by Herb Douglass

I find it useful to list some of the problem issues that have divided the church for 2000 years — all because the Greek word pistis has been sadly misunderstood. Getting the meaning of ‘faith’ wrong has explosive consequences. Think of the wide variances in interpreting most every biblical doctrine:

  • Sovereignty of God and the responsibility of man
  • Predestination and human freedom
  • Atonement — objective or subjective
  • Image of God ― what was lost and what can be restored in this life
  • Nature of sin — substantive or relational
  • Church — fellowship or institution
  • Bible — a divine-human instrument of communication from God to man or a human record of a religious people.
  • Sacraments — mystical elements or symbols of worship
  • Church officer — hierarchical authority or service leaders
  • Preaching — transmission of information or a personal encounter

From another viewpoint: think of the times we have heard someone say in a committee meeting: “We don’t have enough information, we must go ahead on faith!” Or he is a Baptist, he doesn’t belong to the Methodist faith.” Or the slogan heard through the 1960s and 1970s: “Keep the faith, baby!”

Everywhere we turn, it is important to know what faith is — if we really want certitude.

In my previous blog I concluded that NT faith involves the intellect, the will, and the commitment. But it is none of these in themselves. NT faith is simply the whole man saying Yes to God, knowing by objective evidence AND personal experience that there is nothing deceptive, unreal, or empty about what God has said or about one’s personal experience.
Faith is a real, authentic experience or it is nothing! Faith is the opposite of distrust. Eve and Adam trusted the serpent, not their Lord. They lacked genuine faith and look what happened. Distrust always leaves bitter medicine in its path, no matter how ‘honest’ a person thinks he or she is. Unless Jesus becomes one’s Lord, He surely cannot be one’s Savior. We can’t have one without the other! And we all know by experience — that this is reality!

When I read Martin Luther (and not how he is interpreted by later “Lutherans” such as Martin Chemnitz who for some interesting reason is referred to as the ‘second Luther’) I hear an echo of Paul: “Wherefore Christ apprehended by faith and dwelling in the heart is the true Christian righteousness for which God counts as righteous and gives us eternal life.” –Galatians trans. Watson, p. 135, also p. 169.

Probably the most outstanding modern Lutheran scholar, Alister McGrath, helps us to see how the thinking of Desmond Ford and Geoffrey Paxton misunderstood Luther: “Luther’s concept of justification, his concept of the presence of Christ in the believer…[was] rejected or radically modified by those who followed him.” Iustitia Dei, Volume II, p.32; see also p. 20.

The defining issue is whether we accept Paul’s concept and Luther’s understanding of justification being more than an event, but an actual experience. For early Luther, certainly John Wesley and Ellen White, justification/righteousness by faith is not a historical event entirely independent of human experience. Rather they accept biblical justification as a personal encounter with Jesus and they call that experience, faith.

One of the leading Lutheran scholars of the 19th Century, Albrecht Ritschl described Luther’s doctrine of justification exactly: “The early Luther devoted primary attention not to a doctrine of justification but to the personal religious experience and assurance of God’s reconciling love. Luther thus inquired into the actual modifications of self-consciousness occasioned by the divine word of justification.” David Lotz, Ritschl and Luther, Abingdon Press (1974), pp 35, 36.

For Luther, justification is the God-given conscious experience of receiving Christ who turns an unbeliever into a believer by dwelling in them through the Holy Spirit. This existential justification is no mere legal acquittal but a deliverance from chronic unbelief. To put it another way, justification is an existential deliverance from unbelief to that of trust and willing obedience to known truth.

Biblical forgiveness is a powerful sense of pardon and acceptance and hope conveyed to the sinner by the Holy Spirit — all of which the forensic gospel theory ignores and essentially denies.

The Catholic doctrine of forgiveness is based on the concept of ontological/sacramental renewal that somehow empowers the sinner to perform works that merit a reward. Against this, Luther taught Christ’s inner presence empowers the sinner to ‘believe’ that ‘righteousness by faith’ is having, “Christ in you the hope of glory” (Col. 1:27). The indwelling Christ empowers the new Christian to think differently about sin, his/her relation to others, and his/her primary loyalty to God.

When some did their best to attack the Catholic doctrine of infused grace in avoiding works righteousness, they somehow confused sacramentally infused grace with the ‘indwelling Christ’ through the Holy Spirit. So they opted for a misunderstanding of justification by using legal terms rather than relational terms.

Melanchthon, not Luther, laid the groundwork for the forensic gospel by creating misleading law court imagery that allowed for the concept of justification by the ‘works’ of Christ as a source of justifying merit. In his later teaching after 1530, Melanchthon emphasized that once Jesus died the work of atonement was completed.

Melanchthon’s law court scenario and his exclusive use of legal imagery prepared the way for a mighty shift from faith in Christ Himself to faith in a doctrine about Christ for forgiveness — which became a bulwark of much in Protestant orthodoxy.

D. A. Carson and others, see this difference between Melanchthon and Luther very clearly: “In some measure, Melanchthon appears to  stand under the influence of legal conceptions other than those of Scripture. In fact, his views on justification underwent a significant change in the period of 1530 to 1534. Melanchthon [narrowed[ his conception of justification to a mere declaration in this period…for Melanchthon, justification no longer signifies the presence of a new creation. Unlike Melanchthon he [Luther] understands that the reckoning of divine righteousness creates the human being anew. Imputation is not a mere declaration for Luther, but an effective divine word.” Justification and Variegated Nomism, Mohr Siebeck (2994), pp. 68-70.

To put this another way, Melanchthon with his fiat justification effectively derailed the reformation and in another way returned to Roman Catholicism in thinking forgiveness is based on Christ’s merits. So much depends on understanding the long-lasting legacy of Melanchthon and the damage people unknowingly ascribe to Luther.

In the translators preface to Gustaf Aulen’s book, Christus Victor, A. G. Herbert highly criticized Melanchthon for constructing his version of the gospel in that Christ’s obedience merits forgiveness for the sinner: “Melanchthon led the people back to Egypt. The Protestant Churches had not, after all, found the way of deliverance from Babylonian captivity. Protestant orthodoxy was as legalistic as medieval scholasticism and Christianity was as hopelessly in bondage as before.” (Translator’s Preface, xxv-xxvi)

I could go on. My main concern is the NT good news of righteousness by faith be understood for what the words really say: a person finds at-one-ment with God by responding to His grace with the mind and heart of faith. This faith experience changes the sinner into a loving, sharing, person, really dedicated to working with the Lord in overcoming all the weaknesses that had troubled him or her for too long.