In doing some research for an article—and a future book—on an “Objective Atonement,” I have been reading the work of Robert D. Preus, one of the most prominent confessional Lutheran theologians of the 20th century and one of the few systematic theologians whom Zane Hodges quoted with approval. Indeed, I find there are several points of agreement between Preus and Hodges on the nature and scope of the atonement, saving faith, and justification. I believe that Hodges took Preus’ view of Objective Justification, and refined it and applied it to the atonement in light of a closer reading of Scripture.
As you can imagine, as a Lutheran theologian, Preus heavily emphasized the doctrine of justification by faith alone, such as in his books Justification and Rome (Concordia, 1997) and Doctrine is Life: Essays on Justification and the Lutheran Confessions (Concordia, 2006). One of the more striking claims he makes is that the whole of Christian doctrine rests upon a correct understanding of justification by faith alone. Get that doctrine wrong, and other theological errors will follow. Get it right, and a host of theological errors will be avoided. Preus quotes Luther to that effect: “If this doctrine of justification is lost, the whole Christian doctrine is lost,” it is the “one basic principle in theology,” and the greatest “power and remedy against the sects” without which it is impossible to fall into other errors (JR, 17-18).
I think this is absolutely true. But I don’t think that Lutherans like Preus have lived up to this ideal.
Justification by Faith Alone vs Belief in Jesus for Eternal Life
To be clearer, I think this insight is especially true of the doctrine of eternal life. While Paul spoke about justification by faith alone, John spoke about believing in Jesus for eternal life.
Whereas justification describes one aspect of eternal salvation, John’s language is more encompassing.
Justification is one aspect of the free gift of eternal life. Namely, justification is the non-imputation of one’s sins, and the imputation of righteousness received through faith in Christ. That aspect of salvation is included in the concept of being given eternal life, but eternal life involves more than justification.
To be clear, though, I do not mean to suggest that eternal life is not by faith alone. On the contrary, I think that Paul and John are in complete agreement here. As you read through the Gospel of John, it becomes apparent that by simply believing in Jesus’ promise of everlasting life, we have that life, and are eternally secure from that moment on (John 3:16). John (and Jesus) do not say eternal life depends on our behavior. It only ever depends upon simple belief.
If you understand that truth, then, as Preus suggests, many other doctrines fall into place and many errors are avoided. Anyone familiar with Free Grace theology will know that to be true. The free gift of everlasting life is a base-line, a theological hermeneutic, that helps us understand all other Scriptures, and which bring them to light. I believe that Free Grace theologians have been much more consistent than Lutherans in making sure that it is our “one basic principle in theology.” It illuminates the difference between salvation and rewards, eternal security and temporal judgment, regeneration and discipleship, positional sanctification and progressive sanctification, and so on. Interested readers should consult the work of theologians like Zane C. Hodges, Robert N. Wilkin, Joseph C. Dillow, and John H. Niemela, among others. Or they can visit faithalone.org for hundreds of expository articles where the doctrine of eternal life by faith alone is applied across the Bible.
Three Examples of How Lutherans Deny Justification by Faith Alone
Unfortunately, unlike Free Grace theology, the Lutheran tradition has not kept to faith alone in Christ alone, despite their stated intention. Indeed, I believe the Lutheran tradition has adopted a number of doctrines in direct opposition to justification/eternal life by faith in Christ apart from works. Let me give three examples:
1) Infant baptism: The fact that Lutherans baptize infants denies justification by faith alone. Infants cannot believe and yet Lutherans claim they are justified in the act of water baptism. By baptizing people who do not have faith, the Lutheran churches effectively teach that justification is apart from faith, not by it.
Some Lutherans will respond by saying that infants can believe and be justified by faith apart from works, and so are the proper subjects of baptism. If so, that leads to an obvious problem. If infants can believe, they can also disbelieve. How can you tell the difference between believing infants and non-believing infants? How can you tell a difference between infants who believe in justification by faith alone and those who believe in salvation by works? You can’t. Indeed, the whole idea is quite silly. I have heard a Lutheran dismiss this problem as being “rationalistic,” whatever that means. In reply, it seems like special pleading of the worst kind to insist that infants can believe, but deny that we would be able to tell whether they do or not.
If Lutherans held consistently to justification by faith in Christ alone, they would not baptize infants. They would only baptize believers (however old they may be).
2) Baptismal regeneration: Paul chastised the Galatians for thinking that circumcision was necessary for our salvation. And yet Lutherans insist that we must be baptized in order to be saved. Water baptism was as much a work of the Law as circumcision (Lev 16:23-24). How can Lutherans teach that making circumcision a condition of salvation is legalism but making baptism a condition of salvation is not?
Some Lutherans will respond that baptism is not a work like circumcision. Instead, it is the Gospel promise put into visible form. It is a work that God does to us, not something that we do for God.
But this same reasoning could also apply to circumcision. Infant boys certainly don’t circumcise themselves. It is something done to them. And yet Paul denounced this practice as seeking to be justified by works of the law. What if the Galatians had said to Paul: “Paul, this isn’t legalism. It isn’t the boy’s work. This is God’s gift to the boy—a circumcised heart!” Apparently, Paul did not take that view. Adding any requirement to faith was a form of salvation by works, and another gospel.
If Lutherans held consistently to faith alone in Christ alone, they would not make baptism a condition of eternal salvation.
3) Loss of Salvation: Lutherans do not believe in eternal security. They correctly read the warning passage of Scripture as being addressed to believers, but they incorrectly believe that those warnings concern the possibility of losing our eternal salvation. If Lutherans held consistently to faith alone in Christ alone, they would know that losing our salvation is impossible. The fact that they teach eternal salvation can be lost, shows that Lutherans do not really believe in salvation by faith alone apart from works.
To see why, consider the explanation that Lutherans give as to how a person can lose their salvation. The answer always involves something that the believer does. If a believer commits a grave sin, or persists in sins, or has a lapse of faith, then they can lose their salvation, according to Lutheran theology. This is another way of saying that justification by faith depends upon our behavior. But if our salvation depends upon our behavior, then justification depends in part on our works, and is not by faith alone.
Since Lutherans do not hold consistently to the doctrine of justification by faith in Christ apart from works, they do not see that the warning passages deal with the possibility of temporal judgment now, and loss of rewards at the Judgment Seat of Christ (1 Cor 3:12-15). These passages do not speak to the possibility of losing eternal life, because that is impossible. Part of the Gospel promise is that believers shall never perish (John 3:16; 5:24; 10:28-29). Not believing in eternal security means not believing in the Gospel promise, and implicitly believing that eternal salvation must be maintained by our behavior.
If Lutherans held consistently to faith alone in Christ alone, they would not believe you can lose your eternal salvation. They would be more aware of the difference between eternal salvation and eternal rewards.
Those are just three examples of how Lutherans implicitly deny justification by faith apart from works, and so have departed from the purity of the Gospel promise. Of course, there are many things that confessional Lutherans gets right. But there are also glaring inconsistencies, which I believe have been corrected by Free Grace theology.