Robert Preus, Justification and Rome

This is a brief yet surprisingly thorough and lucid treatment of the issues at the heart of the Reformation.  The circumstance inspiring the writing thereof was a series of conferences between Lutherans and Romanists in the wake of the Lutheran World Federation’s 1963 major statement On Justification.  Dr. Preus argues that the doctrinally harmonious spirit that has prevailed over the last three decades between that time and his taking up pen is only possible because both sides either ignore or equivocate on the subjects that historically divided them.

It is interesting to note the identity of orthodox Lutheranism with orthodox Reformed doctrine on a number of points. Specifically, there is little even to quibble about in Preus’ exposition of sin (chap 5), the bondage of the will, man’s passivity in conversion (chap 6), repentance (chap. 7), grace (chap 8),  justification on the basis of Christ’s merit alone (chap 9), sola fide and its object (chap 10, 11, 12, 13). Yet it is helpful to see the basic tenets of our belief scanned with a different order and tone, and I urge Reformed thinkers to read this book. In fact, it would not be a bad idea to use it as a text for the Soteriology section in Seminary. If we start using each other’s material as much as possible, it could eventually pave the way to a new effort at rapprochement between our communions, not in the cheap ecumenism of modernism, but in terms of clarification of orthodoxy, and seeking a way that is as broad as possible without compromise.

In the remainder, I will discuss one point of difference with the Reformed church, and another point that can be made in terms of the Federal Vision movement in our day.

The conversation partner of the book is fellow Lutherans and, in the second place, Romanists, so we should not expect much focus on the issues between our churches. Nevertheless, differences do materialize. The ordo of justification and regeneration would need to be discussed (p.56). As always, the discussion should begin with some definitions and avoidance of inadvertent equivocation. Elsewhere, there is one statement that is unfortunate:

It was not only with Rome that the Lutherans differed on the doctrine of grace. Against the Calvinistic doctrine of predestination the Lutherans asserted that God’s grace extends equally to all, that Christ’s work of atonement is universal, and that the Gospel and grace of God are to be preached and offered to all seriously and without discrimination. p. 51

Only the denial of Limited Atonement wedged, in passing, in the middle of this statement is an accurate summary of a real difference with the Reformed Church, and even that must be nuanced. First, very few that claim Calvinism, and as far as I know, none that can claim descent from the magisterial Reformation (unless it should be Hoeksema and his followers) have denied that “the Gospel and grace of God are to be preached and offered to all seriously and without discrimination.”

Second, the “doctrine of predestination” is not contradictory per se with the notion that “God’s grace extends equally to all.” This is a point on which there is undoubtedly confusion in both camps. Predestination is not contradictory to universalism as such. If no one can be saved unless predestinated, and all men are saved, then all men are predestined. It would be other considerations, not the doctrine of predestination as such, that would cause one to conclude against universalism. Even though none of the disputants here are dogmatic universalists, it would still be helpful to be accurate as to the real sense and actual entailment of the underlying doctrines that seem to divide.

What makes us scratch our heads with Lutherans’ vehement denial of predestination, is how that radical rejection squares with the equally radical assertion of total depravity and monergism in salvation, and the consequent ascribing all the glory to God, which are the shining jewels of Lutheranism. I can only think of a few ways to square this aggregation of belief:

  1. Christ’s atonement did take away all the guilt of all men, and thus all men are saved.
  2. Christ’s atonement did take away all the guilt of all men, whereupon each starts again as a “new Adam” so to speak, from which position each falls away again and is judged for that second fall.
  3. Though the guilt of all men was imputed to Christ in his sacrifice, his merits are not imputed to men until the moment of faith, and the decision of faith is what separates the saved from the lost.
  4. Though it seems like Limited Atonement/Predestination is a necessary consequence of inherited depravity and monergism coupled with denial of universalism, we must maintain a sense of mystery here and not be too dogmatic because of tensions which that solution sets in motion under other headings.

(1) is denied by orthodox Lutherans, i.e. they deny universalism. (2) is possible logically but I have not seen it asserted by any Lutheran, and it would be a rather odd view of redemptive history, with many problems that are hopefully obvious. The first part of (3) is indeed asserted by Preus as the “blessed exchange,” an exchange that has two different moments:

Our sins were imputed to Christ at His suffering and death, imputed objectively after He, by His active and passive obedience, fulfilled and procured all righteousness for us. But the imputation of His righteousness to us takes place when we are brought to faith. (p.72)

Well and good, but it would seem that the difference between a saved man and a man that is finally lost would either lie in something different between them as to God’s act, or in them. If the latter, do I not have something to boast about — I was at least good enough to recognize what a good thing this salvation proffered to all is; but if the former, how does one avoid Election?

Now (4) seems like an acceptable via media. It could be that the Lutheran wants to avoid Particular Election because of the nature of faith which, as Luther so eloquently describes, looks to the face of God as propitious and gracious in Christ, even in the teeth of unending affliction; that the doctrine of Election shifts the focus from a God who shows himself gracious to the world, to some secret and unknowable decree, with all of the subjective conundrums this can lead to.

If this is the nub of the issue, I am listening. However, we would then expect, not pot-shots taken at the Calvinistic understanding, but rather the concession that the Calvinistic exposition seems right from a purely logical standpoint, but that mystery must be invoked at this point for the reason just given as well as others.

Federal Vision

Some Reformed critics of the Federal Vision have suggested that the latter veers in the direction of Lutheran thought. That would appear not to be the case, however. The Lutheran view appears to be strongly insistent on the topic known in our circles as “the active obedience of Christ,” and while it prizes the doctrine of union with Christ, it is as a consequence of justification which is complete.

In Lutheran theology justification is seen as having two parts: 1) forgiveness, or the non-imputation of sins, and 2) the imputation of a righteousness outside of us, a foreign or alien righteousness (justitia aliena), namely, the righteousness of Christ.What is this foreign righteousness? It is a righteousness which comes from God (Romans 1:17), but it is not His essential righteousness, not the righteousness by which He judges sinners, nor the righteousness by which He redeems them from their sins. Rather this divine righteousness revealed in the Gospel is the righteousness of His Son Jesus Christ. But again, it is not Christ’s essential righteousness, the righteousness of His divine nature. It is rather the righteousness of Christ, the God Man, which He fulfilled and accomplished and acquired for us. It is the saving righteousness of His obedience to the Father, His obedience under the Law, by which He obeyed the Law as our Substitute, and obeyed the will of the Father to die innocently as our Substitute, and thus to redeem us. (p. 59, references omitted, emphasis added.)

And again,

It is not possible to understand Luther as grounding the blessed exchange in the fact of the believer’s union with Christ. To do so would deny that the justitia aliena is imputed and would put the motifs in opposition to each other. Furthermore, union with Christ is the result of justification, not the other way around. (p.64)

Thus, it would seem as though the Federal Vision should not be given the escape hatch of being a move toward Lutheranism, at least with respect to the issues of active obedience, and union with Christ.

Robert Preus, Justification and Rome. (St Louis: Concordia Academic Press) 1997 Lib. of Congress BT764.2.P748

3 thoughts on “Robert Preus, Justification and Rome

  1. Bravo! To even hear a Reformed writer reading Preus, is a step in the correct direction. The Lutherans, Reformed, and Anglicans have much to garner from talking TO one another.

    Also, I do not believe the Orthodox dogma of synergy is contrary to the doctrines of grace, for one cannot DO good works, working WITH GOD, via the agency of the indwelling Holy Spirit, unless one has been regenerated. Much of the error of Rome, made too many of us see the heresy of Rome in each other, when we were merely fighting a common foe, that sadly, has lasted, and now morphed itself into the Whore of Babylon for sure. We could have done so much more, if we had only listened TO each other, 500 years ago….

  2. As for reading others’ books…I’ve been reading several things by or edited by Thomas Schreiner (prof at the Southern Baptist Theol. Seminary) and it’s a breath of fresh air. I’m sure T does not like Baptists, but it’s better to read the Baptists on baptism than read what Presbyterians think Baptists say. Other topics by him are on assurance/running the race and finally, the indwelling of the Spirit.

  3. Father — We are eager to go back and rediscuss the issues with new perspectives. I know that the Orthodox church has never explicitly denied justification by faith alone. It would be interesting to see if “synergy” properly understood is a true contradictory to monergism, or if it could be modeled differently.

    Eliza — I don’t dislike Baptists, quite the contrary. I love them. My objection to denying infant baptism has more to do with tribal implications than the usual presentation talks about. It comes down to what Scripture teaches, but the question is the particular issue that is at stake by getting this topic wrong.

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