Gospel, Mortal Sin, and the Search for Assurance

The problem with mortal sin is that it’s so damned mortal. It scares me—as it rightly should. Mortal sin is nothing less than a state of spiritual death and impenitence. I know that the reason I was initially drawn to Martin Luther back in the 80’s was because he seemed to provide a way to get the fear of dying in mortal sin off my back. Wasn’t that the great quest of Luther, to find the gracious God and relieve his fear of eternal damnation? And didn’t he resolve that quest by his discovery of justification by faith? “Faith in Christ,” Luther declared, “overcomes sin, death, and hell, and gives life, righteousness, and salvation.”

That sounds pretty darn good. Salvation is the gracious gift of God. I don’t have to earn it. I don’t have to do anything. From his side, God has done everything for my salvation. Does that mean, therefore, that I can’t be damned? Does that mean that I can’t choose hell? Well … errr … even Lutherans admit that hell remains a possibility for Lutherans. Some who believe today will disbelieve tomorrow and thus cut themselves off from the mercy of the Savior.

Now, one might reasonably ask why anyone would make such a choice. Why would anyone choose to be Judas? Karl Barth called this the “impossible possibility.” And yet we each know that we are given in Christ the freedom to make this choice. And we know that, under the right circumstances, we might indeed—God forbid!—make this choice. Who hasn’t read C. S. Lewis’s The Great Divorce and seen himself reflected in the various characters who choose to return to the “grey town”? The door to hell may be locked only from the inside, but that doesn’t mean that I will decide to unlock the door.

How do I know that I will choose God? How do I know that I am choosing God at this present moment? How do I know that I have truly repented of my sins? There are no second chances, traditional teaching teaches us. Not even the Roman Catholic doctrine of purgatory offers a second chance. The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches: “Mortal sin is a radical possibility of human freedom, as is love itself. It results in the loss of charity and the privation of sanctifying grace, that is, of the state of grace. If it is not redeemed by repen­tance and God’s forgiveness, it causes exclusion from Christ’s kingdom and the eternal death of hell, for our freedom has the power to make choices for ever, with no turning back” (§1861). Life is a single choosing. When we die and meet the living God, we will then discover which choice we have made.

The problem is free will. Whatever one wants to say about the bondage of unbelievers to sin, the New Testament is clear that believers are given a new freedom in the Spirit. We are given a freedom to say “yes” to God, to obey his commandments, to love, to follow Christ unto death. But apparently we are also given a freedom to say “no” to all the above. Even for the Spirit-filled, born-from-above believer, hell remains a possibility, an impossible, terrifying possibility. “For it is impossible,” declares the Letter to the Hebrews, “to restore again to repentance those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, and have shared in the Holy Spirit” (Heb 6:4).

Calvin and his successors sought to negate the threat by insisting on divine monergism and the predestination of the elect. God will ensure that those whom he has chosen for salvation will persevere in faith. The threat of damnation is thus eliminated for the elect. Of course, a new problem is created: Who are the elect? How do I determine whether I am one of them?

We cannot penetrate by our intellectual and spiritual efforts into the inscrutable will of the sovereign God. Christ may be the mirror of my election, but how do I know if the promise of salvation is truly spoken to me? How do I know if I have fulfilled the saving condition of faith? How do I know I am predestined to heaven and not to hell? In his seminal essay “Why Luther is Not Quite Protestant,” Phillip Cary argues that Calvin’s greatest theological innovation was not double predestination, as is sometimes thought, but rather his insistence that knowledge of one’s membership in the company of the elect is not only a possibility but a necessity: “individual believers can and should know they are predestined for salvation (since all who are saved are predestined to be saved, I cannot know I am saved without knowing I am predestined to be saved). We can call this, Calvin’s epistemic thesis about predestination” (pp. 474-475). How does one come to know that one is predestined to eternal salvation? By examining one’s life and determining whether one believes in Christ: “Calvin’s epistemic thesis therefore makes Christian faith essentially reflective. Since the Gospel does not tell me directly whether I am predestined for salvation, I must work by inference, and the crucial premise of my inference must be that I believe in Christ. From the fact that I presently believe I can infer that I will persevere in faith to the end—from which it follows that I am predestined for salvation” (p. 477). The logic of faith may be schematized as follows:

Major Premise: Whoever believes in Christ is saved.
Minor Premise: I believe in Christ.
Conclusion: I am saved.

Major Premise: Christ promises absolution of sins to those who believe in him.
Minor Premise: I believe in Christ.
Conclusion: I am absolved of my sins.

Faith here works reflectively. It looks to Christ, but it also looks back upon the self and its act of faith. Cary writes:

In this syllogism the major premise is taken from the Scriptural promise, “Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved” (Mark 16:16). The minor premise is a confession of faith in Christ. The logical conclusion is the assurance of salvation. Hence to know that I am saved I must not only believe in the promise of Christ but also know that I believe it. In this sense faith is reflective: faith is based on God’s word, but the assurance of faith must include believers’ awareness that they have faith.

To achieve assurance, the believer must believe that he believes. But how does one determine whether one believes? Typically through two ways—either by evaluating one’s inner experience or by evaluating one’s behavior (or perhaps a combination of the two). The former is common in charismatic and pietistic circles. The believer confirms his faith by appealing to past experiences (“I’ve been born again or baptized in the Spirit”) or by assessing the quality of his present spiritual experience; the latter in confessional circles. But whether one is looking at one’s inner experience or one’s moral actions, one is looking at the self. Protestant faith is inherently reflective. As Cary writes, “A reflective faith has itself for object in addition to God’s word” (p. 455).

Because of their dogmatic confession of absolute predestination and limited atonement, some Reformed preachers actually got to the point where they could not speak directly and personally to any given sinner the words “Christ died for you,” because they could not confidently determine who the elect were. And so gospel preaching became reduced to the third-person procla­mation “Christ died for sinners.” J. I. Packer, however, does not see this as a problem. Following the Puritan theologian John Owen, Packer tells us that it is sufficient to proclaim the message “Christ is the Savior. Repent of your sins, believe on him, and you will be saved.” The following lengthy passage confirms Cary’s analysis:

What does it mean to preach ‘the gospel of the grace of God’? Owen only touches on this briefly and incidentally, but his comments are full of light. Preaching the gospel, he tells us, is not a matter of telling the congregation that God has set his love on each of them and Christ has died to save each of them, for these assertions, biblically understood, would imply that they will all infallibly be saved, and this cannot be known to be true. The knowledge of being the object of God’s eternal love and Christ’s redeeming death belongs to the individual’s assurance, which in the nature of the case cannot precede faith’s saving exercise; it is to be inferred from the fact that one has believed, not proposed as a reason why one should believe. According to Scripture, preaching the gospel is entirely a matter of proclaiming to men, as truth from God which all are bound to believe and act on, the following four facts:

  1. that all men are sinners, and cannot do anything to save themselves;
  2. that Jesus Christ, God’s Son, is a perfect Savior for sinners, even the worst;
  3. that the Father and the Son have promised that all who know themselves to be sinners and put faith in Christ as Savior shall be received into favor, and none cast out – which promise is ‘a certain infallible truth, grounded upon the superabundant sufficiency of the oblation of Christ in itself, for whomsoever (fewer or more) it be intended’;
  4. that God has made repentance and faith a duty, requiring of every man who hears the gospel ‘a serious full recumbency and rolling of the soul upon Christ in the promise of the gospel, as an all-sufficient Savior, able to deliver and save to the utmost them that come to God by him; ready, able and willing, through the preciousness of his blood and sufficiency of his ransom, to save every soul that shall freely give up themselves unto him for that end.’

The preacher’s task, in other words, is to display Christ, to explain man’s need of him, his sufficiency to save, and his offer of himself in the promises as Savior to all who truly turn to him; and to show as fully and plainly as he can how these truths apply to the congregation before him. It is not for him to say, nor for his hearers to ask, for whom Christ died in particular. ‘There is none called on by the gospel once to enquire after the purpose and intention of God concerning the particular object of the death of Christ, every one being fully assured that his death shall be profitable to them that believe in him and obey him.’ After saving faith has been exercised, ‘it lies on a believer to assure his soul, according as he find the fruit of the death of Christ in him and towards him, of the goodwill and eternal love of God to him in sending his Son to die for him in particular’; but not before. The task to which the gospel calls him is simply to exercise faith, which he is both warranted and obliged to do by God’s command and promise.

For Packer, the gospel remains third-person proclamation.  It is up to the individual sinner to apply to himself  the general message “Christ died for sinners.” But the sinner who finds himself in the condition of the anguished conscience needs to know quite specifically that Christ died for him, not just for the elect. I need to know that God’s saving love is intended for me! Imagine asking one’s mother “Do you really love me?” and receiving the response “I love all my children. Go look for your birth certificate.” The last thing need to hear from the preacher is “Look inward, examine yourself and determine whether you truly believe.” All preachers who have been shaped by the hermeneutical understanding of justification must reject the Calvinist doctrine of limited atonement and the way it necessarily distorts the proclamation of the good news of Jesus Christ.

What then is the alternative to the reflective faith of Calvin and Packer? Consider another set of syllogisms:

Major Premise: Christ told me, “I baptize you in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.”
Minor Premise: Christ never lies but only tells the truth.
Conclusion: I am baptized (i.e., I have new life in Christ).

Major Premise: Christ says, “I absolve you of your sins in the name of the Father, Son and the Holy Spirit.”
Minor Premise: Christ never lies but only tells the truth.
Conclusion: I am absolved of my sins.

One immediately notes their objectivity and even sacramentality. The major premise speaks an unconditional promise in the first-person, and the minor promise affirms the reliability of the speaker. Neither syllogism invites the hearer to look into his subjectivity to discover faith. The hearer is directed to the external Word and invited to draw the appropriate conclusion. If Christ Jesus tells me that my sins are forgiven, then they are forgiven, no matter what my feelings or inner voice might be saying to me. The evangelical syllogism thus produces what Cary calls an unreflective faith—a faith that relies exclusively on the promises of Christ:

Christians must not rely on their faith but on God’s word and sacraments, and therefore are free not to worry about whether their faith is real or sincere enough. Pastorally speaking, it does not matter whether I am strong or weak in faith, because in either case the word of promise refers to me and is true. So strong or weak, confident or doubtful—even sincere or insincere—what is required of me is the same: I am to hear the gospel promises, believe them and take them to my comfort. (p. 473)

Here is the source of genuine assurance in the salvation of Christ, an assurance that transcends presumption and short-circuits the condemning voice of Satan. Faith puts no faith in faith; it clings to the sacramental promise of Christ alone. Luther powerfully spoke of this evangelical faith in his 1535 Commentary on Galatians:

The true Gospel, however, is this: Works or love are not the ornament or perfection of faith; but faith itself is a gift of God, a work of God in our hearts, which justifies us because it takes hold of Christ as the Savior. Human reason has the Law as its object. It says to itself: “This I have done; this I have not done.” But faith in its proper function has no other object than Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who was put to death for the sins of the world. It does not look at its love and say: “What have I done? Where have I sinned? What have I deserved?” But it says: “What has Christ done? What has He deserved?” And here the truth of the Gospel gives you the answer: “He has redeemed you from sin, from the devil, and from eternal death.” Therefore faith acknowledges that in this one Person, Jesus Christ, it has the forgiveness of sins and eternal life. Whoever diverts his gaze from this object does not have true faith; he has a phantasy and a vain opinion. He looks away from the promise and at the Law, which terrifies him and drives him to despair.

Therefore what the scholastics have taught about justifying faith “formed by love” is an empty dream. For the faith that takes hold of Christ, the Son of God, and is adorned by Him is the faith that justifies, not a faith that includes love. For if faith is to be sure and firm, it must take hold of nothing but Christ alone; and in the agony and terror of conscience it has nothing else to lean on than this pearl of great value (Matt. 13:45–46). Therefore whoever takes hold of Christ by faith, no matter how terrified by the Law and oppressed by the burden of his sins he may be, has the right to boast that he is righteous (LW 26:88-89; cf. David Yeago, “The Catholic Luther“)

Preaching and sacraments now take on a decisive role in the life of the Church. There can be no assurance of salvation—and indeed no genuine repentance—if the promises of Christ are not spoken and sacramentally celebrated. I cannot speak the gospel to myself. In the name of the risen Jesus, it must be spoken to me.

[Originally published on 19 November 2014; now edited and expanded]

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36 Responses to Gospel, Mortal Sin, and the Search for Assurance

  1. dilys says:

    Doesn’t this sever the Gordian knot?: “When in doubt, re-choose.”


  2. Young and Rested says:

    “Life is a single choosing. When we die and meet the living God, we will then discover which choice we have made.”

    That line gave me chills. I recall the intense anxiety produced by my quest for that “blessed assurance” of which my church leaders were constantly speaking. Some even went so far as to declare that I was most certainly not “saved” because I lacked the tell-tale sign of unshakable assurance. I knew the sincerity of my search for God and my desire to believe, but nothing could stave off the oppressive “what if?” that was always there. It seemed as though I’d have to wait until I died to find out whether it would be bliss or burn for me. What a terrifying thought!

    Thankfully, God saw fit to allay my fears by revealing that He truly is not willing that any should perish and that He will never cease his loving pursuit of all He has made.

    Liked by 3 people

  3. Bobby Grow says:

    My chapter in our next book coming out in a couple months or so is assurance of salvation in Calvin, Barth, and Torrance. I argue that the vicarious humanity of Christ and a Christ conditioned concept of election is the frame wherein assurance of salvation comes from. I offer a constructive critique of Calvins understanding of election/reprobation, his understanding of the decrees and will of God, and his commitment to the concept of temporary faith (which anticipates the practical syllogism and experimental predestinarianism later developed in Puritan theology).


  4. Amen!

    I am reminded of the words of Fr. Robert Farrar Capon (I am tempted to call him St. Robert of Long Island) from *Between Noon & Three*: “Trust him. And when you have done that, you are living the life of grace. No matter what happens to you in the course of that trusting – no matter how many waverings you may have, no matter how many suspicions that you have bought a poke with no pig in it, no matter how much heaviness and sadness your lapses, vices, indispositions, and bratty whining may cause you – you believe simply that Somebody Else, by his death and resurrection, has made it all right, and you just say thank you and shut up. The whole slop-closet full of mildewed performances (which is all you have to offer) is simply your death; it is Jesus who is your life. If he refused to condemn you because your works were rotten, he certainly isn’t going to flunk you because your faith isn’t so hot. You can fail utterly, therefore, and still live the life of grace. You can fold up spiritually, morally, or intellectually and still be safe. Because at the very worst, all you can be is dead – and for him who is the Resurrection and the Life, that just makes you his cup of tea.”

    Liked by 2 people

    • Iain Lovejoy says:

      Now that is “justification by faith” that I can understand. The rest is cant, nonsense and talking in circles. Thanks for that.


  5. Michelle says:

    Isn’t it enough to just believe the promise that God loves all people infinitely, and that He works according to this infinite love providentially for our salvation. I’m sure this is what the early Church Fathers unanimously taught. You don’t even have to make up assertions about having a totally depraved will, or a one-sided monergistic act on God’s part in the conversion of sinners in order to trust Him to make good on His word (For Luther these assertions are integral to the final sets of major and minor premises, as well as the conclusions that you present, with the view that entertaining any form of synergistic cooperation would diminish their certainty).

    So, how can we be certain that God’s infinite love and divine help will be enough? I mean, it wasn’t enough for Judas, right? What if I’m no better off than he? Well, whether you find it comforting or not, according to the promise that I’m advocating we can be as certain as St. Porphyrios was in his affirmation, “Christ, whatever Your love dictates; it is sufficient for me to live within Your love. Let Him put us wherever He likes. Let Him give us whatever He wishes.”

    This is, indeed, enough assurance to brave the waters of a synergistic cooperation in salvation (as the Church Fathers taught) with the same certainty that has always accompanied Christians in their journey towards theosis.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    Michelle: “Isn’t it enough to just believe the promise that God loves all people infinitely, and that He works according to this infinite love providentially for our salvation.”

    Perhaps … or perhaps not. If we leave it at the point you suggest, Michelle, would this not mean that assurance of eternal salvation is impossible, precisely because there is a Judas hidden deep within each of us? In that case, God can assure us that he intends us in his love, but he cannot assure us that we will, or have, truly repented and believed.

    Perhaps this is just the way things are and we must just find a way to live with our anxieties and angst.


    • Young and Rested says:

      I think that while Michelle’s point does not necessarily lead to epistemic certainty with regards to personal salvation, it does go a long way towards relieving the anxieties of the ordeal. At least for my part, I find great comfort amidst the uncertainties that surround us, in knowing that God’s orientation towards us is one of infinite love. That implies to me that, in the end, if the deck is stacked then it is stacked in our favor.

      Do you think that the pains of our lack of assurance can themselves play any positive role in achieving our ultimate salvation? Perhaps as some pedagogical tool or character refining mechanism? In my experience, it seems that unreflective Christians are much less likely to struggle with assurance. In some strange way the suffering of the soul appears to be a mark of maturation. I don’t know quite what to make of it.


  7. Michelle says:

    If the last sets of major and minor premises and conclusions you present are in anyway interpreted with an underlying synergism (which they can be. A monergistic understanding need not hold these premises captive), then there will essentially be no existential difference in the experience of the believer despite which set of promises they happen to believe -whether yours or mine, or both at the same time (which is totally possible, and probably most likely, under a traditional synergistic understanding). And, furthermore, its only if one’s synergism rests in a pre-laid bed of universalism that believing either promise (if not both simultaneously) will release you from the angst and anxiety you mention (same goes for a monergistic understanding of your premises, by the way. I’ll explain below). So, why not adopt the tried and true universalism of St Gregory of Nyssa, instead of contriving some quasi-Lutheran universalism that is merely a round about way of arriving at the same destination?

    And if you decide to go the monergistic route with these premises you won’t fare any better as far as angst and anxiety goes without a pre-laid universalism (but in that case I’ll have to repeat my question; why go the round about, protestant-esque way instead of sticking with St Gregory’s universalism, which keeps better with the tradition of the early Church?).

    The angst and anxiety of a monergism that lacks universalist undertones looks something like this:

    Let’s say Luther makes good use of the 2nd use of the Law, and always goes running to these established promises when he feels personally convicted by sin. Great! His conscious is eased concerning himself. That is unless he’s merely deluded into believing he is actually repentant. You alluded to this particular angst above, saying, “How do I know that I am choosing God at this present moment? How do know that I have truly repented of my sins?” Well, that’s okay, because to assuage this anxiety he will just refer back to the promises. And the endless circle of anxiety over the real threat of unrepentance and subsequent relief through the promise will commence.

    But that’s not all. What about Luther’s hypothetical son, Luther Jr, who openly gives the 2nd use of the Law and the promises of his infant baptism the middle finger? How does Luther manage to calm his fears over his son’s very possible and probable demise? Let alone Luther’s hypothetical, dear old pagan Granny, who isn’t even baptized, and doesn’t give a flying you-know-what about Christ or His promises? Where is his comfort then?

    And what makes monergism even more dire is the fact that even when Luther does successfully heed the 2nd use of the Law and run to the shelter of the promise, this conversion from beginning to end was one-sidedly the sole work of God, due to a totally depraved will on Luther’s part. So, when Luther wakes up in the Kingdom after his earthly repose, and Luther Jr and Granny wake up in hell, he can spend the rest of eternity scratching his head as to why him and not them? And, if he wants, before his earthly repose he can scratch his head in anxiety and angst over the matter, without any hope of relief from his beloved promises.

    So what balm will ease the angst and anxiety? To this I say pay closer attention to St. Porphyrios words, “Christ, whatever Your love dictates; it is sufficient for me to live within Your love. Let Him put us wherever He likes. Let Him give us whatever He wishes.” What ever Judas’ end was, I was not outside of Christ’s infinite love for him, nor His providential working towards his restoration. How this exactly works out I don’t know, but this bold promise is precisely the root from which St Gregory of Nyssa theology springs forth. And I’m not personally proclaiming universalism, I’m just saying that while I don’t know what exactly Judas’ end looks like in the midst of Christ’s infinite love and restoration, I’m still certain it resides somehow in this unconditional promise. And its also comforting that St Gregory thought it not too bold to answer this question with his strong assertions, and the Church never condemned him for it. So, too, we will not be condemned in our bold casting off of angst and anxiety in the midst of this promise, saying with St Porphyrios and the Virgin Mary, “Let it be unto me according to thy word!”

    Liked by 1 person

    • phillipcary says:

      Al suggested I drop in on this conversation.

      My own view is (1) that universalism is not the best PASTORAL response, because it tends to eradicate the fear of the Lord. We SHOULD have some reasonable fear about what our Lord and Judge might say to us in the Last Judgment. It may (as some early Christians evidently thought) be an age (aeon) of punishment but not eternal torment. But it is certaintly worth avoiding. And above all, what is worth avoiding is the word of condemnation, “Depart from me.” We should fear God.

      In this respect, I think von Balthasar (and implicitly, Barth) strike the right balance. Yes, we do dare hope that all might be saved, as von B’s title suggests. But we also know that hell is always a real possibility, because we know something about the wickedness of our own hearts. So we have to take the possibility of the wrath of God seriously.

      So the conclusion, to repeat: I don’t want Gregory’s universalism to be used pastorally in such a way to relieve us of all our anxieties, and especially the fear of God.

      (2) Every theological position generates its specific anxieties as well as its specific remedies. I think Luther’s anxieties and their remedy are right. At some point, we have to look at ourselves and see that we are fit objects of the wrath of God, and beg for mercy (Kyrie eleison!). And at that point we also need to hear the kind word of a gracious God who gives us his own Son as our savior, through the promise of the Gospel presented to us in Word and Sacrament.

      I think that pastoral practice fits with the right kind of hopeful universalism (though this was not actually a possibility in Luther’s day in the 16th century in the West). It means: I may hope for the salvation of all, including myself, but I must also fear God, in light of the gravity and depth of my sin (and I should cultivate a penitent awareness of this gravity) and when this makes me anxious, I should turn, yet again, to the Gospel given to me in baptism, eucharist and preaching. For one thing Gregory and Martin can agree on: there is no hope for me or anyone except in the divine Mercy incarnated for us in Jesus Christ.

      Liked by 2 people

      • Young and Rested says:

        I think that you make a great point about the importance of maintaining a healthy fear of God. If we make God into a big pushover who is squeamish about doling out punishment, we do so to our own peril.

        However, I do think that a properly nuanced universalism (hopeful or dogmatic) is almost pastorally essential since it relieves what I consider to be the most deleterious type of existential anxiety (namely, that of one’s fundamental relationship to their creator), without eliminating the fear of God. What most hopeful and dogmatic forms of universalism have in common is a belief that God never simply gives up on people or changes His loving stance towards them. The varieties of universalism that are most truly Christian will also emphasize the severity of God’s love and that grievous punishments are in store for the rebellious.

        This closely mirrors a relationship between parents and their children. Imagine the anxiety that would grip a child if they believed that their parents were reserving the right to kill or permanently abandon them. This is the harmful type of anxiety that I mentioned earlier. To say to that child that ultimately they will have a joyful relationship with their parents and that they will never be abandoned or killed by them is a good start. It must then also be emphasized that the parents are in authority and will not withhold harsh (but less than ultimate) punishments if justice and love require them. The child should then become anxious whenever they disobey or otherwise usurp their parents.

        There seems to me to be a vast difference between anxiety as caused by feelings of guilt or the conviction of the Holy Spirit and anxiety as caused by believing we have a God who might ultimately abandon us. Universalism should not relieve all of our anxieties, as you pointed out, but I think that it does relieve some of the unhealthy ones (if properly elucidated). In the end, I agree wholeheartedly with your statement that “…I must also fear God, in light of the gravity and depth of my sin (and I should cultivate a penitent awareness of this gravity) and when this makes me anxious, I should turn, yet again, to the Gospel given to me in baptism, eucharist and preaching.”

        I should note that I am not a pastor or any such church leader. My thoughts here are largely due to my own experiences with various approaches that people took when trying to ‘fix me.’ I was driven to the verge of insanity when I finally realized just how serious talk of eternal conscious torment truly was. When the stakes are so high, only absolute assurance can settle the soul. Even if the odds of endless misery were akin to that of picking a single marked pebble from the sea, grabbing a pebble would be unbearable frightening. Ultimately, I needed a whole new framework in order to trust God. I was frightened, but that was all.

        Thanks for joining the conversation, I look forward to your feedback! (and sorry for the long reply)

        Liked by 2 people

        • phillipcary says:

          Hello, Young and Rested,

          Your experience sounds a lot like what Luther called “the terrified conscience.” It was a very common 16th century experience, and yes, it was clearly unbearable, for Luther and lots of others. And the Gregory of Nyssa option was not available, much less the Isaac the Syrian option.

          I find a lot to like in both Gregory and Isaac. But I find Luther more convincing on the matter of biblical hermeneutics. We have to have some way of reading the many biblical passages which direct words of threat and warning and condemnation at God’s people or at the nations of the earth. The notion of an ontological participation in the Good is true, I think, but abstract and philosophical in a way that doesn’t help us much when we’re reading the scathing words of the prophets and have to figure out how to hear them reverently, as the Word of God. Luther’s Law-Gospel hermeneutic is what we need for that, I think.

          There is a function for the discourse of Law, even for its threats. The complacent and the smug and the self-righteous NEED to be threatened, for their own good and salvation. But to the terrified conscience you don’t address threatening words but the gracious promises of God in Jesus Christ. Pastorally, you ture their attention away from the threats and warnings in Scripture to the promises and good news. That way, people learn to cling to Christ incarnate as if their life and salvation depended on it, which it does. For the concrete name for participation in the Good, given what God has concretely chosen to do in the oikonomia, is faith in Christ.


          • Young and Rested says:

            Thanks for the response!

            I need to keep reminding myself that my experience is not necessarily normative. I’ve always been most helped through the more abstract elements of it all. Also, for me, when I moved from a ‘fire and brimstone’ church to a more ‘grace oriented’ one, the emphasis on promises and good news didn’t help because I knew the ‘bad news’ was still there. I couldn’t rest knowing that anybody was even potentially damned to eternal suffering. It wasn’t just about me. The Lord had gifted me, for a season, a heart that cared for every soul that ever lived. I truly counted everyone as an object of love. The thought of any of my loved ones suffering endlessly tormented my soul. It didn’t matter if it was in some sense deserved or chosen, the tragedy of it all was inescapable.

            To my mind, this kind of unrelenting despair seems like the only reasonable thing to feel if traditional doctrines of hell are taken to be true. If all around us, Edwards’ spiders are dropping into the flames, how dare we bask in happiness over our being saved? How dare we ever do anything besides evangelize? There’s plenty of time for the rest of it in heaven…

            I guess that’s why I’ve come to see Universalism as the only framework within which a pastor can adequately shepherd their entire flock. Punishment and law can still be emphasized as needed, but the terrified conscience that you spoke of is eliminated. Plus, I believe (because it’s been my experience) that a vision of apokatastasis inevitably leads a pious heart to worship and fervently desire God.

            I’m somewhat embarrassed to admit that I haven’t read much of Luther. Would you be able to recommend a good starting point?


          • phillipcary says:

            To Young and Rested (below):

            John Dillenberger’s anthology, Martin Luther: Selections from his Writings, contains many good places to start, including (my favorite, and many people’s) his treatise on The Freedom of a Christian. The Preface to the NT and the Preface to Romans are also very helpful. And the little sermon on Two Kinds of Righteousness.

            Reading Luther for edification is, unfortunately, an art form. He is often in the midst of polemics, and when he polemicizes, it can be fierce. But what he’s polemicizing FOR is often, well, the mercy of the God in the Gospel of Jesus Christ. So it’s worth developing that art form, which means putting in place the kind of filter that says: “OK, here Luther is being polemical, because he’s willling to be nasty to fight in the nasty battles of the 16th century.” Luther is a major instigator in these battles, of course, and he is not innocent. But he still has put his finger on something terribly important.


          • Young and Rested says:



      • Michelle says:


        “At some point, we have to look at ourselves and see that we are fit objects of the wrath of God, and beg for mercy (Kyrie eleison!). “

        I just wanted say a little something about God’s wrath, and the ‘proper’ anxieties that should be generated by it. Sorry if it’s a little off our main topic, though possibly not completely unrelated (you can relate anything if you try hard enough, lol).

        What you say in the quote above reminds me of the various Saints (I cant remember specifically which one’s at the moment) who speak of a kind of transcendence of the type of fear of God that can be roughly laid out as, “God is Righteous, and I am bad (or ‘evil’ if you prefer). My badness deserves its natural end, and I am afraid of God who, in His righteousness, will surely see to it! He is right to punish and abandon me to torments, so I need pray and beg for mercy.” This example entertains a measure of sentiment that fears and wishes to escape pain, though it is a pain they admit is deserved. Now, the purpose of pain is precisely to show us what should rightly be avoided, so it is a helpful teacher. But this particular teacher is the headmaster of babes, and not of spiritual ‘grown-ups.’ These are the illuminated Saints I mentioned.

        So, what I mean by these Saints’ transcendence is that they have been illuminated in a way that causes them to speak of the fear of God in a substantially different way. It can be roughly stated thusly, “God is Holy and Righteous, and as He is my hearts true love and only desire. I have tasted His sweetness and now I only wish one thing, which is to please Him by joining Him matrimonially in His Holiness and Righteousness. But, alas, in my wretched state I continuously fornicate with perversity and unclean things. My only fear is my very uncleanness, because by it I lose my dearly Beloved. My soiling of the marriage bed -my uncleanness- is my due wrath ordained by God’s ontological Being; my uncleanness is my hell, and thus also my proper anxiety and fear.” And this transcends all fear that seeks to escape pain and torments. In fact, some of the Saints passionately exclaim that they would willfully endure the worse pain imaginable a thousand times over and more if it would only deliver over to them their most precious hearts desire, which is to know (in an ontological, “matrimonial” sense of know) and please God!

        But, of course, most of us are mere babes, and need a dose of the appropriate teacher, I suppose.


        • phillipcary says:


          It looks to me like what you’re describing here is the process by which “perfect love casts out fear.” And I agree that most of us, being babes in the faith rather than great saints, are not there yet. But we’re getting there. The process this reminds me of a great deal like Purgatory as described by Dante. I can go with that.

          The way Luther helps, I think, is by a certain quirk in his imagination. It’s a deeply auditory and verbal imagination, not visual or literal. When he thinks of the wrath of God, he does not think of external punishments. The image of hellfire plays no appreciable role in his preaching or teaching. What he is afraid of is God’s judgment in the most narrow and intimate sense. Hell, for Luther, is hearing from God a word of condemnation rather than a word of grace. Instead of “Well done, good and faithful servant” (how I hope and long to hear such a word!) it is hearing a word like “Depart from me, you worker of iniquity” and knowing that it’s the truth, that it tells me, ultimately, who I truly am, and that this truth will be all that defines me, forever.

          That is truly terrifying, and truly worth being afraid of. And it’s a way of thinking about the fear of God that assimilates it not to fear of punishment but to fear that the ultimate truth about me may be something horrible. It drives me to find the truth about me not inside myself but in Christ, who is my life (Col. 3:4). And the great glory of the Gospel is that this life, hid with Christ in God (Col. 3:3), really is the ultimate truth about me. Thanks be to God!

          Liked by 2 people

          • Michelle says:


            I did not know that about Luther’s approach to wrath. Excellent! Thanks!


          • Young and Rested says:

            I second what Michelle said! 🙂


          • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

            Phillip, today is the Sunday of the Final Judgment in the Orthodox Church, and I thought about your comment on divine wrath. I was dreading the the preacher’s speaking to us a word of divine condemnation. Fortunately (or perhaps not so fortunately), he didn’t get around to it.


    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      “So, why not adopt the tried and true universalism of St Gregory of Nyssa, instead of contriving some quasi-Lutheran universalism that is merely a round about way of arriving at the same destination?”

      I do not do so in this article because the original piece actually dates back to 2004 when I was only a hopeful universalist of the Balthasarian sort. My present views can be found here: “St Isaac the Syrian, Apokatastasis, and the Renewal of Orthodox and Catholic Preaching.”

      I do not know if Professor Cary would approve or not, but I read his paper through the lens of the hermeneutical construal of justification (i.e., preach the gospel in the mode of unconditional promise), as developed by Lutheran Robert Jenson, George Lindbeck, and Gerhard Forde; and none of them are univeralists in the Gregory of Nyssa mode (though I’ve been told that Jens has very recently moved in that direction). What is important here, in my opinion, is to find ways to speak gospel directly to our hearers in the name of Jesus Christ, in ways that open faith.

      I’m standing in the pulpit and I declare to my congregation “God loves all people infinitely.” Every one nods. The statement is platitudinously true. More importantly, it’s still just a piece of third-person theology. We might as well be sitting in theology 101 classroom. It is not presented in the form of divine address that speaks to my hearers in their existential situation. Hopefully they will do the work and apply it to themselves by way of inference, but the form of address does not compel them to do so. But now consider the difference if I were to look directly at you and say, “Michelle, God loves you infinitely, and I say this to you in his holy Name and with his authority.” Now you are existentially confronted with the voice of God. You do not have to do any mental work to apply an abstract truth (“God loves everyone”) to yourself (“Oh, that must mean that he loves me, too). God has spoken directly to you. Now what?

      I think we need to be careful about applying our usual monergistic/synergistic categories at this point. The gospel as proclaimed in the mode of unconditional promise is monergistic in the sense that God is making an unconditional promise, but it does not in any way squash our synergistic response to the promise; on the contrary, it liberates and enables it.

      Note also that the preaching of the gospel in the mode of unconditional promise does not presuppose a full-blown universalist commitment. As noted above, the Lutherans who commend the hermeneutical construal are not typically universalist. Ditto for Reformed folks like Karl Barth and T. F. Torrance. In fact, some of them are pretty emphatic in their rejection of universalism.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Michelle says:

        While reading your article I recognized that you were making a statement on the nature of the Gospel and its pastoral implications, but I got turned around on your main point at the end when you mentioned the two sets of premises and conclusions. This is because Lutherans often use these exact same premises to argue not only God’s monergistic promise on His end, but also a monergistic response on our end (I know this because I used to be one, and apparently the wound is still a little sensitive).


        • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

          No problem, Michelle. Completely understand. A hermeneutical approach to gospel preaching is easily misunderstood, by just about everyone (including Lutherans! including me!). We want to translate it into abstract theological speculation on the coordination of divine and human agency (or something like that), rather than attending to the Word spoken to us. The real question, I think, is whether the Church is in fact authorized to speak gospel in the mode of unconditional promise. I suspect a lot of people, no matter what their denominational affiliation might be, would say no.


      • Young and Rested says:

        This discussion has been very fruitful for me. Thank you for sharing your wisdom in these matters. I’m feeling a little bit of my youthful naïveté beginning to erode.


  8. Mike H says:

    Yeah, it seems to me that the mode of unconditional promise entails seeing things in a fundamentally different way and can potentially prevent the death spiral of “are you sure that you’re sure that you’re sure” that characterizes the “reflective faith” of Calvin and Packer as laid out here.

    But at the end of the day, for it’s still just a mode is it not? That is, “faith” is still a necessary “condition” even if that fact isn’t made explicitly clear within the mode of unconditional promise.

    So mode aside, what exactly is “faith”? And in what way is it “necessary”? Is it a matter of the will, something consciously “chosen” or assented to? If so, then the sufficiency (or not) of some deliberate and conscious act of the will that is “faith” is inevitably going to create a certain amount of anxiety if hell waits in the balance. Can there ever be enough assurance?


    • brian says:

      All excellent questions, Mike. Are we saved by faith or are we saved by Christ? Is faith the primary act that initiates new life? Whose faith? When the infant is baptised, if new life is sacramentally initiated, is it the faith of the community that gifts the child? The refusal of infant baptism is rooted in the certainty that legitimate faith requires sufficiently developed intellect and will to allow individual choice. Is freedom comprehended by choice so understood? Who is at risk in the “game of life”? Is it a matter of salvation available to all, but only achieved by those who proclaim faith according to our particular criteria? Hans Urs von Balthasar wrote a little book called Does Jesus Know Us? Do We Know Him? The first question might be the fundamental precondition for the latter. It might be that Jesus as the God-Man reveals both the mystery of TriUne being, the agapeic, unconditional love of God and also enacts the reality of human being, where necessity and freedom are not antinomies, where obedience to the Father is synonymous with flourishing personal liberty, where the human acting is not caught up in an illusory atomized individualism, but what is achieved by one is achieved for all.

      The risk was always part of God’s creating fully borne — by God. The incarnate Logos is not an ad hoc attempt to deal with an unplanned disaster; Incarnation is part of God’s creating. The six days of Genesis are liturgical days always already aimed at the eighth day; creation will only ever be complete in the eschatological day of the Lord. Triune Love always determined to follow the wandering of every creature, no matter how depraved and lonely the attempt to find life where there is no life. The Cross and Holy Saturday are the mapless geography whereby God places his yes to love where the creature madly screams no, but this is no monergic act of grace equivalent to fate. The God-Man is truly human. Christ achieves in his humanity the synergistic response; his openness to the Spirit is the Ur-faith, complimented by Mary’s yes to God in the annunciation. So the entire historical initiation of ontological change is embraced by a nuptial dynamism that anticipates and grounds all our limited acts of faith — and failures to live well or at all in faith.

      Ultimately, the entire creation will be taken up into the perichoresis of endless love and discovery. There will still be the eternal realities upon which faith in time is the earthly analog. The depths of God will still call for daring love, for entry into an infinite Good that transcends comprehension. But for us, the main question is whether we are known by the loving God, for to be known by the loving God is to be real, even if right now we are clay and wrapped in delusions and all manner of corruption.

      Liked by 2 people

      • Mike H says:

        If faith is an act of the will, the necessity of consciously affirming or choosing to do this rather than that, I don’t see any way to get around it’s “conditionality” or avoid the fact that I may choose wrongly or resist – regardless of the mode of preaching or the presence (or absence) of sacraments.

        If faith is “trust”, then I contend it’s barely a matter of the will at all. We may find ourselves believing things that we have no recollection of “choosing” to believe. And we don’t recall consciously choosing to trust those that we trust. Rather, we find it happening. “I believe, help my unbelief” – even as it’s grounded in a degree of faith – recognizes the futility of trying to convince ourselves of something through sheer will power. Trust doesn’t work that way. Instead, even as it happens in the midst of the unavoidable necessities of choice and response, it is surprising.

        ”But there is a light that does deeper than the will, a light that lights up the darkness behind it: that light can make it truly yours and not another’s – not the Shadow’s. Into the created can pour itself the creating will, and so redeem it!”
        G Mac – Lilith

        Liked by 2 people

        • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

          I agree, Mike. I find it helpful to always correlate faith to the word that elicits it. A conditional promise or pure exhortation elicits works of obedience, and these works definititely requires volitional acts. But an unconditional promise generates either faith or offence. I do not choose to trust (at least I don’t think so). I either do or I don’t. In this sense the gospel creates or gifts the faith it demands.

          Liked by 1 person

    • Michelle says:

      Faith, as I gather from St Paul in the book of Romans, is a transcending from participation in the Law as a means to living with and in God the Father (this was only a ‘shadow’ or ‘type’ of the true way) to participating in Christ as the true way of living with and in the Father. So, the question becomes do we choose or assent to this participation? Well, St Paul seems to do a lot of exhorting, and we all know the point of exhortation is to persuade one’s listeners. But the exhortation we encounter in Paul (and in the other epistles of Peter and James, etc) are to believers who are going wayward. It is in the Gospels and the book of Acts that unbelievers are exhorted to follow in the first place. So, yes, it seems if we are being exhorted then it must be for the sake of our assenting.

      So, what we really need to explore is in what ways do our Lord and his disciples exhort us; does it matter who it is that exhorts us, and the manner that they do it? And how do these exhortations strike our hearts and/or minds, or maybe even our bodies (our Lord and his disciples fed a lot of people fish and bread, not to mention the Eucharist itself), in order to move us into faithful participation? This would also involve exploring the existential circumstances we find ourselves in at the time that we hear or witness the exhortation; What troubled life was Zacchaeus living to make him climb that tree to eagerly hear the exhortation of our Lord? What role does the breaking of our hearts play, and how are hearts broken? Sometimes people are even given over to Satan (like Paul does in 1 Corinthians), etc. These are all ontological and existential questions of the nature of our existence in the world, and probably in many ways not completely possible for us to fully understand. But are anxiety and angst always present as an universal ingredient in the mix? Is it ontologically impossible to avoid? Its hard to say. Maybe someone out there managed to walk there personal ontological and existential journey towards faith without these tensions.

      However, in Lutheran thought faith is actually viewed as being sustained through this circular tension of anxiety and relief over our faith. They call this circle the necessity of both the Law and Gospel. The Law strikes fear, and the Gospel comforts. In other words this ‘mode’ is deemed the spiritually healthy way of gaining and sustaining faith. In fact, for them it seems to be not only the means, but also the end of faith that is alone possible for us in this earthy life. I personally believe this circular tension may be a very common experience for most people (due to our fallen, gnomic state) that may push some successfully toward faith by degree, but I’m not sure that it’s a universal necessity. And it is definitely not an accurate description of what the end of faith -the actual participation in the life of the Father through Christ- looks like. The Lutheran tension of Law and Gospel, I think, fits better under the category of exhortation. But St Paul and the other Apostles only exhorted as a means towards faith, not as an end in itself. I think the quote of St Porphyrious that I gave is a better expression of what the actual end of faith looks like. And the unconditional promise I suggested in the beginning of this discussion may be an adoptive ‘mode’ that helps us to get there ontologically and existentially free of angst and anxiety.


      • Mike H says:

        I don’t think faith is some “thing” that you need to have so that God sort of changes his mind about you, a thing that you need to have for the simple reason of being clobbered if you don’t have it, a sort of loophole in the logic of the Law and the (seemingly adversarial) Lawgiver.

        I guess I’m less and less concerned with the forensic paradigm that underlies the semantics of getting “faith” to not be a type of “work” (even a “response” becomes a work that we can and will screw up) for fear of the death spiral of earning and assurance. It seems to me that to “respond” is to be human – it is to exist in space and time and to interact with things that are other than oneself, a precursor to union. A living plant bends towards the light that comes to it (and the light does go to it) – but it doesn’t “earn” anything. Christ’s “vicarious humanity” moves the goal posts a bit I suppose, but the “impossible possibility” remains (making the “assurance” a bit spurious IMO).

        So yeah, I think faith is a matter of “participation” in what is always already true– it has to be liberated from a purely forensic construal of justification and salvation (or at least from a forensic construal that is divorced from the ontological). Faith is the hypostasis of things hoped for (Heb 11). So it seems to me that exhortation (and faith) is grounded in the reality of what is hoped for – not out of the threat of it’s ultimate contingency (leaving room for mystery).

        I get hints of that in this mode of unconditional promise, but at the end of the day it seems to be nothing more than a “mode” if the unconditional promise remains a promise that will not be realized as such because of _______.


    • phillipcary says:

      The question that I’m primarily interested in is about what we have faith in–the object of faith. That is to say, if faith has the structure “I believe X,” then I think the important thing to consider is the X, not the “I” or the “believe.” In that sense, I don’t much care what faith is. I care what we have faith in.

      And the crucial issue that I think Luther is helpful on, is that he does not put faith in faith. He puts faith only in the word of God. In other words, it is not reflective faith. You don’t have to believe that you believe. You are free to confess that you don’t really believe, that the sin of unbelief is one of your sins. I think this ends up putting you in a very different place from the Calvinist “assurance of faith,” where you need to come to a confident belief that you have a true saving faith in your heart.

      I don’t have such a confidence. All I have is the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and that’s enough. That’s what I learned from Luther.


  9. John H says:

    Perhaps assurance of salvation is both unnecessary and beside the point. I am thinking of your colleague Father Steven’s reliance on the words of the Elder Sophrony to “keep your mind in hell and despair not”. In this life it is inevitable I suppose that we all become convinced that we are the worst of sinners; that is the the state of mind which is undoubtedly equivalent to hell in this life. Nonetheless, we do not despair because we know that Christ through his Pascha has trampled down death by death and has opened the gates of hell. Furthermore, we also know that Christ will remain in Hell with us so long as we remain trapped in that state. So the key it seems to me is not to worry about whether I have a ticket to heaven but to realize that should I wind up in Hell that Christ is with me up until the time that I decide to unlock the doors and walk out with Him.


  10. Robert Fortuin says:

    It seems to me that eternal damnation is a surety as long as human freedom is defined outside the Good. In such a construal of divine and human freedom, humanity holds the ultimate trump card and evil finds it triumphs into infinity frustrating God to no end. The madness of modernity.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Michelle says:

      I think Protestants must believe that human freedom being rooted in the Good necessarily presumes monergism, but this isn’t true. The Church Fathers went to great pains to explain the ‘how’ of Christ’s hypostasis, but apparently the ‘why’ was not being disputed (everyone was a synergist back then). Brian touches on the ‘why’ in his comment above, saying, “The God-Man is truly human. Christ achieves in his humanity the synergistic response; his openness to the Spirit is the Ur-faith, complimented by Mary’s yes to God in the annunciation.” Christ’s human nature freely cooperates with God, creating for us our human ability to also cooperate. But what Christ accomplishes for us here is not effected in us by a monergistic fiat. No, rather, we participate with and in God in truly free way. So, the Church Fathers explain the ‘how’ of Christ’s human nature’s willful and free marriage to His Divine nature. But ‘why’ they do this is to establish and assure us of are own truly free cooperation with the Divine.

      Liked by 2 people

  11. John H says:

    I agree completely Robert. If human freedom
    Is defined outside of the ultimate Good which is God, than we are all lost. Nonetheless I do believe that we can achieve a certain degree of intellectual certainty regarding the universality of salvation. Consider the following syllogism which is based on D B Hart’s piece titled God, Creation and Evil; The Moral Meaning of Creatio Rx Nihilo.

    1. God is the Good as such.

    2. God creates all things ex nihilo.

    Therefore God will bring all of creation, including all sentient beings, home to Him in the End.

    If “2” is true, than the eschatological reality actualized by God must necessarily reveal the true nature of God in the end. Thus, if any being is finally and irrevocably lost, than “1” cannot be true without rendering our concept of the Good utterly equivocal. And, since both propositions noted supra are articles of the Christian Faith as defined by the Fahhers, we can be certain that the conclusion is valid.

    Of course, intellectual certainty does not satisfy most of us. We must know in our bones that the apokatastasis is true. And I suppose that nothing short of an actual mystical encounter with the living God can ever satisfy that desire.

    Liked by 1 person

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