Monday, August 22, 2005

Faith and Sin

(Note: In what follows I do not mean to claim that C.F.W. Walther would have agreed with my conclusions. I am merely citing his teaching as a starting point for discussion.)

Thesis X.
In the sixth place, the Word of God is not rightly divided when the preacher describes faith in a manner as if the mere inert acceptance of truths, even while a person is living in mortal sins, renders that person righteous in the sight of God and saves him; or as if faith makes a person righteous and saves him for the reason that it produces in him love and reformation of his mode of living.
-C.F.W. Walther, The Proper Distinction Between Law and Gospel
This is a solid teaching from one of the giants of American Lutheranism. In his lectures, Dr. Walther described this as an error which Rome attributes to Lutheranism and which contributes to their continued low opinion of Luther. Such can certainly be seen in some of the canons of the Council of Trent, such as Canon XIV, "If any one says that man is truly absolved from his sins and justified, because he assuredly believes himself absolved and justified; or, that no one is truly justified but he who believes himself justified; and that, by this faith alone, absolution and justification are effected; let him be anathema."

It is equally certain that such an accusation had no grounds in orthodox Lutheranism. But whatever the situation may have been in the 16th century or in Walther's day, it is good that the Council of Trent laid down such an anathema, because such teaching has clearly grown out of the Reformation slogan of sola fide and is rampant in American protestantism today. Not enough is spoken against it.

Yet another attitude is also present today which is spoken against, and I don't dispute that some people teach this, namely that persons are not only justified by "mere inert acceptance of truths" but even more that everyone is freely justified by the bare fact of the existence of certain truths, whether they be believed or not.

This is one of the charges brought against liberal protestantism. It is claimed that the Gospel has been reduced to a sentimental idea that we ought to love all people just as they are and affirm whatever behaviors they choose to express themselves. This is certainly going on and ought to be denounced.

But the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour, and he will pounce on any opening we give him. Even so our defense against the gospel of free love is exploited as a weakness.

Looking back at Walther's thesis, he speaks of a person "living in mortal sins" and in his lecture on the thesis he explains that a person who truly has faith cannot persist in willful sin. And just like that we make the transition from preachers of the Law to judges of the Law. We see a brother or sister living in a condition that we think of as mortal sin, and we conclude that such a person cannot truly have faith.

This is my chief complaint about the Calvinist doctrine of eternal security, it leads to the absurd position of claiming that backslidden Christians "never really had faith." That is, we make conclusions about another person's relationship with God that are contrary to observation because our dogma demands it (notice the idol that has entered this scene). The same thing happens in the case of judging a person "living in mortal sins." Whatever the appearances may be, such a person cannot possibly have faith in Christ, because our doctrine teaches otherwise.

We should be ashamed to hold such views.

In an earlier thesis, Walther teaches:
Thesis VIII.
In the fourth place, the Word of God is not rightly divided when the Law is preached to those who are already in terror on account of their sins or the Gospel to those who live securely in their sins.
Now this is clearly anachronistic language. I'm not sure anyone since Luther himself has truly been in terror on account of their sins. As Auden writes,
"The Just shall live by Faith," he cried in dread.
And men and women of the world were glad
Who never trembled in their useful lives.
But we recognize something in Walther's thesis which is that which we call repentance, with the Lutheran understanding that repentance is the daily turning away from our inward bent and turning toward God. So, if I may be so bold as to tinker with Dr. Walther's language, I believe that what he is saying is that the Law should not be preached to those who recognize their deep dependence upon Christ, nor the Gospel to those who do not.

Again, we are turned to an outward discernment of an inward state, which ultimately is known only to God. Naturally, we can reasonably discern such things in people we know and talk with (not "talk to"), but I think we should be quite careful in making blanket judgment against entire classes of people.

So I ask, are we prepared to offer the grace of the Gospel to those who have turned to Christ without judging them ourselves, or will we continue to beat them with the Law until they conform to our expectations?

For further reading, see this article by Martin Marty (from which I borrowed the Auden quote).


Luthsem said...

Yes it's a daily life of repentence. Remembering our baptism in Christ's death and resurrection. A daily dying and rising because our life is in Christ.
Good post

Bob Waters said...

You're wrong.

There are many people who care enough about their standing before God, and are realistic enough to know how far short they fall, to be in terror on account of their sins. In fact, even in this post-modern age, dying folks still like a pastor to be around.