God’s law condemns—but his good news promises forgiveness and joy!

I feel the most vital and necessary teaching we Confessional Lutherans are “still standing” by is the proper distinction between the law and the gospel. Before I became Lutheran, I attended and was involved in many Christian churches that were good at preaching the ways I didn’t fulfill God’s word but never clearly preached that Jesus perfectly fulfilled God’s law so I didn’t have to do anything else to be saved. Their teachings mixed the law and gospel by conveying if I just did my part, God would do his and my life would be prosperous, fulfilling, and happy. I did believe Jesus died to save me, yet the sermons that promised an “easy yoke” and an enjoyable, “Spirit-filled life” left me insecure, burdened, unhappy, and unsatisfied. I wanted to do good, but I couldn’t do enough to prove to God how thankful I was. I could not understand others saying that reading the Bible made them “feel better” or “comforted.” I kept trying the next book, experience, or deed, but got bitter results: being ashamed of my life, feeling both sad and inadequate by my “good” actions.

At the end of my rope, I read Lutheran articles that clearly separated the law from the gospel. In those articles, salvation was sure, based on Jesus’ works, not man’s. I finally understood the comfort Scripture offered! Now, my trust in Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection is where my treasure lies, my satisfaction will never disappoint, and my heart finds contentment. I confess with Paul, “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes . . . For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, ‘The righteous shall live by faith'” (Romans 1:16-17).

This post by Evelyn Bickel commemorates the 500th anniversary of the Lutheran Reformation (31 October 2017).

Assurance of salvation, election, and the revealed will of God

A Puritan heritage

In response to an article maintaining that God made the covenant of grace only with the elect, a pastor in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church recently asked how he could attain assurance of election given that “The identity of the elect is one of those hidden things that belong to the Lord. I’ve been working for seventy-five years to make my calling and election sure, but I haven’t arrived yet” (New Horizons, July 2005, p. 21, Letters). Although Scripture teaches unconditional election and total depravity, it does so in order to strengthen confidence in Christ alone for eternal life. Misuse of these doctrines can have the opposite effect, as when Puritans desperately looked for their own faith, sanctification, or work of the Spirit within as evidence that they had been chosen. For example, 2 Peter 1 is inadvertently wielded against apostolic teaching whenever interpreted to imply that a new convert cannot have full joy in believing the good news until diligently assuring himself of his election by asking questions like, “Have I really added self-control to my knowledge?” or “Have I really added love to my brotherly kindness?” As even Calvin taught (on 1 John 3:19; 4:17), God does not give subjective signs of salvation as the foundation of assurance, which rests on the objective promise of the gospel, but as added confirmation. In Word and Sacrament, the Son of Man sincerely offers the free water of life to all who thirst, longing for them to simply accept his invitation (Matthew 23:37; John 7:37-38; 1 Timothy 2:1-6). He certainly will not turn away anyone who relies on his shed blood for the forgiveness of sins.*

If you have been baptized, you have been baptized into Christ’s death 

Even long before the Puritans, it seemed reasonable that confidence of salvation would result from progress in sanctification (Romans 6:1-2). Paul reversed the order: he urged those baptized into Christ to walk in the Spirit by depending on the already accomplished crucifixion of their flesh with its desires (Galatians 3:26-29; 5:16-24). Indeed, to assure the members of the Roman congregation of their identity in Christ, Paul pointed them to their baptism: “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life” (Romans 6:3-4). The idea is not that baptism saves apart from faith any more than the gospel saves apart from faith, but rather that faith relies on baptism as the Spirit’s work of uniting the believer to Christ (Galatians 3:26-27; Colossians 2:12). Characteristically, Paul argued deductively (Romans 6:1-14):

  1. We who have received Christian baptism have been united with the death and burial of Christ.
  2. Since the slaves of sin, who belong to this age, were put to death in baptism, we have been freed from every obligation to serve sin.
  3. Those united with Christ’s death and burial have already been united with his resurrection, to culminate in the resurrection of the body in age to come.
  4. Because we are now alive from the dead, we are to present ourselves to God as instruments of righteousness.

Such dependence on baptism seems strange to those taught to see it as a human work, but Paul presented baptism as God’s gift of grace, as the tool he used to bring freedom from the curse of the law (Romans 6:14). Luther contrasted this objective certainty of baptism with the doubts that arise from probing into the secret things that belong to God:

As far as we are concerned, we now have God’s Word, and so we ought not have any doubt about our salvation. It’s in this way that we should dispute about predestination, for it has already been settled: I have been baptized and I have the Word, and so I have no doubt about my salvation as long as I continue to cling to the Word. When we take our eyes off Christ we come upon predestination and start to dispute. Our Lord God says, Why don’t you believe me? Yet you hear me when I say that you are beloved by me and your sins are forgiven.’ This is our nature, that we are always running away from the Word.**

Luther echoed the good news proclaimed by Peter, who encouraged suffering believers by assuring them that they had been born again by the preached Word, that they had been saved by a visible Word, baptism (1 Peter 1:23-25; 3:21). Regeneration by water and the Spirit is certain precisely because it rests on the will of the truthful and loving God, not on anything in people (John 1:12-13; 3:5-8). Yes, the hidden things do belong to the Lord alone, “but the things revealed belong to us and to our children forever” (Deuteronomy 29:29).

* A shorter version of this paragraph appeared as a Letter in the October 2005 issue of New Horizons, a publication of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. Another Letter in the same issue shows how the doctrine of limited atonement undermines the assurance of consistent Calvinists: “… I’m not sure of my calling and election (2 Pet. 1:10). It seems to me that believing and knowing on the basis of God’s Word that Jesus died to save his people from their sins (Matt. 1:21; John 6:44, 65) is not the same as believing and knowing on the basis of some subjective decision, feeling, or act that he died to save me” (emphasis original). I hope to write more on this soon. [The planned paper was added on October 20, 2005.]

** Luther, M. (1999, c1967). Vol. 54: Luther’s Works, vol. 54: Table Talk (J. J. Pelikan, H. C. Oswald & H. T. Lehmann, Ed.). Luther’s Works (Vol. 54, Page 57-58). Philadelphia: Fortress Press. Emphasis added.

P. S. (added 10/30/05) In spite of its use of Lutheran terminology, the Federal Vision, inasmuch as it limits the atonement, offers no objective assurance of salvation.

What is the difference between popular evangelicalism and confessional Lutheranism?

Christians of Reformed heritage, including Arminians as well as Calvinists, obviously differ from Lutherans on sacramentology. More foundationally, to the extent that they maintain their distinctive teachings, they disagree on exactly what gospel (good news) the apostles proclaimed:

absolve

More: The chief difference between Reformed theology and Lutheran theology

Faith is clear, not defined in terms of good works

Many evangelical Christians tend to think they disagree with each other only on what they consider minor issues such as whether to baptize infants and whether the gift of tongues is for today, but that they agree on how the forgiveness of sins is received: by grace, through faith alone. This illusion is dispelled upon the realization that different evangelical churches mean very different things by the word faith. Here are some of the most common examples:

  • Faith really means deciding to accept Jesus as Savior by sincerely saying a sinner’s prayer.
  • Faith really means making the decision to accept Jesus not only as Savior, but also as Lord.
  • Faith really is not just belief in God’s promise that his Son died for our sins and rose from the dead, but includes a benevolent love for God, a pious hatred of sin, covenant faithfulness, an obedient heart, or some other commendable quality.

With all the differences of opinion, can anyone know with certainty what faith means? Does it matter?

More: Does faith really mean faith, or did James redefine it?

Justification by faith alone as the hallmark of Lutheranism

Ongoing controversy between even some of the most conservative followers of John Calvin surrounding what has become known as “the new perspective on Paul” dispels the illusion that professing evangelicals, though disagreeing on minor points of doctrine, at least agree on justification by faith alone. Among the more influential denominations involved, the Orthodox Presbyterian Church recently commended for study a report that explains many of the points of contention, some concerning seemingly harmless definitions of terms. Noting that words in the phrase “justification by faith alone” mean different things to different people, the report criticizes what it calls “the Federal Vision” for redefining faith to include faithfulness, obedience, or other good works. On the other hand, the same document condemns baptismal regeneration as contrary to the Scriptures and the Westminster Confession of Faith. That regeneration by baptism as God’s visible word as well as by his spoken word was integral to Martin Luther’s understanding of justification by faith suggests that those who formulated the confession’s underlying system of doctrine may have, ironically, redefined justification by faith centuries before the Federal Vision.

More: Calvinistic modification of justification by faith alone: Does God save all who believe the good news of Christ crucified?

Christ’s spoken and visible words give life

In 1531, the first Protestants clarified some fundamental similarities between the preached word of God and the sacraments, the rites instituted by Christ:

Through the Word and the rite God simultaneously moves the heart to believe and take hold of faith, as Paul says (Rom. 10:17), “Faith comes from what is heard.” As the Word enters through the ears to strike the heart, so the rite itself enters through the eyes to move the heart. The Word and the rite have the same effect, as Augustine said so well when he called the sacrament “the visible Word,” for the rite is received by the eyes and is a sort of picture of the Word, signifying the same thing as the Word. Therefore both have the same effect. (Tappert, 2000a)

The Lord’s Supper was called the visible word, used in contrast to audible word by Augustine in an age of general illiteracy, when words were only written to be read out loud. However, in today’s culture of silent reading, visible word may convey no more than written word, whereas the concept of nonverbal communication, conveying thought by means other than words heard or read, is quite familiar.

More: Ways the Son of Man calls forth life: Seeking the kingdom of God in word and sacrament

Will I fall away from Christ?

What if I fall away from Christ when temptation comes?

According to Martin Luther (Bondage of the Will, VII, xviii), it is a great comfort to know salvation does not depend on free will but only on Christ’s promise that no one will take his sheep from his hand (John 10:28-29). That promise ensures that the elect who are straying into mortal sin will return prior to death (III, ii).

How can I believe that promise when the Parable of the Sower mentions the withering of those who believe only for a time? What if I am one of them?

The case of a permanent loss of saving faith is there to warn those who would, in Calvinistic fashion, rely on an earlier profession of faith rather than on Christ’s promise. The law warns them, “If you do not persevere in hearing and believing the word of God, bearing the fruit of the Spirit, any past faith will not save you.” As an example of Calvinism’s deadliness, Pieper pointed to Cromwell’s false security in his memory of having once been in a state of grace.

By contrast, saving faith looks to Christ “outside us,” never to itself. Faith clings to the ever-present promise of forgiveness and preservation, not the reasoning that one may have believed at some time in the past. Christ promises that no one will take his sheep from his hand (John 10:27-29).

1 February 2014. Modified 2 January 2016.

Living by faith, not by sight

Living by Faith: Justification and SanctificationLiving by Faith: Justification and Sanctification by Oswald Bayer
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This explanation of the centrality of justification in Luther's theology makes timely contact with atheistic thought.

Some highlights (numbers are approximate Kindle locations):

* Those with God's passive righteousness need not concern themselves with the judgments of others as if they were the final judgment (342).

* The power of God's word can be seen in even the smallest parts of his creation (382).

* God's actions are his words to us (588).

* Believers now have eternal life by promise, not yet by something that is felt (450).

* Make your plans as if God does not exist in order to let him work secretly through the mask of means (484, 487).

* Your justification depends in no way and your success (496).

* "Ethical progress is only possible by returning to Baptism" (779).

* In lament, the believer questions God regarding the apparent contradiction between his promise and the suffering, injustice, and other evil observed in the world (808).

* Judging on the basis of that evil, human reason always comes to the conclusion that either God does not exist or, if he exists, then he is not just (901).

* According to St. Paul's letter to the Romans, if God's righteousness could be judged by the standard of human righteousness, then his righteousness would not really be divine, but merely human (970, 973).

View all my reviews

Written for assurance of salvation

Have you ever heard that you should read St. John's first epistle to see whether you pass its tests of evidence that you have been born again? Those who teach it as a list of tests overlook the many passages in the letter in which the Elder affirms the faith of the baptized congregation reading his letter (or hearing it read). For three examples, he says, "you have overcome the world," "you know all things," and "greater is he who is in you than he was in the world." Take comfort in those promises to you, and read the letter again, looking for similar unconditional promises. They teach the gospel, the good news that you are forgiven because Christ took away the sins of the whole world, including all of your sins. There is no judgment and no fear in that message. "Perfect love casts out fear."
In order to further encourage the faith/assurance of those reading this letter, he warns them against the false teachers, the "antichrists," who say they know God without any concern for his children and who even deny that God came in the flesh to save us from our sins. Those warnings may also be applied to those who are not alarmed by their sins, including those who trust in their decision and in a false doctrine of eternal security rather than in Christ alone. To them, no good news of forgiveness should be offered but only the condemnation of God's law. Until they recognize that his law condemns their lawless works, they will not believe the gospel. Before they can receive the cure, they must recognize that they are sick.
In short, law's message of judgment is for us when we do not lament our sins. Once we are terrified by God's proclamation of judgment against us, the law has served its purpose and should be set aside to make way for the gospel, God's free promise of forgiveness.
Many false teachers take a very different approach, either by wielding the law against those who already feel its condemnation or by proclaiming the gospel to those who sense no need for forgiveness. Other false teachers mix law and gospel in a way that softens the condemnation of the law or takes away from the comfort of the gospel, against which there is no law. There still many antichrists.
Even as baptized Christians, we daily need both God's law and his gospel. Since we sin daily, daily need to hear God's judgment against our sins, to repent, and to believe the good news that we are forgiven freely. Once our heart, hearing the law, condemns us, we should take comfort in the promise of the gospel that "God is greater than our heart and knows all things" (1 John 3:20). Then our heart will not condemn us, and we will have the assurance that he hears and answers our prayers (1 John 3:21-22). That faith will be active in works of love for our brother. Later, we again become secure in our sins, and God will again proclaim his word to us: first the law, and then the gospel. The process will continue until Christ returns and we see him as he is.
Here are some related web pages:

The good news of eternal election

Scripture on election

The doctrine of election appears in several New Testament passages, including Romans 8 (“whom he justified, he glorified”) and John 6:40 (“For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day”). Paul addressed Christian congregations as the elect. “Christians can and should be assured of their eternal election. This is evident from the fact that Scripture addresses them as the chosen ones and comforts them with their election, Ephesians 1:4; II Thessalonians 2:13” (Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod, 1932 Brief Statement).

Scripture’s clear promise of eternal election has been obscured by denominational divisions, with the effect that election is seen as a teaching of Scripture to be used more for debate than for the strengthening of faith. The most important debates focus on how to use the teaching for what all Scripture was intended: comfort and hope from the promise of the gospel (Romans 15:4). In fact, Scripture’s hopefulness led the second-generation Lutheran Church to faithfully confess the biblical doctrine of election.

The Lutheran confessions on election

The church that takes its stand on the bare words of Scripture concerning justification by faith alone and concerning eating and drinking the body and blood of Christ also stands firmly on the bare words of Scripture concerning election.

That is why the Lutheran Church adamantly opposes two opposite errors as threats to faith in the gospel:

  1. Eternal security: Anyone who has ever believed the gospel will inherit eternal life even without remaining in the word of Christ.
  2. Synergism: Free will plays some role in salvation.

The first error removes terror from God’s law, which sternly condemns us in order that we continue to take refuge in Christ as the one who has faced and defeated that terror for all people. The second detracts from the comfort of the good news that salvation is entirely God’s work.

Consider these gospel excerpts from the article of the Formula of Concord on eternal election:

Thus this doctrine affords also the excellent, glorious consolation that God was so greatly concerned about the conversion, righteousness, and salvation of every Christian, and so faithfully purposed it… that before the foundation of the world was laid, He deliberated concerning it, and in His [secret] purpose ordained how He would bring me thereto [call and lead me to salvation], and preserve me therein.

It can be seen that “every Christian” and “me” refer to the same person: every believer, every Christian. That would mean God was concerned enough with the salvation of every child of God to preserve him or her in it.

Therefore, whoever would be saved should not trouble or harass himself with thoughts concerning the secret counsel of God, as to whether he also is elected and ordained to eternal life, with which miserable Satan usually attacks and annoys godly hearts. But they should hear Christ [and look upon Him as the Book of Life in which is written the eternal election], who is the Book of Life and of God’s eternal election of all of God’s children to eternal life…

The formula said there that all of God’s children have been elected to eternal life. Far from leading to fatalism, apathy, or lawlessness, the good news of the election of all God’s children motivates the Christian life. The Formula continues with the exhortation to live in repentance, in the forgiving promises of word and sacrament, and in confident prayer:

According to this doctrine of His they should abstain from their sins, repent, believe His promise, and entirely trust in Him; and since we cannot do this by ourselves, of our own powers, the Holy Ghost desires to work these things, namely, repentance and faith, in us through the Word and Sacraments. And in order that we may attain this, persevere in it, and remain steadfast, we should implore God for His grace, which He has promised us in Holy Baptism, and, no doubt, He will impart it to us according to His promise, as He has said, Luke 11:11ff : If a son shall ask bread of any of you that is a father, will he give him a stone? Or if he ask a fish, will he for a fish give him a serpent? Or if he shall ask an egg, will he offer him a scorpion? If ye, then, being evil, know how to give good gifts unto your children, how much more shall your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to them that ask Him!

The Formula of Concord likewise affirms these articles among others:

4. That He will justify all those who in true repentance receive Christ by a true faith, and will receive them into grace, the adoption of sons, and the inheritance of eternal life.

5. That He will also sanctify in love those who are thus justified, as St. Paul says, Eph. 1:4.

6. That He also will protect them in their great weakness against the devil, the world, and the flesh, and rule and lead them in His ways, raise them again [place His hand beneath them], when they stumble, comfort them under the cross and in temptation, and preserve them [for life eternal].

7. That He will also strengthen, increase, and support to the end the good work which He has begun in them, if they adhere to God’s Word, pray diligently, abide in God’s goodness [grace], and faithfully use the gifts received.

In short, God will raise and preserve for eternal life “all those who in true repentance receive Christ by a true faith” (paragraphs 18-20), and he will do so by means of his word and sacraments and in response to prayer grounded in his promises.

Election in the wounds of Christ

Following Luther and the Formula of Concord, Pieper (Christian Dogmatics III:483-484) instructed us to discern our election in the wounds of Christ, that is, in the promise that he takes the sins of the world away (III:482-483). Here is an example of how the Formula grounds the assurance of election in the universality of the atonement (paragraph 70):

But they should hear Christ [and look upon Him as the Book of Life in which is written the eternal election], who is the Book of Life and of God’s eternal election of all of God’s children to eternal life: He testifies to all men without distinction that it is God’s will that all men should come to Him who labor and are heavy laden with sin, in order that He may give them rest and save them, Matt. 11:28.

Not all denominations receive Scripture’s good news that all of God’s children have been elected to eternal life. Taking the Presbyterian Church as an example, the Westminster Confession of Faith explicitly makes the promises of the gospel conditional on evidence of conversion. By contrast, the scriptural article of election is a promise of the gospel.

Not everyone believes. Pieper correctly attributes a lack of faith solely to the stubborn rejection of the offer of salvation Christ makes to all, sincerely desiring their salvation. At the same time, Pieper also correctly attributes faith solely to the grace of God. There should be no question that election is a cause of saving faith. Pieper rightly stressed, “As many as were ordained to eternal life believed.” While aware of the apparent contradiction, Pieper points out that all attempts to resolve it lead to either Calvinism or synergism.

The Lutheran teaching on divine preservation did not originate with the Formula of Concord but can be traced at least as far back as Luther’s Large Catechism:

Let this, then, be the sum of this article that the little word Lord signifies simply as much as Redeemer, i.e., He who has brought us from Satan to God, from death to life, from sin to righteousness, and who preserves us in the same.

Everyone confessing faith in the second article of the Creed (that Jesus Christ is Lord) thereby confesses faith that he “preserves us in” righteousness. Indeed, every baptized child of God has justifying and sanctifying faith and thereby believes all articles of gospel, including its promise of preservation in righteousness.

Warnings against apostasy

What about the threats of Scripture against those who only believe for a time? Of course, the word “believe” has meanings in the language of the New Testament apart from its specifically Christian meaning, “believe with saving faith,” and context always determines how a word is used. For example, the Fourth Gospel spoke of children of Satan who had believed in Christ without really keeping his word (John 8:31-33, 43-44, 51):

So Jesus said to the Jews who had believed in him, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” They answered him, “We are offspring of Abraham and have never been enslaved to anyone…” “Why do you not understand what I say? It is because you cannot bear to hear my word. You are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father’s desires… Truly, truly, I say to you, if anyone keeps my word, he will never see death.”

See also John 2:23-25 and 5:37-38.

Law and gospel

God’s word comes to us as law and gospel. We must take both its warnings concerning apostasy and its promises of election seriously by considering the former as law and the latter as gospel. The law says that if you fall away from the faith and do not repent, you will perish eternally. Indeed, there are former believers who completely fall away from grace because they stopped believing the gospel.

While the law of God does threaten his wrath, his gospel cannot since it is by definition nothing but good news. It says those who persevere in saving faith do so solely by the power of God and in no sense by their free will. The gospel, including the promise of preservation, is available to all since God sincerely desires the salvation of all, as the Lutheran confessions emphasize.

The threats in John 15:1-10 and other Scriptures about what happens to those who believe but do not remain in the word of Christ pertain to the law, not to election, since election is pure gospel. The promise of eternal life is even for those of God’s children who, having fallen away from the faith, repent in response to the warnings of the law.

3 September 2011. Modified 2 and 31 January 2016. I thank Daniel Gorman and Guillaume Williams Sr. for informative discussions.