What God Is Doing About Your Death

Blood-drains-away-from-a--005When raising the dead by the forgiveness of sins the first thing expressed by God’s preacher is Jesus Christ alone, and Him crucified. One can read how Martin Luther does this, for example, in the Smalcald Articles in 1537:  “Here is the first and chief article: That Jesus Christ, our God and Lord, ’was handed over to death for our trespasses and was raised for our justification [Rom. 4:25], and he alone is ‘the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” [John 1:29]; and ‘the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all” [Isa. 53:6]…”  

This way of speaking is, not surprisingly, upsetting to those who come with a plan of salvation, a system of sanctification, and a model of holiness. This way of proclaiming death, forgiveness, Christ Jesus, and life is upsetting for them because it means they are not as free as they supposed. More, Christ is more free than they supposed. Both parts of this assertion are terrors to human logic and understanding. It means death is actual and Christ alone holds the key to our resurrection. And yet, He is the very man we can’t seem to stop betraying and murdering!

To speak of justification by faith alone – raising the dead through the forgiveness of sins by preaching Jesus Christ alone and him crucified –  is a theo-logic that begins at Calvary and moves outward from it. Justification does not begin by speculating about the nature of God, the sufficiency of created beings, and the imaginary fall into sin. Instead, when one speaks of justification by faith alone he is making an assertion, a proclamation, that God is at work in Christ. In short, Christ is the subject of all the verbs of the Gospel and hearers of this preaching are perfectly passive. That is, the old man in Adam is dead in himself coram deo, before God.

This is also what the Augsburg Confession, Article IV, as getting at when it states: “…justified as a gift on account of Christ through faith” (Latin) and, “for Christ’s sake through faith.” (German).

The second thing out of the preacher’s mouth when proclaiming justification by faith alone is the announcement of the absolute end of human power: thinking, feeling, willing, etc. Justification is absolute and total, final and ultimate, marking the great, permanent end of you:  “human beings cannot be justified before God by their own powers, merits or works” (Latin) and, “we cannot obtain forgiveness of sin and righteousness before God ….” (German).

This is what Lutherans mean when they speak about justification by faith alone being an “eschatological” proclamation. It is also what Lutherans, following the teaching of St. Paul, mean by death. This is exactly how Paul reasons when he writes that we are dead in our trespasses: “…otherwise Christ died for no purpose.” [Gal 2:21] It is usually at this point that sinners will disclaim justification by faith alone as one unsavory metaphor among many found in the Bible. But, there are always two roots from which our language for justification come. One is the experience of courtrooms where a defendant stands before a tribunal and is judged as right or wrong, punishable or free. The second is the experience at a cemetery where we put someone in the ground and wonder if they’ll ever get out of there again. Watch what happens to an elderly couple parted by the tomb…

The third thing one proclaims when speaking justification is the absolution. That is, “On account of Christ I declare to you the entire forgiveness of all your sins…”  This word, forgiveness makes faith where there was none, and so raises the dead because, Luther writes in the Small Catechism, “Where there is forgiveness of sins, there is also life and salvation.”  

With this theo-logic of the cross Lutherans have an entirely different way of speaking about justification – a nova lingua. In the preaching of justification a free and resurrected Christ breaks through to you, to raise you, the dead, in the earthly announcement by God’s preacher who’s sent out to forgive sins. Your sins! As a result, your sins are actually forgiven on earth as in heaven, the unjust are justified, and the dead are raised by the Spirit through the preacher’s words.

Here is the Lutheran hermeneutic that was learned from thinking out of, moving out from, the cross of Jesus Christ. This hermeneutic of the cross also means that, as the Apology to the Augsburg Confession puts it: “All Scripture should be divided into these two main topics: the law and the promises.” Two words, not one. Justification by faith alone makes no sense to those who have singled out only the law or only the Gospel.

theprodigalsonThese two words are not a division of two different books. These two words are in fact, Philip Melanchthon writes, “communicating.” “In some places [the Word of God] communicates the law. In other places it communicates the promise concerning Christ…” 

This is the nova lingua, the new language of formulating what happens when Christ works actual death, forgiveness and life in sinners. It is also eschatological language that distinguishes what the old man in Adam cannot do and what God can do creating a new man in Christ by faith in his place.

A human, creature, created being – however one wants to describe himself – cannot overcome death. Only God can and, most importantly, has. When one talks about justification he must distinguish between law and the Gospel; because when a preacher steps into his pulpit to justify the Spirit of God is sending him into the pulpit up to preach a word – God’s Word – that kills and makes alive.

This is the great open secret of why so much of what passes for Christian preaching is simply awful. Some preachers don’t like to kill, others don’t like to make alive. Some love the cold steel hammer of the law, others the sweet juiciness of the Gospel.

Thinking they have a choice whether to preach law or Gospel, they fall into one or the other ditch (or, as Luther remarked, “they stare like cows at a new gate”) because they do not totally believe that faith can do all the things it claims for itself. That is, they complain, “Doesn’t a gift need to be received before it is a gift?” Or, they ask, “Does the declaration of forgiveness of sins really do anything or change anyone?” But this is exactly what the Augsburg Confession, Article IV, is all about, what God is doing after your death. After your death something new occurs. It is therefore Gospel, not law. But that means that preaching Christ alone and him crucified reveals both the depth of your sin and unbelief and the depth of God’s desire to overcome your sin and unbelief. When one hears what God is doing with his enemies and opponents it is truly unbelievable. He literally kills his enemies and then raises them anew as his beloved children, giving them eternal names, building them into a royal priesthood, etc. God’s Word, Scripture, as Paul put it in Galatians 3:22, “has imprisoned all things under the power of sin, so that what was promised [by] faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe.” Everything a pastor preaches must be tuned to Christ for He alone is the means by which the old sinner is killed and a new saint raised by the forgiveness of sins, for life and eternal salvation.


What God Is Doing About Your Death — 7 Comments

  1. So, help me out here.

    In the “eschatological event” of justification, popularized by Gerhard Forde, our sins are forgiven?


    What of the objective justification of humankind on the cross?

    Also, the “daily dying and rising,” misinterpreted by Forde, refers to sanctification, not justification.

    It is not the controlling metaphor for Orthodox Lutheran theology.

  2. Robert- For Forde Justification and sanctification (as for Luther) are logically tied to one another. The daily dying and rising are the renewing of faith in the gospel of the forgiveness of sins. Believing in the reality of God’s forensic judgment makes us new people and gives us a new heart by the Word and the power of the Holy Spirit. Despite my criticism of him, I think he’s actually got Luther quite right on this point.

    I’m not certain what you mean when you say that its not a “controlling metaphor.” A couple of points. First of all, Luther quite clearly states that it’s not really a metaphor- but rather, insofar as we were previously defined by our status as sinner, and we now become new people, we quite literally die and rise. Secondly, I suppose in the period of Lutheran scholasticism, the controlling metaphor would be the courtroom one, but that was very specific the polemical situation with Osiander and then also of course Rome. Different Lutheran theologians favor different metaphors. Chemnitz, Flacius, and Melanchthon ties themselves most clearly to the courtroom metaphor (particularly in their conflict with Osiander). I think the Finns actually do get it right when they say that the key to understanding Luther is the idea of the “Happy exchange” (though they get the forensic nature wrong and unfortunately collapse it into mystical union). The point is, that I can’t see how your assertion is very historically accurate. I don’t see how it’s particularly relevant either: It’s not a dominate metaphor- so what? What negative effects does this have? You’re not particularly clear on this.

  3. Another thing Robert, You do make a good point about the OJ issue. I think for Forde, there would be an OJ in the sense that God objectively forgives in the cross. Our faith and dying and rising would Christ would be our entering into it subjectively (if we want to use this terminology). Of course the difficulty here is that there is no objective atonement, insofar as Christ is not imputed with our sins and they are not punished in himself. Consequently, as I have observed in my writings, subjective justification takes over an inappropriately important role to the point that our righteousness coram Deo is actually our new sanctified person. This of course does not mean I think him to be wrong with how he is able to directly tie justification and sanctification together- rather he’s wrong about what counts as righteousness coram Deo.

    In any case, a theologian who is able to hold together substitutionary atonement and the dying and rising of faith stuff quite well (and in accordance with Luther and Paul’s ways of speaking) is Werner Elert. And yes, Robert, I know that he’s evil and that he can have no value to you because the word “Erlangen” is next to his name. Nevertheless, I think we can be a bit more discerning and take the good from much of the bad and appreciate him on this particular point.

  4. The problem with the opponents of OJ is that they separate the Cross-event and the proclamation-event — conceiving the relationship in *temporal* sequence.

    For Forde, the “objective” and “subjective” happen simultaneously — both are *inclusive* of the other simply because both are *eschatological* events — to be sure in, with, under, through time and space.

    The tension between OJ and SJ is not resolved by theology but by proclamation.

  5. IOW, proclamation simply “extends” the historico-eschatological Cross-event for *you* at a particular time and space. Or to put in another way, in proclamation, we are incorporated into the Cross-event – e.g. baptised into the death & resurrection of Jesus Christ.

  6. “That is, the old man in Adam is dead in himself coram deo, before God.”

    Since I am novice to Lutheran “theo-logic of the cross,” Could you explain how this corelates with Luther,

    “Simul justus et peccator…”They are righteous because they believe in Christ whose righteousness covers them and is imputed to them, but they are sinners because they do not fulfill the Law and are not without sinful desires. They are like sick… people in the care of a physician: they are really sick, but healthy only in hope and in so far as they begin to get better, or, rather: are being healed”?

    My understanding is that Luther is saying the Old Adam must be crucified daily?

    I have also read Forde and does seem he is saying sanctification “proceeds” from Christ from the future. Is this is meant by an “eschatological event”?

    I believe “Objective” Justification would mean that it is external to us and exists independent of our ability other than the gift of faith to repent and trust only in Christ. Is that Lutheran?

    Be merciful to me a poor lost Evangelical who really wants to understand Sola Fide!

    In the Lamb

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