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.