Preaching Gospel as Gospel, or Why the Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant Churches Need the Reformation

We are all acquainted with the saying attributed to Martin Luther: “Justification by faith alone is the doctrine on which the Church stands or falls.” Although this saying does not appear in Luther’s extant writings, it accurately states his understanding of the matter. As Luther wrote to Johannes Brenz: “For this article is the head and cornerstone that alone begets, nurtures, builds, preserves, and defends the Church of God. Without it, the Church cannot remain standing for a single hour.” It’s an odd assertion on the face of it, because the Reformation formulation of justification is difficult, if not impossible, to find in the writings of the Church Fathers. St Augustine employed the language of justification, but he clearly understood it in transformative terms: grace is imparted, not imputed. And at the Council of Trent the Latin Church basically reaffirmed the Augustinian position. As Alistair McGrath writes: “In brief, then, Trent maintained the medieval tradition, stretching back to Augustine, which saw justification as comprising both an event and a process—the event of being declared to be righteous through the work of Christ and the process of being made righteous through the internal work of the Holy Spirit” (Reformation Thought, p. 115). The key notes of alien righteousness and imputation are absent in the Latin tradition. McGrath was finally forced to conclude that the Reformation doctrine represents something new in the history of Western theology:

The medieval theological tradition was unanimous in its understanding of justification as both an act and a process, by which both the status of humans coram Deo and their essential nature underwent alteration. Although Luther regarded justification as an essentially unitary process, he nevertheless introduced a decisive break with the western theological tradition as a whole by insisting that, through their justification, humans are intrinsically sinful yet extrinsically righteous. … The significance of the Protestant distinction between iustificatio and regeneratio is that a fundamental intellectual discontinuity has been introduced into the western theological tradition through the recognition of a difference, where none had previously been acknowledged to exist. There is no doubt that a small number of medieval writers, such as Duns Scotus, explored the conceptual possibilities of separating these notions; yet despite such notional analysis, justification was not conceptually detached from the process of regeneration. Despite the astonishing theological diversity of the late medieval period, a consensus relating to the nature of justification was maintained throughout. The Protestant understanding of the nature of justification thus represents a theological novum, whereas its understanding of its mode does not. (Iustita Dei, 3rd ed., pp. 213, 215)

And the Eastern tradition fares no better for the 16th century Reformers. One can search far and wide in the writings of the Eastern Fathers for discussion of justification by faith, and the few times one finds it discussed (as in the homilies of St John Chrysostom) it is clear that the divine justifying act is understood as effective and transformative. What one does not find in the Eastern Fathers is a forensic imputation of righteousness. The Orthodox Church is consumed by theosis. Ask an Orthodox priest about justification by faith alone, and you will most likely receive a quizzical look, if not a shake of the head. When one reads the correspondence between Patriarch Jeremiah II and the Lutheran theologians of Tübingen, for example, it’s clear that the Patriarch could only hear the Lutheran formulations as asserting the non-necessity of repentance and good works. “The Church demands a living faith, which is made evident by good works,” he pointedly writes; “for as James says, faith without works is dead [Jas 2:17]. … If then, we have sinned in some thing, let us approach the Sinless One through sincere repentance and confession, and let us demonstrate complete abstinence from evil things. Let us openly come to repentance in order to receive mercy and anything else we ask. There is no sin which has overcome God’s love for mankind” (Augsburg and Constantinople, p. 37). Everything Jeremiah writes is true, yet he misses the point of the Reformation doctrine … yet if he misses the point, it must be said that a lot of people have missed the point over the past five hundred years, including a lot of Protestants.

If the forensic imputation of the righteousness of Christ is the article on which the Church stands or falls, why is it absent in the tradition of the Church?

N. T. Wright argues that the doctrine of justification as historically elaborated in the Western Church has little to do with the doctrine of justification as taught by the Apostle Paul. Since Augustine, Western theologians, with the intent of warding off the self-help heresy of Pelagius, have employed the language of justification to address the question of what the sinner must do to enter into a living relationship with Jesus Christ and thus appropriate the salvation of God. But this, says Wright, was not what Paul was up to. “Paul does indeed discuss the subject-matter which the church has referred to as ‘justification,'” he writes, “but he does not use ‘justification’ language for it. … Paul may or may not agree with Augustine, Luther or anyone else about how people come to a personal knowledge of God in Christ; but he does not use the language of ‘justification’ to denote this event or process” (What Saint Paul Really Said, p. 117). Wright’s own covenantal interpretation of justification has not met with universal approbation; but he is probably correct in his diagnosis: the questions Paul is asking and answering are not identical to the questions posed and answered by Augustine, Luther, Calvin, and all the others (see “The Wrights and Wrongs of Justification“). So what were the questions?

In his book Unbaptized God Robert W. Jenson identifies three loci of reflection that have gone under the label “justification.”

First, there is the teaching of St Paul himself: How is God’s righteousness established amongst us? We’ll leave this question for the biblical exegetes and commentators.

Second, there is the effort of Western theology, beginning with St Augustine and continued in the work of Latin and Protestant scholasticism, “to describe the process of individual salvation, to lay out the factors and steps of the soul’s movement from the state of sin to the state of justice” (p. 22). How do sinners become righteous? How do divine and human agency interact in the process of salvation? Theologians who attempt to describe the process inevitably produce schemas of the ordo salutis. If one studies the Protestant/Catholic and Protestant/Protestant debates on justification, one will be excused for thinking that theologians have believed and continue to believe that if only we could get the ordo right, all would be well with the Church. They love to identify and debate the precise steps in the process of salvation. No doubt such reflection is important; but it’s hard to accept the claim that the Church stands or falls upon it. When did the the kingdom become an ordo?

Finally, there is the reforming doctrine of justification. In modern Lutheran theology this reforming doctrine goes under the names hermeneutic (Ebeling), metatheological (Lindbeck), and metalinguistic (Jenson). How does one proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ so that it will be heard as gospel? “This doctrine,” explains Jenson, “describes nothing at all, neither God’s justice nor the process of our becoming just. It is instead an instruction to those who would audibly or visibly speak the gospel, a rule for preachers, teachers, liturgists, and confessors. This instruction may be formulated: So speak of Christ and of hearers’ actual and promised righteousness, whether in audible or visible words, whether by discourse or practice, that what you say solicits no lesser response than faith—or offense” (pp. 22-23). What the Reformers were struggling to formulate was a hermeneutical norm: preach the gospel of Jesus Christ in such a way that it produces faith in the hearer, rather than works directed toward self-justification.

George Lindbeck describes the reforming doctrine as a grammatical rule. Justification is not a matter of formulating a superior description of the process of salvation. It is akin to a rule of grammar: it tutors the Church on how to properly speak gospel.

It is the rule that all church teachings and practices should function to promote reliance or trust in the God of Jesus Christ alone for salvation. This rule, taken by itself, does not contain any theories or affirmation about justification. It does not even assert that justification is sola fide, but rather ‘for Christ’s sake alone (propter Christum solum‘, although it may be hard to see how any theology which adhered to the rule could deny the sola fide. As is characteristic of statements in the imperative mood, it does not make affirmations about what is true or false, but simply prescribes: and what it prescribes is a certain form of human behaviour (which includes attitudes and ways of thinking). We should not trust anything for justification except God’s unconditional promises in Jesus Christ, not even the faith, virtues and merits, if there be any, which God works in us sola gratia. (“Article IV and Lutheran/Roman Catholic Dialogue,” The Church in a Postliberal Age, p. 42)

If the reforming doctrine of justification is appropriately described as the article upon which the Church stands or falls, it is not because it is a doctrine superior, say, to the Nicene dogma of the divinity of Jesus Christ or the Chalcedonian dogma of the two natures of Christ. As metalinguistic rule it “does not stipulate subject matters or propositions about subject matters; it stipulates how the church must speak, about whatever. Just, and only, so its critical work is unique. The reforming doctrine of justification does not stipulate ‘say such-and-such about justification.’ It stipulates, ‘If your subject is, for example, oppression, so speak of Christ and of your hearers’ oppression that the only response opened is faith in Christ, or offense'” (Jenson, p. 24). But what kind of discourse provokes faith or offense? Unconditional promise! The gospel is proclamation of the story of Jesus of Nazareth, crucified and risen, in the performative mode of promise. “The whole point of the Reformation,” declares Jenson, “was that the gospel promise is unconditional; ‘faith’ did not specify a special condition of human fulfillment, it meant the possibility of a life freed from all conditionality of fulfillment” (Lutheranism, p. 37).

Thus understood, the 16th century debates on justification by faith are of profound relevance to every ecclesial community—be it Orthodox, Catholic, or Protestant—that seeks to preach, enact, celebrate, and live the gospel of Christ Jesus. Only when proclaimed as unconditional promise does the gospel become good, transformative, redeeming news.

Articulus stantis et cadentis ecclesiae.

(Go to: “The Good News of the Resurrection”)

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25 Responses to Preaching Gospel as Gospel, or Why the Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant Churches Need the Reformation

  1. Reblogged this on Orthodox Ruminations and commented:
    “We are all acquainted with the saying attributed to Martin Luther: “Justification by faith alone is the doctrine on which the Church stands or falls.” Although this saying does not appear in Luther’s extant writings, it accurately states his understanding of the matter. As Luther wrote to Johannes Brenz: “For this article is the head and cornerstone that alone begets, nurtures, builds, preserves, and defends the Church of God. Without it, the Church cannot remain standing for a single hour.” It’s an odd assertion on the face of it, because the Reformation formulation of justification is difficult, if not impossible, to find in the writings of the Church Fathers. St Augustine employed the language of justification, but he clearly understood it in transformative terms: grace is imparted, not imputed. And at the Council of Trent the Latin Church basically reaffirmed the Augustinian position.”

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  2. I may have to re-read this a couple times to better grasp it, but I love how you point out the Gospel hinges on unconditional promise and stuff. very interesting thoughts here.

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  3. First, thank you for this blog. It is wonderful.

    Second, this post is a wonderful description, in theological and rhetorical terms, of what I miss and long for in the Orthodox Church.

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  4. Juan Carlos Torres says:

    I am of the opinion that Reformed Theology, once properly calibrated by the fact that God is love and the vicarious humanity of Jesus Christ, is the best gospel thelogy out there. It is refrshing to read that someone thinks the Orthodox and Catholic churches need something from the theology of the Protestan Reformers:)

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  5. whitefrozen says:

    Great article on one of my favorite theological topics. I myself am firmly in the NT Wright camp with regards to justification/righteousness.

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  6. Dana Ames says:

    Father, I don’t understand how this:

    “The whole point of the Reformation,” declares Jenson, “was that the gospel promise is unconditional; ‘faith’ did not specify a special condition of human fulfillment, it meant the possibility of a life freed from all conditionality of fulfillment.”

    is different than the teaching of Orthodoxy.

    And if the good news is “proclamation of the story of Jesus of Nazareth, crucified and risen, in the performative mode of promise,” how is that different than Wright’s understanding of the good news as how God finally, according to his promise expressed within Judaism, became King?

    Dana

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Dana, you’re thinking of the reforming doctrine of justification, as formulated by Jenson, Lindbeck, and other Lutherans, as a doctrine with content. But it has no content. It is instruction on how to communicate the gospel. As far as I can tell, none of the Christian traditions, with the exception of the Lutherans, have given this question much thought at all.

      Compare, for example, the following two statements:

      “If you repent of your sins, God will forgive you.”

      “I absolve you from all of your sins, in the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.”

      Now think of your priest in a pastoral situation speaking one of these two statements to you. How are they different? Would you hear and receive them differently? How would the impact of one or the other upon you differ?

      What Jenson & Co. are proposing is that authentic gospel proclamation takes the form of the latter statement, namely, the form of unconditional promise.

      When was the last time you heard a preacher make an unconditional promise to you in the name of Jesus Christ?

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      • Andy says:

        Fr. Kimel,

        Please elaborate a bit more. The Calvinist in me would say, “Yes, the promises of God in the gospel are indeed unconditional. It’s all God’s doing, after all.” The Arminian in me would say, “Yes, but still I must respond. I must repent. I must receive the gift offered. The man with the withered hand had to stretch it out, at Jesus command, and then he was healed. So must I.”

        What would the Orthodox (eclectic though it may be) in me say?

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      • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

        Andy, you are asking the right reforming questions! 🙂

        One important thing to remember when thinking about the metalinguistic rule: it refers to first-/second-person discourse, not to third-person reflection. It may well be that from a third-person perspective it is descriptively true that there are “conditions” of salvation; but when we proclaim the gospel, following the metalinguistic rule, we do not include these conditions in our proclamation. Consider the language of lovers. It is of course descriptively true that unless the two lovers return the love of the other there can be no viable relationship; but they do not say to each other, “If you love me, I will love you in return.” I hope what I just said will become clearer as the series continues.

        What about the Calvinist. Take a look at J. I. Packer’s introduction to John Owen’s “The Death of Death in the Death of Christ” (great title!). Packer is clear that a Calvinist preacher cannot speak an unconditional promise to his congregation. Why? Because the Calvinist cannot know who among his congregation have been elected to salvation. The preacher can declare “Christ died for sinners,” but he cannot declare “Christ died for you”! Hence the promises he speaks will necessarily be formulated in the “If … then …” form: “If you repent, God will forgive you and you will be saved” (a descriptively true statement). A true Calvinist cannot speak unconditional promises to his congregation.

        Things are bit different for the Arminian preacher. He can certainly say to his congregation “Christ died for you!” But is he able to say to them “By the death and resurrection of Christ, you are forgiven”? My suspicion is that most Arminian preachers will instead formulate the promises they speak in the “If … then …” form. “Christ died for you. If you repent, he will forgive you and you will receive the Holy Spirit” (a descriptively true statement).

        What about Orthodox preachers? I suspect most would locate themselves in the Arminian camp described above. (Am I wrong? My experience of Orthodox preachers is limited to a small sample size.) But consider the Divine Liturgy! The Divine Liturgy is the most powerful presentation of the gospel in the performative mode of unconditional promise that I have ever experienced. The congregation partakes of the Body and Blood of Christ and then they sing: “We have seen the true light; we have received the heavenly Spirit; we have found the true faith, worshiping the undivided Trinity, for the Trinity has saved us.” Wow!

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      “And if the good news is “proclamation of the story of Jesus of Nazareth, crucified and risen, in the performative mode of promise,” how is that different than Wright’s understanding of the good news as how God finally, according to his promise expressed within Judaism, became King?”

      It all depends, Dana, on what kind of promises Wright believes preachers are now authorized to make on the basis of the kingship of Christ. A Calvinist, for example, can certainly affirm that in Christ God has fulfilled his promises to Israel and established his kingship over the cosmos; but he still cannot and will not speak the gospel in the performative mode of unconditional promise. Do you see the difference I’m struggling to articulate?

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  7. Nathan says:

    Hello all. I am a serious Lutheran, and while I am not sure that I can fully sign on to what Father Kimel has said here, I think I agree with the general thrust of his presentation. Luther’s concerns were pastoral and arose in the context of the unique situation of the very highly developed (and I believe “Gospel-suffocating”) Roman Catholic penitential system.

    If Father Kimel would not mind, I have a post I did that might be very helpful in further understanding Luther’s historical context: http://infanttheology.wordpress.com/2012/11/06/the-coming-vindication-of-martin-luther-mystic-induced-doubt-part-ii-of-v/ (this is part of a wider series and I think the whole thing may be of real interest to EO readers, particularly part IV). I note that in the 1530 Lutheran document, the “Apology to the Augsburg Confession” the Lutheran teaching with justification was not divided from the teaching of regeneration at all. Making righteous and declaring righteous went hand in hand. It was only later on, in order to protect the ability of the pastor to simply declare penitent sinners forgiven (righteous – having the true beginnings of life and salvation – “peace with God” [Rom. 5:1]), that the Lutherans took the step of positing a more radical distinction between justification and sanctification, which seemed to many like a *separation* of justification and regeneration. Again, the only reason they did this (could there have been a better way?) was to safeguard the promise.

    One more point, and then I cannot check in again until Monday at the earliest. Father Kimel puts forth two statements:

    “If you repent of your sins, God will forgive you.”

    “I absolve you from all of your sins, in the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.”

    I agree what he said about these. I simply would want to point out that is is possible that the first sentence *can probably* – in some circumstances – be heard in such a way that a person is not thrown back on their own works but rather Christ and his 70 x 7 promise of pardon. I am thinking about a certain kind of person – probably increasingly rare these days – who, though wanting to believe that Christ forgives them, thinks their sins might be too much for Christ to forgive (perhaps this person has a very deep sense of what God desires for us and requires of us and realizes how desperately short they fall). If they here that statement put to them in a hopeful way by a father-confessor, I don’t think it is beyond the realm of possibility that such a person might hear those words as “pure Gospel” – as a sign that – yes, indeed, Christ is the friend of sinners! He is my friend as well!

    For He is the one who grants the repentance that leads to eternal life (Acts 5:30,31 ; Acts 11:17, 2 Timothy 2:25) – repentance in this case being understood and including faith, or trust in Christ and His promises.

    I pray God’s continued blessings on honest and helpful ecumenical endeavors like those I believe Father Kimel to be attempting.

    +Nathan

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      “I simply would want to point out that is is possible that the first sentence *can probably* – in some circumstances – be heard in such a way that a person is not thrown back on their own works but rather Christ and his 70 x 7 promise of pardon.”

      I agree, Nathan. In one of his early books, Story and Promise, Jenson makes the point that what is of first importance is what an utterance does to us. In different contexts, the same utterance might be heard and experienced in very different ways. Trying to discern all of this is one of the difficult tasks the preacher faces.

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  8. Wow. I must say I thought I understood the subject, but after reading this post and the respective comments I am still more confused. I always get lost in the terminology. Can’t it all be boiled down to the following points, at least among non-Calvinists?

    1. God initiates all action, including spiritual illumination and repentance, as He both knows, sustains, and creates the future. Furthemore, as the supreme Subject, any revelation must come from His gracious action.

    A. God knows and indeed exists in the future in a passive sense since all time is equally present – i.e., already existing in the Eschaton and knowing the final state (traditionally, saved and damned – but I don’t want to bleed into the previous discussion).

    B. God wills actively all to be saved.

    2. Man responds toward this revelation – which in Catholicism and, I suspect Orthodoxy as well, can begin with natural revelation, too. This revelation for those two Churches tend to see conversion as an ongoing and ever-deepening revelation into theosis/divinization after being given the interpretative, symbolic framework through catechesis, prayer, etc.

    3. Man responds with either conforming to the life of Christ or rejecting it; in the former, he has internalized in God; in the latter, such is deficient.

    If many “mainstream” Protestants (Lutherans, Anglicans and Anglican derivatives, Arminians, etc.) and as far as I understand most Catholics and Orthodox accept this basic model, why was/is there so much debate?

    Hope I’m not oversimplifying.

    Thanks.

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Dante, you are still thinking about this under the second locus of justification, viz., theological description of the process of salvation. That’s what one finds in Augustine and Aquinas and what one finds in the Lutheran and Reformed scholastics. But Jenson and Lindbeck are talking about something else: they see the 16th century Lutheran/Catholic debate as primarily concerned with the hermeneutical or grammatical rules for authentic gospel speech. It has nothing to do with describing the process of salvation. It’s the difference between God saying to us “I love you and will never leave you” and him saying “I love you, and if you refuse to love me in return, you will be eternally damned.” The latter statement might well be descriptively true; but note how different the two statements are.

      Jenson observes that it’s easy to confuse the descriptive analysis of justification with the proclamatory dimension. Commenting on recent Lutheran/Catholic dialogue on justification, Jenson (who was a theological advisor both to the international and American dialogues) states: “When Protestants do produce descriptions of the salvation-process, these do not notably differ from those currently approved by Roman Catholic theologians and available, if not dominant, at the time of the Reformation. Therefore, the second doctrine of justification is not itself a doctrine that divides Catholicism and the Reformation” (Unbaptized God, p. 23).

      As far as I can tell, this hermeneutical understanding of justification is missing in Reformed presentations of justification. Reformed theologians still think that the debates between the Reformed and the Catholicism has to deal with incompatible theological descriptions of the process of salvation.

      One other point to remember: one does not have to be able to state a grammatical rule in order to speak a language well. Articulation of the rules of grammar is secondary to the actual speaking of a language.

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  9. Dana Ames says:

    I understand the parts, I think, but am struggling to put them together into a whole. I don’t know very much at all about Lutheran theology.

    Dana

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  10. I like what you have to say here. One now deceased Lutheran professor of church history, a Norwegian-American too, said that he felt the obsession with forensic justification was erroneous, a 16th c. retrojection of a real need onto the first century CE and Paul. He also said that Paul’s most frequent way of talking about justification was via the death & resurrection of Christ. But of course. I think that for some “Gnesio-Lutherans,” justification has become their own legitimation as THE reforming body or in some extreme cases, as the only true church after the reformation. I also think that the histories of the eastern & western churches, particularly after the schism, put them into different though not in my view, church dividing trajectories. Lastly, I think many understand God’s action for us and for our salvation to be free, unconditional ove while at the same time recognizing our need to respond in love, in action.

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  11. Pingback: Preaching Gospel as Gospel, or Why the Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant Churches Need the Reformation | Orthodox Ruminations

  12. Pingback: The unconditionality of the gospel | The Crucified God

  13. phillip says:

    Thank you Fr Kimel for stopping by our blog and commenting to let us know about your site! I have no background with Lutheran theology so the above was a challenging read(!) As one who has moved from being an “Evangelical Calvinist” into now Evangelical Universalism I have come to understand that God does not come demanding faith but He comes supplying faith. I believe it is in the proclamation of the confidence and faith of God Himself to save and restore me to His original purpose that creates true faith in me. That is the faith I lock into: the faith of the One who entered into my chaos, death and misery and said, “I’ve got this…It is finished!” To backtrack from this reality with ANY qualifications (conditions) removes the original catalyst for faith! (Apparently verses that say “faith IN Christ” often should be rendered “the faith OF Christ” as in Gal 2:20.)

    As this is proclaimed to the world it has the power to produce a personal response of faith. For some it will be a “no, I can do this myself.” I suppose theoretically there are those who could hold out on that ‘no’ for all eternity but personally I believe God knows we will exhaust all the alternatives to Himself and in so doing all alternatives will be finally and forever destroyed.

    What I feel we need to get away from is any sense of a transactional salvation: You give God your repentance and regret etc., and He will give you salvation. Not only is this works-based but it seems to hinder a sense of urgency because the person hearing the “offer” may consider how they have gotten along ok without “it” for their life so far. But tell them who they are as an image-bearer of God made not in isolation but made instead as a creature designed (and redeemed) to reflect God Himself and then they realize that to reject Him would be to reject their very own existence and true identity!

    I hope what I have been meditating on lately somehow fits in with the discussion(!)
    grace and peace to you,
    phillip

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  14. phillip says:

    Here is a quote by T. F. Torrance that is posted on the “Evangelical Calvinist” site administrated by Bobby Grow who also compiled the volume, “Evangelical Calvinism” (with Myk Habets).

    “God loves you so utterly and completely that he has given himself for you in Jesus Christ his beloved Son, and has thereby pledged his very being as God for your salvation. In Jesus Christ God has actualized his unconditional love for you in your human nature in such a once for all way, that he cannot go back upon it without undoing the Incarnation and the Cross and thereby denying himself. Jesus Christ died for you precisely because you are sinful and utterly unworthy of him, and has thereby already made you his own before and apart from your ever believing in him. He has bound you to himself by his love in a way that he will never let you go, for even if you refuse him and damn yourself in hell his love will never cease. Therefore, repent and believe in Jesus Christ as your Lord and Saviour.” ~T. F. Torrance, “The Mediation of Christ”, 94

    Torrance’s mantra was “Forgiveness precedes repentance.”

    Grow claims neither he nor Torrance is/was a “universalist” but you can see the easy transition.
    I champion the effort for a shift from the present neo-Calvinism into Evangelical Calvinism. It certainly proclaims the message that at least God has faith in His salvation for humanity even if the Church doesn’t. I think God’s faith could become contagious(!)

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