When 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.
These 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.