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

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?

Corruption exposed

The privileged few maintain the status quo even at the expense of their integrity, telling the others how they can better themselves. The people long for relief from an administration that levies excessive taxes for wasteful spending programs while enforcing a legal system that favors the wealthy. Many find hope in a man who proclaims freedom through a new regime, a man not afraid to expose the greed and arrogance of the current leaders. He tells them their respectability in the eyes of society is a facade, noting that they take advantage of the most helpless for monetary gain.

But this man does not speak of the highly educated as the only slaves of materialism. Although he does not have his own home, he cryptically warns the hungry that they must stop seeking food as if their life depended on it. He also supports the full payment of taxes to the current government. Equally disappointing, he refuses to resist the authorities he has infuriated, enabling them to arrest him, privately try him, and publicly execute him. So much for the freedom he had promised the oppressed. His closest followers go into hiding, and their most vocal advocate of the poor commits suicide. Continue reading

Chemnitz on objective justification

Martin Chemnitz, a chief author of the Formula of Concord, pointed out that justifying faith rests in the good news that the world has been reconciled to God:
… in 2 Cor. 5:18-19 Paul says that God who "reconciled the world to Himself, not counting their trespasses against them," gave to the apostles the message of reconciliation, likewise that He entrusted to them the message of reconciliation.
Examination of the Council of Trent, I:9.2.9
That Chemnitz accurately summarized the passage is seen in its parallel structure and the connection between verses 18 and 19 with the words "that is" (ESV):
The good news Proclaiming the good news
2 Cor. 5:18 "Now all things are of God, who has reconciled us to Himself through Jesus Christ," "and has given us the ministry of reconciliation,"
2 Cor. 5:19 "that is, that God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, not imputing their trespasses to them," "and has committed to us the word of reconciliation."
As that parallel structure makes clear, Paul took confidence in his own reconciliation with God because he believed the good news that the world to which he belonged was reconciled to God. Chemnitz, citing Rom. 4:25 and 1 Cor. 15:17, recognized that the work of God in Christ to reconcile the world to himself included his resurrection as well as his atoning death:
And this whole action of the Mediator turns on this, whether the Father would accept that satisfaction and obedience of the Son for the whole world. But this the Father showed especially in this, that He did not leave in death, the Son, whom He had smitten for the sins of the people, but raised Him from the dead and set Him at the right hand of His majesty.
Examination of the Council of Trent, I:8.4.13
Seeing that the world has been reconciled to God, justified by Christ’s resurrection, why is anyone finally condemned? The Fourth Gospel is very relevant to that question, attributing damnation to stubborn disbelief in the Son (John 3:18-20; 9:39-41; 16:9), as explored in "The Third Use of the Law: Resolving the Tension" (PDF). Accordingly, the Beloved Disciple taught that the damned refused to believe God’s promise that they had been forgiven through his Son (John 3:33-36; 1 John 1:10; 5:10-12).

Objective reconciliation

These LCMS Theses on Justification (PDF) succinctly distinguish objective justification from subjective justification and give the sedes doctrinae for the good news that God absolved the world by the work of his Son:

In normal Biblical and ecclesiastical usage the terms "justify" and "justification" refer to the ("subjective") justification of the individual sinner through faith (Rom. 4:5, 5:1, etc.; AC IV, 3; FC SD III, 25). But because theologically justification is the same thing as the forgiveness of sins (Rom. 4:1 -8; Ap IV, 76; FC Ep III, 7), it is Biblically and confessionally correct to refer to the great sin-cancelling, atoning work of the Redeemer as the "objective" or "universal" justification of the whole sinful human race. (John 1:29; Rom. 5:6-18; 2 Cor. 5:19; Col 2:14-15; 1 Tim. 3:16; Ap IV, 103-105; LC V, 31, 32, 36, 37; FC SD III, 57)

That is the position of the Lutheran confessions (Ap IV, 103-105; FC SD III, 57), not a later development.

Some argue against objective justification by starting with the premise that justification is either objective or subjective, finding proof that Scripture teaches a subjective justification, and concluding that objective justification is not taught in Scripture. One could as cogently start with the premise that reconciliation between God in Christ and the world is either objective or subjective, find proof that Scripture teaches a subjective reconciliation, and conclude that objective reconciliation is not taught in Scripture.

That the premise is false is clear from 2 Cor. 5:19-20, where Paul immediately follows his announcement that the world has already been [objectively] reconciled with God with an exhortation to be [subjectively] reconciled with God. On the relationship of reconciliation with justification or the forgiveness of sins, see Objective justification: God in Christ reconciled the world, not imputing their sins against them (PDF).

Happy Reformation Day!

“For most people, October means cooler weather, raking leaves, and, at the end of the month, celebrating Halloween. For Lutherans, October includes the commemoration of Reformation Day — the day Martin Luther is said to have nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany.”

— Mark A. Loest

Blest Halloween that struck the hour
When Luther’s hammer rose and fell
At Wittenberg in heaven-born power
And rang dark popery’s funeral-knell,
When long and cruel night was gone
And smiling rose the promised dawn!

“[I believe] in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord; who was conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the Virgin Mary; suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and buried; He descended into hell; the third day He rose again from the dead; He ascended into heaven, and sitteth on the right hand of God the Father Almighty; from thence He shall come to judge the quick and the dead.
[This means that] I believe that Jesus Christ, true God, begotten of the Father from eternity, and also true man, born of the Virgin Mary, is my Lord, who has redeemed me, a lost and condemned creature, purchased and won me from all sins, from death, and from the power of the devil, not with gold or silver, but with His holy, precious blood and with His innocent suffering and death, in order that I may be His own, and live under Him in His kingdom, and serve Him in everlasting righteousness, innocence, and blessedness, even as He is risen from the dead, lives and reigns to all eternity. This is most certainly true.”

— Martin Luther

More information: Poem source & related history | Luther’s Small Catechism

New in 2012: Why the Reformation still matters

Luther on objective justification

Some have asserted that the distinction between objective and subjective justification is a development of Lutheran theology that occurred only after the time of the Reformation. Martin Luther, however, had explicitly taught that all have been forgiven whether or not they believe it and yet that those who refuse to believe thereby forfeit the benefits of forgiveness:

Even he who does not believe that he is free and his sins forgiven shall also learn, in due time, how assuredly his sins were forgiven, even though he did not believe it. St. Paul says in Rom. 3[:3]: “Their faithlessness nullify the faithfulness of God.” We are not talking here either about people’s belief or disbelief regarding the efficacy of the keys. We realize that few believe. We are speaking of what the keys accomplish and give. He who does not accept what the keys give receives, of course, nothing. But this is not the key’s fault. Many do not believe the gospel, but this does not mean that the gospel is not true or effective. A king gives you a castle. If you do not accept it, then it is not the king’s fault, nor is he guilty of a lie. But you have deceived yourself and the fault is yours. The king certainly gave it.

Well, you say, here you yourself teach that the key fails. For the keys do not accomplish their purpose when some do not believe nor accept. Well, friend, if you call this failing, then God fails in all his words and works. For few accept what he constantly speaks and does for all. This means doing violence to the proper meaning of words. I do not call it a failure or a mistake if I say or do something, and somebody else despises or ignores it. But so they understand, teach, and observe concerning the pope’s wrong key: The key itself can err, even though a person would like to accept and rely on it. For it is a conditionalis clavis, a conditional, a vacillating key which does not direct us to God’s Word, but to our own repentance. It does not say candidly and boldly that you are to believe that I most certainly loose you. But it says that if you are repentant and pious, I loose you, if not, then I fail. That is the clavis errans, the erring key. It cannot with any assurance say that I know for certain that I have loosed you before God, whether you believe it or not, as St. Peter’s key can say.

Luther, M., The Keys (1999, c1958), Luther’s Works, vol. 40: Church and Ministry II (J. J. Pelikan, H. C. Oswald & H. T. Lehmann, Ed.), Philadelphia: Fortress Press, pp. 366-367, hyperlink added.

Until the first president of the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod read that treatise, also called On the Keys, he did not understand the gospel of the kingdom (C. F. W. Walther, The Proper Distinction between Law and Gospel).

As he pointed out, the unconditional good news announced by Luther — that the Lamb of God takes away the sin of the world — is diametrically opposed to the conditional "gospels" taught by the denominations — that a sinner cannot have assurance of forgiveness without first either choosing Christ or determining whether one is among the few for whom he died. The schism arose because, not satisfied with the Agapē motif proclaimed by Luther in its simplicity, Calvin, Arminius, and others mixed in seemingly reasonable elements of the spiritual Erōs philosophy, the ancient Greek version of the lie that man must reach up to God. There is good news: God came down to rescue those who do not have the strength to make the right decision or to find evidence of their election (Rom. 5:6-8).

What is the unforgivable sin?

Blaspheming the work of the Spirit

Jesus announced the good news of the kingdom of God, that the Messiah had finally come to overcome the kingdom of Satan, who had held mankind in bondage to suffering and death. The Holy Spirit demonstrated God’s victory by healing diseases, raising the dead, and casting out demons by the word of Christ. While some received the work of the Spirit with joy, others knowingly and willingly spoke against his work:

Then one was brought to Him who was demon-possessed, blind and mute; and He healed him, so that the blind and mute man both spoke and saw. And all the multitudes were amazed and said, “Could this be the Son of David?” Now when the Pharisees heard it they said, “This fellow does not cast out demons except by Beelzebub, the ruler of the demons.” But Jesus knew their thoughts, and said to them: “Every kingdom divided against itself is brought to desolation, and every city or house divided against itself will not stand. If Satan casts out Satan, he is divided against himself. How then will his kingdom stand? And if I cast out demons by Beelzebub, by whom do your sons cast them out? Therefore they shall be your judges. But if I cast out demons by the Spirit of God, surely the kingdom of God has come upon you. Or how can one enter a strong man’s house and plunder his goods, unless he first binds the strong man? And then he will plunder his house. He who is not with Me is against Me, and he who does not gather with Me scatters abroad. “Therefore I say to you, every sin and blasphemy will be forgiven men, but the blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven men. Anyone who speaks a word against the Son of Man, it will be forgiven him; but whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit, it will not be forgiven him, either in this age or in the age to come. (Matt. 12:22-32, NKJV).

Why will these Pharisees never be forgiven? Is it because Christ did not offer them the life of the kingdom or because he did not love them enough to die for all their sins? (Calvinists tend to reason in this direction more than others.) No; rather, in rejecting the work of the Spirit through the word of their Messiah, they rejected the forgiveness that had been sincerely offered to them.

That Christ died even for their unforgivable sin is paradoxical but is clear from the doctrine of humanity’s fall through Adam’s sin: the unforgivable sin, like all actual sins, flows from the sinful nature inherited from Adam. The elect are no less sinful than those who commit the unforgivable sin. Christ atoned for the original sin of Adam (according to Romans 5) and thus for all actual sins proceeding from it.

Not every sin of unbelief or blasphemy is unforgivable. The unforgivable sin is not merely final unbelief or blasphemy against the person of the Holy Spirit, but also willing blasphemy against the work of Holy Spirit with full knowledge of doing so. For example, according to Acts, Paul washed away his sins in baptism, so he could not possibly have committed the unforgivable sin when, as an unbeliever, he forced Christians to blaspheme Christ. Also, he later said he had sinned in ignorance. By contrast, blasphemy against the Spirit is knowing and deliberate, as seen in the above case of those who accused Christ of casting out Satan by the power of Satan. May our merciful Lord keep us from that sin!

The nature of the blasphemy against the work of the Spirit is summarized by the Christian Cyclopedia’s entry on the unpardonable sin, especially the last paragraph:

"This sin is unpardonable, not because of any unwillingness in God, or because His mercy and Christ’s merits are not great enough, but because of the condition of him who commits it: he continues to the end (the action of his sin is linear, rather than punctiliar) in obdurate rejection of the Word of God, divine grace and mercy, and Christ’s merits; cf. 1 Jn 5:16. Augustine of Hippo calls it final impenitence. One who does not repent does not receive forgiveness; cf. Rv 2:22."
For a fuller explanation, see Pieper’s Christian Dogmatics, Volume 1, 571-577.
 

Without the assurance that Christ died even for the unforgivable sin, trusting him for forgiveness becomes impossible. For if you do not believe Christ died for all the sins of the world, then how do you know whether Christ died for all of your sins? How would you know you have never committed the unforgivable sin? Without the good news that he paid for everyone’s sins, you would have to examine yourself to make sure you have never spoken against the work of the Spirit. But if the Lamb of God really takes away the sins not just of believers but of the whole world (John 1; 1 John 2; 1 Timothy 2), you have the promise that God in Christ has already reconciled you to him:

All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation (2 Corinthians 5:18-19, ESV).
Believe that promise and live forever (John 3).