacrament of Penance. Penance is essential because it is a divine word that simultaneously absolves the past and grants a new future in the Spirit.

The problem is that the word that releases from the past and the word that promises the future have become two words, the look back and the look forward two acts…. Luther and the initial Lutherans understood and practiced the word of forgiveness and the word of promise as one word, the act of acknowledgment and the act of new virtue as one act…. The matter may be put so: actual repentance is an event and not an attitude, even if a “daily” event. Repentance insofar as it is an event cannot really avoid being the unity of the look back and the look forward, for that is the character of human events—to have a beginning and an outcome and to be precisely the accomplishment of their unity. Therefore also the word that calls to and opens repentance must be—to borrow a bit of jargon from a few years back—a word-event, an address that carries the hearer through the unity of a past and a future, a word the hearing of which is itself an epoch of the hearer’s history…. The rite of penance is, precisely as a rite, a word that makes the turn from past action to new action quite apart from the achievement of either the confessor or the penitent. It is, therefore, essential. (pp. 282-283)

The sacrament of Penance is necessary to the spiritual welfare of every congregation and every believer—even in, especially in, those Churches that proclaim the gospel as unconditional promise. Eliminate this sacrament, Jenson says, and the unconditional gospel is inevitably reduced to freedom from condemnation: “God loves you anyway.” Here is the root of the practical antinomianism that afflicts so many Protestant (and increasingly, Catholic) congregations.

Jenson notes that Luther wished to retain the rite of Penance. In 1522 Luther preached against the abolition of private confession: “I will allow no one to take private confession from me and would not give it in exchange for all the wealth of the world. For I know what consolation and strength it has given me” (LW 51:98). Yet Luther did not understand it as strictly necessary to the life of the Church: he ordered private confession to to be voluntary and abolished the requirement of complete confession, i.e., the confession of all mortal sins. “For Luther,” writes Ronald Rittgers, “private confession was a kind of pseudo-sacrament, a means of returning to the inexhaustible supply of grace one received in baptism. Private confession was salutary but not sacramental” (“Luther on Private Confession,” Lutheran Quarterly XIX [Autumn 2005], p. 314). Luther’s ambivalence about the rite was revealed in the Nürnberg absolution controversy in the early 1530s.

Andreas Osiander was a Lutheran pastor in the city of Nürnberg. He opposed the practice of general confession and absolution as unbiblical. He believed that the practice of general confession discouraged private confession and encouraged moral laxity. But the people of Nürnberg preferred general confession, and in 1533 the city council wrote to Wittenberg for advice. In reply Luther, with Melanchthon, recommended that the city retain both forms of absolution, both being genuine means of preaching the gospel: “the preaching of the holy gospel is also in essence an absolution in which forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to many people in common and publicly or to one person alone, whether in public or in secret.” But Osiander dissented. Penance, he insisted, is a divinely instituted sacrament. Through the power of the keys, it truly conveys what it signifies, God’s forgiveness or judgment. When the pastor speaks the divine absolution and lays hands on the penitent, “God himself truly speaks to and touches him with his Word and Holy Spirit.” Hence it is crucial that the pastor only absolve those who can receive the divine word in faith: “if the person who is absolved does not have sufficient sorrow or faith, the keys do not for this reason lie or deceive. What is loosed on earth is certainly loosed in heaven. If the absolved person remains without sorrow or faith … he will be damned on account of his hardness and unbelief. But the sin from which he has been released is truly forgiven him.” Thus Osiander would not risk the souls of his flock by practicing indiscriminate absolution. The pastor must speak with the penitent privately and be assured of his sincere repentance.

Whereas Osiander understood Penance to be the third sacrament, Luther understood it as simply one form of gospel-preaching. Penance was a means of grace but not on the same level as baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Hence Luther did not draw the conclusion that penitents who made unworthy confessions incurred wrath and judgment. The word of absolution appears to have functioned differently for Luther and Osiander. According to Luther, absolution is only efficacious if the penitent receives the divine offer of forgiveness in faith. According to Osiander, faith is not strictly necessary for sacramental efficacy, though of course it is desirable and its absence brings judgment upon the individual. The difference is subtle but important, as Rittgers explains:

For Osiander, the contention that absolution was an order that had to be received by faith posed a direct threat to the validity of the keys. Luther was aware of this threat, but did not consider it particularly serious. To those who charged that his version of the keys rendered absolution uncertain, the Wittenberg reformer responded, “Well, friend, if you call this a failure [i.e., that the keys do not accomplish their purpose unless met with faith], then God fails in all his words and works. After all, very few people believe or accept what he constantly speaks and does for everyone.” The point, again, was that God’s offer of grace was valid quite apart from human responses to it, but only those who received the divine mercy in faith benefited from it. This faith was not a human work—on this point Osiander and Luther were agreed. But only Osiander thought this required complete passivity on the part of the confessant; Luther believed it implied receptivity. Neither man wanted to ascribe agency to confessants, but whereas Luther could still allow—even require—a divinely-caused human response in confession, Osiander permitted nothing of the sort, at least not in the initial reception of absolution. (p. 320)

The Nürnberg controversy is illuminating. Osiander was both more radical and more traditional than Luther. Because Luther understood Penance as simply one form of the gospel, he could not provide a compelling “theological rationale for a Christian to prefer private confession over general confession, or even over confession to a fellow brother or sister in Christ, for all conveyed the same grace” (p. 325). As a result private confession has disappeared, not only in Lutheranism, but in Protestantism as a whole. Why endure the ordeal of privately confessing one’s sins to one’s pastor when general confession is just as good? Osiander, on the other hand, understood the pastoral absolution as a true sacramental act of God, the unbinding and binding of sinners. Because it is a divine, efficacious, and sacerdotal word, because it truly accomplishes forgiveness, it must not be spoken to the impenitent, lest it cause more harm than good. But Osiander’s views on absolution and private confession were ultimately rejected by the Churches of the Reform, and the sacrament of Penance was lost.

And now I am prepared to answer the question I posed above: How is it possible for Catholicism and Orthodoxy to proclaim the sola gratia within a conditionalist homiletical structure, while avoiding the negative consequences of works-righteousness and despair? Answer: the sacrament of Penance!

11 July 2006


What is the crucial difference between (good) Catholic and (good) Protestant preaching of repentance? The former is formed by and directed to the the sacrament of Penance. It thus retains the basic structure that characterizes evangelistic preaching to the nonbaptized. To the nonbaptized the Catholic preacher declares: repent, be baptized in the name of Jesus for the remission of sins, and you will receive the Holy Spirit. To the baptized the Catholic preacher declares: repent, confess your sins to a priest and receive absolution, and you will be renewed in the Holy Spirit. The preaching of repentance is thus sacramentally conditioned. It always includes direction to a sacramental event in which God promises to bestow upon the believer forgiveness of sins and the gift of the Spirit.

Despite its conditionalist structure, sound Catholic preaching on repentance avoids the two pastoral results that Protestants fear for Catholics—works righteousness and despair. Works righteousness is avoided, because simply assenting to a divine command to go to confession is hardly something one dare boast before God. A starving man cannot claim merit for following directions to the local soup kitchen. Despair is avoided, because the risen Christ himself is the principal actor in the sacrament: it is Jesus who forgives, regenerates, renews, vivifies, deifies, and restores to the life of the Spirit. The sacrament effects the grace it signifies; it works, as the theologians say, ex opere operato. The Catholic Catechism succinctly states the Catholic sacramental understanding:

1127 Celebrated worthily in faith, the sacraments confer the grace that they signify. They are efficacious because in them Christ himself is at work: it is he who baptizes, he who acts in his sacraments in order to communicate the grace that each sacrament signifies. The Father always hears the prayer of his Son’s Church which, in the epiclesis of each sacrament, expresses her faith in the power of the Spirit. As fire transforms into itself everything it touches, so the Holy Spirit transforms into the divine life whatever is subjected to his power.

1128 This is the meaning of the Church’s affirmation that the sacraments act ex opere operato (literally: “by the very fact of the action’s being performed”), i.e., by virtue of the saving work of Christ, accomplished once for all. It follows that “the sacrament is not wrought by the righteousness of either the celebrant or the recipient, but by the power of God.” From the moment that a sacrament is celebrated in accordance with the intention of the Church, the power of Christ and his Spirit acts in and through it, independently of the personal holiness of the minister. Nevertheless, the fruits of the sacraments also depend on the disposition of the one who receives them.

1129 The Church affirms that for believers the sacraments of the New Covenant are necessary for salvation. “Sacramental grace” is the grace of the Holy Spirit, given by Christ and proper to each sacrament. The Spirit heals and transforms those who receive him by conforming them to the Son of God. The fruit of the sacramental life is that the Spirit of adoption makes the faithful partakers in the divine nature by uniting them in a living union with the only Son, the Savior.

At the heart of the sacrament of Penance is the decisive, unconditional, justifying Yes of God, which comes to clear and authoritative expression in the absolution of the Latin rite:

God, the Father of mercies,
through the death and the resurrection of his Son
has reconciled the world to himself
and sent the Holy Spirit among us
for the forgiveness of sins;
through the ministry of the Church
may God give you pardon and peace,
and I absolve you from your sins in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

“I absolve you from your sins …” Here is the voice of the Lord speaking to us today, as clearly and powerfully as he spoke to the paralytic in Capernaum. At the moment the absolution is pronounced, the sinner is captured by the Word of God, filled with the Holy Spirit, and raised to new life; he is delivered from all guilt and restored to his proper place within the divine life of the Holy Trinity. G. K. Chesterton referred to the confessional as a “church within a church.” It is here, in the church within the church, that the gospel is applied directly and personally to the individual believer. Except in exceptional circumstances, Catholic priests do not give general absolutions. Absolution is a sacerdotal word that only those who have turned to Christ Jesus in faith and repentance should hear, must hear. Those who are not yet ready to be receive the new life of the kingdom are not yet ready to hear in faith the absolution of the Lord. Just as the Church does not baptize indiscriminately, so the Church does not absolve indiscriminately. Preachers may proclaim the salvation of Christ, may offer the salvation of Christ; but confessors enact the salvation of Christ. “It is almost a good thing,” writes Chesterton, “that nobody outside should know what gigantic generosity, and even geniality, can be locked up in a box, as the legendary casket held the heart of the giant. It is a satisfaction, and almost a joke, that it is only in a dark corner and a cramped space that any man can discover that mountain of magnanimity.”

Within the conditionalist structure of Catholic preaching—“repent and God will forgive you”—we thus find an unconditional, transformative, sacramental Word that absolves the past and opens to the believer a new future in the Spirit. Here is the gospel within the gospel. The preacher does not stand before his congregation and declare to them that they are already forgiven, despite continuance in grievous sin. This would betray and short-circuit the dramatic flow of the gospel, which calls us to continual repentance and conversion. The objective work of redemption in Christ is indeed complete, yet its subjective appropriation by each individual happens within the history of that individual. God has reconciled the world to himself in his dearly beloved Son, yet still I must respond in faith, still I must repent, still I must change my life and allow God to change my life. The tragic mystery of baptismal life is that we continue to reject Christ through mortal sin. We therefore need our pastors to exhort us to abandon our sins and receive the unmerited forgiveness of God. The sacrament of Penance is given to enable the baptized to obey the summons to repentance and begin anew the eschatological life of Christ Jesus in his Church.

13 July 2006


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