Therefore we reject and condemn all the following errors:
3. That in the sayings of the prophets and apostles where the righteousness of faith is spoken of the words justify and to be justified are not to signify declaring or being declared free from sins, and obtaining the forgiveness of sins, but actually being made righteous before God, because of love infused by the Holy Ghost, virtues, and the works following them.
7. That faith saves on this account, because by faith the renewal, which consists in love to God and one's neighbor, is begun in us.
8. That faith has the first place in justification, nevertheless also renewal and love belong to our righteousness before God in such a manner that they [renewal and love] are indeed not the chief cause of our righteousness, but that nevertheless our righteousness before God is not entire or perfect without this love and renewal.
9. That believers are justified before God and saved jointly by the imputed righteousness of Christ and by the new obedience begun in them, or in part by the imputation of Christ's righteousness, but in part also by the new obedience begun in them.
10. That the promise of grace is made our own by faith in the heart, and by the confession which is made with the mouth, and by other virtues.
11. That faith does not justify without good works; so that good works are necessarily required for righteousness, and without their presence man cannot be justified.
Why the care? Why go so far as to restrict the concept of justification to a forensic declaration? Surely the Scriptures speak at times of being imputed or reckoned righteous, but at other times do they not speak of being made morally righteous as an interior, spiritual renewal similar to the Lutheran concept of Sanctification?
What makes Lutheran justification a matter of faith alone is its target, or better put, the aim of Christ's atonement. In the Book of Concord the target of the atonement is God's wrath. Consider paragraph 9 in this very article (emphasis mine):
9] 6. We believe, teach, and confess also that notwithstanding the fact that many weaknesses and defects cling to the true believers and truly regenerate, even to the grave, still they must not on that account doubt either their righteousness which has been imputed to them by faith, or the salvation of their souls, but must regard it as certain that for Christ's sake, according to the promise and [immovable] Word of the holy Gospel, they have a gracious God.
Also the Augsburg Confession itself, Article III (emphasis mine):
1] Also they teach that the Word, that is, the Son of God, did assume the human nature in 2] the womb of the blessed Virgin Mary, so that there are two natures, the divine and the human, inseparably enjoined in one Person, one Christ, true God and true man, who was born of the Virgin Mary, truly suffered, was crucified, dead, and 3] buried, that He might reconcile the Father unto us, and be a sacrifice, not only for original guilt, but also for all actual sins of men.
4] He also descended into hell, and truly rose again the third day; afterward He ascended into heaven that He might sit on the right hand of the Father, and forever reign and have dominion over all creatures, and sanctify 5] them that believe in Him, by sending the Holy Ghost into their hearts, to rule, comfort, and quicken them, and to defend them against the devil and the power of sin.
6] The same Christ shall openly come again to judge the quick and the dead, etc., according to the Apostles' Creed.
Regarding par. 3, the confessors state their belief that Christ's work of redemption was to reconcile the Father to us, though St. Paul indicates the opposite in 2Co 5:18 and Eph 2:16 - that the Father has reconciled us to Himself and one another through the cross.
The work of redemption in the Lutheran Confessions is primarily to affect something in God (viz. His justice/righteousness), and secondarily or consequently to affect a change in us. Justification is identified with the former, and Sanctification with the latter. The work of atonement - meaning the birth, life, suffering, and death of Jesus Christ - merits or earns Justification by providing to God both the righteousness that He requires from human beings and suffering the penalty for disobedience that we have incurred. Since this work is complete, meaning all legal accounts have been settled with God, nothing can be added to this redemption. Faith alone remains, that is, one only has to embrace this forensic acquittal and imputation in order to apply it to oneself. God is appeased, so now if we will believe - and keep on believing this - we never have to worry about the wrath of God unto hell again. It all depends on satisfying the justice and wrath of God, as if that is the problem that must be solved before we can reunite with God.
But what if that was not the problem? Yes, we lack righteousness, and Christ supplies righteousness to us. The Epitome III says well:
3] 1. Against both the errors just recounted, we unanimously believe, teach, and confess that Christ is our Righteousness neither according to the divine nature alone nor according to the human nature alone, but that it is the entire Christ according to both natures, in His obedience alone, which as God and man He rendered to the Father even unto death, and thereby merited for us the forgiveness of sins and eternal life, as it is written: As by one man's disobedience many were made sinners, so by the obedience of One shall many be made righteous, Rom. 5:19.
But what if Christ did not satisfy any punishment? Yes, Christ suffered for our sins, but what if that did not mean that the stripes He suffered were a replacement for the punishments coming to us in hell? Or (as Luther puts it) that Christ did not suffer the full fury of God's hell and punishment spiritually on the cross, but just suffered the cross and the human experience of abandonment and death that comes with it? What if all that Christ suffered was simply a matter of obedience - that He suffered out of obedience to God, and this obedience alone unto death atones for ours sins? And that where obedience is supplied for all, punishment is taken away for all? Is justification still by faith alone?
Perhaps, because then it still remains a legal matter. All that has happened in what I've described is that the legal condition that punishments be suffered as a condition for forgiveness is removed. Forensic righteousness must still be supplied.
Yes, except the concept of punishments is not all that is removed. With the canceling of any need to satisfy punishment also goes the primary difficulty of the wrath of God.
Wait, are you sure? There will be a Day of wrath, according to St. Paul's gospel. (Romans 2) Yes, this is true. What I mean is that the wrath of God is no longer the target of the atonement. God loves us and wants us to be righteous. He is not interested in having someone punished before He is willing to forgive, so there is nothing in God that needs to be changed. The target is actually all of us - those who have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.
So two things need to be considered regarding Formula of Concord III:
- That the aim of the atonement was not that we should gain a gracious God or have Him become reconciled to us - as if He were angry and we wanting reconciliation - because God has always been gracious towards us, and we as a race have gone astray in our hearts and acted as enemies of God (i.e. the other way around). The aim was not that God should be made to change and reconcile, but that we should be made to change and reconcile.
- There is no need to satisfy a legal requirement for punishment when sin has been replaced with righteousness. If wrath awaits us on the Last Day, it is due to a lack of righteousness. The idea that God's justice must be satisfied by suffering punishments comes from Anselm and medieval scholasticism. Anselm posited that God's honor is offended by man's sins, and in the fashion of typical Normal chivalry he believed that any slight against honor had to be satisfied. Thomas Aquinas took exception to the idea that the atonement was to restore something in God, since God does not need sacrifice. We need sacrifice, so Christ's work was interpreted as supplying merit and suffering penance - a system the Lutheran confessors try to reject. Their success was limited, in that they still held fiercely to the notion that Christ needed to satisfy a divine justice that could only be appeased by meting out suffering and not by innocence alone.
Given that justice is not satisfied by suffering but only by obedience (which in this world is often in the face of suffering), and that Christ's sacrifice is offered to God because we need it so that something in us may change, justification is not a purely forensic act. In order to be effective it must be a transformative act. At this point some of my readers may be going back over what I just said and saying, "Yeah, but it could still be a purely forensic act." Really? Why? If you tell someone, "Faith alone saves," then from what is faith saving? Not an unreconciled God, because God's attitude is always one of reconciliation. We need to reconcile. From wrath? But Christ died not to change God's wrath but to change you. Wrath is still coming. Christ's death didn't take away wrath, or the God who is wrathful over sin. Christ died to give you righteousness - His righteousness. Faith is the core, but faith leads into Baptism, Confirmation/Chrismation, and the Eucharist. Faith is the beginning of your change. And by faith through Baptism you die and rise again in Christ. You change.
So when the Scriptures use the word that means Justification it speaks morally. It is not speaking about a change in God, it is speaking about a change in you. It is speaking about Christ in you through the Holy Spirit, sharing and imparting to you His pure and incarnate self that is righteousness itself. And when the Scriptures speak of Sanctification, it is to be taken in the same fashion except in terms of holiness.
From the change in you through union with Christ comes the forensic acquittal. Abraham was accounted righteous because his heart turned toward God (faith). This is the seat of actual righteousness. In Christ the same applies to you, but even more in that Christ supplies to the willing heart all that He offered to the Father in love for your salvation. Christ supplies the Grace necessary for that inward renewal that we need for our salvation.
So the Lutheran Confessions are not correct on this point. They tried, but were unable to get outside the box of medieval scholasticism. There are many Lutherans that know there is more to Justification than the legal aspect, but as Lutherans they are committed to this article and others that drop anchor in a place irreconcilable with catholic and orthodox interpretation, thus pitting Lutherans against 1500+ years of the Church. This is not a comfortable place to be.
The Roman Church, though limited by medieval scholasticism, has generally not bought into Anselm's idea that something in God must be appeased as much as in the ideas of Thomas Aquinas, which includes the concept that all actual sins must be temporally expiated (though Christ expiates the eternal guilt), either here or in Purgatory. Even though Rome has applied effort in combating the Angry God perspective, they still suffer from Papal Supremacy - which has become Papal Infallibility. :-(
The Orthodox Church, though, does not depend on this medieval trap. Lutherans should consider, as a matter of consistency, a move to communion with the bishops and churches of the East. Consistency? Yes, consistency. Reformation of the western church was not entirely successful through the efforts of the 16th century reformers. The reformers were not able to find the necessary correctives to the problems posed by Rome. The Orthodox Church retains that necessary corrective. Lutherans in this country ought to consider achieving reunification of the west with the east through themselves and their own congregations. It is something to think about.