Justin A. Petersen
1930 Synod Convention Essay
“Also they teach that men cannot be justified before God by their own strength, merits, or works, but are freely justified for Christ’s sake, through faith, when they believe that they are received into favor, and their sins are forgiven for Christ’s sake, who, by His death, has made satisfaction for our sins. This faith God imputes for righteousness in His sight.” Rom. 3 and 4.
Four hundred years ago a mighty spiritual warfare was raged, a decisive battle in the Christian church was fought. And in this warfare the noble confessors at Augsburg, “than whom none more heroic have ever trodden this earth,” wrestled not only “against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places.” These courageous warriors fought, not for goods and gold, not for property and possessions, not for earthly honor and glory, but for the truth of God’s word, for the honor of Christ, and for the comfort of poor sinners. That the confessors at Augsburg realized clearly that just these things were at stake, we see especially from their elaboration of the doctrine of justification in the Apology of the Augsburg Confession. Forcibly struck by their constant appeal to the truth of God’s word, their determination to give Christ all the glory for man’s salvation, knowing full well that only then could poor sinners find complete comfort, the author of this essay was influenced to treat the doctrine of justification as set forth in the fourth article of the Augsburg Confession in the following manner:
Why should we with our faithful fathers tenaciously cling to, and joyfully confess the doctrine of justification as expressed in the fourth article of our Augsburg Confession?
I. Because only then are we building on the sure foundation of God’s word;
II. Because only then can Christ receive the glory due His Savior name;
III. Because only then can sinners find complete comfort.
That the word of God is the only guide, rule, and standard in all matters that pertain to Christian doctrine, faith, and life was most clearly confessed and, what is better still, consistently practiced by the faithful confessors at Augsburg. Though a special paragraph to this effect was not written into our chief confession, nevertheless we are not for a moment left in doubt as to their stand here. In the very preface to the Augsburg Confession our fathers state that their chief aim is to show “what manner of doctrine from the Holy Scriptures and the pure Word of God has been up to this time set forth in our lands, dukedoms, dominions, and cities, and taught in our churches.” And in the concluding remark of this same Confession we again read: “If there is anything that any one might desire in this Confession, we are ready, God willing, to present ampler information according to the Scriptures.” In the article before us, the fourth article “Of Justification,” a direct appeal is made to the Scriptures, “Rom. 3 and 4.”
In the introduction to The Formula of Concord, Epitome, p. 216 (the quotations throughout this paper are taken from the reprint of the English text of the Concordia Triglotta) we read: “We believe, teach, and confess that the sole rule and standard according to which all dogmas together with (all) teachers should be estimated and judged are the Prophetic and Apostolic Scriptures of the Old and of the New Testament alone, as is written Ps. 119:105: Thy Word is a lamp unto my feet and light unto my path.”
This same clear-cut, positive position is also taken in the Thorough Declaration of The Formula of Concord, p. 234: “First (then, we receive and embrace with our whole heart) the Prophetic and Apostolic Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments as the pure, clear fountain of Israel, which is the only true standard by which all teachers and doctrines are to be judged.” From Scripture, then, and from no other source would they draw the water of salvation.
And no one can read the Apology of the Augsburg Confession, and especially then the article which elaborates on the doctrine of justification without being impressed by the constant appeal to the written word. “Scripture testifies” is the constant refrain. Every statement is buttressed by a Bible passage. Scripture to them was “the immovable Word,” “a veritable rock.” Truly our fathers strove to “honor the ministry of the Word in the highest degree.”
How dumfounded were the confessors at Augsburg that all these clear and convincing testimonies from Scripture made little or no impression on their adversaries! “Truly it is amazing that the adversaries are in no way moved by so many passages of Scripture, which clearly ascribe justification to faith, and indeed deny it to works. Do they think that the same is repeated so often for no purpose? Do they think that these words fell inconsiderately from the Holy Ghost?” Apology, p. 41.
And yet this was not so surprising when we bear in mind that not only to the laity but also to many of the Catholic theologians, the Bible was a closed book. It is told of Carlstadt that he had been created a doctor of theology without ever having seen a Bible. Luther himself had not read the Bible until he as a monk of twenty-four years accidentally stumbled upon a dusty copy of Scripture in the Convent library at Erfurt. It was but natural then that the Catholic theologians should appeal to the fathers instead of to the Scriptures. Luther rebukes them severely for this when he exclaims: “The fathers, the fathers, the fathers! the Church, the Church, the Church! usage! custom! But of the Scriptures—nothing!” In striking confirmation of this we have Dr. Eck’s reply to Duke William of Bavaria’s question, “Can you refute this doctrine?” “With the Church Fathers I can,” answered Eck, “but not with the Scriptures.” Well-deserved therefore, was both the rebuke to the Catholic church and the tribute to the Lutheran church contained in Duke William’s reply: “Then I see that the Lutherans are in the Scriptures and we outside.”
And through the study of the word of God our fathers were brought to see that not only is the doctrine of justification by faith alone a doctrine of Scripture, but that it is in reality THE doctrine of Scripture, the doctrine of doctrines, the sun around which all the truths of Scripture revolve, the keystone holding all the other doctrines in place, and without which they would fall into meaningless ruins. “Faith is the way to heaven,” that is the theme of Scripture from beginning to end, the red thread running through divine revelation. “The just shall live by faith,” cry the prophets. “The just shall live by faith,” cry the evangelists. “The just shall live by faith,” cry the apostles. “It is as though this truth were the sum and substance of everything to be proclaimed by the prophets in the old dispensation, and echoed by the apostles in the new; to be translated into all languages and transmitted to every section of the habitable earth.” “To Him give all the prophets witness that through His name, whosoever believeth on Him, shall receive remission of sins…. This is truly to cite the authority of the church. (For when all the holy prophets bear witness, that is certainly a glorious, great, excellent, powerful decretal and testimony.)” Apology, p. 39.
The confessors at Augsburg clearly saw that the doctrine of justification by faith alone was the central doctrine of Scripture. In this doctrine they realized that not only an outpost was at stake, but the very citadel of saving truth. And to have surrendered that would have been to surrender all. In the Apology, p. 32, we read: “In this controversy the chief topic of Christian doctrine is treated, which, understood aright, illumines and amplifies the honor of Christ (which is of special service for the clear, correct understanding of the entire Holy Scriptures, and alone shows the way to the unspeakable treasure and right knowledge of Christ, and alone opens the door to the entire Bible).” In the Formula of Concord, Thorough Declaration, p. 250, we read: “This article concerning justification by faith is the chief article in the entire Christian doctrine, … as Dr. Luther also has written: ‘If this only doctrine remains pure on the battlefield, the Christian church also remains pure, and in goodly harmony and without any sects; but if it does not remain pure, it is not possible that any error or fanatical spirit can be resisted.’” And their determination to tenaciously cling to this central doctrine is emphatically expressed in the Schmalcald Articles, p. 137: “Of this article nothing can be yielded or surrendered… even though heaven and earth, and whatever will not abide should sink to ruin.”
In very truth, “the article of a standing and a falling church,” yea, “and of a standing and a falling soul.”
But more. In the word of the gospel the confessors at Augsburg had found the divine act of justification itself. They clearly saw that the divine judgment of justification is ever as near us as the word of the gospel is near us. Paul especially emphasizes this when he in Romans 10 compares man’s attainment of the righteousness of the law with his attainment of the righteousness of faith. “For Moses describeth the righteousness which is of the law, That the man which doeth those things shall live by them.” But between the righteousness of the law and man towers a high, insurmountable barrier, namely, the perfect fulfillment of that law. Since sinful man, however, never can perfectly keep the law, the righteousness which the law offers is as far distant from him as the east is from the west. But far, far otherwise is the case with the righteousness of faith. For, “the righteousness which is of faith speaketh on this wise, Say not in thine heart, Who shall ascend into heaven? … Or, Who shall descend into the deep?” That is, think not that the righteousness of faith is to be brought from a distance through your own strenuous efforts. No, no, you need not betake yourself on a long journey, neither into heaven, nor into the deep; for at close hand, nigh thee is the Word, “even in thy mouth, and in thine heart: that is, the word of faith, which we preach.” If it be therefore asked, “Where can I read and be assured of my justification before God?” the answer is: In the word of the gospel, which promises, offers, gives, and seals unto us the forgiveness of sins without the works of the law. True, before the forgiveness of sins or our justification could be present in the word of the gospel, Christ had to journey from heaven. This he did when he became man. But as the God-man, he also descended into the deep, into death and the grave. And through this journey of Christ from heaven into the deep, God has wrought a wonderful work of grace. He has reconciled the sinful world unto himself, and then “committed unto us the word of reconciliation.” Wherever, therefore, the word of the gospel is, there is also the forgiveness of sins, or our justification; and whoever believes the gospel, he also has the forgiveness of sins. Rome with her work-righteousness, the sects with their denial of the means of grace, all modern theologians with their denial of the vicarious atonement of Christ, send men off on a long, long journey which has no end, just as though the Son of God, our Savior, had not come from heaven or descended into the deep, and deposited the forgiveness of sins in the gospel-word. (Freely from Dr. F. Pieper’s Dogmatics, vol. II, pp. 613–616.)
To prove that this was clearly seen and confessed by the confessors at Augsburg, we shall quote a few lines from the Apology, p. 37: “But God cannot be treated with, God cannot be apprehended, except through the Word. Accordingly, justification occurs through the Word, just as Paul says, Rom. 1:16: The Gospel is the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth. Likewise 10:17: Faith cometh by hearing.”
Our faithful fathers were convinced that their doctrine was built solely and entirely on the foundation of the word of God, and therefore they were sure of their ground. Heaven and earth might pass away, but this word would not fail them. This assurance gave them determination to cling to, courage to confess, and willingness to suffer for, this central truth. With Chancellor Brueck as their spokesman, they exclaimed: “We maintain that our confession is based on the Holy Word of God, and that it is impossible to refute it. We consider it as the very truth of God, and we hope by it to stand one day before the judgment seat of the Lord.”
When it hath pleased God in his wisdom and mercy to justify and save sinners by grace alone through faith, one of his purposes was that the object of man’s boasting should not in any sense be himself, but Christ alone. “Not of works, lest any man should boast.” Eph. 2:9. “To the praise of the glory of his (Christ’s) grace.” Eph. 1:6.
But if Christ is to get the glory alone due his blessed Savior name, then all man’s merits must be entirely excluded. This Scripture does emphatically and repeatedly. “Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith without the deeds of the law.” Rom. 3:28. Rome has never ceased to censor Luther in most bitter terms for his translation of this passage, “allein durch den Glauben,” by faith alone. But Scripture itself forces such a conclusion. For in justification, according to Scripture, faith and works are not to be added, but works are to be subtracted. Bengel makes this clear in terms of arithmetic. In this passage, Rom. 3:28, mention is made of two things, faith and the deeds of the law. Now Scripture itself subtracts one of these, viz., deeds or works, leaving only faith left. Subtracting one from two, you have only one left.
In another passage, Gal. 2:16, the exclusion of man’s works is emphatically stated not only once, or twice, but three times: “Knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law, but by the faith of Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Jesus Christ, that we might be justified by the faith of Jesus Christ, and not by the works of the law: for by the works of the law shall no man be justified.” How Scripture abounds in these exclusive particles! “Without the law,” “without works,” “not of works,” “without the deeds of the law.”
It is clear, then, if anything in the world is clear, that man’s works, great or small, in any way, play no part in our justification before God, but are on the contrary entirely excluded. Excluded are not only outwardly good works, such as the works of the Pharisees, ancient and modern; but also spiritual good works, which flow from faith, as the works of believing Abraham.
The moment a work, even the slightest work, is added to faith, or to grace, which is to say the same, then it is no more faith, no more grace. “And if by grace, then it is no more of works: otherwise grace is no more grace. But if it be of works, then it is no more grace; otherwise work is no more work.” Rom. 11:6.
And ever-faithful to Scripture, our Confessions entirely exclude man’s works from his justification before God. In the article before us we read: “Also they teach that man cannot be justified before God by their own strength, merits, or works.” We note that the antithesis or forkastelsessats comes first. First the ruins of man’s works must be cleared away before the building of salvation could be erected on the foundation of the God-man, our Savior’s work.
In the Formula of Concord, Thorough Declaration, p. 250, we read: “Concerning the righteousness of faith before God we believe, teach, and confess unanimously… that poor, sinful man is justified before God, that is, absolved and declared free and exempt from all his sins, and from the sentence of well-deserved condemnation, and adopted into sonship and heirship of eternal life, without any merit or worth of our own, also without any preceding, present, of any subsequent works.”
And even more emphatically are the merits of man excluded from his justification before God in the following words of this same Declaration, p. 253: “Through the exclusive particles ‘by grace,’ ‘without merit,’ ‘without works,’ ‘not of works,’ all our own works, merit, worthiness, glory, and confidence in all our works shall not be constituted or regarded as either the cause or merit of justification, neither entirely, nor half, nor in the least part, upon which God could or ought to look, or we to rely in this article and action.”
But if the cause or ground of man’s justification before God is not found in anything in man, where then is it found? Scripture replies: “Being justified freely by his grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus.” Rom. 3:24. Here two causes for a sinner’s justification are mentioned: First, the grace of God, commonly called the impelling or moving ground; and the second, which is really included in the first, in that it has its source in the first, “the redemption which is in Christ Jesus,” commonly called the meritorious, or deserving cause. Moved by his gracious disposition, his eternal love and compassion towards sinners, God sent his only Son to redeem, free, save the world of sinners. This Christ did by his active and passive obedience, by his perfect fulfillment of the law in man’s stead, and by his innocent sufferings and death on the cross of shame for the sins of the world. And through his redemptive work, Christ has earned a full and free forgiveness of sins for all mankind, and an eternal righteousness which alone can avail before God. “God hath made him to be sin for us, who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in him.” 2 Cor. 5:21. Blessed barter! O grace over all grace!
The Fourth Article of the Augsburg Confession speaks the same language: “But are justified freely for Christ’s sake, through faith, when they believe that they are received into favor, and that their sins are forgiven for Christ’s sake, who, by his death, has made satisfaction for our sins.”
Likewise the Formula of Concord, Thorough Declaration, p. 250: “Concerning the righteousness of faith before God we believe, teach, and confess,… that poor sinful man is justified before God out of pure grace, because of the sole merit, complete obedience, bitter suffering, death, and resurrection of our Lord Christ alone, whose obedience is reckoned to us for righteousness.”
Clearly the faithful confessors at Augsburg saw and confessed that giving man any, or the very least credit for his justification meant nothing less than depriving Christ of the glory alone due his Savior name. In the Apology they rightly accuse their opponents of “obscuring the glory and benefits of Christ” by their work-righteousness. “Thus they bury Christ, so that man cannot avail themselves of him a Mediator.” “Those who deny that faith justifies, teach nothing but the law, both Christ and the gospel being set aside.” “Trusting in our own fulfillment of the law is sheer idolatry and blaspheming Christ.”
No, “Not unto us, not unto us, but unto thy name give glory, for thy mercy, and for thy truth’s sake,” they humbly confessed with the Psalmist. Verily God’s is the glory. And he is jealous of his glory. “I am the Lord; that is my name: and my glory will I not give unto another.” Is. 42:8.
And when the Lord in astonishment asks if his people are going to rob him of such earthly things as tithes, “Will a man rob God?” Mal. 3:8, how much worse, aye, what a to-heaven-crying sin it must be accounted in God’s eyes, when we rob his Son of the glory due his Savior name alone! For by so doing we not only rob Christ of his glory, but steal from him the hard-earned fruits of his bitter passion, and when we bring others to believe this false doctrine, rob dearly redeemed souls of life and salvation, of heaven’s bliss.
When, then, does Christ receive the glory due his Savior name? Alone when we as bankrupt sinners draw on the inexhaustible treasures of his grace. Greater honor than this we cannot show our Savior, whereas greater disrespect and dishonor cannot be shown him than by bringing to him the filthy rags of our own righteousness.
But not only in order that Christ should receive the glory due his Savior name, has it pleased God to justify and save sinners by grace alone through faith, but also in order that sinners might have a sure and complete comfort. “Therefore it is of faith, that it might be by grace; to the end that the promise might be sure to all the seed.” Rom. 4:16.
God is very much concerned that his people shall be comforted. “Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, saith your God. Speak ye comfortably to Jerusalem.” But how were his people to be comforted? By preaching the law? By urging them to good works, and to reliance on self? No, no, that would only drive them ever deeper into despair, but by directing them to the soul-struggles of Christ, and his righteousness. “Cry unto her, that her warfare is accomplished, that her iniquity is pardoned: for she hath received of the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.” Is. 40:1–2.
The confessors at Augsburg realized that only through the doctrine of justification by faith alone could sinners find complete comfort. We quote a few statements from the Apology: “They, the adversaries, place men on a sand foundation, their own works. They drive timid consciences to despair, which, laboring with doubt, never can experience what faith is, and how efficacious it is; thus at last they utterly despair.” “Against God’s wrath our merits or our love would be tossed aside like a little feather by a hurricane.” “If the matter were to depend upon our merits, the promise would be uncertain and useless, because we never could determine when we would have sufficient merit. And this experienced consciences can easily understand, and would not for a thousand worlds have our salvation depend upon ourselves. Being justified by faith, we have peace with God, i.e., we have consciences that are tranquil and joyful before God.”
And the reason why poor sinners could find no complete comfort in the doctrine of the Catholic church was that they did not understand what the Scriptural doctrine of justification was. “For since the adversaries neither understand what the remission of sins, nor what faith, nor what grace, nor what righteousness is, they sadly corrupt this topic, and obscure the glory and benefits of Christ, and rob devout consciences of the consolations offered in Christ.” Apology, p. 32.
Our fathers, therefore, took special pains to explain, in the light of Scripture, the terms involved in this doctrine.
They insisted with Scripture that justification means to declare just, and not to make just; that it is a forensic, judicial act of God, not a creative act; that it means to pronounce or account righteous, and not to infuse righteousness. “Accordingly, the word justify here means to declare righteous and free from sins, and to absolve one from eternal punishment for the sake of Christ’s righteousness, which is imputed by God to faith.” Formula of Concord, Thorough Declaration, p. 251. How could sinners ever find comfort, if they were directed to the righteousness in their own hearts, instead of to the righteousness earned by Christ, and given and sealed to them in the gospel? Christ’s righteousness is perfect, whereas man’s righteousness, even the greatest earthly saint’s, ever imperfect.
Our fathers also guarded carefully against making a work out of faith, for that, too, would rob sinners of complete comfort. How clearly and comfortingly they define faith! “Faith is that my whole heart takes to itself this treasure, viz., the promise of the remission of sins and justification. It is not my doing, not my presenting or giving, not my work or preparation, but that a heart comforts itself, and is perfectly confident with respect to this, namely, that God makes a present and gift to us, and not we to him, that he sheds upon us every treasure of grace in Christ.” Apology, p. 36. Scripture nowhere states that we are justified because of faith, or on account of faith, but always through faith or by faith. “For faith justifies and saves, not on the ground that it is a work in itself worthy, but only because it receives the promised mercy.” Apology, p. 36. Faith is, therefore, never the ground of justification, but only the means. Faith is the empty hand, which receives and holds the merits of Christ. Faith in itself does not save, but Christ, whom faith clings to, does save. The virtue of faith lies in the virtue of its object. We must be on our guard against making a saviour out of faith, against placing our reliance upon our faith. This is a real temptation to many. Hearing, that to be justified we must have faith, they, we, are soon occupied with an anxious analysis of our faith. “Do I trust enough?” is anxiously asked; instead of asking, “Is not Jesus Christ, as pictured in the gospel, great and gracious enough for me to rely upon?” “The soul that trusts in Christ alone has his feet on the Rock, and he knows it, not by feeling for his feet, but by touching the Rock.”
But Rome does not only misunderstand the Scriptural definition of justification, and of faith, but even pronounces a curse thereon. We quote from the 12th Canon of the Council of Trent: “When any one says, that justifying faith is nothing but a reliance upon divine mercy, which forgives sins for Christ’s sake, or that it is this reliance alone that justifies, let him be accursed.” Surely, this must be the soul-destroying voice of the antichrist.
But no sinner has ever found true comfort, no sinner ever will find comfort who builds his hope of salvation on anything save the grace of God in Christ Jesus. For when in the light of God’s holy law the sinner is brought to see himself as he really is, he finds no good in himself. With Paul he is brought to confess in despair: “I know that in me (that is, in my flesh) dwelleth no good thing.” Rom. 7:18. His conscience accuses and terrifies him. He finds nothing but sin even in his best works. And how can he ever be certain that he has enough good works, or that they are of the right quality? Never! Well-known is Luther’s statement, that if his salvation were dependent only on his proper praying of the Lord’s Prayer, he would be lost.
What despair filled Luther’s heart as long as he was struggling under the law, seeking righteousness before God through its fulfillment. Not until his eyes were graciously opened to see his Savior’s work for him, that sinners were justified by trusting in his righteousness, did peace and joy enter his sin-sick, grace-hungry soul. “Presently I felt,” he says, “that I had been entirely born anew, and that I here” (namely, in the doctrine of justification by faith alone) “found a door wide open and leading straightway into Paradise.”
Glorious and comforting indeed is the doctrine of justification by faith alone to him that has learned to know his sin-need, and rather than lose this comfort, he would a thousand times lose worlds if he had them. For when my eyes have been opened, not only to this or that sin in me, but to my sinfulness, which has made my whole being leprous as snow; when I with all my attempts at self-improvement realize that I am only become more sinful; when I have suffered shipwreck of everything, and cannot find so much as a straw to cling to; when I in my Christianity feel cold and empty, entirely lacking in all good; when I find nothing in me as it should be, no real repentance, no true prayer, nothing but wretchedness, and it seems that I must perish in my anguish—how comforting then the glorious message resounds that God justifies the ungodly, and that we are justified freely, and that therefore it is God’s will that we shall come to him with all our sins, and receive forgiveness gratis, without money and without price! (Freely translated from an essay on Justification, Synodalberetning, 1903, p. 105, by Dr. Johs. Ylvisaker.)
“The righteousness, therefore, which we have by faith, is our sole trust and stay. It is the great sheet anchor of the ship of faith in which we are sailing heavenward across the tempest-tossed sea of this life; we lower it when the mad waves threaten destruction; it sinks; it catches in the Rock of Ages; it holds with firm grasp and keeps us unmoved while the surges sweep over the main-deck, and carry off masts, rigging and all. This righteousness is our pilgrim’s fare, our manna and water, on our journey to the Canaan which is above; it is the pillow on which we finally lay our weary head, when, with the shades of death gathering about our breaking eyes, we lie down like Jacob on the barren heath of this dreary and desolate world, and go to sleep, and in blissful dreams behold visions of paradise and God’s angels descending to lift us up and carry us home to the glory of the righteous, to the saints in light.” (From an essay on Justification, read before the Augustana E.L. Conference, pp. 32–33.)
To this comforting doctrine our faithful fathers tenaciously clung, this doctrine they joyfully confessed; and as true sons and daughters of the Reformation we shall, we will do likewise.
And with our pious fathers we pray in conclusion: “Lord Jesus Christ, it is thy holy gospel, it is thy cause; look thou upon the many troubled hearts and consciences, and maintain and strengthen in thy truth thy churches and little flocks, who suffer anxiety and distress from the devil. Confound all hypocrisies and lies, and grant peace and unity, so that thy glory may advance, and thy kingdom, strong against all the gates of hell, may continually grow and increase.” Preface to the Apology, p. 28.