1939 Synod Convention Essay
We are gathered here at these Synodical sessions, as fellow-laborers in the Lord’s vineyard, to consult together concerning the Lord’s work. The fact that we have Pastors and Delegates present from all directions of the compass indicates that our Christian people are conscious of the far-reaching importance of this work, and that they are desirous of working together as a unit for its extension and expansion. However, our presence here would be of little meaning and our deliberations would be of no consequence, if we did not possess that central article in the entire Christian doctrine, the article concerning Justification by Faith. If there were no such doctrine, then our Synod, its pastors and congregations would be embarked upon a mission over which defeat would be spelled from sun to sun. If there were no such thing as Justification by Faith, then all the money which has flowed into the congregational and Synodical treasuries would have been given by our people in support of a hopeless cause. If we have been mistaken in our adherence to the doctrine which sets forth the reconciliation of man with God, then it would be in order for us to pass a resolution to dissolve our Synod, auction off our property to the highest bidder, and advise our congregations to dismiss their pastors and to disband. Why indeed can we dare to draw such far-reaching conclusions from the acceptance or rejection of only one doctrine — the doctrine of Justification? The reason is well stated in these words of the Formula of Concord: “This article concerning justification by faith is the chief article in the entire Christian doctrine without which no poor conscience can have any firm consolation, or can truly know the riches of the grace of Christ, as Dr. Luther also has written: ‘If this only article 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’.” (Thorough Declaration III. Triglotta, page 917.) Indeed it is upon this doctrine that our soul’s salvation depends, for without it we should be hopelessly bound in the toils of the law which demands, prohibits, threatens, kills, and damns. It is the doctrine of Justification by Faith which is the only standard for judging all other doctrines, for from it, and into it, they all flow. If we lose this doctrine, we lose salvation, and if we teach it or permit it to be taught among us otherwise than the Word of God teaches it, then we profane the name of God and cease to be the true visible church. Then we shall be unable to withstand heresies and rightly to oppose unscriptural practices. That the vitiation of this doctrine has had these results, of this we have abundant proof in the sad history of many churches in our own country, among which, alas, are included some whom we formerly could greet as brethren in the faith.
Since the article of justification by faith is such an important article, the one indeed with which the Church stands or falls, therefore it is eminently in place that all our considerations here should find their motivation in this blessed doctrine, and that all resolutions passed here should have as their ultimate purpose the jealous preservation and dissemination of the doctrine of justification by faith. That essays should be assigned and delivered at our Conventions on the doctrine itself is always in place, and, we believe, welcomed by our people. The only thing that gives this essayist the courage to step before this assembly to deliver such an essay is the assurance that what is required of him is not to present anything new, but to set forth once more what the Scriptures so clearly teach, what has been treated so well by the formulators of our Confessions and by our fathers.
Our theme: “The Position and the Part of Faith in Justification” shall be treated under the following theses:
Thesis I. God has, in Christ, justified the whole world. (Objective Justification.)
Thesis II. Justifying faith is the acceptance of God’s justification of the whole world in Christ.
Thesis III. The individual sinner is justified personally at the very moment when he comes to faith. (Subjective Justification.)
Thesis IV. Faith alone justifies, exclusive of any works or merit on the part of man.
Thesis V. Justification is by faith alone for Christ’s sake.
Thesis VI. Justifying faith, which is the work of God in the heart of man, is produced and sustained by the Means of Grace.
— — —
God Has, in Christ, Justified the Whole World. (Objective Justification.)
(a) To present an essay on “The Position and the Part of Faith in Justification” would indeed be idle and useless, if we could not be certain and sure that in Christ a full and complete reconciliation of the whole world with God has been effected. If there were no certainty in this matter, then there would be little meaning and no comfort in such words as these: “A man is justified by faith,” Rom. 3:28; “Abraham believed God and it was counted to him for righteousness,” Rom. 4:3; “The just shall live by faith,” Gal. 3:11. If we could not be assured of the fact that there exists for all men a complete and full forgiveness of all sins, in the heart of God, then we could not speak of justifying faith at all, for there would be nothing for faith to accept and appropriate to us. It would be foolish and vain for us to speak of a justification, a forgiveness of sins, offered and conveyed to us in the means of grace, if such forgiveness were not already an accomplished fact. Before we can speak of faith, therefore, we must establish the fact that there is a justification before and apart from faith.
In order to establish the truth of a universal justification which embraces all men, we do not resort to experiments in the laboratory or to a study of the writings and findings of men, or to the experiences and emotions of God’s creatures. If we should proceed thus, then we should fail utterly; for the fact of universal or objective justification is unknown to natural man, and he would be in total ignorance of it if it were not made known to him by revelation. We cannot, therefore, sufficiently thank God for the fact that He has committed to us “the word of reconciliation,” where His justification of the whole world is made known and the truth of it is established beyond any question or debate. We turn then to the “Word of Reconciliation,” which is God’s own Word.
No sooner had man fallen into sin and thus become a child of death, when God in His mercy made known to him the reconciliation to be effected through the mediation of His Son (Gen. 3:15). That this reconciliation was not intended alone for Adam and Eve but for all men who have lived from man’s lamentable fall into sin and who will live until the end of time, of this Abraham and his successors received definite assurance directly from the Lord Himself. God told him: “In thee shall all families of the earth be blessed,” Gen. 1:3. The truth, then, of the universal justification was clearly revealed also to the Old Testament people. As soon as Christ who came in fulfillment of these promises was born, we have the truth of universal justification proclaimed from the heavens by a multitude of angels, saying: “Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace, good will toward men,” Luke 2:14. When Jesus entered upon His public ministry, John the Baptist, His forerunner, greeted Him with words which clearly set forth Universal or Objective Justification, when he said: “Behold the lamb of God which taketh away the sin of the world,” John 1:29. Finally, when Jesus had reached the end of His public ministry and was hanging upon the cross, as the sacrificial lamb of God, He sealed the accomplishment of the justification of the world with these words: “It is finished,” John 19:30. With His resurrection from the dead on the third day, the final stamp of truth was placed upon the fact that through His mediation the sins of all men were forgiven — that the justification of the world was completed. “Christ was delivered for our offences and was raised again for our justification,” Rom. 4:25. This whole glorious truth of the accomplishment of justification for all men is summed up in the words which Paul, by the inspiration of God the Holy Ghost, wrote to the Romans: “By the righteousness of one, the free gift came upon all men unto justification of life,” Rom. 5:18; and again in his words to the Corinthians: “God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto himself, not imputing their trespasses unto them,” II Cor. 5:19. To further ward off the false doctrine that this has been accomplished only for certain people, or that it is effective only for a select group, God has caused these words to be recorded: “He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world,” I John 2:2. Our Confessions clearly present this truth in the following words: “When the Lord Jesus Christ came, He forgave to all sin which no one could avoid, and, by the shedding of His own blood: blotted out the handwriting which was against us.” (Apology, Art. IV. (II). Trig., page 151.)
In this whole presentation of universal justification, it will have been noted that not once has faith been mentioned in our own comments or in the passages from Holy Scripture. This is significant, for it shows that God has reconciled, that is justified (forgiven the sins of), the whole world before faith and apart from faith. At the resurrection of Jesus, God, in His heart, forgave the sins of the whole world, that is of all men that ever lived or ever will live. Absolution was pronounced upon all mankind. In this act, then, of God’s justification of the whole world, faith had no part. That God has forgiven the sins of the whole world remains a fact whether it is believed or not, whether it is accepted or not. When we consider how this justification, or forgiveness of sin, is received and accepted and appropriated by the individual, then it is that we speak of the part of faith in justification.
(b) When we consider how this doctrine has been taught in some sections of the Lutheran Church, we meet a very strange and entirely foreign presentation of the blessed truth. A careful analysis of these erroneous views will show that many of them have their source in a misunderstanding of the position and the part of faith in justification. Faith has in them been given a position in God’s justification of the world which Scripture and our confessions do not permit. Thus we find that there are those who confess that God indeed has reconciled all men unto Himself, but has not justified all men (but only those who have come to faith), and that Christ indeed has removed all the world’s sin, but that He has not actually forgiven them (but only the sins of those who have come to faith). A noted exegete of one of the larger Lutheran bodies of our country made the following comment on II Cor. 5:19 in a book published in 1935: “We fail to find the idea that Paul here says, that when Christ died, when in and by His death God reconciled the world objectively, He then and there (or at Christ’s resurrection) forgave all sins to the whole world.” While it is here admitted that God reconciled the world by the death of His son, it is denied that this means the justification of the world, of the forgiveness of the whole world’s sin. To make matters still worse, we find elsewhere in the volume that the same exegete denies the fact that this reconciliation is an historic past act, but affirms that it is a continuous work which God is engaged in performing now. God’s justification of the whole world and the reception of this justification by faith are thus virtually rolled into one, as though God’s forgiveness of sin does not become a reality until it is accepted by faith, and as though God’s reconciliation of the world was not completely finished as a past act at the death of His son, but is a continuous reconciliation dependent upon the fulfillment of certain conditions. This view of the reconciliation of man with God is diametrically opposed to all that our Synodical Conference has taught these many years on Justification. For instance, the sainted Dr. Pieper in an essay delivered in 1916, very definitely shows that we are among those who look upon the Reconciliation as a past accomplished act, even dating it at the time when Christ arose from the dead on Easter morning. He writes: “Man’s reconciliation with God is an accomplished fact; it is finished. ‘God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto himself.’ These words refer to the time when the Son of God sojourned here upon earth. Nearly nineteen hundred years ago, when Christ suffered and died, God reconciled the world unto Himself. When God raised Christ from the dead, He absolved the world from its guilt and sin and declared that He was no longer at odds with the sinful race of man.” (“What is Christianity and Other Essays,” page 63.) This is our confession; and any other view, which vitiates and changes the teaching that God has justified (that is, forgiven the sins of) the whole world destroys the Scriptural teaching of the part of faith in justification. Indeed, if the forgiveness of the sins of the whole world is not a past accomplished fact, then all we can offer in the Gospel and in absolution is a potential, conditional forgiveness. Then we dare not say to our people: “Your sins have been forgiven by God,” but we must add, “This is true only if you believe it.” In the final analysis, then, where such a view is held, justification becomes dependent upon faith, and it becomes wrong, sinful and heretical to teach that God has justified (forgiven the sins of) the whole world, for indeed the vast majority of men do not come to faith. It is impossible to teach the doctrine of justification correctly when faith is erroneously mingled with God’s justification of the whole world; for here faith has no part. But what part, then, has faith in the doctrine of justification? This we shall see in our second thesis.
Justifying Faith is the Acceptance of God’s Justification of the Whole World in Christ.
While it is true that God has reconciled the whole world unto Himself and in Christ looks upon the whole world as free from all sin and guilt, still it is not proper to draw from this the conclusion that, therefore, all men have the remission of sins and will be saved. Such a conclusion is inadmissible, for Scripture distinguishes between God’s justification of the whole world and the possession of it on the part of the individual sinner. That not all men come into possession of the forgiveness of sins will be openly shown on the last day, when Christ will turn to those on the left hand and say: “Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels,” Matt. 25:41. Although God was in Christ reconciling also these unto Himself — although God has justified also these — yet they are lost; for they have not believed. Thus we see that God’s justification is of no benefit to the individuals if it is not believed; for faith, according to Scripture, is the receiving hand which accepts, apprehends, and applies to us that which is already present in the heart of God, namely the forgiveness of all sins, which was gained by Christ. While it is true that God has in Christ reconciled the whole world unto Himself, not imputing their trespasses unto them, this does not become the possession of man except through faith; for it is through faith that we receive that which long since has been declared and pronounced by God, namely, the forgiveness of sins. Whether it be when the Gospel is preached, when the sacraments are administered, or when absolution is pronounced publicly or privately, it is always faith which receives and accepts and appropriates to us that which is given and offered, namely the forgiveness of sins. Thus Scripture continually speaks of justifying faith as the means through which we receive the peace with God which Christ has fully effected for all men by His vicarious atonement. Let us quote a number of these Scripture passages: “Therefore being justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. By whom also we have access by faith into this grace wherein we stand and rejoice in hope of the glory of God,” Rom. 5:1–2; “In whom we have boldness and access with confidence by faith of him,” Eph. 3:12; “Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith,” Rom. 3:28; “To Him give all the prophets witness that through His name, whosoever believeth on him, shall receive remission of sins,” Acts 10:43; “The just shall live by his faith,” Hab. 2:4.
In strict accordance with Scripture, our Confessions speak of justifying faith thus: “Faith justifies and saves, not on the ground that it is a work in itself worthy, but only because it receives the promised mercy.’ (Apol. Art. IV (II) Trig., page 137). “Justification is obtained by faith.” (Apol. Art. IV (II) Trig., page 153.) “These treasures are offered us by the Holy Ghost in the promise of the Holy Gospel; and faith alone is the only means by which we lay hold upon, accept, and apply, and appropriate them to ourselves.” (F.C. Thor. Decl. III, Trig. page 919.) Thus Chemnitz also writes: “Justifying faith deals with its object not merely by cold calculation nor by a general and superficial assent, but in such a way that it acknowledges, considers, desires, seeks, apprehends, accepts, and embraces, and so appropriates to the individual believer, Christ with all his merits and through Christ, by virtue of the promise, God’s mercy, which forgives all sins.” (cf. Examen, De Fide Iustificante, pg. 161.)
(b) But, alas, although Scripture has spoken so clearly concerning the part of faith in justification, yet the meaning of justifying faith has been most grossly perverted by the false teachers. Chief among these are the papists who thus teach their children: “To believe means to firmly hold as true whatsoever God has revealed, for the very reason that He did reveal it.” (A Catechism of Christian Doctrine” by J. Deharbe, pg. 2.) In this way justifying faith is lowered to the level of the faith which also the devils have, for they, too, “believe and tremble,” James 2:19. Concerning this matter our Augsburg Confession states the following: “Men are also admonished that here the term ‘faith’ does not signify merely the knowledge of the history, such as is in the ungodly and in the devil, but signifies a faith which believes, not merely the history, but also the effects of the history — namely, this article: the forgiveness of sins, to wit, that we have grace, righteousness, and forgiveness of sins through Christ. … Augustine also admonishes his readers concerning the word ‘faith’ and teaches that the: term ‘faith’ is accepted in the Scriptures, not for knowledge such as is in the ungodly, but for confidence which consoles and encourages the terrified conscience.” (Trig. pg. 55ff.) How the papists regard such statements as these is most clearly brought out in their pronouncement at the Council of Trent: “If any one saith that justifying faith is nothing else but confidence in the divine mercy which remits sins for Christ’s sake or that this confidence alone is that whereby we are justified, let him be anathema.” (Canon 12.) Thus it becomes clear that the Catholic Church is the greatest enemy of the Scriptural doctrine of justification by faith and summarily condemns all those who teach it.
However, the papists are not the only ones who pervert the meaning of “Faith”, but this is also done by the modernistic theologians in many other churches. They look upon faith merely as an acceptance of Christ’s life as an example and model for the community, whereby all political and economic problems will find their solution. Such preachers (and their number is legion) are engaged in draining all spiritual content out of the Christian doctrine of justification by faith and are making of it a code of conduct for this world. It is well for us to know that when these men speak pious words over the radio and otherwise about “The grace of God,” “Justification by Faith,” “Of salvation alone through Christ,” they mean something entirely different from that which Scripture so clearly teaches and which we confess. It is against such and other false teachers that the Scriptures warn in these words: “Now I beseech you, brethren, mark them which cause divisions and offences contrary to the doctrine which ye have learned; and avoid them. For they that are such serve not our Lord Jesus Christ, but their own belly; and by good words and fair speeches deceive the hearts of the simple,” Rom. 16:17, 18. When we consider how Satan transforms himself into an angel of light and his ministers into ministers of righteousness who speak fine words about faith in Christ and about justification by faith, then indeed we can well understand the words of St. Paul to the Corinthians and apply them to our times: “But I fear, lest by any means, as the serpent beguiled Eve through his subtilty, so your minds should be corrupted from the simplicity that is in Christ,” II Cor. 11:3.
The Individual Sinner is Justified Personally at the very Moment when He Comes to Faith. (Subjective Justification.)
Since faith justifies for this reason that “it lays hold of and accepts the merit of Christ in the promise of the holy Gospel,” therefore it must be clearly evident that as soon as the first spark of faith is kindled in the human heart, then there is at once full possession of the merits of Jesus Christ. No one will dispute this fact that as soon as a person accepts a gift which is offered to him, he has it. It is his since He has laid hold of it, and it is his since it is the intention of the giver that it shall be his as soon as he accepts it. Thus it is in subjective justification. At the very moment when a man accepts (that is, believes) the forgiveness of sins, he has the forgiveness of sins (that is, he is justified personally). At that very moment when man comes to faith, God accounts and declares that sinner to be such a one who is personally in possession of Christ’s merit and righteousness for his salvation. Thus we are told of Abraham: “Abraham believed God and it was counted to him for righteousness,” Rom. 4:3; and again, “His faith is counted for righteousness,” Rom. 4:5. God accounted Abraham’s faith for righteousness, not because his faith was such a good work and so fair a virtue that it moved God to justify him, but because by his faith he laid hold on Christ and His righteousness. It would, therefore, be wrong to say that first, man must believe; and then, God looks down from Heaven and sees this faith and so accounts him as righteous. To hold such a view would be to overthrow completely the doctrine of justification by faith and substitute in its place a justification after faith, which Scripture certainly does not teach. If we were to accept the view that man must first believe, and then he is justified, we would either have to claim that faith which grasps and accepts God’s absolution through Christ does not actually receive that which it accepts (which is preposterous); or else we would have to hold that we are by faith actually in possession of forgiveness before we are forgiven by God (that is, justified), and this is entirely unscriptural and untenable.
In order to preserve the doctrine of justification by faith with all its comfort and consolation, we must hold fast to this truth that when a man comes to faith he is immediately, at once, simultaneously, accounted by God as righteous. There is no intermission between man’s coming to faith and the reckoning of his faith for righteousness. It is unscriptural to suppose that the one takes place and then the other. It is true that it may seem as though there is a chronological or logical division to be drawn when it says: “Abraham believed God and it was accounted to him for righteousness.” As Luther points out, there are in this passage two parts, namely, that Abraham believed God, and that God accounted this faith for righteousness. From this it would seem that these two acts follow one upon the other (first faith, and then the accounting of faith for righteousness); but this is in no sense the intention of Luther, nor is it the sense of the Scriptures. That this is not the interpretation which Scripture itself places upon this passage is shown by the numerous passages which say that we are justified by faith. Our confessions state, “Therefore it is considered and understood to be the same thing when Paul says, we are justified by faith, Rom. 3:28, or that faith is counted to us for righteousness, Rom. 4:5, and when he says that we are made righteous by the obedience of one, Rom. 5:19, or that by the righteousness of one, justification of faith came to all men, Rom, 5:18.” (F. C. Thor. Decl. III, Trig., pg. 919.) According to human logic, it might seem as though faith and the accounting of faith for righteousness could not happen at the same time, but this matter is by no means to be understood according to human logic. Experience has shown how dangerous it is to operate with human logic in interpreting the actions of God.
That we must not permit the use of human logic in explaining the passage: “Abraham believed God and it was counted to him for righteousness” is shown by Dr. Luther in his comments on Gal. 2:16, par. 196, where he says: “But here it must also be noted, that these three things, namely faith, Christ, and ‘Acceptatio,’ that is, that God receives us into His grace, or ‘imputatio’, that is, that God accounts our faith for righteousness, always belong together.” Accordingly, Dr. Luther very definitely repudiates any attempt to separate (whether logically or chronologically) faith and the accounting of faith for righteousness. The Apology of the Augsburg Confession in this connection states: “Faith reconciles and justifies before God the moment we apprehend the promise by faith.” (Trig. pg. 213.) We therefore interpret Rom. 4:3 in this way: Abraham believed God, and at the identical moment when the first spark of faith entered his heart, his faith was accounted for righteousness. Abraham was justified by faith. And thus it is with every individual who comes to faith in Christ. He is justified, that is personally declared righteous, and free from sin, in that very instant when he comes to faith. Indeed, at that very moment he is absolved “from eternal punishment for the sake of Christ’s righteousness which is imputed by God to faith.” Whether the faith be a strong faith where the Christian finds his experiences in harmony with the Word of God, or it be a weak faith where the Christian scarcely dares to call forgiveness his own, yet yearns for the grace of God in Christ Jesus, in both cases justification took place at the very moment when the first spark of faith entered the heart. Here is true comfort for every afflicted Christian who is tempted to believe that he must experience certain pleasant emotions before he can be sure that his faith has been accounted for righteousness.
Faith Alone Justifies, Exclusive of any Work or Merit on the Part of Man.
(a) When Scripture speaks of the doctrine of justification by faith, it is very definite in excluding from this doctrine every work, merit, or worth on the part of man, and this is done in order that it may be without question or doubt that faith alone justifies, and that it may be clear and evident that all is by grace. Among the many passages which emphasize this truth we have the following: “By grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not of works, lest any man should boast,” Eph. 2:8–9. “But that no man is justified by the law in the sight of God it is evident: for, the just shall live by faith,” GaL 3:11. “Where is boasting then? It is excluded. By what law? of works? Nay; but by the law of faith. Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith without the deeds of the law,” Rom. 3:27–28. Here it is shown that the very fact that we are justified by faith in itself rules out all works and merit of man and this preserves the doctrine that we are saved by grace alone, as we are told in Rom. 4:16, “Therefore it is of faith, that it might be by grace.” Indeed, what happens to grace when we mingle the works or merit of man into the doctrine of justification is shown by the following: “And if by grace, then is it no more of works; otherwise grace is no more grace. But if it be of works, then is it no more grace; otherwise work is no more work,” Rom. 11:6. What happens to man when he seeks to be justified by works or character is expressed in these words of Scripture: “But Israel which followed after the law of righteousness hath not attained to the law of righteousness. Wherefore? Because they sought it not by faith, but as it were by the works of the law,” Rom. 9:31–32. Indeed, whosoever would be justified by the law must keep the demands of the law perfectly in thoughts, words, and deeds, and this is impossible for any man. Those who attempt to attain righteousness by the law are blaspheming Christ, as we are told: “Christ is become of no effect unto you, whosoever of you are justified by the law; ye are fallen from grace,” Gal. 5:4. When we seek to be justified by the law partially or entirely, we spurn the righteousness of Christ, as though it were wholly or partly insufficient for our salvation. But how impossible it is for man to do any good works or even have a godly thought before his coming to faith is shown when Scripture describes man as being by nature dead in trespasses and sins (Eph. 2, 1 and 5) and unable even to incline his heart or will to God or that which is good. Thus Scripture clearly sets forth the truth that, since justification is by faith alone, all works of man are excluded from the doctrine of justification, and that when this truth is set aside, the entire doctrine of justification by faith is overthrown.
Our Confessional writings most carefully and earnestly guard this truth of Scripture. Our Thorough Declaration, Article III, speaks thus: “Concerning the righteousness of faith before God we believe, teach, and confess unanimously, in accordance with the comprehensive summary of our faith and confession presented above, 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, or any subsequent works, 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. These treasures are offered us by the Holy Ghost in the promise of the holy Gospel; and faith alone is the only means by which we lay hold upon, accept, and apply and apprehend them to ourselves.” (Trig. pg. 919.) “Good works are excluded from the article of justification before God, so that they must not be drawn into, woven into, or mingled with the transaction of the justification of the poor sinner before God as necessary or belonging thereto.” (Trig. pg. 927ff.)
(b) One of the saddest and most lamentable occurences among men is this that, although the Holy Scripture speaks so clearly and definitely in this matter, yet just this truth has been most often perverted by many of those who wish to be pious men and Christian teachers. Following the example of St. Paul, it becomes our duty, therefore, to expose and reject such false doctrines which have arisen regarding the article of justification. In order to preserve this doctrine pure, we must not only state the doctrine as it is taught correctly, but also call attention to the errors which have arisen that we might avoid them and testify against them. We must be able by sound doctrine to exhort and convince the gainsayers (Tit. 1:9). In proceeding to expose error, we follow also the example of the confessions where false doctrines are listed separately and rejected one by one. We follow the example of the Synodical fathers who were unwilling to compromise where even the least leaven of false doctrine was in evidence, but on the other hand openly exposed the errors and rejected them on the basis of Scripture.
At the head of the list of those who mingle works with the doctrine of justification stands the pope who here especially displays his exclusive right to the title of the Anti-christ spoken of in II Thess. 2. The pope and the Church which he heads teach that a man who is unconverted can, through certain deeds of devotion, etc., prepare himself for grace, so that God for the sake of his deeds shows favor to him and grants him His grace. Furthermore, they teach that when such a one has thus, by virtue of his good conduct, received grace, he can from then on do good deeds through which he receives such merit that God becomes his debtor and owes him eternal life. We can well understand how Luther suffered under this delusion as he struggled hopelessly to gain such merit that he might become acceptable before God. In spite of all his prayers, self-denials, self-inflicted tortures, and pilgrimages, Luther’s conscience continued to accuse him, and he received no peace. What joy it brought Luther when he learned, therefore, the full significance of those words of grace, “The just shall live by faith.” As a prisoner bound by the chains of the law, Luther who had been oppressed by his sins day and night now found freedom in the blessed doctrine of justification by faith without the deeds of the law. He now made it his task to uncover this doctrine which had been so long hidden under Roman tradition and superstition, but in this he met the fiercest opposition on the part of the Catholic Church which clung tenaciously to its doctrine of salvation by works. When Luther found that Scripture received no hearing in the Catholic Church except as interpreted by the pope and beclouded by human tradition, he separated from it. Thus we see that the Reformation had as its express purpose the preservation of the doctrine of justification by faith alone in its purity, free from commingling with the works of the law.
If the followers of the Reformer had remained true to the principles of the Reformation, Scripture Alone (Sola Scriptura), Grace Alone (Sola Gratia), and Faith Alone (Sola Fide), then there would not be the strife and contention and disharmony which we have in the church today. But, alas, many of the followers of Luther both of earlier and of more recent date, permitted themselves to sink into errors which are different from the papistic errors only in this that they are couched in different language and clothed in more subtle terms. For this reason these errors are not always so apparent, but they are none the less real and dangerous. These false doctrines which have arisen concerning the doctrine of justification by faith follow the errors of the papacy in this that they mix into this precious doctrine some work or worth of man. Closely following the Roman error which ascribes some good works to man before his conversion, there are those who hold that there is some spiritual activity in man before he actually comes to faith. This spiritual activity is variously described as: the good conduct or disposition of man which commends him to the gracious attention of God; man’s feeling of responsibility towards the acceptance of grace (this latter expression is contained in Opgjør); man’s self-determination and self-motivation towards accepting Christ; and, the faculty of applying oneself to divine grace. Again there are others who look upon faith itself as being so good a work and so fine a virtue that it merits the grace of God and is even looked upon as the cause why God has elected some to salvation (Intuitu Fidei). All these expressions have this in common that they in the final analysis declare that man’s salvation depends more or less on some worth or merit in him. Thus the doctrine of justification by faith alone, without the deeds of the law, is overthrown and undermined. Of such teachings the sainted Dr. Walther has said: “A theology which changes faith into a work of man and seeks to show that the reason why certain men are saved while others are lost, is to be found in man’s own free decision, or in his conduct, or in his cooperation, is distinguished from the papistic doctrine of justification only as to its terminology.” (Lehre und Wehre, 1872, page 352.)
It is only when we clearly and definitely exclude works from the doctrine of justification and openly confess that it is indeed by faith alone, through grace, that we are saved, that we can combat error and oppose it when it raises its deceitful head. It is notable that among those who have strayed from the pure doctrine of justification by faith alone, one error after another finds toleration. Among such we find, for instance, that the Anti-Christian lodge is not openly and definitely opposed; whereas, on the other hand, we find that the lodge evil is openly and unequivocally condemned among those who have remained true to the doctrine of justification by faith alone. Why is this? The reason is simply this that where the least error which attributes something to man in his salvation has crept in and found room, there is not the ability to oppose those systems which make Christ’s work of no effect by attributing salvation to the character of man — as the lodge teaches. Notice also the break-down of clearcut testimony against the Roman doctrine and the friendliness of many Protestant and even Lutheran clergy towards the pope’s emissaries. Note the silence among many nominal Lutherans with regard to our Confessions’ branding of the pope as the very Anti-Christ. Notice the Unionistic spirit (indifference toward doctrine) which holds sway among bodies which formerly were conservative. Notice how, among them, errors (whether fundamental or non-fundamental) are not openly opposed and disciplined and how unscriptural practises are tolerated without official censure. All these are the fruits which are being reaped from the sowing of the tares of Synergism. Yes, the fruits of false doctrine are not long in making their appearance. May God keep the remnant which is left from falling into these errors of mixing works into the article of Justification by Faith Alone.
But now it may be asked: Since works do not in any wise justify, and since even faith itself is not such a work as to merit salvation, how can it be that faith justifies? This we shall see in the consideration of the following thesis.
Justification is by Faith Alone, for Christ’s Sake.
When it is said that faith justifies, this must not be understood as though faith is such a change in the heart of man that God for the sake of it justifies him, that is, declares him righteous and free from sin. It is not, indeed, the act of faith, as a work, which causes God to justify us, but it is the object of faith, which is Christ. Thus when Scripture states that we are justified by faith, we understand this to be the same thing as when it says: “by the righteousness of one, justification of faith came to all men.” (Refer Trig. 919.) It is in this way that our confessions express it, and thereupon in the Thorough Declaration we are told: “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.” (Trig. pg. 919.) It is common for us to say that our hunger is satisfied by eating, and still it is not the act of eating which satisfies us, but the food which we eat. Thus it is with faith. It is not the receiving which gives us peace with God but that which is received, namely, Christ. It is with this as it is, for instance, with a diamond ring. It is not the ring itself which is of great value, but it is that which the ring encloses, namely the diamond which makes the ring precious and of great worth. Thus faith justifies because of the object which it grasps, namely “The merit, complete obedience, bitter suffering, death, and resurrection of our Lord Christ alone, whose obedience is reckoned to us for righteousness.” Therefore Paul and Silas could tell the jailer at Philippi simply, “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and thou shalt be saved.” In the same way our Savior Himself told Nicodemus who came to him by night: “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up; that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal life. For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” John 3:14–16. Concerning this matter Luther writes: “I have said repeatedly that faith in God alone is not sufficient, but that the cost — the vicarious satisfaction — must also be considered. The Turk and the Jew also believe in God, but without the means and the cost. But what is the cost? This the Gospel shows us — Christ there teaches us that we are not lost but have eternal life, that is, that God so loved us that for our sakes He went to the greatest of all costs — He offered up his only dearly beloved Son, subjecting him to our misery, to death and hell, and making him drink this cup of bitterness to its dregs.” (St. L. Ed. XI. 1085.)
Accordingly, we see that there can be no justification by faith without Christ, for without Christ there is no forgiveness, no salvation. Among those who reject the substitutionary atonement, there are those who hold that God forgives sins by his mere sovereign will. Such a view casts a dark shadow over the justice of God as well as over His sincerity and truth; for has not God indeed said, “There is not a just man upon earth that doeth good and sinneth not?” Eccl. 7:20. And has He not furthermore said: “Cursed is every one that continueth not in all things which are written in the Book of the Law to do them”? Gal. 3:10. Has He not told us that this curse is nothing but eternal and everlasting death in Hell? Indeed these words still stand as the Words of God and their validity has not been removed. It is only the Devil who denies the truth of these words and says to us as he did to Eve: “Ye shall not surely die.” Gen. 3:4. Since then the curse over sin is eternal death and since all men are sinners and subject to this curse, how can man be justified before God?
In preparing salvation for the world, God in no wise set aside His justice, but His demands for salvation remained the same, freedom from guilt and sin, perfect righteousness and holiness. These demands had to be fulfilled, and in order to fulfill them God laid the complete burden of the world’s sin upon His Son, Jesus Christ, and thus “He hath made Him to be sin for us who knew no sin, that we might be made the righteousness of God in Him.” II Cor. 5:21. The curse which rested on all men, Christ shouldered and removed from man’s charge; for “Christ hath redeemed us from the curse of the Law, being made a curse for us; for it is written, Cursed is every one that hangeth on a tree.” Gal. 3:13. Yes, “Christ also hath once suffered for sins, the Just for the unjust.” I Peter 3:18. When Christ came to this world, He placed Himself under the law that He might fulfill it in man’s stead. “When the fulness of the time was come, God sent forth His Son made of a woman, made under the law, to redeem them that were under the law, that we might receive the adoption of sons.” Gal. 4:4, 5. All this Christ could do, because He is true God as well as true man; and in answer to those who ask how Christ could atone for the sins of all mankind, we merely say that a drop of that precious blood of the lamb of God is sufficient to cleanse the whole world from sin.
Now the relation that all this work and suffering of Christ has to justifying faith is shown very clearly, for instance, in these words of the article on “Righteousness of Faith” in the Thorough Declaration: “The Righteousness which is imputed to faith or to the believer out of pure grace is the obedience, suffering, and resurrection of Christ, since He has made satisfaction for us to the Law, and paid for (expiated) our sins.” (Trig. pg. 919.) All this, then, that Christ has done in man’s stead is imputed by God to faith. When we, therefore, believe in Christ, even though this faith be ever so weak, yet Christ’s righteousness is imputed to us, and we are freed from sin and absolved from eternal punishment. It is therefore that faith justifies for Christ’s sake.
Of how this faith is received, we shall hear in the Sixth and final thesis which reads:
Justifying Faith Which is the Work of God in the Heart of Man is Produced and Sustained by the Means of Grace.
All that has so far been said of justifying faith would be of small comfort to us if God had left us in uncertainty as to how such saving faith is produced in us. However, the good Lord has made this also so clear that there need be no doubt among us with regard to this matter. In the first place, the Holy Scriptures clearly teach us of man’s inability of his own reason or strength to believe in Jesus Christ or come to Him, when it for instance states: “The natural man receiveth not the things of the spirit of God, for they are foolishness unto him, neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned.” I Cor. 2:14. “The carnal mind is enmity against God.” Rom. 8:7. “Ye were dead in trespasses and sins.” Eph. 2:1. Accordingly if it were left to man to incline his own heart to receive these things of the Spirit which are proclaimed to him and offered to him, he would never come to faith, because in his natural condition he rebels against all these things and considers them only foolishness.
The entire doctrine of justification would, therefore, only serve to add to our misery, if its wonderful truths should be known to us and its wonderful gifts set before us, without the ability to receive it and accept it. Our desperation would be much similar to that of the mythical character, Tantalus, whose punishment consisted in this that he was placed in a lake whose waters receded from his lips whenever he attempted to drink, and in this that he was tempted by delicious fruit overhead which withdrew whenever he attempted to eat. But God be praised, we have not been left to be tantalized by gifts of salvation which are unsearchable and unattainable, for God the Holy Ghost not only offers to us the blessings necessary for salvation, but He also produces the faith which He requires for its reception. This He does, not by some unknown means, but it is all accomplished by means of that which He has committed to us, namely, by “The Word of Reconciliation,” or the Gospel. This Word of Reconciliation is not a mere announcement or proclamation of the fact that God has had mercy upon us, but it is, as the apostle Paul says, “the power of God unto salvation.” The Word of Reconciliation, then, is a mighty power in itself, which produces the very faith which it requires for its acceptance. Thus we are told: “We believe according to the working of His mighty power.” Eph. 1:19. And again: “How beautiful are the feet of them that preach the Gospel of peace and bring glad tidings of good things! — So then faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the Word of God.” Romans 10:15, 16.
When we are, therefore, told: “Baptism doth also now save us,” I Peter 3:21, we are assured of the fact that in baptism the forgiveness of sins, life and salvation are not only offered, but the faith required for its acceptance is produced by the Word which is in and with the water. This is indeed a most wonderful doctrine, for it assures us of the fact that our little infants who are brought to baptism there receive justifying faith which lays hold on all the merits of Christ, and thus they have become children of God, heirs of salvation. In the case of adults who have grown up without baptism but have come to faith through the preaching of the Word (even as in the case of the Ethiopian eunuch), there baptism is a means of strengthening the faith which has already been produced.
But it is not only necessary that faith be produced in man’s heart, it is also necessary that this faith be preserved and sustained. Man by his own natural powers is likewise unable to preserve this faith in his heart, once it has been received. If man were left to himself, he would lose his faith and thus lose the forgiveness of sins, life and salvation. How then is man’s faith preserved and by what means is a weak faith strengthened? This likewise is the work of God, for we are told: “Being confident of this very thing, that he which hath begun the good work in you will perform it until the day of Jesus Christ.” Phil. 1:6. Concerning the means whereby this is accomplished we are not left in doubt or Uncertainty; for God says: “Ye are kept by the power of God through faith unto salvation.” Our faith then is preserved and kept by the same means whereby it was produced — “The power of God” — the Gospel — the Word of Reconciliation. Whenever we, therefore, hear the preaching of the Gospel or read it in our homes, we are to know that the Holy Ghost is there active in the Word to sustain and preserve our faith. Whenever we attend the Lord’s table, we are assured of the fact that through the words “Given and shed for you for the remission of sins,” which are, besides the bodily eating and drinking, as the chief thing in the sacrament, our Christian faith in the forgiveness of sins through Christ is strengthened and preserved.
As we see how wonderfully the Lord has provided not only for the producing of our Christian faith but also for its preservation, we should be everlastingly thankful to Him for this His goodness and mercy. It is indeed a sad and lamentable thing that so many of our Christian people should neglect these means, the preaching of the Word and the sacrament of the altar, by infrequent and irregular use. Such neglect is most hazardous and dangerous, for it gives Satan the opportunity he is always waiting for, namely, to overtake us in weakness and rob us of our Christian faith. That Satan may never accomplish this purpose, but that we may be preserved in faith to our dying day, let us be sober and vigilant in a diligent use of the means of grace. May we, furthermore, be found faithful in doing the Lord’s work of spreading the good tidings of salvation into all the world, that others may come to faith and thus receive the forgiveness of sins through Christ for the salvation of their souls. God grant it for Jesus’ sake. Amen.