A secret, but heart-warming, doctrine

It’s a small world: PDuggie left a comment on my earlier post pointing out that he wrote a post yesterday on exactly the same essay by Siegbert Becker (PDF) on universal justification. He writes:

My heart is occasionally strangely warmed by the secret Lutheran doctrine (a secret to many Reformed, who express shock when you tell them about it) of universal objective justification.

Love that description of universal justification as a “secret Lutheran doctrine”. It had been something of a secret from me until earlier this week. Frankly I get the impression we find it almost as embarrassing as the Reformed find it shocking: the madwoman in our doctrinal attic. But really it is something by which we should find our hearts “strangely warmed”.

PDuggie also steals my thunder by drawing attention to the link with N.T. Wright’s approach to stating the gospel. Shhh! You’re ruining my punchline!

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18 Responses to A secret, but heart-warming, doctrine

  1. Lito Cruz says:

    The objective aspect of justification is deeply heart warming. But it is not intuitive, it is not obvious. However, the Reform’s emphasis on the subjective is more intuitive and more natural, yet has so many uncertainties.

    They do look at the objective but due to the variations of their confessional writings, there is a tendency to turn saved by grace through faith into saved by faith through grace.

    For example, I have never found them answering how they know they are elect except to look at what is happening in them, intra nos.

    Lito

  2. Phil Walker says:

    May I refer the honourable gentleman to my previous answer? I may well be a lone voice; I know from conversations I’ve had with him that my minister [he’s a Calvinistic Baptist, but not a Reformed Baptist] doesn’t really “get” this. But there are those of us whose hope truly is built on nothing less than Jesus’ blood and righteousness, who can say that midst flaming worlds, in these arrayed, with joy shall lift up our heads.

    How do I know I’m elect? Well, there are three that testify: the Spirit, the water and the blood. Sure, the testimony of the Spirit is, in a sense, internal; but that testimony comes through external means. As I hear the Word and receive the Supper, the Spirit testifies to my heart that I am Christ’s. The other two are most certainly external: the cross and baptism.

    I think you’ll find that that is (give or take) both the Continental and Westminsterian position; neither deals with the sources of assurance systematically, but rather as they arise. I refer you to HC 66, 67 if you want exemplars.

  3. John H says:

    Phil: I thought you would have something to say to Lito on that one. 😉

    To be fair, Lito, I have read plenty of Reformed writers (e.g. Packer) saying that the way to know you’re elect is to look to Christ and trust in him, not to look within.

    In practice the Continental Reformed tradition has done a better job on retaining this “focus on Christ” approach. The Puritan tradition as represented by Westminster did tend to throw people back onto the inward marks of sanctification rather than just outwards to Christ, particularly in the later Puritan era (see JI Packer’s essay on the decline of justification by faith in later Puritanism in his “Among God’s Giants” collection).

    And a pastor at our previous church (who was a big fan of John MacArthur) did tell us that the way to know if you’re a Christian is to read through 1 John and seeing if you meet the criteria laid out in that letter (loving the brothers etc). 😦

  4. Phil Walker says:

    Yeah, as you put it in another context, with Westminster you have to deduce it. Can I completely disown John MacArthur? The latest things I heard coming from him have been thoroughly disagreeable.

    We were talking about something similar on Sunday after church; I’ve a Reformed friend from the Netherlands who said that they have their own wingnuts, whose unhealthy focus on election makes it a doctrine with which to beat people over the head. As you’ll know, Dutch Reformed churches preach in the evening service using the Heidelberg Catechism as a structure; so bizarrely, they try to achieve this from there. I suggested that it was rather hard to do so, and she said that they never get beyond “how great my sins and misery are”. 😦

  5. John H says:

    As you say: 😦

    Remind me which church you go to again? Is this in York?

  6. Phil Walker says:

    I’m at York Baptist, but my friend (obviously) is talking about the extreme conservative end of the NGK.

  7. John H says:

    Phil: thanks. I knew you weren’t talking about your church, but it just reminded me to be curious about your own church. One of my fellow students at the College of Law went to York Baptist (this is going back a bit, mind), largely to buck the otherwise overwhelming trend to go to “St Mike’s”…

  8. Phil Walker says:

    Didn’t realise you studied Law in York. We’ll be getting a Law Department at the university, although I suppose academic law is a bit different?

    There’ll probably still be folk at YBC who were around when your friend went—no matter how ancient you are. 😉 Good for him for going somewhere else! St Mike’s remains a large attraction for students; frankly, I’m quite negative about the effects of such a large church in terms of the way students see church.

  9. John H says:

    With the benefit of hindsight, I agree. It encourages an impersonal, “filling-station” model of church, rather than a relational one. It also tends to reinforce the student tendency we were discussing over on iMonk recently of having the centre of one’s spiritual life in the CU rather than the church.

  10. Lito Cruz says:

    Phil,

    I was not necessarily referring to your position. I was making a comment in general, those who interacted with me and not to yourself, pardon me but I was not thinking of you when I made the comment.

    My point is if Jesus did not die for all the world as the Calvinist TULIP says in L, then how does one know that He died for him? I was Calvinist before and I am aware of the Continental Heidelbergian Catechism, this is more open and not as detailed as WCF.

    To your point I ask – how could one look at the Cross if the Cross may not be for him. Do you not believe this is a fair question to ask in the light of the L in TULIP? Can you look at the Cross as for you and at the same time affirm L without contradicting yourself or doubting if you were one of those he died for?

    My answer is that yes, you can look at the Cross but you have to be inconsistent with L. I find it hard not to be.

    With the BoC, at least I am not conscious that I am being inconsistent internally, unlike when I was in Calvinism trying to square my conscience with WCF.

    Lito

  11. Phil Walker says:

    Lito, it’s ok, I know you weren’t referring to me specifically; I just wanted to stick up for the Reformed tradition. Our doctrine at this point is, um, pretty distinctive, and some expressions of it are well-deserving of criticism (just as with the sloppier presentations of penal substitution). But our best expressions at this point don’t emphasise the subjective at the expense of the objective.

    You asked how I can look at the Cross and know that God is for me. The answer is that the Cross tells me that God is for sinners, of whom I am chief. And if I struggle to see that, as sometimes we—all of us—do, he has not given us only one source of assurance. The promises of God in baptism and the witness of the Spirit tell me that God is for this sinner.

    You see, I can’t understand how God forgives people—removing their transgressions from them as far as the east is from the west—but will one day condemn them for those sins. Nor can I understand how, if the non-believer remains in Adam, there is forgiveness for him, since it is “in [Christ] we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses”. How, then, can he who is in Adam and not in Christ be forgiven?

    And this, to emphasise, isn’t so much logical as existential, because I would be led to believe that God’s promises will fail for some people. I think that once again, we’re on one of those questions where you have found it difficult to be consistently Reformed, and I would clearly find it difficult to be consistently Lutheran.

  12. John H says:

    Phil: the “existential problem” you describe is nothing more than what the NT is asserting when it warns people against apostasy. The consequence of apostasy is that you find yourself back under the law, rather than under the grace of the gospel.

    Lutheranism discourages people from asking “what if?” questions, in favour of declaring promises that are made in unequivocal, unqualified terms: “As a called and ordained servant of Christ, and by his authority, I forgive you your sins in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit”.

    The problem with Calvinism is that it cannot make such unequivocal statements in that way. It can only say that “if you believe then you can be assured that…”

    Like I said before, the “existential problem” of possible apostasy is no more pressing for Lutherans than it is for a happily-married couple for whom divorce is a theoretical possibility but one which does not in the slightest undermine the existence or quality of their marriage, in contrast to a situation where an annulment could retrospectively declare their present status to have been an illusion.

    At the very least, I don’t see how Calvinism solves the problem. The Lutheran must say “In principle I could lose my faith and forfeit my salvation”. The Calvinist must say “In principle I could turn out never to have had true faith and thus never to have had a salvation to forfeit”. The fact that you consider yourself currently to have true faith doesn’t avoid that, because there are plenty of people who thought themselves to have just as genuine a faith who then turned out not to have truly believed at all, it seems.

    Pastorally the correct answer is the same either way, and I’m sure we can agree on it: the only answer to anxieties about whether you will still believe in Jesus at the time of your death (or of his return) is to believe in him right now, to look outwards rather than in introspection (even forward-looking introspection).

  13. Phil Walker says:

    the only answer to anxieties about whether you will still believe in Jesus at the [last] is to believe in him right now, to look outwards rather than in introspection

    Amen and amen.

  14. John D says:

    I have been reading these comments with some interest, as the issue of apostasy has been troubling me.

    At the very least, I don’t see how Calvinism solves the problem. The Lutheran must say “In principle I could lose my faith and forfeit my salvation”. The Calvinist must say “In principle I could turn out never to have had true faith and thus never to have had a salvation to forfeit”. The fact that you consider yourself currently to have true faith doesn’t avoid that, because there are plenty of people who thought themselves to have just as genuine a faith who then turned out not to have truly believed at all, it seems.

    A person can think he has saving faith when he doesn’t. Assurance belongs to all sorts of people, though it is only proper for a Christian to possess it. But assurance in this mode isn’t – and cannot be – introspective because it describes the soul, not what the soul believes. So I don’t think the Calvinist must say, “I might not have true faith”. (If he did say that, then does he really believe what he says he believes?) The Calvinist could say that a person who is subjectively certain of his faith might have a false faith; but he cannot say such of himself. He must believe that his own faith is true: if someone believes something, then he believes that his belief is true! Faith, as FDN pointed out, is irreducibly subjective. I would say that Calvinism does solve the problem, while a person who says that faith can be lost is without any deictic privileges.

    Like I said before, the “existential problem” of possible apostasy is no more pressing for Lutherans than it is for a happily-married couple for whom divorce is a theoretical possibility but one which does not in the slightest undermine the existence or quality of their marriage, in contrast to a situation where an annulment could retrospectively declare their present status to have been an illusion.

    But, if Hebrews 6:4-6 means that the apostate cannot be saved, then there is a huge difference between apostasy and divorce. A divorce can be temporary, but apostasy is forever. At least, those that have fallen away cannot be restored again to repentance. When I also consider that a lot of people are not happily-baptized – or even if I consider separately the tenuous faith that people have – I am frightened. That is one of my many existential problems.

  15. John H says:

    John D: thanks for your comment.

    One question for you (and indeed Phil): if Calvinism has better answers to the question of assurance, then why is it within Calvinism that doubts about assurance have taken on such a particular intensity?

    It seems to me that what has empirically occurred among many Calvinists in terms of agonising doubts about one’s election is exactly what one would expect to happen given Calvinist theology, even though I accept it is not a necessary or inevitable consequence of that theology, properly understood.

  16. Lito Cruz says:

    But this is where objective universal justification answers the whole thing which subjective limited justification does not.

    I am not saved by my faith, I am saved by Jesus Christ’s work, I should think that is where assurance is found. It is done, as the Bible declares.Jesus saved me even before I could have faith and even before I could repent. Rom 5:8-9.

    Now regarding endurance, Lutherans have taught that the very Gospel that made you a Christian, is the very Gospel that keeps you a Christian. The Gospel which was used by Jesus to give us faith, then the Gospel is what Jesus uses (he is the author and perfecter of faith) to keep us in his love ie in the faith.

    I agree with John H on this of course, look to Christ now, don’t wonder if you might be looking to Christ in the future, first things first. Look to him today through the means of the HS – Word and Sacrament.

    I would say that Calvinism does solve the problem, while a person who says that faith can be lost is without any deictic privileges.

    If this prevents you from making a shipwreck of your faith, the warning is a source of comfort for the very possibility is the very thing that makes you run back to the Gospel, that can only be a good thing. I do not think the future assurance of a Lutheran is destroyed because of this, for after all people can have false assurance at any rate, even atheists have that.

    I think assurance and security are two different concepts and I think John D (correct me if this is your issue) might be critquing the Lutheran’s sense of security – ie that he does not have that security.

    Lito

  17. John D says:

    I should first clarify and say that I am frightened if it is true that people can lose their saving faith. Of course, my subjective dread does not determine the truth of the matter.

    John, you are right: something must account for the frequent anxiety of the Calvinist. I would guess that this problem is a consequence of people twisting absolute predestination and divine sovereignty to their own distress. Something like, “God has decided from eternity that some people are elect and others are reprobate, and this decree will not change; this means that I am right now either elect and reprobate, and there is nothing I can about it; what if, etc., etc.” – homo incurvatus in se once again.

    If I understand, Lito, your division of assurance and security is the same as my division of objective assurance and subjective assurance.

  18. John H says:

    I am frightened if it is true that people can lose their saving faith.

    I think the NT would say that we should indeed find that prospect frightening, but if we trust in Christ we should have no fear that it will happen to us.

    Asking “what if?” is always dangerous, whether it’s “What if I fall away?” or “What if I turn out not to have a true faith?”. And I think Aslan summed up how to deal with what happens to others around us: “I tell no-one any story but their own”.

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