"In a world without God, everything is lawful." This is the theme of Fyodor Dostoyevsky's book The Brothers Karamazov, one of the great books of the Western world. It examines the arguments for and against the existence of God. The horror of a world where anything can be done with impunity is Dostoyevsky's clinching argument in favor of belief in God. God's judgment tomorrow is our only hope for a livable world today.
But what if the most terrible crimes in history are pardoned by God? What if the offenders get off scott free? Not just the truly sorry ones, but the deviants, the drive-by killers, the unjust tax collectors?
In a world plagued by evil, a message that says that God is glorified when he pardons wicked men appears to be an assault on morality. If God himself acquits the guilty, what hope do we have of creating a better world? How are we to thwart new Hitlers and Stalins? How are we to expect restraint from those who can get away with crime down here if there is no judgment awaiting them? Surely this is a dangerous message!
Two branches of Christendom, the Lutheran and Reformed, stand together in announcing this very message, the original message of the Protestant Reformation. The message that God justifies the wicked spread throughout Europe in a variety of forms. Among the common people, it appeared in the form of sermons and tracts; among the educated in the form of treatises and theses. The most enduring mold into which this message was cast, however, was the church confession, for in the confession the message that had been successfully promoted was institutionalized for generations.
While Lutherans are bound to subscribe to the one definitive collection of confessions that form the Book of Concord, the Reformed churches have many confessions that vie for their allegiance. In its original form, the Westminster Confession only had binding force on Presbyterians, but in modified versions it has also been the confession of Reformed Baptists and Congregationalists. There are important doctrinal differences that would prohibit Lutherans from adopting the Confession as their own, but we must recognize in it a witness to doctrines that our churches hold in common‹unlike the greater part of Christendom.
Confessionalism in Today's Church
The words "We confess" are becoming rarer and rarer in the modern world. Not only is the confession of sin absent from most worship services, the confession of faith has disappeared as well. Most Christians today look upon doctrine indifferently. The liberal theology of the last century has taken its toll on even the so-called conservative churches of today in ways most people don't recognize. The rationalism and pietism of yesterday's liberal churches are the sources of individualism and moralism of today's conservative churches.
Individualism tells us that the individual Christian is the primary reality; churches are merely human institutions organized to nurture the faith of individual believers. As such, they can be altered at will as the needs of the members change. Moralism tells us that our efforts, not God's accomplishments, deserve primary emphasis in the church. The Bible may then be seen exclusively as a guide for living, for getting along in the world, and not also a record of God's achievements for his people when they couldn't get along in the world.
Together, individualism and moralism have disarmed the church in its fight to keep true doctrine alive. In fact, the battle itself, which is a battle for the continued life of the church, has come to be seen as sinful. The very passages that could be used to show the importance of true doctrine are now themselves read moralistically. Warriors for truth enter the battle with blunted swords.
How different is the attitude of the New Testament! If today confessionalism is said to be narrow-minded bigotry and a threat to Christian unity, Jesus and the Apostles taught that the maintenance of sound doctrine was a serious duty. At the end of the most doctrinal epistle in the New Testament, Paul tells the church to "watch out for those who cause divisions and put obstacles in your way that are contrary to the teaching you have learned. Keep away from them." (Rom 16:17) Instructing a pastor of his duty to distinguish truth from error, Paul warns Timothy that "if anyone teaches false doctrines and does not agree to the sound instruction of our Lord Jesus Christ and to godly teaching, he is conceited and understands nothing." (1 Tm 6:34) He exhorts the Thessalonians to "stand firm and hold to the teachings [he] passed on to [them], whether by word of mouth or by letter." (2 Thes 2:15)
What does today's church do with these instructions? Frequently, it either ignores them or misreads them. For example, when Jesus says to his disciples, "If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free" (Jn 8:3132), today this is interpreted moralistically to mean If you follow my commands (to love each other, especially), then I will directly reveal my will to you, apart from scripture. Because they have been taught to read the scriptures like this, it is obvious to Christians today that doctrinal fighting is an unloving action we should avoid if we continue in Christ's word. Who needs doctrine anyway, if our obedience means that Jesus will speak to us directly through the Holy Spirit? The very scriptures that support confessionalism have been twisted into moralistic guidelines subverting confessionalism. A return to the confessions will not only tell us which scriptures are important, it will remind us how to read the scriptures in a God-centered way.
Confessionalism In Yesterday's Church
The church of Jesus Christ has never witnessed a golden age, whether under the Apostles or the Reformers. Yet there were ages that were less prone to certain shortcomings that characterize the church in our age. The Protestant church of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries had its problems: parochialism, infighting, and lack of vision, to name a few. But it did guard its doctrine, leaving behind a legacy of clear gospel teaching from which we benefit even today.
When I, a Lutheran, approach the Westminster Confession, I find a document that does not reflect my beliefs. If I were to respond in typical twentieth-century fashion to this discovery, I would say "how narrow of someone to try to force his view of Christianity on me in order that I may join his church!" But that is not my response.
While I do not share all the Westminster Assembly's beliefs, I respect the fact that the Assembly held it necessary that Christians agree on such a wide platform of doctrine in order to be in church fellowship with one another. To do less is to ignore Paul and Jesus when they warned against false teaching. Any false teaching on subjects such as the Person of Christ, justification, the sacraments, or the church could be injurious to saving faith, so it is necessary to guard the church against false teachings by writing confessions and requiring that people subscribe to them. While a church body could make a mistake in identifying the right doctrine, it cannot make a mistake in identifying the need to guard what it believes to be the right doctrine. While I do not believe that in all cases the Westminster Confession expresses true doctrine, the Reformed churches that accepted the Confession were right in requiring people to hold to those doctrines, since they believed them to be right.
In Ephesians, Paul told his readers to put on the full armor of God. The descriptions of the pieces of armor require us to view knowledge of right doctrine as indispensable in our battles against the world, the flesh, and the devil. How can we don the belt of truth, if we don't know the truth? How can we take up the shield of faith if we don't know about the one whom we are to trust? How can we wield the sword of the Spirit if we don't know what the word of God says? When we disparage confessions, we disparage truth. As far as the armor of God goes, the modern church has become a nudist colony. We flaunt our nakedness, thinking it to be a virtue.
Westminster on Justification
While many elements in the Reformed confessions are a challenge to prevailing practice and teaching in the twentieth century, it is the teaching on justification that confronts today's church with forgotten truth of vital importance. The eleventh chapter of the Westminster Confession treats the doctrine of justification. Although there are statements in this chapter a Lutheran must disagree with, the remaining truth in it is precious. The teachings in this chapter we agree with are not merely those common elements of Christianity that all parties claiming to be Christian are familiar with. They are neglected teachings that the Lutherans and the Reformed have held alone against the greater part of Christendom for four hundred years. For this reason, I wish to set forth these teachings at length before examining my reservations.
The Westminster Confession uses antithesis to teach about justification. That is, it explains what is going on by making reference to what is not going on. We learn this method from the Apostle Paul who, when teaching about free grace, said that it is a gift of God and that it is not of works (Eph 2:89). This should be enough to refute those who say that we should just teach true doctrine and never mention false doctrine to combat it directly. (And if that's not enough, a re-reading of Paul's Epistles, and perhaps the Sermon on the Mount will be!) Not only does the Confession make use of Paul's method of teaching by contrasting truth and error, it uses this method to teach the same truth Paul taught.
God freely justifies the Wicked...
The Westminster Confession makes the point that justification is a free act. God is not bound to justify man on account of any good thing that he finds within man. It is common enough today for church people to say that we cannot make it to heaven by works, but a clear understanding of this statement is rare. Most people understand by this that a few good deeds here and there will not qualify one for heaven. In the back of their minds, however, they suspect something will: perhaps yielding to God, or maybe loving him enough. Works won't save, but something we do will.
Catholic theologians of the Middle Ages worked this double-talk into a theological science. They distinguished between two types of merit: condignant merit and congruent merit. Condignant merit meant that you got what you deserved. If you got into heaven it was because you had earned it by good works. Like most church people today, medieval theologians rejected this crass form of works-righteousness. Congruent merit, on the other hand, meant that you didn't strictly earn your way into heaven. In fact, if Jesus hadn't died for you, you would be damned. But Jesus' death made it possible for imperfect people to get into heaven. Now God could make a lower standard, and even make the attainment of that standard easier by helping people, through the Holy Spirit.
The Protestant Reformers saw in this teaching the subversion of God's grace. While this teaching gives a place to the work of Christ and the operation of the Holy Spirit, it still puts all the emphasis on what man did and did not do. The difference between one who was saved and one who was not saved finally rested on who did better with the help that God gave. Those in heaven were there because they worked harder‹or what's the same‹they were more sincere, more open, or loved God more.
The problem with such teaching is its shallow view of the human condition. Man has a hostile will, is spiritually blind, and bound by the cords of sin. All man's faculties participate in rebellion against God. This being the case, how will mere divine aid improve the situation? Give a being in such condition spiritual sight and a knife to cut through sin's bond and what will happen? The hostile will seizes the knife and plunges it into the newly restored eyes. We need total rescue.
To God's everlasting glory, the rescue is total! God justifies freely. He saves us in spite of our hostility. The scriptures teach that, "when we were God's enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son" (Rom 5:10), and that "God justifies the wicked." (Rom 4:5) The fact that we do not deserve the gift brings glory to God. Paul says, "God has bound all men over to disobedience so that he might have mercy on them all." (Rom 11:32) God planned for us to be unable to merit salvation! If killing the possibility of merit was so important to God that he allowed the fall of man and the hardening of Israel, what excuse do we have for sneaking new kinds of merit into the scheme of salvation? If God allows the human race to fall so that he may glorify himself, certainly we can teach free grace and risk the moral indignation of our fellow churchmen.
...not by infusing righteousness into them...
The first way of confounding the doctrine of justification is by misunderstanding the meaning of the word "justification" itself. In the scriptures, it means "to declare just." It is a legal term. When the judge pronounces the accused innocent, he is said to justify him. A common misreading of the term involves making the word "justification" mean "to make just." When this is done, people often don't notice that grace has been killed since God is still an active party. The problem is that we end up being the more active party since the only way to see that God has made us just is for us to do just things, and lots of them. We are back into salvation by works.
Another way to see the problem is to look at how the definition of grace changes when one misunderstands the word "justification." The word "grace" means "God's unmerited favor toward us." If justification involves God making us just, however, grace becomes something in our hearts, not in God's. We are then saved by infused grace, a power God gives us to earn his favor.
When the Confession said that God justifies freely and that he does not save by infusing something in us, it did this so that people would know that grace was God's unmerited favor toward us, not a power we would use to earn that favor.
...but by pardoning their sins and by accounting and accepting their persons as righteous...
After explaining that justification is not an infusion of grace, the Confession states that God justifies us by pardoning us. The distinction is between pardoning and infusing. Note that pardoning and infusing are not just two ways of accomplishing the same end, that is, justification. They are separate actions: declaring people just versus making people just. The Confession contrasts salvation by inner change with salvation by legal declaration.
People often accuse this "legal" method of salvation with being abstract, cold, and impersonal. But remember, that when you understand justification as a legal idea, you can view grace as unmerited favor coming from God's heart, not just an "abstract, cold, and impersonal" power you use to save yourself!
...not for any thing wrought in them or done by them...
First the Confession makes a distinction between what God does and does not accomplish in justification (He pardons people; he does not renew them). Then it explains why God does and does not justify people. This is crucial. It is possible for someone to understand the first distinction and still miss the point. After much debate, the proponent of works may break down and say, "Fine! Justification is a declaration. It is God pardoning sins. But he only pardons us because of our renewal." However, if we allow this line of reasoning to stand, justification will have been rescued, but free grace will have been lost.
...but for Christ's sake alone.
The difference between salvation by free grace and salvation by inner renewal is heightened when the Confession says that God justifies not for anything wrought in people or done by them, but for Christ's sake alone. The Confession makes it clear that not only is justification a pardoning of sins instead of a process of renewal; it is for Christ's righteousness' sake, not our own. We are not declared righteous because we have made a good start, like the old adage "a job well begun is half done." It is not a foot race where Jesus takes our place when we are tired. We are declared to have won the race when we were running as fast as we could in the wrong direction! Justification is God's work alone.
These two distinctions, pardoning versus renewing, and our righteousness versus Christ's, need to be remembered in an age when man-centeredness is prevalent. Our age needs this teaching even more than did the seventeenth century, when this confession was written.
For its ability to defend our common Protestant heritage against not only the crass works-righteousness of today, but from the subtler forms that it took in the past, Lutherans must admire the Westminster Confession. This said, Lutherans still cannot endorse it wholeheartedly. The peculiar form in which certain theological questions were put to the Reformed churches of the seventeenth century cast some teachings of the common Protestant heritage into a foreign mold. In order to combat the Arminian teachings, the Westminster divines developed a system of theological categories and terminology that is alien to Lutheranism. The two beliefs that cause Lutherans the most difficulty are the doctrine of the two calls, and the definition of faith as a type of evangelical obedience.
Lutheran Reservation #1: Effectual Calling
In the first sentence of Chapter 11, we are told that "Those whom God effectually calleth he also freely justifieth." To the extent that this is a mere repetition of Paul's statement "those he called, he also justified" (Rom 8:30), Lutherans agree. It is the adverb "effectually" that causes us problems. In Lutheran theology, there is one single call to salvation. In some individuals, the call is effectual; in others it is not. It is God's serious intent that it be effectual in all. In Calvinistic theology, in contrast, the ineffectual call differs from the effectual call in that God never intended it to produce repentance. According to Calvin, "experience teaches that God wills the repentance of those whom he invites to himself, in such a way that he does not touch the hearts of all" (Institutes, 3.24.15) According to Calvin, we learn from what happens what, in fact, God has willed.
Lutherans do not accept the doctrine of two calls. This militates against the objectivity of the means of grace. We agree that in the case of an elect individual, at some point the power of the gospel become effectual. What we cannot do is find the distinction in the nature of the call itself, for scripture tells us that the gospel "is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes." (Rom 1:16) The gospel is preached by human mouths and heard with human ears. To say that there are two calls suggests that it is not the gospel itself that converts a person, but some secret operation of God alongside the gospel.
Lutheran Reservation #2: Defining Faith as Evangelical Obedience
The other point of the teaching of justification which the Lutherans do not agree with is the definition of faith as a type of evangelical obedience. The Confession states that God justifies people not "by imputing faith itself, the act of believing, or any other evangelical obedience, to them, as their righteousness."
When faith is defined as a type of evangelical obedience, it is clear why it cannot be imputed to us as our righteousness. To do so would involve the surrender of the doctrine of grace alone. We would now be saved by a type of obedience. Not only would this involve a legal scheme of salvation, but it would undermine the law of God, for God would now be requiring an obedience which was less rigorous than the law. In rejecting the doctrine that faith is imputed as righteousness, the Westminster is guarding its adherents against Arminian heresy.
If faith had not been defined as evangelical obedience, these dangers would never have presented themselves in the first place. In the Augsburg Confession, for example, God is said to "regard and reckon this faith as righteousness," but these words are used after the language of scripture. Melanchthon attributes these words to Paul, who uses them in Romans 3:2126 and Romans 4:5. Melanchthon is careful to point out that this faith is not a work:
"It is faith, therefore, that God declares to be righteousness; he adds that it is accounted freely and denies that it could be accounted freely if it were a reward for works." (Apology, 4.89)
Faith is reckoned as righteousness, not because it is such a good work, but because it is an empty hand that grasps the righteousness of Christ. Melanchthon is able to guard against this becoming a form of works-righteousness by pointing to the fact that Paul says that accounting faith as righteousness is free, so cannot be reward for works. It is interesting that Calvin, like the Lutherans, holds that God reckons faith as righteousness, and that he safeguards the teaching in the same way:
Could [Paul] have spoken more clearly than in contending thus: that there is no righteousness of faith except where there are no works for which a reward is due? And then that faith is reckoned as righteousness only where righteousness is bestowed through a grace not owed? (Institutes, 3.11.20)
While our disagreement over the doctrine of effectual calling is a direct conflict between Calvinism and Lutheranism, our objection to the definition of faith as evangelical obedience, and the subsequent denial of the reckoning of faith as righteousness is not. It would have been better if the Westminster Assembly, like Calvin, had retained the scriptural language at this point.
Glorifying God Today
Just as the clouds cannot dim the sun, but can only obscure the light between the sun and its object, so also we do not dim the glory of God. We do, however, obscure his glory, making it harder for people to see because of our teaching that clouds it. Our confessions were good at dissipating clouds in their day, and can be again in ours. God will continue to glorify himself by justifying the wicked with or without our help, and on the Last Day, that glory will be plain to all. Until then, however, we owe it to God and those we teach, to glorify him by clearly teaching free grace, despite all opposition. God was willing to consign all mankind to disobedience, and then to become Incarnate; he suffered an ignominious death to show us his glory. Who are we to come along with our theological jiggery-pokery, to invent new kinds of merit that involve man in his salvation? Let us remember what the glory of free grace cost, and let us hold it dear. We are not the subject in the drama of salvation.