The Meaning of Protestant Theology

by Phillip Cary, Ph.D.

When Rodney Clapp, the editor to whom I pitched the idea of my new book, originally suggested the title The Meaning of Protestant Theology, I was a bit nonplussed. I knew the central concept of the book was going to be the sacramental concept of the Gospel that I found in Luther, which comes in at the end of the book’s subtitle: “Luther, Augus­tine, and the Gospel that Gives us Christ.” I love the very concept of the Gospel, as Luther preaches it, and I had a complicated story to tell about what Luther changed in the legacy of Augustine in order to come up with that concept. And of course the changes Luther made had a lot to do with the origin of Protes­tantism. But was I really writing about some­thing as broad and encompassing as the meaning of Protestant theology?

Well, yes, I was. Give credit to a good editor. If you want to know what the book has to offer, you’ll need to hear how Luther’s sacramental concept of the Gospel is essential to the mean­ing of Protestant theology, even for Protestants who don’t think of the Gospel in quite the sacramental way that Luther does. In fact, the problems that result when Protes­tants get too far from ancient, Catholic notions of the sacraments tell us a lot about the anxieties that beset Protestants to this day. That’s why, as Rodney evidently saw, there’s a deep connection between the new book and the rather Lutheran encouragement I was trying to give my Evangelical friends in my earlier book, Good News for Anxious Christians.

This doesn’t mean Catholics have no anxieties of their own. Luther was responding to some of those, after all. But it does mean, I think, that Protestants need something like a Catholic notion of sacrament in order to learn what Luther has to teach them about the saving power of the Gospel. We are justified by faith alone, Luther insists, because the the Gospel of Jesus Christ is an external word that does what a sacrament does: it gives what it signifies to all who properly receive it. And what the Gospel of Jesus Christ signifies is in fact nothing less than Jesus Christ, God in person, together with all the gifts he has to give those who believe him. It is not hard to show (I wasn’t the first to show it) that Luther developed his distinctive notion of the Gospel when he was first writing about the sacra­ments. And it turns out (here I’ll take credit for a little originality) that if you want to understand the characteristic things Luther has to say about the saving power of the Gospel, you have to look to sacraments as the clearest example.

This suggests that the Protestant insistence on justification by faith alone does not come out of the blue, as some radical innovation in the Christian tradition. It’s what has always hap­pened when Christians put their trust in the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Thus what Luther was saying to anxious Catholics (i.e., all of Europe) in the sixteenth century was, in effect: notice what God has already promised you in your baptism and in the Eucharist, and cling to it in faith, rather than turning to your own good works—even the works of love that you are to achieve with the help of faith and grace. If you are anxious about whether you love God enough—whether you are in a state of grace rather than mortal sin—then there is good news for you: all your good works are damnable mortal sins (Luther actually says this), so there’s no point in being anxious about whether they’re good enough. You have no hope of salvation unless you have been baptized into Christ, who shed his blood and gave his body for you, and promised himself to you in your baptism. So unless you call Christ a liar, you have no choice but to believe he is your savior.

I call this a must in service to a may. As one of the baptized, I must believe Christ is mine, which means I may believe Christ is mine–despite all my sins and failures and even the weakness of my faith, which I experience all the time. For in clinging to my baptism by faith alone, I am not putting my trust in my own faith—God forbid!—but in the promise of Christ alone, who both established baptism in Scripture and speaks through the mouth of the minister, saying: “I baptize you in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” When Christ says “you” in this sacramental way, he means me—each one of us to whom this has been said. To believe this is to live in Christ and be united with him as a bride is united with her bridegroom. It is like believing his wedding vow, in which he gives you first himself and then all his goods in a kind of wondrous exchange (Luther calls it) in which you receive his righteousness, holiness, blessedness and salvation, and in exchange your sin, guilt and death become his, to be defeated and destroyed on the cross, in a mighty duel in which his mercy and life triumphs over sin and death.

At the basis of this whole progression from union with Christ to wondrous exchange to mighty duel (and on to further matters like the non-imputation of sins) is the Gospel as external word. The Gospel is external precisely as it is sacramental: spoken at a particular time and place to particular people, so that it can say “you” and mean me (in my baptism) or a whole congregation of the baptized (when Christ says, through the mouth of a minis­ter, “This is my body, given for you“). The truth of this external word is dependent on external circumstances, which determine who is meant by the word “you.” Particular utterances of the word may therefore not be true, as for example when I repeat the baptis­mal formula (“I baptize you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit”) as an illustra­tion in a theology lecture or write it down in this article, where I am not in fact baptizing anyone.

Things are different if you forget the sacramental form of Christ’s promise and look for a word that is not so external, whose truth is not dependent on particular circumstances of utterance. Looking at Mark 16:16, for example, you could formulate a universal principle such as “Whoever believes in Christ is saved.” Any Protestant, including Luther, would agree that this principle is true always and everywhere. But it applies to me differently than the sacramental word, because it is conditional, i.e., logically equivalent to the condi­tional statement “If you believe in Christ, you are saved.” The principle applies to me not by saying “you” and meaning me, as a sacrament does, but by requiring me to meet the condition stated in the “if” clause. So if I take this kind of principle as Gospel, then in order to trust that Christ is my savior, I must believe in more than just the word alone; I must also be able to say, with confidence and sincerity, that I believe in Christ. I must, to that extent, believe in my own belief.

The anxieties of a non-sacramental Protestantism are the anxieties that stem from such a reflective faith, with its requirement of believing that I believe, in contrast to Luther’s requirement, which is that I believe in nothing other than the truth of God’s word. The result is a subtle but deep difference in pastoral care, as many later Protestants try to find assur­ance that they have true saving faith—for example by trusting that they have made a decision for Christ, as if this is something that could save them—whereas Luther expects all Chris­tians to confess their unbelief on a regular basis. Thus, whereas in most forms of Protes­tantism, saying I am an unbeliever would mean I can’t believe I’m saved, for Luther saying I’m an unbeliever is a way of strengthening my faith, because it is a confession that leads me to put renewed faith in the truth of God’s alone. I believe I am saved because I believe the promise of God given to me in baptism, not because I believe in my own belief.

Luther has his own anxieties, of course, which are summed up in the famous word Anfechtung, meaning the assault of the devil who tries to get us to doubt that God is true to his word. But even the nature of the doubt here is less reflective than in later Protestant­ism: what we must believe (and therefore the doubt we struggle with) is that God is true to his word, as opposed to the later Protestant doubt about whether I truly believe. What Luther’s unreflective faith cannot do, on the other hand, is assure you of eternal salva­tion, for that would require having assurance in advance that you will perse­vere in faith to the end. The only way you could know that is if you knew you were one of the elect, predes­tined for salvation. The radical innovation of John Calvin is that he thinks it is possi­ble to know this—precisely by virtue of reflective faith: i.e., by knowing, through the experience of the inner call of the Holy Spirit, that you have been given the gift of true saving faith, which is sure to persevere to the end.

A lot depends, pastorally, on which anxieties people are willing to live with. I think this explains why so many Protestants, when they rediscover the Great Tradition and especially its sacramental liturgies, end up joining some high-church tradition: Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Anglican or Lutheran. Protestants want to hear precisely the kind of word that Luther calls the Gospel, which has always been the means by which God gives himself to his people. In contrast to the law of God, which tells us what to do, including how to get saved, the Gospel tells us what God has done, including how he has given his own Son to save us. Thus the preaching of the Gospel, which happens throughout the ancient liturgies far more reliably than in most modern preaching, builds up our faith not by telling us we must believe but by giving us a kind and gracious word to believe in. For once you begin to think of the Gospel as a sacramental word that gives you Christ, as Luther discovered, the whole Biblical narrative starts looking like God’s way of giving you nothing less than himself, and sacramental worship is so full of this good news that it’s enough to make you weep for joy.

* * *

Dr Phillip Cary is Professor of Philosophy at Eastern University. He is the author of several books, including Augustine’s Invention of the Inner Self, Inner Grace, Outward SignsGood News for Anxious Christians, and the Brazos commentary on Jonah.

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6 Responses to The Meaning of Protestant Theology

  1. I rather like the ‘sacramental gospel’ concept.

    And this: trust in God: not your faith or works or anything. Trust only in God’s promises, in the Person of Jesus.

    I think it’s not necessary to remain in the place where one often says, ‘I’m an unbeliever.’ Don’t ever trust in your belief, of course, but why not be so interested in God that you don’t have inclination to say ‘I’m an unbeliever’?

    I have no concept of ‘Assurance of Salvation’ which is distinguishable from ‘Assurance of Christ,’ who is the Savior, and therefore the Salvation, of the world. I would rather not think about ‘Assurance of Salvation’ as such – only assurance of Christ, who is my Heaven, beginning here on earth.

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  2. Adam Morton says:

    This looks like a lot of fun. That second to last paragraph, though – I just don’t get how Cary is slicing the baby in between the word’s certain power and its eternity. This question of whether I will have faith tomorrow only arises for Luther apart from the promise, and so in contradiction to it (that is, faithlessly). Is there assurance of eternal salvation? Well, isn’t there a promise of forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation? Does Christ bear a form of these that is something other than eternal? So this cannot be a matter of uncertainty.


    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Adam, I’m hoping that Dr Cary will visit us and address your question. In the meantime, here is what he wrote on the EO Facebook page:

      Oh yes, and about the anxiety. Luther expects believers to experience the anxiety of Anfechtung, in large part because they experience themselves as unbelievers, weak in faith, etc.–and unbelief is sin and it matters. Whereas if he could say you’re saved regardless of your unbelief, Anfechtung would never happen. You’d get some other anxiety instead. (No one escapes anxiety in this world, and no theology can cure all anxieties. Luther doesn’t expect it to. He EXPECTS believers to experience Anfechtung.) Part of the reason for his expectation of anxiety is that he definitely won’t say, (a) “Regardless of your unbelief, Christ has saved you.” Yet he will say to all the baptized, including those who don’t believe, (b) “Christ has saved you.” The difference, is that (a) is telling you that your unbelief doesn’t matter, which Luther thinks is false. Whereas (b) simply gives you good news to believe (or not). For of course good news should be preached to unbelievers. That’s how you invite them to believe. And they are, of course, free not to believe the good news. They often don’t – – just like us Christians, who are weak in faith. But that’s no reason to stop preaching the good news.

      Does that answer your question?

      Personally, I think Dr Cary’s response still leaves us with the existential version of the doxastic problem. Given his time and place in history, there’s no way that Luther was ever going to leave himself open to the charge of heresy regarding apokatastasis.

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      • Adam Morton says:

        Thanks for fishing that out. I’ve been having something of a lively conversation about this on my own FB page as well, so have gathered some more background there. I’d be thrilled if Dr. Cary visited us here.

        Does it answer my question? Well, it clarifies Cary’s angle a bit. I don’t think it answers my objection. Certainly he’s right that Luther wouldn’t say “saved regardless of unbelief.” But that’s not where I’m pressing. Faith, for Luther, exists only in the concrete relation to the promise of God in Christ, and given that most intimate relation, it seems bizarre to me to then step back and even address the question of “But will I believe tomorrow?”

        That is, unbelief can (and does) ask that, but it’s necessarily a question of reflective faith – of the self looking at itself, unmoored from the promise, rummaging around within for this thing “faith” which simply isn’t there to be found. (And, of course, Cary has been ably arguing Luther’s side on this for a good while). So from that angle, quite right that there can’t be a positive answer. But all that is really saying is that assurance can’t be found within me, which is a given. For Luther, the old Adam really does have to die, and never comes to faith.

        The proper question for Luther isn’t whether I will have faith (which is, after all, not my own doing), but whether God will withdraw his promise and leave me stranded. And here the answer is certain – much too late for that! I am baptized. This is not assurance as psychological state of the old creature (which it ever seeks in vain), but the concrete (and yes, eternal) assurance as external word, in which the (eschatologically) new creature already lives.

        That’s what I meant about cutting the baby between the word’s certain power and its eternity. The sacramental gospel is the eschatological gospel.


  3. Grant says:

    Luckily our faith is not that important, nor is there anything we can do that can lift us out of death and into life and theosis. It is the faith of Christ which saves, not ours but his faithfulness to us all that saves us, heals us and makes us partakers of the divine nature. His Incarnation unified ourselves with Him, before anything and so nothing can ever separate us from His love, and that faithfulness and commitment given has, is and will save.

    Said well in Professor Ramelli’s latest book ( A Larger Hope? Universal Salvation from Christian beginnings to Julian of Norwich) when discussing St Paul:

    ‘God’s own faithfulness is opposed to numan incredulity and insatiability in Romans 3:3-4: “If some have not believed, can their incredulity ever cancel God’s own faithfulness (ten pistin ton Theou)? Impossible.” Humans in their sin and faithlessness cannot cause God to abandpn them. The same phrase can be used of Jesus, such that Paul speaks of “the faith(fulness) of Christ” (pistis Christsou) in several passages. Since Paul declares this “faith of Christ” to be salvific, the salvation of humans does not rest only upon their own faith or confidence (pistis), but also on Christ’s and God’s faithfulness, which is a much more solid foundation.’ (Ramelli, I.L.E. A Larger Hope? Universal salvation from Christian beginnings to Julian of Norwich, 2019 pp. 16-17)


  4. I like the review greatly and may indeed buy and read this book. Over the last few years, I have formulated the concept or thesis, that Protestants, having essentially lost sacramentality and the “aids” to worship and Christian life that Catholic, Orthodox, and High Church Protestants use every day to focus prayer and worship and understanding, they are re-creating all manner liturgy and sacrament.

    I base this on observations and discussions with my Protestant friends, who say things like:

    “We don’t need dogma or doctrine.”

    “We don’t need liturgy or sacramental order since it’s not required by scripture.”

    “We don’t need the trappings of your church.”

    Yet, they are creating their own dogma, sometime very murky doctrines, and they are definitely seeking after some form of “aids” to worship and prayer. So they are in effect creating modern Christian “artifacts” for use in many aspects of life.

    When Luther and Calvin and others rent the curtain of the Church Universal and chucked out the “trappings” of the Roman Church (incense, icons, Sacraments, standardized prayers, doctrine), it left Protestants with little recourse to “aids” to daily Christian life. Some, maybe much, of the richness of the Faith was washed away.

    Of course, I know there is a rich Lutheran, Anglican, even Methodist and evangelical tapestry of artistic and intellectual achievement for Protestants to rely upon. It seems even these legacies are oft overlooked outside of seminaries today.

    In lieu of, and because of the destruction of, the Roman Church’s traditions and rich artistic legacy, especially evangelical and mega-church populations are making up liturgies and artifacts ad hoc. What perplexes me is that modern Christians eschew the traditions of 2,000 years and embrace these ad hoc forms of worship, doctrine, and art. Can’t we synthesize?

    -Ron P.

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