Luther’s Gospel Has a Problem (Lesson 4, Q4 2017)

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Luther’s Gospel Has a Problem (Lesson 4, Q4 2017)

This week’s Sabbath School lesson explores the third chapter of Romans, where the idea of “salvation by grace through faith” is first introduced:

But now the righteousness of God without the law is manifested, being witnessed by the law and the prophets; Even the righteousness of God which is by faith of Jesus Christ unto all and upon all them that believe: for there is no difference: For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God; Being justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus. (Romans 3:21-24)

In the previous lesson commentary, we took the Sabbath School discussion to the next level by asking difficult questions and exploring a number of difficult topics. This week we will continue that tradition.

When we consider the death of Christ as a sacrifice for sin, there are multiple ways we can understand the plan of salvation. We can, for example, assume that the way God saves us is by expecting us to do the best we can on our own, and then applying the blood of Christ to make up for the difference. Alternatively, we might say that Christ’s death covers our past sins, but, having repented, we are now expected to live a righteous life through the power of His Spirit—salvation thus being a product of God’s forgiveness of my past and Christ’s righteousness in my present life. Essentially, God makes us righteous first, and declares us righteous second.

Luther and Melanchthon chose to go with a somewhat different approach. They argued that justification is forensic in nature. What this means is that God doesn’t make us righteous when He justifies us, but simply declares us righteous. We are still the same sinners as before, but God assigns our sin to Christ and Christ’s righteousness to us. He views us as perfect and sinless children of God, in spite of our sins. How Biblical is this approach? How compatible is it with the Bible’s call for us to be holy, as God is holy? Is it just and honest of God to look at sinners and pretend that they are righteous?

Before critiquing Luther’s view of the gospel, let’s consider first why this view was so revolutionary.

Imagine that you decide to become a Christian, and thus you come to God, repent of your sins, ask for forgiveness, and promise to live a better life. How can you know if God does, in fact, accept your repentance as genuine? If you believe that justification means that God makes you righteous, then all you have to do is wait and see. If, as time passes, you are in fact a different person, if you are victorious over your sins and better all around—then, justification happened.

But what if you fall into sin again? The logical conclusion is that God did not accept your repentance, and did not grant you a new heart. If this process continues to repeat, repentance-failure-repentance-failure, it’s easy to see how such a cycle can lead to discouragement, and even hatred of God.

Instead, Luther proposed that justification takes place independent of us. When we repent, God declares us righteous, even though we are still the same person. He does this through Christ’s merits alone. We can take ownership of this new standing before God through faith alone; we simply believe that God is telling the truth, and that we are forgiven and accepted by Him.

This, of course, does not mean that there is no change in the life. However, the new birth doesn’t happen because God miraculously transforms us from the inside out at the moment of justification. Rather, the love generated in our hearts through the realization that God has already accepted us, wretched sinners that we are, is what produces the transformation in us over time. Essentially, true victory over sin happens in a context of acceptance. When we are no longer anxious about our standing with God, when we are able to bask in the knowledge that we are true children of God—it is then that sin loses its hold on us.

This experience of walking with God, like a toddler hand-in-hand with loving parents, especially after years of wrestling with sin and guilt, is a powerful experience that few who experience are willing to let go of. Consequently, the theology that makes the experience possible is highly prized as well. Within Protestantism, a correct theology of justification becomes a test of orthodoxy. Nonetheless, Luther’s idea wasn’t without problems.

The most evident problem for most people was the potential for this theology to degenerate into cheap grace: I have faith that God considers me righteous in spite of my sin; therefore, I can continue in sin. Luther never advocated such an attitude, but it seemed an inevitable outcome of the theology itself.

Another issue that Luther himself wrestled with was the question of how people who are “dead in trespasses and sins” due to original sin could, of themselves, make the choice to exercise faith. To address these questions, Luther, and later Calvin, attempted to make sense of justification and sanctification from within Augustine’s framework of predestination.

Now, as was mentioned in last week’s lesson commentary, Adventists spend a great deal of time attempting to clarify the correct relation between law and grace. In my experience, however, this is nowhere near as necessary as most Adventists make it out to be. When you take the time to listen to the sermons of ministers from other denominations, and read the books authored by their theologians, they almost always speak very highly of God’s law.

When an atheist sues a small-town courthouse, attempting to have the Ten Commandments removed from public grounds, it’s not the Adventists but the evangelicals who make a big deal about it. The only time you generally hear other Christians saying anything negative about the law is when they are debating Adventists on the Sabbath. Thus, we probably shouldn’t be so preoccupied with defending the proper place of the law in the gospel.

However, there are areas of real debate that deserve our attention. These areas are epistemology, ontology and soteriology. Epistemology is the study of how we derive knowledge. When it comes to Christian knowledge, this has to do with the source (or sources) we use as the basis for our theology. Is it Scripture, tradition, church councils, philosophy, nature, science, culture, or some combination of these? Ontology studies the nature of reality, including God, man, and the universe. This is important because our beliefs here become the lens through which we interpret the rest of Scripture. Finally, soteriology looks into the plan of salvation itself.

We could put together a simple outline of the different views of soteriology that can be found among different religions and denominations:

  • No Need for Salvation – We are not guilty sinners before a holy God, but simply need to grow and mature (ex. Buddhism)
  • Salvation by Works – We need to make up for our sins, or need to appease the anger of the gods through works (ex. Paganism)
  • Salvation by Grace and Works – God does His part, and we do our part (ex. Catholicism)
  • Salvation by Grace through Faith – Our only part in our salvation is faith (ex. Protestantism). This view has three expressions:
    • Calvinism – God predestined some to have faith
    • Arminianism – We can freely choose to exercise faith in Christ, and later to turn from Him if we so choose, but salvation is entirely by God’s grace. Adventism fits here.
    • Once-Saved-Always-Saved Arminianism – a hybrid between the two where we have free will to choose Christ, but then can no longer turn back
  • Salvation by Grace – Because God is a loving God, He will eventually save everyone (ex. Universalism)

We are, of course, focusing here only on the Protestant tradition, but it helps to see the other views as well for context. All three of the Protestant systems resolved some problems, but, in doing so, they created others. Through the concept of Predestination, Calvinism explained how someone dead in trespasses and sins could exercise saving faith.

God, from eternity, decreed that some people will be saved, and these people became recipients of irresistible grace. God decreed that these people would exercise saving faith by which they would be justified, and He decreed their sanctification and perseverance as well. This resolved both the issue of faith in the context of original sin, as well as the issue of cheap grace.

However, in their place, Calvinism introduced serious theodical concerns and robbed Luther’s gospel of its effectiveness. As Arminius later pointed out, if God predestined humanity, not only does this make God a sinner, but it makes Him the only sinner. Moreover, the power of Luther’s gospel was that the sinner could have confidence in his/her acceptance by simply exercising faith. But if all is based on predestination, how can I exercise faith when I might not be one of the people God has chosen to save?

Arminianism rejected the idea of predestination, and argued that human beings have free will. In doing so, they relieved God of the blame for human sin. They even resolved the issue of faith in the context of original sin through the concept of prevenient grace–God sends a grace before saving grace which makes people capable of choosing Christ. However, because Arminians believed salvation could be lost, this created a situation where a person could be on a constant rollercoaster ride of faith and doubt.

To avoid this, some Arminians argued that once you are saved, you cannot lose your salvation. This view took advantage of the Arminian theodicy without its proneness to doubt. However, it also created a context of cheap grace.

I would propose that the Adventist sanctuary doctrine is the only way to fully resolve this conflict. We will come back to that in a future lesson.

Besides these soteriological concerns, there was yet another reason why Luther and Calvin were predisposed to take the predestination route: ontology. Both Luther and Calvin had adopted, from Augustine, the view that God and reality were timeless. This concept of “timelessness” is a bit different than what we think of when we use the word.

Essentially, the idea is that while we experience time in sequence, God experiences everything simultaneously; there is no past, present, or future—just an eternal now. Thus, history is like a story book. We pick up a book and read it in sequence, but the entire story is already present in the book from the start. With such a view of reality, it is understandable that predestination would seem a more likely candidate than free-will to the reformers.

But why exactly would the reformers have this view of God to begin with? While the Protestant Reformation popularized the phrase Sola Scriptura, in practice there was concern that different people, studying the Bible by itself, would arrive at all sorts of novel interpretations. To minimize this, the reformers insisted that Scripture must be interpreted within the parameters set by Christian tradition.

They had already rejected tradition and philosophy as used by the Catholic Church. However, they argued that this was the product of the Dark Ages, and that what was needed instead was a return to the tradition of the early church fathers. What they did not realize was the degree to which early church fathers like Augustine, Origen, and others had been influenced by Greek philosophy in their interpretation of Scripture.

Thus, by accepting early church tradition, Protestant reformers were, in fact, accepting the same epistemology that Catholics were using: one where external sources, philosophy, science, and culture become a lens through which Scripture is interpreted.

All these theological trends have persisted to modern times—both within the various Christian denominations, as well as within the Adventist church. Depending on the sources of one’s theology (Scripture alone vs. multiple sources), a person derives an ontology which impacts their view of soteriology. Within the theological pluralism that ensues, people continue to debate various doctrines, or the interpretation of different Bible passages, while very rarely examining the actual source of the problem.

In the Adventist church today, many are attempting to redefine Adventism by following Catholic, Protestant, or Liberal theological methods that are very different from the Scripture-only theological method that produced Adventism to begin with. Differences in theology produce different views of mission, which in turn lead to differing views of ecclesiology, explaining many of the conflicts the church is currently experiencing.

Coming back to our study of Romans, it should be evident that there are many factors which impact how someone interprets the book and understands the gospel. In our conversations with other Christians and with each other, we should be aware that there are foundational building blocks in theology that affect how someone understands everything else.

Because of this, they can read the same Scripture with completely different glasses, and thus arrive at a completely different interpretation. Being aware of these factors goes a long way towards bridging the gap between differing points of view and allowing for productive conversation.

Click here to read all weekly lesson commentaries for Q4 2017

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About the author

Mike Manea is a former high school science teacher with a love for theology and technology. Born in Romania, he now lives in southern California, where he cofounded Zahid Manea LLC, a marketing and management consulting firm. Mike is married and has a young son. He blogs on science, religion, and philosophy at Unapologetics and Conversations.