I presume we are all acquainted with the saying long-attributed to Martin Luther: “Justification by faith alone is the doctrine on which the Church stands or falls.” Although it does not appear in Luther’s extant writings, it accurately states his understanding of the significance of the doctrine. As Luther wrote to his colleague Johannes Brenz:
But the gift of God that I particularly love and revere in you above all the rest is that you emphasize the righteousness of faith so faithfully and purely in all your writings. 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.1
It’s an odd assertion on the face of it, because the Reformation formulation of justification as the imputation of Christ’s righteousness to sinners is difficult, if not impossible, to find in the writings of the Church Fathers. St Augustine frequently employed the language of justification, but he clearly understood it in transformative terms: righteousness is imparted, not imputed. And the Council of Trent 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.”2 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.3
Searching the Eastern tradition fares no better. Justification by faith is rarely discussed by the Eastern Fathers, with one exception—St John Chrysostom. John has no qualms affirming initial justification by faith alone; but he too understands the justifying act as effective and regenerative. After our initial justification, however, works become decisive. The Last Judgment will be a time of reward and punishment.4 What one does not find in the Eastern Fathers is a forensic imputation of righteousness. The Eastern Fathers are consumed by theosis, and this continues to the present. Ask an Orthodox priest about justification by faith alone, and you will most likely receive a quizzical look. Or perhaps he will shake his head and give you a lesson on the need for asceticial and moral formation as we live into the gift of deification in Christ. Faith alone? Nonsense! Say your prayers, fast, make your confession, partake of the Holy Eucharist, live a holy life, love your neighbor, forgive your enemies—these are the sanctifying prerequisites for theosis. Read the correspondence between Patriarch Jeremiah II and the Lutheran theologians of Tübingen, for example, and you will quickly conclude 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; 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.5
Everything Jeremiah says is absolutely correct and lovely, yet he misses the point of the Reformation doctrine . . . but if he misses the point, it must be admitted that a lot of people have missed the point over the past five hundred years, including many 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 maintains 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 have employed the language of justification both to declare the giftedness of salvation (sola gratia) and explicate faithful relationship with Jesus Christ. 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,” 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.6
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. So what are 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 to the biblical exegetes.
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.”7 How do sinners become righteous? How does divine and human agency interact in the process of salvation? What does grace do? What must we do? Theologians who attempt to describe the process inevitably produce a schema of salvation, an 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 apparently continue to believe—that if only we could get the ordo right, all would finally be well with the Church. They love to debate the precise steps in the process of salvation. Every church has its favorite ordo salutis and will fight to ecclesial death to defend it. No doubt such analysis is important; but it’s hard to accept the claim that the Church of Jesus Christ stands or falls upon it. Did our Lord die on the cross for an ordo?
Third, there is the reforming doctrine of justification. In modern Lutheran theology this reforming doctrine goes under the terms hermeneutic, proclamatory, metatheological (Lindbeck), metalinguistic (Jenson). The question this doctrine seeks to answer is: How do we proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ so that it will be heard as good news? Jenson explains:
This doctrine 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 offence.8
What the Reformers were struggling to formulate, Lutheran theologians believe, was a proclamatory norm: preach the gospel in such a way that it produces absolute trust in Jesus Christ rather than works directed toward self-justification. The early Luther and Philipp Melanchthon are usually credited for this hermeneutical turn. In his Apology of the Augsburg Confession, Melanchthon proposes a rule of biblical interpretation: “All Scripture should be divided into these two chief doctrines, the law and the promises” (IV.5).9
Law is here understood as God’s moral will for humanity. The divine law lays claim on human behavior, instructing humanity how to live and prosper in God’s good creation and judging violations of human flourishing. But the law also reaches into the human heart, requiring “works far beyond the reach of reason, like true fear of God, true love of God, true prayer to God, true conviction that God hears prayer, and the expectation of God’s help in death and all afflictions” (IV.8). And it is at this point that the existential crisis of the terrified conscience is created. If the law demands that which I cannot provide, and if my eternal justification is contingent on my producing all that the law requires, then I am trapped in condemnation and despair.
For the terrified conscience, there can be only one solution: God must speak a word that does not require anything of us but graciously confers upon us that forgiveness and justification which the sinner cannot obtain through the law. In other words, God must speak a word of sheer promise. “I do not set aside the grace of God,” declares St Paul, “for if righteousness could be gained through the law, Christ died for nothing!” (Gal 2:21). Here is the fundamental insight of the Lutheran reformers: the promise of Christ is categorical, unconditional, unqualified, absolute, freely granting forgiveness of sins and right standing with our heavenly Father. Melanchthon writes:
For if the promise were conditional upon our merits and the law, which we never keep, it would follow that the promise is useless. Since we obtain justification through a free promise, however, it follows that we cannot justify ourselves. Otherwise, why would a promise be necessary. (IV.42)
Precisely because of its unconditionality, the justifying decree can only be received by the faith that the promise creates within the hearer.10 When the Lord promises me eternal life, there is nothing I can or must do to ensure the realization of the promise. He has assumed total responsibility for the fulfillment of his pledge. Faith, therefore, is not a work that I must perform in order to be saved; faith points away from itself to the One who guarantees the outcome; faith cleaves to the promissory word. Only thus is the terror of the law undone:
The Gospel is, strictly speaking, the promise of forgiveness of sins and justification because of Christ. Since we can accept this promise only by faith, the Gospel proclaims the righteousness of faith in Christ, which the law does not teach. And this is not the righteousness of the law. For the law requires our own works and our own perfection. But to us, oppressed by sin and death, the promise freely offers reconciliation for Christ’s sake, which we do not accept by works but by faith alone. This faith brings to God a trust not in our own merits, but only in the promise of mercy in Christ. (IV.43)
Melanchthon censures his Catholic opponents for elevating the rhetoric of law and works over the liberating promises of the merciful, forgiving Christ. They have reduced the preaching of the gospel, he protests, to exhortation and admonition. The discourse of law, of course, enjoys an important role in the pastoral care of the baptized; but when it becomes dominant, it becomes lethal. Not only does it foster legalism and self-righteousness, but it destroys sinners whose consciences have been invaded by the wrath and judgment of God. For such individuals only Christ’s unconditional absolution can grant new life and the exuberant freedom of the Holy Spirit. We must learn, the Lutherans tell us, to properly distinguish law and gospel.
The great Lutheran ecumenist, George Lindbeck, describes the reforming doctrine as a metatheological rule. Justification by faith is not a stage in 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.11
Lindbeck’s identification of justification by faith as grammatical rule helps to explain why we hear so little about this rule for the first fifteen hundred years of the Church’s history. People can speak a language well without knowing all the grammatical norms that govern that language. “Rules can be followed in practice without any explicit or theoretical knowledge of them,” remarks Lindbeck.12 Christians, in other words, can communicate the absolute love of God in a myriad of ways, both explicitly and implicitly, verbally and sacramentally. Conversely, people can know a grammatical rule and yet still fail to apply the rule to their actual speech. This is especially true for those who are learning a second or third language. The mere invocation of justification by faith, therefore, does not mean that one is actually shaping discourse and praxis in light of the free gift of redemption.
It appears that the historical conditions that would force theologians and preachers to formulate the proclamatory rule of justification did not arise until the 16th century, when Martin Luther, paralyzed by his terrified conscience, could not find anyone who would speak to him an unconditional declaration of forgiveness. Everything he heard and experienced placed the salvific burden back on his own shoulders. Unfortunately, the ensuing debate confused gospel hermeneutics and descriptive theories of justification, and this confusion has continued for five hundred years. It is only in the past century that Lutheran scholars have brought clarification to the Reformation concern, thus enabling significant rapprochement between Catholicism and Lutheranism on justification. Lindbeck explains:
The conflict with Rome has not been directly over the metadoctrinal rule, but rather over theologies of justification. Nowhere does the Tridentine decree, for example, specifically deny the metadoctrine. It does not affirm that trust for salvation should not be totally directed to God’s promises in Jesus Christ. Indeed, it sometimes uses language that sounds like this rule. Chapter 16, for example, declares “absit tamen, ut christianus homo in se ipso vel confidat vel glorietus et non in Domino” (“far be it from a Christian to confide or glory in himself and not in the Lord”). To be sure, it goes on to speak of the merit which God works in believers as a condition for the attainment of eternal life (Canon 32), but it also says that this inherent meritorious grace cannot be relied upon (chapter 9). In short, while Trent does not assert reliance for justification on the God and Father of Jesus Christ alone, neither does it assert the contrary.13
In private conversation, Lindbeck told me that one consequence of the ecumenical dialogues is that the hermeneutical construal of justification was judged by his Catholic partners to be a legitimate opinion and practice within the Catholic Church. In other words, one can be a Lutheran within the Catholic family. There may be good reasons not to be a Roman Catholic; but when construed as metalinguistic rule, justification by faith may not be one of them. As far as the Orthodox, it’s unclear if the proclamatory criterion has ever been presented to them in the Orthodox-Lutheran dialogues. If it has, it doesn’t seem to have made much of an impression.14
If the lex proclamandi faithfully represents the authentic Reformation concern, how are we to understand the sola fide, justification by faith alone? Lindbeck proposes the following: to preach “faith alone,” apart from works and merit, is to bestow the salvation of Christ in the performative mode of promise. The proclamation of the gospel may be likened to an ex operato sacramental act. It accomplishes what it signifies:
Words sometimes function as performances or deeds that themselves constitute the actuality of which they speak. A judge’s verdict does this, but so also does a last will and testament, or the vows exchanged in marriage. These do not describe or ratify preexistent facts, but bring into being the realities that they utter. And what human words can do when used performatively, God’s almighty word does supremely well: it creates the world out of nothing and justifies sinners. God does not first change unacceptable person into acceptable ones before he accepts them, but rather he simply accepts the unacceptable in their unacceptability and thereby makes them acceptable.15
God’s justifying word, therefore, is analogous to his creative word that brings creation into being. When God promises us that we are righteous, we are truly righteous. Or as John Henry Newman puts it:
Justification is an announcement or fiat of Almighty God, which breaks upon the gloom of our natural state as the Creative Word upon Chaos; that it declares the soul righteous, and in that declaration, on the one hand, conveys pardon for its past sins, and on the other makes it actually righteous.16
Think of our being justified by the promissory word as our proleptic recreation as eschatological beings in the Spirit. In the preaching of the gospel, Christ brings us into his Kingdom, again and again and again.
When the reforming doctrine of justification is described as the article upon which the Church stands or falls, it is not, therefore, because it is a doctrine superior to the Nicene dogma of the divinity of Jesus Christ or the Chalcedonian dogma of the two natures of Christ. As metalinguistic rule, justification by faith
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.”17
But what kind of discourse provokes faith or offense? Unconditional promise! “While we were still weak,” scandalously declares the Apostle Paul, “at the right time Christ died for the ungodly!” (Rom 5:6). The gospel is the story of Jesus of Nazareth, crucified and risen, proclaimed in promissory mode. “So then faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the word of God” (Rom 12:17). Put yourself in the position of someone to whom the unconditional promise of salvation has been spoken. What now are your alternatives? You can trust the promise and rejoice and begin to live a new life based on the promise. You can distrust the promise and ignore it. Or you might deem it offensive because it attacks your personal sovereignty and autonomy. “How dare you tell me that my works (even my decision of faith) do not count. I have free will, don’t I?” Or as one of my good friends once quipped, “I get salvation the old fashioned way. I earn it!”
“The whole point of the Reformation,” contends 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.”18
It should be noted, however, that Calvin and his followers apparently did not receive the Lutheran memo on justification as kerygmatic norm. They certainly heard and incorporated that part of Luther’s teaching that declared the Reformation solas—solus Christus, sola gratia and sola fide—but they then proceeded to make absolute predestination the heart of their theology. God indeed saves sinners, gratuitously and unconditionally—but only the elect. And since we cannot know in this life who the elect are, we cannot proclaim the gospel as performative promise.19 We cannot truthfully say to our congregations, “You are now justified in the name of Jesus Christ.” And so the Reformed (excluding those who follow Karl Barth) are right back where the Western Church was before Luther appeared on the scene—preaching a conditional gospel and ordinese salutis, with all the pastoral problems and crises they generate. But the Arminians are really no better off. They too have their salvation formulae; they too preach the gospel with strings attached. Which salvific conditions are asserted depends upon the ecclesial affiliation of the preacher. What counts as a soteriological work? fasting? going on retreat? almsgiving? tithing? visiting the sick? joining a political movement on behalf of the oppressed? What about faith, is it a work? Hmm, let me check my approved ordo salutis chart.20
When understood as kerygmatic norm, justification by faith is of profound relevance to all pastors—be they Orthodox, Catholic, or Protestant. If the Lutherans are right, the gospel only becomes gospel—redeeming, thrilling, transformative, recreative good news—when the preacher dares to speak in the Spirit and give the salvation of Christ.21
And to you my readers, I declare to you in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit: Because God loves you passionately, fervently, without limit or qualification, because for your sake he died on the cross and rose from death into glory, because he has harrowed hell and broken its gates, your sins are forgiven. You are justified and destined for eternal joy. Amen.
Iustificatio articulus stantis et cadentis ecclesiae.
(18 September 2013; rev.)
 Martin Luther, Preface to Johann Brenz, Exposition of the Prophet Amos, Luther’s Works, Vol. 59:288.
 Alister McGrath, Reformation Thought, 4th ed. (2012), p. 135.
 Alister McGrath, Iustita Dei, 3rd ed. (2005), pp. 213, 215. Cf. D. H. Williams, “Justification by Faith: a Patristic Doctrine,” Journal of Ecclesiastical History, 57 (October 2006): 649-667.
 See Cameron Davis, St. John Chrysostom’s and Philip Melanchthon’s Views of Justification in St. Paul’s Epistles (2015) and Robert B. Eno, “Some Patristic Views on the Relationship of Faith and Works in Justification,” in Justification by Faith: Lutherans and Catholic in Dialovue VII (1985), pp. 119-121.
 George Mastrantonis, Augsburg and Constantinople (2005), p. 37. Also see this collection of excerpts from Jeremias on justification by faith alone.
 N. T. Wright, What Saint Paul Really Said (1997), p. 117. See “The Wrights and Wrongs of Justification.”
 Robert W. Jenson, Unbaptized God (1992), p. 22.
 Jenson, pp. 22-23. Jenson further elaborates: “We are made righteous in the church; . . . baptism ‘justifies’ because it initiates into the community whose telos is righteousness and whose reality is anticipation of her telos. The context in which God makes us just is thus the speaking of the gospel, the audible and visible communication by which this community subsists, her specific discourse for and about God. Here the one question about ‘justification’ can arise. It was the Reformers’ distinctive and specifically reforming question: How is the church’s discourse, audible or visible, to be logically and rhetorically shaped so as not to betray its content? In the dialogues, this has been labelled the “metatheological,” “metalinguistic,” “hermeneutic” or—more misleadingly—”proclamatory” doctrine. This question is not the same as the next we must isolate: How does it work, that persons living in this context truly become righteous? How may we tell the human story that ends in God? This was the great Augustinian concern, which has appeared in Catholic scholasticism’s analyses of the various sorts and interventions of ‘grace’ and their relations, and in Protestant scholasticism’s doctrines of “the way of salvation,” the ordo salutis. The supposition that this “transformative” doctrine and the “hermeneutic” doctrine must somehow be different approaches or emphases in answering the same question, the first typically Catholic and the second typically Protestant, has confused Catholic-Protestant conversation for four hundred and fifty years. Yet they are clearly logically incommensurate. Augustinian doctrines of ‘justification’ describe Christian life under certain terms of analysis; the hermeneutic or metalinguistic doctrine of ‘justification’ describes nothing at all but is rather an instruction to teachers, liturgists, and evangelists about certain characters of the language they are to use.” Systematic Theology (1999), II:291.
 See Robert W. Jenson, An Exegesis of the Apology of the Augsburg Confession, Article IV (unpublished, n.d.), and Ronald F. Thiemann, Revelation and Theology (1985), chap. 5: “Why does [Melanchthon] insist on emphasizing the notion of promise . . . when he has another term like gospel available? He does so because the notion of promise highlights the unconditional offer of salvation which comes through God’s grace. Promise offers Melanchthon a way of breaking the causal conception of the divine-human relation with its works-righteousness structure and asserting the absolute gracious prevenience of God” (p. 98). On Luther and his discovery of the gospel as performative speech act, see Oswald Bayer, Theology The Lutheran Way (2007), pp. 125-138.
 “The central point is that the proclamation of God’s grace in word and sacrament is itself the saving event in that it announces the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. God’s word does what it proclaims or, in modem terminology, the gospel message is performative; it effects the reality of which it speaks. The preaching of the gospel has the force of decreeing the forgiveness of sins for Christ’s sake. Like a will or testament, it makes human beings heirs of the promise quite apart from what they deserve. God’s word accomplishes what it says in the very act of being proclaimed. In this hermeneutical perspective even the faith which receives the promise is not a condition for justification. It is not a human achievement, but it is rather a free gift created and bestowed in the power of the Holy Spirit by the justifying word to which it clings. Justification is unconditional in the sense that the justifying word effects its own reception.” Justification by Faith, §§88-89.
 George Lindbeck, “Article IV and Lutheran/Roman Catholic Dialogue,” The Church in a Postliberal Age (2003), p. 42. Jenson explains the sola fide this way: “The sentence ‘We are justified by faith’ stipulates that the church’s audible or visible promise of righteousness must be so structured rhetorically and logically that it accepts no lesser response than faith. If the gospel is rightly spoken to or enacted for me, it places me where I can finally say only ‘I believe, help my unbelief’ or ‘Depart from me.’ The less drastic response of ‘works,’ that is, of deeds or virtues brought forward because they are thought appropriate to the gospel—as in themselves they may well be—does not as such break through my incurvature on myself. For unless this has otherwise been broken, my works, precisely as my actions and habits of action, are still ‘willingly’ done within my antecedent rapture into myself. When the church’s proclamation appropriately elicits the response of ‘works,’ this by itself shows that the gospel has been wrongly spoken. Only the promise of fulfillment in God, and such promise as hides no implicit conditions of its validity, can break the direction of my actions to myself, by opening my place within God’s story while offering no handle for antecedent egocentric willingness.” ST, II:292.
 Lindbeck., p. 43.
 Ibid., p. 44.
 See the relevant statements issued by the Lutheran-Orthodox Joint Commission, especially “Understanding of Salvation in the Light of the Ecumenical Councils” and “Salvation: Grace, Justification, and Synergy.” I would imagine that Orthodox theologians would reject the metatheological rule as contradicting their understanding of human freedom and synergism: God offers the free gift of salvation, and it’s up to us to embrace and appropriate it.
 George Lindbeck, “Justification by Faith,” LCA Partners (December 1984), p. 10.
 John Henry Newman, Lectures on the Doctrine of Justification (1838), p. 83. Lutherans would disagree with Newman on this point, insisting instead that justification establishes us as both righteous and sinful (simul iustus et peccator). For a passionate, though also critical, defense of the simul iustus et peccator, see Gerhard Forde, Justification by Faith: A Matter of Death and Life (1982). Forde argues that the Lutheran simul needs to be complemented by simul mortuus et vivus (simultaneously dead and alive). As an unconditional pronouncement, the gospel not only imputes righteousness, but it also slays and makes alive.
On this point, however, I must agree with Thomas F. Torrance: “If justification is only a forensic or judicial act of imputation or non-imputation, then the resurrection is correspondingly an event of the same kind. But if the resurrection is an actual event in the raising of Jesus Christ in the fullness of his humanity from corruption and death, then justification must correspondingly be a creative, regenerating event.” Space, Time and Resurrection (1976), p. 63. The justifying (and I would add, deifying) word is a word filled with Holy Spirit: it truly makes the hearer righteous by recreative act.
 Jenson, Unbaptized God, p. 24.
 Eric Gritsch and Robert W. Jenson, Lutheranism, p. 37. Also see this Jenson excerpt: “Justification, Faith, and the Radical Question of Existence.” Cf. Philip Cary, “Sola Fide: Luther and Calvin,” Concordia Theological Journal, 71 (2007): 265-281.
 See my series on preaching predestination, which begins with “Why is Predestination Missing in Action?”
 Regarding the Lordship evangelicals, such as Arthur W. Pink and John MacArthur, they advance a construal of justification against which all the 16th century Reformers would have protested. Free grace evangelicals, such as Zane Hodges and Robert Wilkin, are closer to the Reformers; yet in the end they make faith a condition for salvation—a work that must be performed—and is proclaimed as such. Both parties, therefore, would reject the radical unconditionality of the gospel and the proclamatory metadoctrine of justification.
 On the universalist implications of the metalinguistic rule, see my essay “Preaching Apokatastasis: St. Isaac the Syrian and the Grammar of the Kingdom,” Logos, 58 (2017): 197–213.
Lord, I believe; help my unbelief.
>a lot of people have missed the point over the past five hundred years, including many Protestants.
Amen. I occasionally tune into evangelical radio preachers, I suppose because I’m a masochist, and I never fail to hear one “should” after the next, all kinds of things that a “true” believer in Jesus Christ “should” be doing, ad nauseam. I grew up in Roman Catholicism, and the way I was instructed involved endless “should”s taught through formal religious instruction, preparations, and education, but American evangelicalism involves just as many if not more “should”s, though they are largely given informally by way of 45 minute legalistic sermons. What I experienced as the legalistic spirit of ritualistic Roman Catholicism continues in another form as American evangelical TED talks with a more or less histrionic accent. And, as for the mainline churches, where I currently make my ecclesial home, they are just as heavy on the “should”s, only mainline “should”s speak the language of secular progressive ethos. Hard to come by under the roof of any of these churches is a proclamation of free, unconditional grace and forgiveness, of God’s promise to save PERIOD; what is to be found in plenteous supply is: Religion.
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One thing that seems to be missing in the discussion of salvation and justification is the difference between our salvation and our experiencing of it in this life. According to St. Paul in Romans 5: 18-19, ALL mankind is justified:
Romans 5:18 Therefore as by the offence of one judgment came upon all men to condemnation; even so by the righteousness of one the free gift came upon all men unto justification of life. 19 For as by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners, so by the obedience of one shall many be made righteous.
Salvation is DONE. This is FINISHED! It is OVER! Not for just a small few, but for ALL.
But . . . how we experience it in this life has a lot to do with our response to this salvation. When we look upon the monks of Mount Athos, for instance, we see men who have taken this salvation, turned entirely into it, and are living examples of redeemed mankind. They walk closely with the Lord, they perform miracles that are astounding, they know Christ intimately on this side of the grave.
Unfortunately, even in Orthodoxy, there is this tendency to put conditions on salvation. I remember reading a story about an Orthodox monk who fell away from the monastery where he was. It was said of him that he “lost his salvation.” I went away thinking, “What the heck???” That makes God look like an Indian-giver and gives little hope to people like me who cannot even begin to refrain an hour from some moral or spiritual failure. Did I lose my salvation last night when I skipped Compline and Evening Prayers because I was dog-tired?
I cannot help but to think that the preaching of a salvation which is entirely conditioned on our performance has more to do with keeping people in line and making them behave a certain way, instead of trusting that to make them love Jesus through our preaching will turn them from their transitory sins to the One who is the desire of each human heart. It reminds me of Emperor Justinian, who, in his diatribe against Universalism, said that the preaching of this teaching would make men lazy, irresponsible, and rebellious. In other words, they wouldn’t obey the desires of Justinian.
What “counts” is “faith working through love.” The foundation of justification is God’s love for us. Justification opens the door that we may know God and be one with Him, and in the proceed becoming loving like Him. Heaven is to be like Him, to be near Him. God is love. And infinitely much more, if course. Justification by Christ’s blood may be the door, but to be one with the God of love is the goal. This analytical breaking down of the journey of theosis can obscure our focus on our telos, which is not just getting into heaven, but the joy of being like God. And yes, it is all by God’s Grace. Grace upon Grace upon . . . .
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And Jenson and Lindbeck would agree. Their concern is preaching the gospel in such a way that it opens or elicits faith in Christ and his promises for our justification rather than directing us to something else, e.g., our performance (works).
Yes, I believe many have a felt need for forgiveness and peace with God. But as to justification, in which these things are realized, if we’re talking about imputed righteouness, wouldn’t people be getting off on the wrong foot by this narrow focus which some would receive as an amazing freebie, without being informed that transformation via synergy is also involved? I was a Protestant evangelical in Churches in which imputed righteousness is preached, and there was a lot of evidence in our lives that transformation would be by osmosis because of the rejection of synergy and the insistance on monergy.
I think that St Paul addressed your concern in Romans 6.
Fr Ten Bobosh sees the focus of the Gospel of John as emphasizing “believing” rather than repentance (as this received no mention in this gospel). This does provide an important witness to the thesis of this article. Indeed, we first embrace Jesus, not personal moral improvement through repentance. Fr. Ted often has a way of stating truths simply so the hard heads like me can get it. https://frted.wordpress.com/
I have read the above several times and I still can’t quite follow it. I can’t quite work out what “imputed”, “forensic” and / or “extrinsic” righteousness actually mean. (I think I am right in understanding them to be intended to mean much the same thing, and that “justification” refers to having one of these kinds of righteousness, or have I misread this?) My best guess would be that they are supposed to mean simply that one’s sins are forgiven, but then I can’t see how this is a novel concept or one alien to other Christian traditions (albeit it is here being given a number of confusing new names).
It may simply be because I don’t understand it, but it seems that the article is advocating abandoning actual righteousness for imputed righteousness. If so, the “faith in Christ” that one is preaching becomes contentless if our sins already forgiven us and Christ makes no further promises than that. The faith one has in Christ should surely be that Christ will make us actually righteous if we have faith and follow him, which (as George MacDonald points out a lot) has to involve actually doing what Christ says, and, if it does, the church therefore assisting us to understand what that is.
Iain, I’ve been away from the Lutheran literature for many years, so I don’t feel competent to accurately present the traditional Lutheran understanding of justification by the imputation of Christ’s righteousness. I don’t want to upset my Lutheran friends by misconstruing their doctrine. They might well end up nailing 95 theses to my front door! 😁
I’m sure, though, you can find a good article on the topic somewhere on the web.
If you’ll permit me…
Part of the difficulty around ‘imputation’, ‘forensic,’ ‘extrinsic’ (not exactly the term used by the Lutherans, though the notion that salvation in Christ is ‘extra nos’ gets close, with perhaps some different shading) is that Lutheranism itself isn’t uniform on them, and differences go back pretty early.
Arguably a great deal of the formulation of imputation and forensic righteousness comes from Melanchthon’s early influence, both by himself and upon (and so through) Luther. However, I think one searches Luther in vain for much of a pure forensicism, an imputation which indicates no real change in the believer. On the contrary, Luther insists (over the bulk of his career, but certainly after 1520 or so) that a divine promise given through a human instrument (what we mean by proclamation) is effective – it produces what it says. Or look as early as the Heidelberg Disputation in April 1518 – “The love of God does not find, but creates, that which is pleasing to it. The love of
man comes into being through that which is pleasing to it. ” Here no mechanism is specified, but Luther would fix on one in relatively short order – the promise is that means by which the love of God “does not find but creates that which is pleasing to it.”
This is forensic in the sense that it is expressed as a divine, unilateral judgment – as when the priest pronounces the absolution. But just so, it is effective – it does just what it says, and so constitutes a new, forgiven creature in a new relation to God (faith). That’s the ‘faith alone’. As such, it precisely doesn’t mean that no change occurs – rather, it means that all necessary change is summed up not in some act of will on the part of the creature, nor in anything visible and outward, nor even in an inward movement available to the self-assessment of the believer (change is typically hidden from the one experiencing it), but in the constitution of a new creature in faith, on the sole basis of God’s effective promise (which is identical with Christ in his person).
Likewise, one could describe this as imputation, meaning that God does not as it were create some inchoate righteousness in the believer, fan it into growth, and then assess that yes, it’s there, but that God’s declaration is precisely identical with the righteousness of the believer (Christ). Minus a notion of God’s speech as effective (creating ex nihilo), this would indeed be imputation as a legal fiction. But Luther has that notion of effective speech in spades, and in his later works makes abundantly clear that in this sense his soteriology and doctrine of creation are of one piece. Melanchthon is not so consistent about this kind of effective, creative speech, and follows a somewhat different path – as one finds in his eventual divergence from Luther on the matter of the human will and on the sacrament.
Al is correct in following Lindbeck on the insight that the sort of preaching which makes this promise is the real point of the Wittenberg end of the Reformation, and that it can be (and frequently has been) present without any doctrine which says ‘justification sola fide.’ Or, as I would express it to Lutherans, one is not saved by believing in the doctrine of justification by faith alone. That said, practically one finds that preachers preach (and liturgists construct liturgies to match) such that their discomfort with relying upon a unilateral, direct promise muffles or thoroughly compromises its expression. Theologians who worry, “What about works? What about repentance?” correlate with preachers who preach “God loves you, so make sure you obey,” and all the stress falls on the last clause. Whether Lindbeck’s private conversations with Catholic theologians are in any sense correct or not, that seems to me a theoretical point – few enough Lutherans are comfortable with really Lutheran preaching, and fewer Catholics. Having heard a good many of the students of the major American Lutheran ecumenists preach, I can assure you they’re mostly letting Lindbeck and Jenson down. The most important thing seems to have been left out – how to actually give such a promise.
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If I’m understanding this right, the “justification” consists of the imparting of faith through preaching that one is justified, rather than the justification being the result / reward of faith. I’m not sure I 100% agree, but at least I can follow what is being said: I do find the terminology less than helpful.
Whatever the detail, it seems to me right that salvation / justification etc comes first and actual righteousness and transformation afterwards as the result of being “saved” not as the precondition for it.
That’s close. I’m not sure “preaching that one is justified” is quite right, though “you are justified” would be a pretty clear implication of what is preached. This is probably alarmingly practical, but I find that the terms ‘justification’ and ‘justified’ are of little use in preaching – they tend to lead to talking *about* justification, when the point that is being driven toward in this interpretation of the Lutheran formulation is that the sermon, the sacraments, the liturgy, etc. are the occasion for the doing of justification. “Your sins are forgiven” is justification – I don’t need to add, ‘because you’re justified,’ or ‘therefore you’re justified.’
Yes, the stress here is on the effective word first, which then produces a new person. And if you put it very, very simply you’ll likely find quite a lot of people agreeing on that. The sticky part comes in identifying any possible ground or precondition for that declaration becoming effective, and here the Lutherans themselves historically split.
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I have rarely talked about justification in my homilies, except when the text required it. My experience in my non-Lutheran congregations is that folks have no idea what the word means. But they do know what forgiveness and acceptance mean.
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Thank you, Adam, for your elaboration. I was fearful of treading on Lutheran toes, given that I have forgotten so much since the time I used to hang out a lot with Lutherans. 😁
The human being can freely reject grace and justification. It can do so before being justified and after being justified. It can remain in that state forever.
I wouldn’t call that ‘freely’.
Methinks, Fr R, you either skimmed quickly through the article or misunderstood the article, as your comment is properly located under Jenson’s locus #2: justification as description of the salvation process (ordo salutis). This is a common mistake when first encountering locus #3: justification as metalinguistic rule.
As far as your comment itself, let’s not get into it here in this thread.
I ask you and everyone to try to focus our discussion on locus #3, which I have tried to expound in this article. Otherwise we’ll end up replaying the Reformation all over again.
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I like Lindbeck on many things, but was thinking that possibility of resistance to preaching of the Gospel is an important qualification of #3. I was being a bit elliptical, but Augustine’s “On Rebuke and Grace” is what I had in the back of my mind. The same is true in light of beliefs that faith alone is not sufficient for justification. Since one can lose justification, or believe and yet fail to love God, mere trust in God’s proclamation of grace is insufficient.
Fair enough, but Augustine is working under locus two. Think of descriptions of justification (ordines salutis) as third-person discourse and reflection. When a description of justification is preached as the gospel, it is necessarily preached in the mode of conditional promise. Lindbeck, Jenson, and Forde are thinking of justification as first- and second-person discourse in the mode of performative unconditional promise. Consider: how do you say “no” to an unconditional promise? Every “no” simply becomes a new occasion to speak the promise.
And btw, Lindbeck, Jenson, and Forde were not universalists, though Jens appears to have embraced universalism in the last year or two of his life. I sent him a copy of my Wales talk on St Isaac and the metalinguistic rule (late 2014) soon after I returned after the conference. He said some nice things about it and ended his email with these words “We need to pray about this.” I like to think that my talk (later published in Logos) contributed to his change of mind, but we never talked again about the topic, so I don’t know.
** Since one can lose justification, or believe and yet fail to love God, mere trust in God’s proclamation of grace is insufficient. **
So what it appears that you are saying is that we have to have certain performances in order to qualify for God’s salvation? Which leads me to wonder then, just how many and how much before I can be assured that I have crossed the threshold of salvation and entered into the paradise of being a true believer?
The other problem is that if you state certain parameters for true belief, what about all those who are slowly but steadily reaching out to those parameters? I made a “decision for Jesus” in my 20’s, and I tried to faithfully live the Christian life, but there were things in it which anyone who looked at me would have perhaps said, “I thought you said he is a Christian?” It took me decades to come to the point I am at today where pornography no longer has a grip on my soul. Was I just an “insufficient believer” at that time and headed for your eternal hell?
God forbid you think by that last paragraph that I am justifying sin. I am not. But we all struggle, and putting a burden on people that they cannot bear is unwise and spiritually unhealthy. How many people have just chucked the Christian faith altogether because they could not meet some manmade standard of proving themselves to be truly saved? Would it not be better to preach a Christ so winsome that love brings the sinner to his knees in joyful surrender, and causes him to say to his sin, “Begone. I have found a far better lover than you can ever be. You have caused me nothing but misery.”
In my whole time of association with the dogmas of the Roman Catholic Church, I never got the sense that I had done enough to “earn salvation.” Perhaps there is some truth to the jokes I have heard about “Catholic guilt.”
“Justification” and “sanctification” are metaphors drawn from the Old Testament – the first drawn from God’s role as legal judge personified in the king, the second drawn from holiness injunctions connected to the temple. But these are both (mainly Pauline) METAPHORS, pointing to the same reality, i.e., man’s inner spiritual life. Church theologians taking them literally has caused all sorts of divisions, reformations, and hermeneutical strife. The seemingly never-ending theological efforts to systemize the two literal meanings would be humorous if it hadn’t proved so harmful. IMHO.
The closest we have to a literal statement about salvation in the NT, i think, is 2 Peter 1:4 – “… ye may become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped from the corruption that is in that world by desire.”
Desire/longing (ἐπιθυμίᾳ) is the seeking of pleasure in objects and leads to corruption/decay; in prayer and meditation, stillness (ἡσυχία, hesychia) is realized in the Subject, manifesting our inherent peace and joy.
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Literalism is a pernicious, ever-present stumbling block, as many of the arguments in the comments section clearly demonstrate.
“Desire/longing (ἐπιθυμίᾳ) is the seeking of pleasure in objects and leads to corruption/decay; in prayer and mediation, stillness (ἡσυχία, hesychia) is realized in the Subject, manifesting our inherent peace and joy.”
Indeed. This has a nice Buddhist flavor to it.
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The only God I can have faith in, that is, the only God I can trust, is one that does not let his creatures languish or suffer forever. For me, that has to be the starting point and crux of the matter in the face of suffering and death IN THIS WORLD.
These are my marching orders to myself, and my rule of life, and my road to beatitude:
You have a heart; use it.
Simple does it for me,if I get it. The promise is there. We can wrack our heads about the promise to make it “work” for us. But that is indeed a self striving and as such is work/striving. I look at it like this-I cannot demand faith, I can only hope with the promise. Demanding full cognition of the promise will not do. Keeping my self-my heart, soul open to the promise is authentic,a real trust in the Holy Spirit, and a real,authentic dialogue with Christ. Otherwise it is beating my conscience which is not “the way”.
I have added to the article (fn. 11) the following passage from Jenson that I hope will clarify the confusion some folks seem to be having regarding the metalinguistic rule:
“The sentence ‘We are justified by faith’ stipulates that the church’s audible or visible promise of righteousness must be so structured rhetorically and logically that it accepts no lesser response than faith. If the gospel is rightly spoken to or enacted for me, it places me where I can finally say only ‘I believe, help my unbelief’ or ‘Depart from me.’ The less drastic response of ‘works,’ that is, of deeds or virtues brought forward because they are thought appropriate to the gospel—as in themselves they may well be—does not as such break through my incurvature on myself. For unless this has otherwise been broken, my works, precisely as my actions and habits of action, are still ‘willingly’ done within my antecedent rapture into myself. When the church’s proclamation appropriately elicits the response of ‘works,’ this by itself shows that the gospel has been wrongly spoken.”
Here’s another passage from Jenson that I hope will prove helpful:
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Thanks Fr Al for these thoughtful comments. It’s been a while since viewed salvation in terms of this (Reformation) debate. It seems strange now.
I completely agree the gospel is present where it is proclaimed in such a way that the only true response is consent/belief in the unconditional love, acceptance, and forgiveness of God, and not ‘works’ of righteousness. It seems profoundly simple, I don’t know how it is such complicated debates get off the ground.
That said, there’s this comment:
“Put yourself in the position of someone to whom the unconditional promise of salvation has been spoken. What now are your alternatives? You can trust the promise and rejoice and begin to live a new life based on the promise. You can distrust the promise and ignore it. Or you might deem it offensive because it attacks your personal sovereignty and autonomy. ‘How dare you tell me that my works (even my decision of faith) do not count. I have free will, don’t I?’ Or as one of my good friends once quipped, ‘I get salvation the old fashioned way. I earn it!’….”
Exactly. So the ‘unconditionality’ being sought here (i.e., the refusal to impose ‘conditions’ upon salvation) doesn’t take the ‘alternatives’ you describe (‘trusting’ or ‘distrusting’) as among the conditions that undermine the ‘unconditional’ nature of salvation. You admit these are alternatives. And alternatives are just the various conditions that define different responses.
This too: “‘The whole point of the Reformation’,” contends 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” and (in a comment), “Their concern is preaching the gospel in such a way that it opens or elicits faith in Christ and his promises for our justification rather than directing us to something else, e.g., our performance (works).”
We’ve chatted about this for a few years, and I’ve always understood you to mean that even human consent, or faith, cannot qualify or ‘condition’ the effective fulfillment of the gospel. But it seems I’ve misunderstood you. ‘Faith’ is a condition upon which the gospel effectively transforms us. The point is that ‘faith’ as such is not to be identified as the performing of any specific deed or work of righteousness. Am I hearing you right? If so – totally agree.
What’s unconditional is God’s love for us, his forgiveness and acceptance of us, and the openness of the human being to the promise of life which being unconditionally loved and forgiven brings. But the point that TheReluctantHeretic made above (that there is a difference between ‘being unconditionally loved by God’ and ‘faith as the condition upon which one intentionally engages and enjoys such love’) holds – correct? ‘Faith’ qua condition cannot render the love and forgiveness and openness of the heart to God ‘conditional’. The latter are absolutely unconditional and thus circumscribe even the condition of faith. We can misrelate to the unconditional ground of our being but misrelate always ‘within it’ (within the possibilities of being), for there’s no finally defeating our being unconditionally loved and forgiven and open to Godward movement.
Howdy, Dr Belt,
For Jenson “faith” cannot function as a condition for salvation. It’s totally and completely directed to the unconditional justifying Word, i.e., Christ. Obviously, people can respond to the divine Word spoken to them in any number of ways. But the Word spoken abides. All we can do is return to it. The clearest example is baptism. The Church does not rebaptize. So Luther called repentance a return to baptism. So yes, I think we agree, if I understand you correctly. I particularly like how you phrase it–we can misrelate to Christ within the relationship he has established with us, but Word–and the Godward movement it generates– cannot be defeated. After all, the Word that justifies and recreates is the same Word that creates the cosmos ex nihilo. I wonder whether it was not precisely this consideration that finally led Jenson to universalism at the end of his life.
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Yeah, we’re on the same or a very similar page perhaps.
It depends on what one means by ‘salvation’, i.e., is one speaking of God’s accomplishment of the union of both God and Creation in Christ, leaving individual responses and participation in Christ out of the equation, or is one talking about the actual transformation of individuals through participation in Christ? In the first, ‘salvation’ describes something more like ‘that which saves’ and its inalienable presence in us as our inalienable openness to it. In the second case though, ‘salvation’ describes the actual transforming of our individual lives – our subject embrace and enjoyment of the divine life.
As you say, “obviously, people can respond to the divine Word spoken to them in any number of ways.” But this is exactly what it means to posit a “condition.” If our actual experience of God’s saving act in Christ is ‘unconditional’ (in the 2nd sense above), that is, if the effective accomplishing of God’s will in the lived experience of people is unconditional, then it would be irresistibly efficacious upon hearing the gospel properly (‘performatively’) proclaimed. But if such proclamation can be and is often refused, it’s realization in our lives is obviously not unconditional. If preaching the gospel just right (in all the ways Jenson describes) unconditionally creates in hearers the faith which accomplishes God’s will in us, then it can’t also be true that any would ever fail to have faith upon such hearing. But many do hear it properly proclaimed and reject it. Hence, its reception and enjoyment are not unconditional.
What am I missing? I can’t tell what I’m describing is what Jenson is saying, or if Jenson is saying something else, and if something else, what?
One thing is unconditional – that’ll I’ll liter my writing with typos.
“…in us *and* our inalienable openness to it…”
“In the second case though, ‘salvation’ describes the actual transforming of our individual lives – our *subjective* embrace…”
“…*its* realization in our lives…”
Forgive a non-theologian’s view on this, but in my view the problems that the “solae” introduce far outweigh the nuances they purportedly articulate. Because this reframing of justification, again IMHO, introduces the possibility that the coming of faith (implicitly) need not have any transformative effect on behavior. Indeed, one can conceivably behave however one pleases, well, bc “solo fide,” right? It introduces an implicit decoupling of faith and works—hypocrites there have always been, but now, arguably, there’s a “get out if jail free” card.
No, I’ll stick with James, thank you. Faith without works is indeed dead.
Pete, I may have a comment or two that may clarify, but before I do, may I ask you your ecclesial affiliation.
Ha, complicated. Father was a lapsed Catholic and I was raised in a Reformed congregation that I rejected utterly; these days I attend a Catholic Church, although never got confirmed…heterodox Christian, I guess. Ha.
My feeling is that the “solae” are being retconned a bit (not necessarily by you) as they seem like a convenient way, historically speaking, simply to break with tradition; once this ripple is introduced, though, it eventually leads to the sort of Calvinist gobbledygook I once had to endure (old double predestination, among other joys.) It’s this same Puritanism, however, that yet runs as an undercurrent here in the USA—that allows for a determinism, however uncoupled from its original religious roots, and offers a shrug when the question of behavior is raised. I mean, if everything’s predetermined, you can’t really help it, can ya? It leads, IMHO, to a slippery slope, slowly but insidiously, where free will is diminished and then discarded.
Sorry for the tired tirade, and thanks for all your interesting posts. May the Almighty God of Heaven and Earth strengthen and preserve you, in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
Thanks, Pete, for the background info.
The first thought that came to mind was the story of the ten lepers. Jesus heals ten people, but only one returns to Jesus to thank him and praise God. Do you think he regretted healing the other nine? No, of course not. Grace is grace. On the cross, Jesus dies for all.
The Reformers didn’t invent sola gratia. It goes back to St Augustine: “To will is of nature, but to will aright is of grace.”
Regarding the metalinguistic rule of justification: Think of it as instruction to preachers on how to proclaim the gospel so it will be good news. Does it always elicit faith? No. But we should not think of it as a failure. Once God’s Word is declared, it never returns to God empty. The salvific results always rests with God and in God. I am both a preacher and sinner. I confess I always want every single person to respond to the gospel promise in faith. But that’s not my responsibility. My task is simply to declare the divine promise and trust God to work out his saving will in his good providence.
Thanks for the thoughtful reply, and understood on Augustine (along those same lines, I believe to Aquinas is attributed some variant of double-predestination, so…)
Will try to wrap my mind around the metalinguistic rule. Appreciate it.
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An interesting point I can’t see a reason to disagree with.
I’ve developed a lot of my own soteriological beliefs based upon my literary approach to scripture. One of the most important is the nature of faith as a non-intellectual substance. In my view it is distinct from but related to belief, and the distinction allows room for faith to take on a different nature than belief, illuminating and transforming the idea of justification by faith.
Belief, as most of us understand, rests on evidence. It is reasonable. It approaches knowledge but exists where it is needed – where knowledge is not yet possible. Belief is sometimes seen in scripture as saving, because it is a conscious response founded on faith. It can be called forth by the enspirited preacher. And it is needed. But it can be falsified… a kind of external adherence without true faith underlying it.
However, faith is another and deeper thing. It is seen as saving in more formal, theological contexts. In fact, faith is the very evidence which belief requires, which is probably why belief can be seen as saving and as an expression of faith. “Faith is the evidence of things unseen.” Then to believe is perhaps the first action of faith – the first “good work.”
For the apostles, what they witnessed and handled of the Word of Life was their evidence – at least their outward evidence. But their witness alone cannot be evidence enough for us. Something must demonstrate them to be true. Faith within us does that. And in fact, faith within them did the same for what they witnessed. “Flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in Heaven.”
The reason faith is capable of serving in this way is that it is substantive – a substance sharing the very nature of the things we believe in. “Faith is the substance of things hoped for.” (Is Heaven hoped for? Is holiness, love, a happy ending to the world’s history? Is communion with God himself hoped for? Faith is already the substance of these things.) As long as we think of faith as another word for belief, we imagine it to be intellectual. When we understand that faith is a substance, a heavenly substance in fact, we see why its presence in our hearts can function as evidence of spiritual realities. It is exactly as if a moon rock in our hands should function as evidence that the moon is rock.
A scripture writer uses an important phrase somewhere: “The faith of Jesus Christ.” Normally we hear “in” rather than “of”. But as a man, Jesus evidently had faith in his Father. If we ask where the apostles got their faith, the answer is that their faith was “the faith of Jesus Christ”. He passed it to them and they passed it to us; the apostolic succession is only the outward symbol of this tree of faith. What burns in my heart and yours is a flame kindled two millennia ago. It is the very faith of the man Jesus; and only for that reason is it a faith *in* the Son of God.
So St. Paul says “how can they believe if they don’t hear, and how can they hear without a preacher?” They can’t, because the faith which grounds belief, being a spiritual substance, is passed from person to person in the act of gospel proclamation, not to person from book in the act of reading.
Calvinists love to quote, “By Grace are ye saved through faith, and that not of ourselves, it is the gift of God.” The priorness of God in giving faith is the idea that long ago electrified me about Calvinist teaching, and is the bit I haven’t given up. I think it is essential to ground any gospel preaching in an unspoken confidence on the part of the preacher that a divine work is backing up his preaching. That he may truly preach forgiveness of sins. The gospel then remains “Jesus died and was buried and rose again according to the scriptures.” Not “do this or that.” (Though the command to believe may actually encode the passing of faith or at least provoke consciousness of it by calling forth its first action. If Jesus says “rise and walk” it is not only because he is healing the cripple’s legs but because the healing is somehow finalized by the participatory faith that produces obedience to the command.)
While belief is a human act, faith is a heavenly substance that becomes human by dwelling in us, rooting itself in us, grounding our belief, producing the fruit of good acts, responding to God’s word, and in all these ways saving us from judgment – to select a few scriptural words about its action.
This saving from judgment should be made explicit more often. The idea that “salvation” in every scripture where it is used refers to final reconciliation with God, escape from hell, and dwelling in Heaven forever involves a gross violation of the text. In the primitive Christian teaching, “believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and thou shalt be saved, and thy house,” salvation is explicitly a saving from the judgment of the world which Christ was swiftly bringing. It is quite a leap to go from “a man was not saved from the judgment” to “his everlasting doom is therefore sealed.” The judgment is fearful because it may bring punishment, not because its conclusion is forgone. And even where judgment does actually bring a sentence of punishment, that is hardly the same thing as a final and permanent casting out. (Why God chooses some to be saved from judgment in my opinion has much to do with saving the world from a more final doom. The world must be judged; some individuals escape that judgment by judging themselves beforehand, in a manner of speaking. That is to say, by partaking in the death already died for sins and the resurrection already lived for justification, and by spiritually forsaking the dead deeds of sin along the path of Christ. But equally the world must eventually be resurrected and recreated after its judgment. We who are being saved now are the representatives and firstfruits of the world which is to be recreated, much as a few righteous men in Sodom would have saved the whole city. Nevertheless, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith in the Earth?)
To return to the theme, justification by faith becomes a tremendously expansive idea when faith is a heavenly substance inherited from Jesus himself. Something allowing one to know Jesus from within and thus believe in him, providing evidence of heavenly realities, grounding conscious faithfulness and doctrinal adherence in inner mystical knowing, naturally fruiting in the human life into good works, and generally mediating and providing the human response to grace and the presence of the Holy Spirit through the natural channels, actions, and pathways proper to the human soul.
I see the evangelical point in this essay – that one can and should preach “Your sins are forgiven” in order to call forth belief that sins are forgiven, to avoid preaching which casts the sinner back on his own response instead of faith-fully onto Christ. I think it is an excellent point.
Because of how I understand faith, it is less an enigma to preach this way because “He who has ears to hear” can hear, and he is precisely the one to whom the faith of Jesus is being passed from the preacher as a gift of God. That is the hearer who finds within himself due cause to receive the Word and believe on the holy Name of Jesus, Whose own faith he feels springing up within himself. He only needs to “rise and walk” to find the divine gift realized in himself.
That God should not only begin to make just, but should regard *as already just* a sinner for the reason that the very faith of Jesus is taking root in his heart, enacted by conscious belief – again, this is not so very great an enigma. St. Paul offers Abraham as the type of this sort of experience. Our faith is also the faith of Abraham, because Jesus’ faith was the faith of Abraham, passed to him by his righteous stepfather and holy mother. When Abraham believed the word of God, his belief grounded by faith in the faithfulness of God, the Lord regarded him as righteous on the basis of that faith. And why not? What is unrighteous about a spark of Heaven lodged in the heart? When a man has that, what is more real, more deserving of regard from God – that which is made heavenly and Christlike and must be preserved (“saved”) from the destruction of the world, or that which as yet remains earthly and fallen and must pass away? Why should God not deal with us on the basis of our faith, his gift in us, rather than on the basis of our leftover moral crippling – the sin which Christ already put to death in us by his death?
Thanks for a thought-provoking essay.