Thursday, June 28, 2007

Roundtable 21: Good Works

Lutherans forbid good works. That was what folks were saying then, and some have gone on saying it, including those who should know better.

No, Lutherans do NOT forbid good works, but they command all those works which God has enjoined on us. As Luther pointed out - if we take care of those, we won't have any time for the ones we try to make up on our own. The made up ones - "particular holy days, particular fasts, brotherhoods, pilgrimages, services in honor of the saints, the use of rosaries, monasticism, and such" (AC XX:3) - they are what occupied the opponents' preaching.

Used to be they taught just works justify. Now, says AC, they've at least learned to mention faith along with the works - a step in the right direction that brings a tad more comfort.

But nothing compares to the comfort of knowing that your works - not even those works that God Himself commands us to do - do not justify us. Can't get away from AC IV. There it is again. Our teachers proclaim throughout our churches that "our works cannot reconcile God to us or merit forgiveness of sins, grace, and justification." Rather, all these come to us only by faith, "when we believe that we are received into favor for Christ's sake." Not our works, but He alone gets to be "the Mediator and Atoning Sacrifice." (AC XX:9) To think that our works - especially our made up works - merit grace is "seeking a way to God without Christ, by human strength." It's to reject Him who proclaims "I am the way, and the truth, and the life." (AC XX:10)

The Lutherans were utterly confident on this point that they had not made up a new interpretation of Paul. How does one know this? The old standard: "Check the Fathers!" Augustine and Ambrose are mentioned. Turns out to be pseudo-Ambrose in the work cited, but there was more than enough ammo in Ambrose and the other fathers too. You knew I couldn't pass up the opportunity to throw out a few juicy lines. How about these?


And before this redemption is wrought in a man, when he is not yet free to do what is right, how can he talk of the freedom of his will and his good works, except he be inflated by that foolish pride of boasting which the apostle restrains when he says, "By grace are you saved, through faith." Enchiridion 30

And lest men should arrogate to themselves the merit of their own faith at least, not understanding that this too is the gift of God, this same apostle, who says in another place that he had "obtained mercy of the Lord to be faithful," here also adds: "and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God: not of works, lest any man should boast." And lest it should be thought that good works will be wanting in those who believe, he adds further: "For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God has before ordained that we should walk in them." We shall be made truly free, then, when God fashions us, that is, forms and creates us anew, not as men—for He has done that already—but as good men, which His grace is now doing, that we may be a new creation in Christ Jesus, according as it is said: "Create in me a clean heart, O God." For God had already created his heart, so far as the physical structure of the human heart is concerned; but the psalmist prays for the renewal of the life which was still lingering in his heart. Enchiridion 31


If, then, you wish to reclaim any one of the lapsed, do you exhort him to believe, or not to believe? Undoubtedly you exhort him to believe. But, according to the Lord's words, he who believes shall have everlasting life. Repentance, Book I, par 48

He then who has faith has life, and he who has life is certainly not shut out from pardon; "that every one," it is said, "that believes in Him should not perish." Since it is said, Every one, no one is shut out, no one is excepted, for He does not except him who has lapsed, if only afterwards he believes effectually. Repentance, Book I, par 48

Therefore it is said: "That every one that believes in Him should not perish." Let no one, that is, of whatever condition, after whatever fall, fear that he will perish. Repentance, Book I, par. 51

Let us consider another similar passage: "He that believes in the Son has eternal life, but he that believes not the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God abides on him." John 3:36 That which abides has certainly had a commencement, and that from some offence, viz., that first he not believe. When, then, any one believes, the wrath of God departs and life comes. To believe, then, in Christ is to gain life, for "he that believes in Him is not judged." John 3:18. Repentance, Book I, par. 53

St. John Chrysostom:

The favors of God so far exceed human hope and expectation, that often they are not believed. For God has bestowed upon us such things as the mind of man never looked for, never thought of. It is for this reason that the Apostles spend much discourse in securing a belief of the gifts that are granted us of God. For as men, upon receiving some great good, ask themselves if it is not a dream, as not believing it; so it is with respect to the gifts of God. What then was it that was thought incredible? That those who were enemies, and sinners, neither justified by the law, nor by works, should immediately through faith alone be advanced to the highest favor. Homily 4 on 1 Timothy

And he well said, "a righteousness of mine own," not that which I gained by labor and toil, but that which I found from grace. If then he who was so excellent is saved by grace, much more are you. For since it was likely they would say that the righteousness which comes from toil is the greater, he shows that it is dung in comparison with the other. For otherwise I, who was so excellent in it, would not have cast it away, and run to the other. But what is that other? That which is from the faith of God, i.e. it too is given by God. This is the righteousness of God; this is altogether a gift. And the gifts of God far exceed those worthless good deeds, which are due to our own diligence. Homily on Philippians 3

Okay, okay, I'll stop. But there are SO many more to choose from. The Fathers are simply stuffed full of testimonies to justification by faith and not by works. How could they be anything else? Well the Confession goes on that the whole value of this faith - not a fictitious faith consisting of historical knowledge, but a living faith that holds tight to the promise of forgiveness (AC XX:25), is in the battle of the conscience, which despairs before God because it has nothing of its own that it can set against the just demands of God in His law. But that is, of course, about justification, not good works.

But the article returns to good works with joy and says: "But see, we don't just teach what they are, we show how to do them!" (AC XX:35) It is FAITH that is the mother of the good works of love, faith that receives the Holy Spirit who renews our hearts. Back to Luther's old favorite of "grace" and the "gift in grace." Forgiveness and the Holy Spirit. The Spirit enables those "new affections" that can bring forth the good works. (AC XX:29)

Take away faith, say the Lutherans, and human nature will not be able to really do the good works that the Ten Commandments require. Without faith, no calling upon God, no expecting squat from Him, no bearing of the cross. But let faith come in, that holds to the forgiveness of sins given in Christ Jesus, and watch out! The Holy Spirit rules the heart instead of "all kinds of lusts and human intentions" (AC XX:38)

Which is all just taking seriously our Lord's solemn words: "Apart form me you can do nothing." And joy of all joys, the clencher in this article is the LITURGY. They say: "It's what we sing after all." Veni Sancte Spiritus is cited, verse 6.

Summary then: good works are the works God has commanded; we must do them; we can only do them as those who have been justified by faith and renewed by the Spirit. So, indeed, "Come, Holy Spirit!" Amen!

Saturday, June 23, 2007

Roundtable 20: The Cause of Sin

Our churches teach that although God creates and preserves nature, the cause of sin is located in the will of the wicked, that is, the devil and ungodly people. Without God's help, this will turns itself away from God, as Christ says, "When he lies, he speaks out of his own character" (John 8:44).

We stand here again and gaze on a mystery: evil. What is known about it is that evil and the sin that follows from it are very real. It would seem more likely that people would believe that there is such a thing as evil, even if they are uncertain about God. The 20th century was the bloodiest in human history, but yet there are still fools about who deny that there is such a thing as "evil" and "sin." But whence comes sin and evil? The Augsburg Confession simply attributes sin to the will of those who are wicked. Not much of an answer really, sin comes from the sinful. Speculations into the "why" of evil and the "why" of sin are futile and pointless, ultimately. What is revealed in God's Word is that there is no hope for the wicked, apart from Christ. Years after the AC was written, well-intentioned Lutherans came along who tried to assert that sin is of the very essence of what it is to be human, but to say this is to contradict this article, and to attribute to God the source of evil, since, if sin is of the essence of what it means to be human then God is the creator of evil.

The Roman Catholic confutation concurs with this article and states: "The nineteenth article is likewise approved and accepted. For God, the supremely good, is not the author of evils, but the rational and defectible will is the cause of sin; wherefore let no one impute his midsdeeds and crimes to God, but to himself, according to Jer. 2:19: "Thine own wickedness shall correct thee and thy backslidings shall reprove thee;" and Hos. 13:9: "O Israel, thou hast destroyed thyself; but in me is thy help." And David in the spirit acknowledged that God is not one that hath pleasure in wickedness, Ps. 5:4."

What then do we say to those who are in the midst of a particularly severe struggle with evil? We are always struggling with evil, to be certain. But what of those times when is presses particularly hard on us? What of the times when the Devil is throwing in our face our sinfulness and failure to live as we should? What of the times when sin separates us from our loves ones? What of the dark moments in the night when we are all alone and at those times we see the sin that is ever before us? What of the struggles and testings that come when our bodies become sick and weak and when we finally recognize that we are in our last months, or days, or hours on earth? To whom do we turn? Where do we place our hope and confidence? The answer God gives is the comfort of the Savior and the Holy Spirit bring to mind once again His words: peace, be still. Do not let your heart be troubled. I have overcome the world. I go to prepare a place for you, that where I am, you also will be. I have called you friends. Today, you shall be with me in paradise. As the Apostle St. Paul declared: Thanks be to God who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Roundtable 19: Free Will

Article XVIII:
Our churches teach that a person’s will has some freedom to choose civil righteousness and to do things subject to reason. It has no power, without the Holy Spirit, to work the righteousness of God, that is, spiritual righteousness....

Our churches condemn the Pelagians and others who teach that without the Holy Spirit, by natural power alone, we are able to love God above all things and do God’s commandments according to the letter....

Article XVIII flows out of Articles IV and V and really presents nothing substantially new. If justification is entirely by grace through faith for Christ’s sake, then the will of man contributes nothing in the way of spiritual righteousness that avails before God. To guard against determinism, Melanchthon introduces the distinction of civil/spiritual righteousness. Civil righteousness is before men (coram hominibus) and is concerned with temporal, earthly matters. In this sense, man possesses “some liberty” to do those things subject to reason. However (the disjunction sed/aber is absent in the Concordia edition), without the Holy Spirit, there is no power in man to work spiritual righteousness, that is, the righteousness that avails before God (coram Deo).

Melanchthon quotes from Book III of Hypognosticon, wrongly attributed to Augustine in support. Did Augustine actually teach this? In his anti-Pelagian writings, Augustine certainly emphasizes divine monergism over and against the will of man, even to the point of double predestination and God acting even when men are inclined to do evil. Clearly, Melanchthon does not wish to run this far with Augustine. Perhaps this explains his citing of the pseudop-Augustinian work.

A great deal hinges on the phrase “without the Holy Spirit.” This might be construed to imply cooperation in salvation between the person and God. In the Variata of 1540, the sentence was changed to read, “but spiritual righteousness is effected in us when we are helped by the Holy Spirit.” Clearly, after 1535, Melancththon maintains that the will cooperates in salvation and works together with the Word and the Spirit. Here Melanchthon parts with Luther.

The unnamed opponent is Gabriel Biel and the school of Ockhamism, the via moderna of medieval theology which states that man is able to merit saving grace by doing the good that is in him which is then rewarded by God with grace enabling man to do more of the same. According to Biel, free will, quite apart from God’s grace in Christ, can do that which is good and so fulfill, at least in part, the divine commandments. Further, one is able by one’s own power to dispose oneself to grace, since the intellect can acknowledge the good and the will can freely subscribe to it. (see Grane, 181-189)

Surprisingly, the Confutation approves of this article without reservation, stating that it befits Catholics to pursue the middle way between Pelagianism and Manichaeism. This is followed by a long series of Scriptures which supposedly support this view. Melanchthon is uneasy with the response and the citations, and argues that there is little difference between the Pelagians and his own opponents, since both believe that natural man is able to love God, do good works, and merit justification without the Holy Spirit.

At the heart of Article XVIII is what we confess in the small catechism when we say under the 3rd article of the Creed, “I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ my Lord or come to Him.” The Holy Spirit must intervene, for by nature we are, in ourselves, spiritually dead. This has great implications for our preaching and the proclamation of Christ in the world. We do not speak of salvation in Christ in such a way that it implies a decision or choice on the part of the hearer (”Christ died for you if you believe in Him,”), but as an accomplished fact in Christ with an imperative to believe (”Christ died for you; believe it.”) There is no neutral place between sin and righteousness, hell and heaven, the devil and Christ. One is not born into freedom to decide one way or the other, nor is one fated one way or the other. Obviously the mystery of election lies close at hand, and many a theologian has been crucified on the crux theologorum. Article XVIII leaves to God what is God’s without abrogating responsibility for man’s actions.

As I indicated, this is a tricky article, juggling the dynamic paradox of divine monergism and man’s will. Attempts to reconcile the paradox will invariably lead to deterministic double predestination on the one hand or semi-Pelagian synergism on the other. Hardly a "middle way," Article XVIII pursues the paradoxical way of the proper distinction of the Law and the Gospel.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Roundtable 18: Christ's Return for Judgment

Just offer to unlock the secrets of Revelation and reveal all kinds of end-time mysteries and watch your church pack out. The Lutheran Church with joy misses out on these Hal Lindsey fests. Instead she confesses the certainties which Scripture gives:

* At the end of the world Christ will appear for judgment and will raise all the dead.

Appear is a big word. In the NT, more often than not, the Parousia is described as our blessed Lord's APPEARING rather than as His "coming." There is an unveiling that will take place on that day and ALL will SEE the realities in which we as His Church now live by faith. "Lo, I am with you always, even until the end of the age." They will see that Christ has indeed been with His people exactly as He promised - not with some piece of Him, but the whole. Not just His divinity, but as the indivisible God-Man. It's like the drawing back of a great veil: Voila! See the realities in which His people have lived, have believed, and have loved and died in hope. They were bigger and stronger than any realities that might be seen.

* He will give the godly and the elect eternal life and everlasting joys.

Basic Athanasian Creed stuff here. The godly and elect are those in whom He has worked the gift of faith. That is, whose faith was real and living - not fained and fake. The godliness that resulted was not so much the result of their doing as the result of living in union by faith with the One who had freely justified them.

* He will condemn ungodly people and the devils to be tormented without end.

"O Ruthless Love that wilt not look on mankind robed in contempt of Thee" (Franzmann). The ungodly, the unbelievers, including those who had fake faith (head knowledge of the facts of redemption, but no fruits of the Holy Spirit - those who thought forgiveness meant a license to sin instead of the breaking of sin's shackles) experience the unending torture of existence without Him who is Life. This is, what they chose on earth, to resist every prompting of the Spirit, is finally conceded. Thus they get to share with the devils the culmination of their heart's desire. "Just go away and leave us alone, Lord." Sadly, the Lord finally says: "If you insist." Lord, preserve us from presumption and give us repentance and faith!

* The anabaptists are wrong in thinking there is an end to the punishments of condemned men and devils.

Well, if they said it then, Origen had taught it earlier. It is a hope that certainly sounds so pious, but it goes against the very nature of the way God has both created and redeemed His creatures. A salvation that is forced is no salvation at all. He gives His gifts and as a very wise fellow once said: "For a gift to be a gift it must be rejectable." Such are the critters God has made: in their awesome use of freedom they can resist Him and His love to the bitter end. He lets them do this.

* Those are wrong who imagine a millennial kingdom in this world before the resurrection of the dead with the general suppression of ungodliness.

Not in and through this world is our hope founded, but upon the making new of this creation which Christ accomplishes by His glorious appearing on the Last Day. "My kingdom is not of this world" forever seals off the hope of more than bandaids for what ails here and now. We can labor in the love and healing of this world as best we can, but we do so knowing the the full healing of this world finally lies not in this age, but in that which Christ shall bring about at His appearing.

AC XVII thus leads us to cry out with the voice of our greatest Lutheran hymnist:

What joy to know when life is past,
The Lord we love is first and last,
The end and the beginning!
He will one, oh, glorious grace,
Transport us to that happy place
Beyond all tears and sinning!
Amen! Amen!
Come, Lord Jesus!
Crown of gladness!
We are yearning
For the day of Your returning.
LSB 395:6

Tuesday, June 5, 2007

Roundtable 17: Civil Government

From the exciting topic of church ceremonies, to the boring topic of government. Well, okay, I've shown my prejudice. The biggy in AC XVI is to teach that "lawful civil regulations are good works of God." In other words, there's nothing dirty about them in themselves, which is not to say that we cannot abuse them the same way we abuse every other good gift of God. Because they are "good works of God" the Christian has full right to them: "to hold political office, to serve as judges, to judge matters by Imperial laws or other existing laws, to impose just punishments, to engage in just wars, to serve as soldiers, to make legal contracts, to hold property, to take oaths required by the magistrates, for a man to marry a wife, or a women to be given in marriage." None of these things is in the least conflict with being a Christian; all of them can be engaged in with a good conscience.

Thus, the Lutherans were saying loudly and clearly at Augsburg (and since that day): "We ain't no Anabaptists!" For us, there is no flight from the civil realm - which seems to follow from thinking of the civil realm as "secular" - i.e., not God's! The Lutherans say "Balderdash! It is also God's, but under a different governance than the Church." That different governance is hinted at when we hear of the judging matters by "Imperial laws or other existing laws" and the notion of "just" punishments and wars. This all is grounded in the notion that God's way of dealing with the civil realm is through civil righteousness founded upon the law God has written on the hearts of all people. Pity that Melancthon didn't have Lewis' Abolition of Man at hand when he wrote, because I have no doubts he would have found it a concise exposition of the notion. Of course, back then both the Roman party and the Augsburg party took that foundation for granted.

The Lutherans also want to be clear that "evangelical perfection" is not found in running away from the civil realm - either to a monastery or in your new utopian community. Rather, "the Gospel teaches an eternal righteousness of the heart." This righteousness of the heart does not require and demand the overthrow of the civil state or of the civil state's foundation in the family. But it does effect a reordering of disordered priorities. Obedience to parents, to government has its place, but also its limits. The limit is when in their sinfulness those in civil state or family would command the Christian to sin. Then, a higher obedience comes into play: "they ought to obey God rather than men." But unless and until such conflict between the will of God and civil or familial obedience arises, one obeys God also through obedience to the authorities. That speed limit thing, for instance. Mea culpa. But it's true, even if it seems trite: for Christians (unlike the world) see the very hand of God ALSO in the governance of the "civil realm." Thus, for us, there is no such thing as "secular" if that is taken to mean "not God's." It all belongs to the Blessed Trinity.