Effective, Even if Nobody is Saved?

The Lutheran Jacob Preus has written an interesting book on Just Words: Understanding the Fullness of the Gospel (Concordia, 2000). About reconciliation, he writes: “Faith is necessary to appropriate the reconciliation of Christ. However, our faith does not make Christ’s work effective. It is effective even if no one approves it, even if no one is saved.” (p140).

Many “Reformed” folks like Mike Horton like this book. It has a lot of talk about sacraments and objectivity. But Lutherans have an “objective reconciliation” that does not reconcile. That kind of objectivity is not gospel. It’s not good news to make salvation depend on “appropriation”.

Even if you say that grace has to overcome the bondage of your will to “take it” (the word appropriate sounds like “steal” to me, but Sproul uses it so it must be ok: it means there for you but you got to consent to go get it with your empty hands), there are two problems with this false gospel.

One, there is no notion here that Christ’s death purchased the work of the Spirit and faith for the elect. Even if God by grace gives the faith, that faith is not a certain result of Christ’s work, even though the Bible teaches that it is (I Peter 1:21;II Peter 1:1; Eph 4:7-8; Phil 1:29).

Two, there can be no notion of a penalty for specific sins imputed, and therefore Lutherans end up with a propitiation that does not propitiate, a ransom that does not redeem, and a reconciliation that does not reconcile.

Part of the problem with the Preus chapter on reconciliation is that he seems to have no idea of God Himself being both the object and subject of His own reconciliation. Preus limits the concept to the sinner’s enmity to God, and not to God’s enmity to unjustified sinners.

Even when writing about the Father and the Son (p142), Preus tells us that “Christ was at enmity with God”. This is wrong. It is a result of not talking about the imputation of the sins of the elect to Christ. Instead of seeing that Christ was “made sin” legally because of imputation, Preus turns Christ into a sinner angry at God. Christ is and was human, but in no way a sinner except by imputation.

But of course no Lutheran who teaches an universal objective atonement can dare talk about the imputation of the guilt of the elect to Christ. They cannot even talk about an imputation of the elect’s penalty to Christ. On p 84, Preus explains that the ransom “should not be understood to be only for some and not for others…not all will be set free because the gift is to be received through faith.”

An universal ransom always means an ineffective ransom. Faith becomes what ransoms, even if you deny that and try to give the credit to a false Christ who died for everybody.

But does not the Bible use the word “reconcile” only with human sinners in mind? No. Let me channel John Murray for a minute. First, Romans 5:17 speaks of “receiving the reconciliation”. Surely, this does not mean overcoming your enmity in order to overcome your enmity! It means to passively receive by imputation what Christ did.

Second, Matthew 5:24 (sermon on the mount) commands “leave your gift there before the altar and first be reconciled to your brother.” So, even though we are the objects of reconciliaton, though we receive it, that it is not only the overcoming of our hostility, but what God has done in Christ to overcome God’s own hostility to sinners.

Why bother to write more? Didn’t I know that he taught an universal ineffective atonement before I read the book? Yes, but it’s interesting to see how that one simple thing complicates everything else. For example, on p 150, Preus writes that repentance “is a necessary prerequisite for forgiveness”, but then three pages later, he writes that “our repentance must not be thought of as a necessary prerequisite for forgiveness.”

Instead of the death of Christ being what God has done to expiate the sins of the elect, Preus thinks of the cross as a “means of grace” people can use to get the wrath averted. (p171).

Sinners become the imputers, whenever you leave out the good news that God is the imputer and that God has already imputed the sins of the sheep to the Shepherd (and already not the sins of the goats ). Perhaps that is why Preus avoids the biblical metaphor of the Shepherd.

For at least three of the biblical metaphors (birth, cleansing, salvation), Preus gives the efficacy not simply to “baptism” (saves you, I Peter 3:21) but to water baptism administered by ordained clergy. On p 125, there is a typo: instead of Ephesians, the reference to Adoption should be Galatians 4.

Let me close with two good statements, which of course are contradicted by what is written elsewhere in the book about universal atonement (and not written about imputation). On p 109, Preus argues for the possibility of translating Romans 3:21 as “but now a justification from God, apart from law, has been made known.”

Of course we could add detail to that. In Romans 5, it’s clear that a “free gift of righteousness” has resulted in “justification”. So there is room for a distinction between what Christ has done, and God’s declaring the elect to have legal union with that (justification). But it is the same greek word, so Preus has a point. But of course he contradicts it later by saying that faith is credited as the righteousness.

The second good statement relates to this. On p 111, Preus writes: “God’s righteousness is in the one who justifies, not in the one who justified.” That is right, but you cannot maintain that if you say that Christ did the righteousness even for those who perish. You cannot maintain that if you say that God counts the faith of the sinner as the righteousness.

So Preus sees the problem, but he cannot fix it, and that is inherent in any universal atonement which is conditioned on the faith of the sinner.

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3 Comments on “Effective, Even if Nobody is Saved?”

  1. markmcculley Says:

    3 O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? It was before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified. 2 Let me ask you only this: Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith?

    mark: And the Lutheran says, God is objectively reconciled with every single sinner. But this universal objective thing only works if you do what we do. It only works if you do things the right way, like we do. Some of the people God loves and wants to save begin to receive the universal reconciliation by works of love. But the rest of us receive the universal reconciliation the correct way. You must do “not doing” the way we do.

    Romans 9: 30 What shall we say, then? That Gentiles who did not pursue righteousness have attained it, that is, a righteousness that is by faith; 31 but that Israel who pursued a law that would lead to righteousness did not succeed in reaching that law. 32 Why? Because they did not pursue it by faith, but as if it were based on works.

    mark: And the Lutherans say, God has an objective righteousness for every single sinner. But this universal righteousness only works for those who keep pursuing it the right way, the way we are doing it. The Reformed preaching makes it as though the righteousness were not for everyone (but only for those who believe), because the Reformed make it sound like the righteousness is enough to save all to whom it is given.

    But the Lutherans know that the righteousness is given to everybody, but that it doesn’t work for those who do not continue to pursue it the right way. And the Lutherans say that it was grace that will cause those who pursue the right way to pursue the right way. But they do not agree with the Reformed that being placed into the death of Christ results in true faith. Instead the Lutherans think that continuing in pursuit and true faith is the difference which makes the righteousness (which is for everybody) only work for some.

    Because the Lutherans have never heard of such a thing as there being no water in Romans 6, because everybody knows that God uses means in imputation, and everybody knows that being placed into the death does not mean necessarily that you will stay in Christ or in Christ’s death. Because everybody knows that there is nothing more real and concrete than the water (with words)

    Because even though the death was really real for every sinner, the water makes the universal justification more real, not for everybody, but for everybody who receives the water, and this is not a subjective reality, because water (with words) is an objective reality.

    “Objective justification” is for the eventually non-elect also, because even though it’s a generalization that everybody is forgiven, in reality only some are in the end forgiven, and they are not forgiven because they are elect. Instead they are elect because they are the ones who are really forgiven in the end.

    The subset of those who are objectively forgiven who get the promise by means of word with sacrament are not given an “if, then” duty. They are told upfront that Jesus died for them, and to therefore believe it.

    But here’s the catch. Since the indicative comes before the imperative, even if we don’t do the imperative, the indicative is still true. This means that those who perish in the second death can remind themselves (as they continue in sin) that they were objectively forgiven, and that this never changed, because it never depended on them to make it true, even though it seems that some other realities did depend on other factors, but as they perish, they can still do so with the comfort that they were objectively forgiven.

    But isn’t it necessary to make the indicative come first in order to avoid Arminianism? Believing it’s so doesn’t make it so, so it’s so before you believe.

    It’s so so that you will believe. But then again, because even though the objective forgiveness which was true from the first is still true when you perish, SO WHAT? The universal objective forgiveness didn’t make it worse for you, since you were already condemned, but then again, the universal objective forgiveness means zero when some of you still die the second death by the just wrath of God.

  2. markmcculley Says:

    I understand that Lutherans teach the false gospel that justification can be lost. Different God. My question has more to do with how they think this takes place. Losing faith is sin. So it seems their doctrine of apostasy means that there are rather serious limits to this “justified and also sinner” thing.

    It’s not only that Lutherans contradict other Lutherans. They all seem to have a “shell-game” in which they offer a generalization about an objective universal reconciliation (God is no longer at enmity with any sinner, of course Forde denies that God ever was),

    But then it turns out that 1. this objective reconciliation is not enough to actually reconcile many of the sinners for whom it was done and to whom it is proclaimed. It turns out that 2. the reconciliation is not received by God’s imputation. God did something, but that something just sits there and does no good, unless the sinner’s enmity to God is gone, not only in non-resistance in the water but continued non-resistance until you die. Then it turns out in the end that God is at enmity again with those who are enmity with Him.

    But the “shell-game” continues when Lutherans say but 3. we agree that faith which trusts instead of being at enmity, that this is not man’s doing, but God’s gift given through the sacraments, so yes the objective universal atonement depends on our receiving but it turns out that even this receiving was God’s gift. But then 4, here’s the trick, some who receive don’t continue to receive, because God does not continue to give them grace so that they not only are able to but actually do continue to receive. So there’s no certainty here.

    But 5. that doesn’t keep Lutherans from taking potshots at the Reformed for not having assurance, for a systematic inability to have assurance in the Reformed traddition. Lutherans–ok, if and when we perish, well then that will prove that we were not elect and that we did not continue to believe and that God did not give us that gift (no freewill, remember!), but even then unlike the Reformed, we will have the assurance that Christ died for us and that God was reconciled with us, that God as the Holy agent of reconciliation was not at enmity with us because Christ died for us.

    But 6, it seems that this Christ did not die to give us continuing faith, and that faith comes from somewhere else. It turns out that this faith must come not from the atonement and the justice of the cross, that this faith does not continue to be given to some, because despite our objective universal announcements, there is this hidden God, which our preaching ignored. But still we think there’s more assurance in our Lutheran system even with that Hidden God than there is with a logical Reformed announcement in the gospel that God only loves the elect.

    This is why I say ‘shell game”, with stuff hidden in the fine print. In neither system can we know now who’s non-elect before we die. And the Lutherans know they can’t know who’s really elect until a person continues in faith to the end, because some sins are inconsistent with faith, and that person might commit those sins. But despite knowing this, the Lutheran says “for you” in a way that makes the generalization sound sacramentally “for you individually in particular”. But it turns out that the good news was NOT “on the last day I will raise you up and give you immortality’. It turns out that what they were saying is— there is an objective universal justification for you, so that God now is not now at enmity with you.

    And what is left unsaid, while boasting about their advantage over the Reformed, is that God might indeed in the end be at enmity with you again. God reconciled Himself in the death of Son. God is both subject and object of this general reconciliation, but it does turn out for many, that this Reconciliation is not enough….

  3. markmcculley Says:

    nfant water is the best because infants bring nothing to the table?

    do you bring to the table the fact that you bring nothing to the table?

    do you take pride in your water baptism?

    do you bring your infant water baptism with you to the table?

    do you take pride because at least the water is not you

    pride that the water is what God Himself gave you?

    at any rate, it’s too late for me, I never got the infant water

    and now I bring to the table my faith in the gospel and claim that God
    gave me that faith in the gospel through the power of the gospel

    so now that I already believe the gospel, it’s way too late for me and water

    too bad i didn’t get some water from the Mormons or the Roman Catolics

    and then you could have given me some gnostic adjustment
    and instruction about what God was doing when God baptised me into Christ

    now it’s too late
    despite your assurance that God imputed all our sins to Christ
    I’m not an infant anymore
    there’s no way for me now to get Christ’s death to me


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