Preaching gospel: historical faith versus living faith

Back in 1999 there was great rejoicing among ecumenical folks (myself included) when the Joint Declaration on Justification was signed by representatives of the Roman Catholic Church and the Lutheran World Federation. Almost 20 years later, it’s unclear whether it has made much difference to either ecumenical relations, theology, or the preaching of the gospel. Is that good or bad? I don’t know. Doctrinal agreements of this sort do not appear to have significant ecclesial traction, despite the enthusiasm of those who have invested so much energy and heart into  their production. The Churches remain as separated as ever and preaching goes on as it ever has, for good or ill.

Given this failure, it behooves us to return to an essay written back in the late 70s by the Lutheran theologian Robert W. Jenson: “On Recognizing the Augsburg Confession.” Back then Jens was active in the American Lutheran-Catholic dialogue. He brought to the justification controversy a unique minority perspective. For him the question of justification by faith had little to do with theological formulae and everything to do with the preaching of the gospel. As he puts it:

“We are justified by faith alone” is not a stipulation about the anthropological conditions of justification, but about the special hermeneutical character of the gospel as a mode of discourse: that it must be promise and not exhortation if it is to be the creative word from God that sets lives right. (p. 159)

I have addressed Jenson’s hermeneutical construal of justification in multiple articles, both on Eclectic Orthodoxy and on my old Pontifications blog, and will not rehearse what I have already written. Here I wish to bring attention to one feature that is often overlooked—namely, the difference between “historical faith” and “living faith.”

Catholic theologians responded to the Lutheran assertion of the sola fide (as they understood it) by insisting upon the necessity of charity for justification. They invoked the formula: fides caritate formata, faith formed by love. It’s not enough to simply assent to the teaching of the Church, the Catholics declared. Even the devils believe yet are nonetheless damned (James 2:19). What is needed is personal transformation by grace, lived out in good works. Anything less is not genuine deliverance from sin. The reformers protested: this demand for justifying love generates either self-righteousness or terror. The salvation won by Christ on the Cross is an unconditional gift, and a gift can only be received by faith. As Martin Luther (in)famously translated Roman 3:28: “Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith alone without the deeds of the law.” And so the controversy continued for 500 years and perhaps still continues, despite the Joint Declaration.

The Reformation sola fide has always been vulnerable to the charges of antinomianism and cheap grace, and tens of thousands of words have been written to rebut the charges, not always convincingly. It is no easy matter to assert the necessity of justifying faith and not make it an anthropological condition for salvation. What precisely is faith and how is it not a work? If I need faith to be saved, how do I acquire it? It’s one thing to be told that my salvation requires giving alms to the poor (that is in my power), but it’s quite a different matter to be told that all I need to do is trust in Christ. How the heck do I do that? Trust is not something that I can just generate on my own. It either happens in the heart or it doesn’t. And my situation becomes dire if I am also told, as both Catholics and reformers rightly informed their hearers, that faith is an unmerited gift of the Spirit. This anti-Pelagian codicil, as Jenson calls it, casts me into the slough of despond. Am I one of the elect upon whom God has chosen to bestow justifying faith or not?

In the course of their defense of the sola fide, the reformers advanced an interesting distinction between historical faith and lively faith:

There is of course nothing wrong with the exhortation to love, even to love because we would be faithful. But if its slogan, fides caritate formata, is made the formula for what justifies, then in its churchly function it becomes a slogan for precisely what the Reformers attacked: a proclamation of Christ that turns into new exhortation and directs people back to their own fulfillment of—in themselves, necessary—moral and religious standards, to find therein the ground of their confidence before God.

If we turn now to the Reformers’ distinction between historical and living faith, we perhaps expect to find a similar pattern, with some personal quality—though perhaps, for example, sincerity instead of love—stipulated as a needed supplement to historical faith. But in fact the CA [Augsburg Confession] makes a wholly different kind of distinction: “historical faith” is apprehension of the mere “history” of Christ; “living faith” is apprehension of the promise made by those histories when proclaimed as done for us. If my faith is merely historical, the problem is not that I lack a personal quality but that the essential point of the gospel has not gotten through to me—perhaps because the Church did not make it. And thus we come to the true function of the Reformers’ distinction. The difference between historical and living faiths is not between two responses to one message, but between the responses to two different messages: “Christ died for the world, and now this is how you get into the result of his death” versus “Christ died and now lives for you.” (p. 159; emphasis mine)

It’s the difference, in other words, between the gospel proclaimed as conditional promise and the gospel proclaimed as unconditional promise. The former informs the hearer of the facts of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection and summons him to perform the works he must to save himself. Let’s call this historical faith. As Jenson comments: “The Church’s discourse about Christ becomes merely historical speech about him, lacking any unique existential function, a transfer from one head to another of information which can be possessed without personal transformation” (p. 160). The latter opens the hearer to a life lived trusting and hoping in the risen Christ, now graciously present in Word and Sacrament. This is the lively faith that justifies, not as a condition to be fulfilled but as apprehension of the vivifying promises of the Savior. “Faith is a way of knowing,” explains Jenson, “formally determined by its object, promise” (p. 162).

It all comes back to the right preaching of the gospel. Orthodox, Catholic, Protestant preachers attend: if the unconditional promise is never declared in the name of Jesus, how can there be lively faith?

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8 Responses to Preaching gospel: historical faith versus living faith

  1. Something that shocked and startled me after immersing myself in this blog, is the fact that not only do catholics and orthodox not understand the unconditional gospel, but almost all modern evangelicals have forgotten it too!

    Modern protties seem to understand sola fide as meaning that there is a single condition for salvation (faith) and nothing else matters. They go on to preach and proclaim this essentially legalistic “gospel” to the world, generating apathy and athiesm as people respond with indifference and despair. If the understanding of sola fide put forward on this blog is correct, Luther is probably rolling in his grave.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. The problem I have with this whole line of thinking is that the first preaching of the Gospel (see Acts 2:37-41) concluded with a solidly conditional exhortation: repent, believe, be baptised, then salvation. Silly St Peter? What would he know? And does he make the transition a monergistic act of God alone? Or a fait accompli already undergone, such that they just have to see it? No, “save yourselves”, he says in that same passage.

    No repentance, no living faith, no salvation.

    If hardly anybody preaches or has preached the Gospel the way you are convinced it should be, even ab initio, doesn’t this tell you your prescription is not at all necessary or even tenable?

    Nevertheless, the preacher does have the duty to maximise God’s action and minimise man’s, reducing the latter almost to nothing but a grateful and joyous yes to the light offered in Christ. Such a response is simultaneously the “hearty repentance” of the BCP’s Absolution in the Eucharistic rite and the fides caritate formata of the RCC’s catechesis.


  3. Why is “gospel” crossed out in the second to last paragraph?


    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Good eye, Daniel. You are just going to have to ruminate on that question for a while. I’m sure you’ll be able to figure out my sinister intention. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      • I had to read it over a couple of times but the second to last paragraph is a pre-text. Without the last paragraph it makes no sense. As well as the sentence immediately succeeding–gospel proclaimed as conditional promise isn’t gospel (good news).


  4. Iain Lovejoy says:

    It seems to me that understanding the phrase “justified by X” will depend on whether X is:
    (a) something that has already happened by which someone has been justified;
    (b) a present state of affairs by which someone is presently justified; or
    (c) something yet to happen by which they will be justified.
    If “X” is going to be said to be something someone does or thinks, or a quality they have (whether faith, or love, or both, and however understood) then, however worded, a statement that they are justified by X will come within category (b) or (c) and will be conditional, and can only be made unconditional unless accompanied by a promise that the condition will definitely be fulfilled: and this is a promise that cannot be made because it is an observed fact that people can and do fall out of faith and love of God.
    It seems to me that the only way out of this problem is to assert that we are justified not by anything in ourselves, but by the death and resurrection of Christ itself, independently of what we might think on the matter. The statements by Paul that Christians are justified by faith may then be read as they appear on the face of it to be, as saying that faith is evidence / proof of justification of those displaying it against those asserting further conditions were required.
    Is the problem here rather that justification and salvation are being muddled? To equate justification with salvation to assert that what we are saved from is God himself. If the two are kept separate, the issue of justification is whether we are deemed acceptable in the eyes of God, and we are all justified unconditionally by the cross, and salvation is the healing by God of our sinful nature, which cure God likewise offers unconditionally to all – the cure being placing trust in Christ Jesus.


    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Iain, I suspect that a, b, & c are all simultaneously true. 🙂

      But here’s what Jenson would say in reply: in terms justification as metalinguistic and hermeneutical rule, a, b, & c are irrelevant. The rule has nothing to say about the ordo salutus. The rule simply stiplulates how we properly preach the contents of Scripture and Church doctrine in the name of Jesus Christ. If justification is the topic of your Sunday sermon, the rule states: in the mode of unconditional promise, justify your hearers.


    • Bruce says:

      “Is the problem here rather that justification and salvation are being muddled? To equate justification with salvation to assert that what we are saved from is God himself.”
      I am just a simple country preacher, but for years I have thought that this has been at the heart of the problem. It seems very clear that the Apostle Paul uses the words ‘justification’ and ‘salvation’ with very different meanings, and yet we seem to use them interchangeably.
      I have been studying the debate between Arminianism vs Calvinism for years, and the have read that very statement, that “what we are saved from is God himself.”
      I think that this is a vary sad commentary on our view of our Heavenly Father, and I think that it comes from a small view of Him.


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