Why Doctrine is our Life
In previous articles I have stressed the centrality of justification in Christian doctrine and thus the eminent relevance of doctrine to the people of God. When we understand such centrality it helps us avoid both legalism and antinomianism or gospel-reductionism. It keeps us from separating faith from Christ and Christ from His teaching. After all, Christ Jesus is the chief corner stone of all apostolic and prophetic doctrine (Eph 2:20). Doctrine teaches the faith (fides quae creditur), being the sustenance of our faith (fides qua creditur), or particular faith (fides particularis; or fides specialis cf. Ap IV, 45), which clings specifically to Christ and His atoning work for the sins of the world. But we can only have a particular faith from Christian doctrine if the center of all doctrine is the justification of the sinner for Christ’s sake through faith.
The central message of justification is the difference between pure doctrine and empty speculations. This is evident in Luther’s distinction between the so called acquired or infused faith of the sophists and true (particular) faith. He writes (Theses Concerning Faith and Law, AE 34:110; cf. Complete Sermons of Martin Luther, Vol 1, 19-33):
17. Acquired faith, or the infused faith of the sophists, says of Christ, “I believe that the Son of God suffered and arose again,” and here it stops.
18. But true faith says, “I certainly believe that the Son of God suffered and arose, but he did this all for me, for my sins, of that I am certain.”
19. “For he died for the sins of the whole world. But it is most certain that I am some part of the world, therefore, it is most certain that he died also for my sins.”
20. Acquired faith has as the end or use of Christ’s passion mere speculation. True faith has as the end and use of Christ’s passion life and salvation.
Faith in Christ does not reduce the rest of doctrine. The Word of God is not powerful on account of the gospel message which it contains. No, it is per se powerful and eternal. In fact, it is the Word that actually accomplishes the act of salvation physically (John 1:14) and brings it to you verbally (Rom 10:17). So in His office and work, by eternally uniting God to man in His own person and eternally reconciling man to God by His own obedience, Jesus thus reveals His Word as centrally evangelical. This is how St. Paul understands it. It is one motion. God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself not counting their trespasses against them and entrusting to us the Word of reconciliation. There is no separation from God’s act of salvation and Paul’s mission to proclaim it: “Therefore,” Paul says as an ambassador for Christ, “be reconciled to God!” (2 Cor 5:18ff). Jesus likewise draws no distinctions of importance between His act of salvation and the preaching of repentance and forgiveness. “It is necessary,” He says (Luke 24:46-47). It is just as Luther said, you cannot run to the cross for the forgiveness of sins, “[but] I will find in the sacrament or gospel the word which distributes, presents, offers, and gives to me that forgiveness which was won on the cross.” (Against the Heavenly Prophets, AE 40:212-13)
In his “Luther and the Doctrine of Justification”, (CTQ Vol 48, no. 1, 1984), Robert Preus demonstrates Luther’s understanding of the centrality, importance, and usefulness of justification in Christian theology. Preus quotes Luther extensively, and one quote particularly shows that justification is “not merely the center of theology; it is the very heart of the content of Christian faith (pg. 2).” Luther says (as quoted by Preus):
In my heart one article alone rules supreme, that of faith in Christ, by whom, through whom, and in whom all my theological thinking flows back and forth day and night. And still I find that I have grasped this so high and broad and a deep wisdom only in a weak and poor and fragmentary manner.
Luther’s understanding of doctrine as a body with justification at the center helps us in understanding Hebrews 6:4-6, which reads as follows:
For it is impossible, in the case of those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, and have shared in the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come, and then have fallen away, to restore them again to repentance, since they are crucifying once again the Son of God to their own harm and holding him up to contempt.
Luther writes (The Disputation Concerning Justification, AE 34:175):
This is what the epistle does, if you examine the argument, namely, it speaks of the whole teaching of the gospel. The meaning, then, is this, that whoever has fallen from this teaching of the gospel and has followed some other new teaching and persisted in it, should not be saved and God does not forgive his sins, for he cannot be restored and led back to Christ through any other teaching. It speaks only of a comparison of teachings, not about customs or human actions, but about the total teaching of the gospel. It warns that we should not reject or abandon that teaching, but that we should remain in it. For God, since he established a unique sacrifice through which he saved the people, does not want another as the Turk has. For he wants this to be a unique Christian teaching through which all men can be saved, and no other. Nor is it possible for restoration to come through any other teaching. The author of the epistle, therefore, here deals with specific facts concerning doctrine, because the Jews were led away now to Jupiter, now to other gods.
For those who reject the gospel of the free forgiveness of sins for Christ’s sake through faith yet still claim to hold to some kind of Scriptural doctrine, they only hold Christ in contempt. In our daily lives we know Jesus by His teaching in which He is at the center. And so His eternal doctrine is our sustenance. We can thus say that doctrine saves (1st Tim 4:16) not because of all the little details, but we can say this because its central message is the justification of the sinner before God not on account of his own merits but for the sake of Christ’s obedient suffering and death through faith in Christ, or as Luther simply called it, faith in Christ. This article unites all doctrine together as one body. Therefore, doctrine is life, just as the Proverb goes (Prov 4:13):
“Keep hold of instruction; do not let go;
guard her, for she is your life.”