So what do Lutherans think of the "doctrines of grace"? Are they "grace alone" people? Are they predestinarian? Do they believe in teaching the whole counsel of God? Many might be surprised to discover that "grace alone" is not solely a distinctive of Reformed churches. It has been a subject of great importance in the Lutheran Church, and even of controversy. But for historical reasons, the doctrine has at times been less prominent among us, even while believed. Our history could be instructive to readers of various churches, in showing both ways this doctrine has been illuminated by the discovery of "faith alone" and defended with that doctrine kept in view.
Let us begin with how the doctrine has been illuminated by the doctrine of "faith alone." Martin Luther knew about grace even as a monk. He was from the Augustinian order and studied Augustine and other writers within that tradition. In this part of the Roman Church, the fact that grace was a gift was often clear. Augustine had written beautifully on the subject in his treatise The Spirit and the Letter. (1) Many teachings we imagine to be Reformation distinctives could already be found in Augustine. Yet much of the true comfort of the doctrine was still obscured.
Augustine clearly believed that we must be justified before doing good works; that by nature we possess no power to do good works; that good works are done out of a spirit of sonship and not fear; that faith means we cannot boast of good works—for what do we have that we were not given?—and that those who do good works were predestined to do so. These are all important insights that are too often forgotten. Yet Augustine left unclear what would happen to the one who found himself sinful after conversion. Different readers of Augustine could come to different conclusions. Was the person righteous through faith despite ongoing struggle? Or was this evidence that grace was never received? The concept of "grace alone" by itself, while perhaps setting a good tone, could not answer this question.
The possibility of the sinful Christian was not seriously entertained, perhaps because it had just become clear to Augustine and his generation that post-baptismal sins were forgivable, leading them to stop delaying baptism until death. (Sometime earlier, the church father Tertullian declared the popular work The Shepherd of Hermas to be scandalous for allowing one lapse after baptism. He referred to the book as The Shepherd of the Adulterers.) Once the question was asked, it needed an answer.
By Luther's time, there had been a synthesis of the teachings of Aristotle and of Augustine. St. Thomas Aquinas had tried to fuse Augustine's teachings on grace with Aristotle's teachings on growth in virtue, yielding a robust system of ethics that described a Christian's growth in virtues that God generously worked in him. Unconditional election and efficacious grace were defended vigorously. (2) But faith itself was seen as one of the chief virtues and one we could not acquire for ourselves, but a virtue found in us. This was not seen as going against grace, as God sovereignly granted faith where he wished; but this talk of faith as a virtue put the focus on the human subject.
What we often find when reading works of this period is that much of what we think of as Reformation insight is already present, but all the terms are still about the Christian's inner life. The Christian is conceived of as a better kind of person than others. St. Paul's argument that salvation was not of works so that no man could boast would be taken as an occasion to talk of how nasty boasting was. Humble people are so much nicer. So the Christian is supposed to be full of faith in what God is doing in him. If his renewal is being worked by God, then he won't boast. This is biblical as far as it goes, but Scripture presses further here. Some of this became clear to me when I was reading an old Puritan writer who pointed out that it really isn't enough to say that God made us good. In Luke 18:11, the Pharisee thanked God that he was not like other men; he tried to give God credit for his moral superiority. Yet this involved boasting. The Pharisee thought that the difference between the two men was something inside himself, worked by God. God, however, knew that the men were both sinners, and freely justified the publican who confessed his sin. When we see salvation as an internal work of renewal, boasting always becomes a possibility. The problem boasting shows is not just a nasty character flaw. It shows that we are focused on ourselves as the location of salvation. The glory comes to us rather than to God. God knew we were like this and decided to work salvation another way so that this would not be possible. It isn't just that we should not boast. It is, as Ephesians 2:9 says, that we cannot.
This change in focus took a long time to develop. Early in my Reformation reading, I headed to a nearby university library to read Luther's Lectures on Romans. I expected this would be especially good. Luther was the great Reformer, and Romans was the book of the Reformation, so Luther's teaching on this had to be spectacular. But what I found was disappointing. I might have been less surprised if the dates 1515-1516 had been stamped prominently on the cover. This work was done as Luther was still unpacking his Reformation insights. Luther was a great scholar and familiar with centuries' worth of prior commentary, but deeper insight takes time. In this early work, Luther likened justification to a doctor pronouncing a patient well because he expects the patient will be better if he follows his prescription. (3) Luther also mentioned the imputation of Christ's righteousness, but left the impression that the declaration is based on the patient's future state. Which really decides the matter? Until this is settled, faith might be necessary for good works, but it might be the good works that ultimately save us. This is the kind of point Luther did not leave hanging later. As with Augustine, Luther's problem at this point was not error but ambiguity.
The clear answer to the question came in 1519 when Luther knew he was in unavoidable collision with Roman teaching. Having written critical works, Luther wished to offer a more constructive statement of his new theology. In his treatise Two Kinds of Righteousness, Luther introduced his readers to the term "alien righteousness." That is, we are saved by the righteousness of another, namely, Christ. No longer did this appear to be a mere temporary covering until the real work of renewal was complete. Now it took center stage.
This was part of an overall revolution in focus. The older "grace alone" teaching made God the active party in salvation. But the location of his work seemed to be internal to man. Righteousness was imparted by God; God-given faith renewed our hearts that now wished to do good works. None of this came from us by nature. But so much of it happened within us that if we wanted to find salvation, we would end up looking within ourselves. Luther saw that this focus was wrong: grace was an attribute of God; God was graciously disposed to us; we received his unmerited favor; righteousness was found in Christ; and faith grasped the righteousness of Christ as a free gift. Now that we didn't have to worry about what was going on in our hearts, we might forget about ourselves and serve our neighbors.
While "faith alone" proved to be the doctrine in great need of explication in the early Reformation period, in generations following a number of controversies arose surrounding both "grace alone" and "faith alone," which were addressed in 1580 in the Formula of Concord. The Majoristic Controversy (1551-52) came about when George Major taught without qualification that "good works are necessary to salvation." It took some time for people to understand what was at stake. Some insisted that if we didn't say good works were necessary, people might think we had the option of ignoring them altogether. So the solution involved saying that good works were not what saved us or kept us saved, but we were still commanded to do them. We were not at liberty to do or not do them at our own pleasure. Yet continued weakness should not cause us to doubt our salvation, which was founded on something much more certain: the work of Christ. This was a "faith alone" issue, since Major taught we were saved by both faith and works.
The Synergistic Controversy (1555-60) came about when several of Philipp Melanchthon's students taught that man with his natural powers cooperates in conversion. The Formula of Concord responded by upholding the Augustinian teaching that in conversion God makes the unwilling willing. They insisted that after conversion men were not to be idle but rather should cooperate with God. But the natural man had no power to aid in his conversion and, given the choice, would be opposed to it. Conversion involved God changing the will. It involved the will being acted upon by the Word and the Holy Spirit. We are dead in sin until God makes us alive. To speak of the natural will as a factor in conversion is like speaking of a dead man as a factor in his own rescue. This was a "grace alone" issue, since this teaching taught that human initiative could save, making grace into something one person might merit more than another.
The writers of the formula were clear that it was Christ's obedience in his life and death alone, received through faith alone, that saved us. They also recommended use of what they called "distinguishing particles." These were St. Paul's statements that excluded things from salvation: "of grace, without merit, without Law, without works, not of works," which they found in Ephesians 2:8, Romans 1:17, Romans 3:24, Romans 4:3ff., Galatians 3:11, and Hebrews 11. This was a "faith alone" issue, since the indwelling Christ was used to displace faith as the means through which Christ's righteousness was received. But as with the other "faith alone" issues, "grace alone" was buttressed by clear teaching on "faith alone," since this made it clear that when we speak of grace, we are speaking of something found in the heart of God rather than in the human subject.
As with other Augustinians, Lutherans have seen predestination as a bulwark against teachings that make man the center of theology. What better way to prove that salvation is a gift than to show that the matter was settled before the foundations of the earth? When time opens up like a chasm beneath us, and we see the vastness of divine power, we are dwarfed. But when we are fearful because we see anew our own weakness and vacillation, it is a comfort to know this was settled long ago.
Yet Lutherans have not allowed election to be spoken of only in "grace alone" terms. "Faith alone" has to have some place in our thinking when we get to speaking of the outworking of election so that this doesn't become a question of natural philosophy. God had given us means of grace. This was how we were to discover our salvation in Christ, not through philosophical speculations. Yet the Gnesio-Lutherans, those who followed Luther rather than Melanchthon, saw that there was a danger in shrinking back from teaching the whole counsel of God. As they said with regard to teaching election, we "should not neglect or reject the doctrine of the divine Word on account of abuse or misunderstanding; the true meaning should and must be explained from the foundations of the Scriptures." (4) The parties tried to hammer out an agreement they could live with, such as avoiding all talk of election, or teaching it philosophically in such a way that people become reckless.
These teachings can be found in Article XI of the Formula of Concord, which is a lengthy article that is not easily summarized. Suffice it to say that the article teaches unconditional election, while holding that the gospel is to be preached to all. Election is a cause of salvation, and all the elect will come to faith and be in faith in the end. Fatalism is condemned, as is imagining election as a giant military muster where God arbitrarily decides, "This one shall be saved; that one shall be damned." The view taught is often referred to as "single predestination" since the lost have only themselves to blame for their ruin. The means of grace has sufficient power to convert.
Dogmaticians of later Lutheranism often strayed from the teaching of the formula. This was a result of rationalism, which caused people to speculate about the nature of God apart from the revealed text of Scripture. One view often found was that God elected in view of foreseen faith (in Latin intuitu fidei). This was contrary to unconditional election, and made faith the cause of election rather than election the cause of faith, as it is in the formula.
In the nineteenth century, controversies on this topic erupted between the Lutheran Church— Missouri Synod and other Lutheran bodies, especially the Ohio Synod. The Ohio Synod tended toward the newer synergistic views, which by this time had a number of years behind them. The Missouri Synod held to the teaching of the Formula of Concord. The Ohio Synod accused the Missouri Synod of teaching Calvinism. The Missouri Synod accused the Ohio Synod of teaching synergism. Pastors stopped communing members of the other church bodies. Angry articles and books were printed, such as The Error of Missouri. Writing for the Missouri Synod, the dogmatician, Francis Pieper, wrote a short book titled Conversion and Election: An Appeal for a United Lutheranism. He upheld unconditional election, but also condensed the teaching on the formula to the effect that "there is a possibility of conversion whenever the Gospel is preached." That is, the means of grace had a power of converting irrespective of election. This was an attempt to clear the Missouri Synod of the charge of teaching fatalism.
"Grace alone" has had a long history in the Lutheran Church and even a long history in the church before the Reformation. The Lutherans were heirs to the Augustinian defense of the doctrine, yet certain unresolved questions required the development of the doctrine of "faith alone." Until that was clarified and while the gift nature of grace was often understood, the external nature of grace was not. Grace came from outside of us. The righteousness of Christ that saves us is an alien righteousness. Those of other traditions should not defend "grace alone" alone. That is, they should remember that they have allies among Lutherans, who have developed a long literature of defenses of the doctrine, and they should also remember that apart from "faith alone," "grace alone" will not be sufficient to keep the gospel clear. It is only when we understand "faith alone" that grace is truly grace.
Rick Ritchie resides in Southern California and is a long-time contributor to Modern Reformation. He is a graduate of Christ College Irvine and Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary.
Issue: "Choosing Grace" Jan./Feb. 2012 Vol. 21 No. 1 Page number(s): 20-24
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