There is nothing new under the sun.
I recently came across a debate in Lutheran circles known as The Majoristic Controversy. It anticipated many of the questions and positions that the Free Grace movement deals with today.
The debate is explained by Timothy J. Wengert’s book, A Formula for Parish Practice.
In 1548, the emperor promulgated a decree called the Augsburg Interim that allowed for certain elements of worship. In December, some opponents released a response called the Leipzig Interim, written in large part by Philip Melanchthon and George Major.
One of Luther’s closest friends was an old man named Nicolaus von Amsdorf. He objected to what Melanchthon and Major wrote. He was particularly upset they never used the phrase “faith alone,” the very calling-card of the Reformation. Why not?
George Major’s response only confirmed Amsdorf’s fears. He said,
“This I confess, that I have always taught, still teach, and will continue to teach all my life that good works are necessary for salvation…Just as no one will be saved through evil works, so no one will be saved without good works.”
If Major was trying to reassure Amsdorf of his commitment to justification, he failed! It certainly looked like he was teaching salvation by works.
For his part, Amsdorf then claimed,
“All those who teach and write that good works are necessary for salvation are going directly against Luther, yes, directly against themselves. For Luther of blessed and holy memory writes everywhere and especially on Galatians that good works not only are not necessary for salvation, but are also harmful to salvation” (see here).
Thus, the Majoristic Controversy was born. The debate—once again—was over the role of works in salvation: are they necessary or harmful to salvation?
Wengert opines that Major and Amsdorf were speaking past one another:
“What von Amsdorf understood as salvation, Major construed as blessed fruit of saving faith. What Major understood as a necessary consequence, von Amsdorf treated as an actual cause” (A Formula, p. 65).
I’m not so sure.
Whether good works are a necessary consequence or an actual cause makes very little difference: if you need them to be saved, or if you can’t be saved without them, then you are teaching works salvation.
Eventually, a confession was drawn up to settle the controversy, called the “Epitome” of the Formula of Concord. The following quotations come under the heading “IV. Good Works.” It is interesting to read the Epitome because you can see they were struggling with the same issues Free Grace and Lordship are struggling with today.
The Epitome stated (I am quoting from Wengert’s translation):
“ 1. That good works follow from truth faith (when it is not a dead faith but a living faith), as certainly and without doubt as fruit from a good tree.”
But then it goes on to say this:
“ 2. We also believe, teach, and confess that at the same time, good works must be completely excluded from any questions of salvation as well as from the article on our justification before God.”
In Free Grace eyes, those two statements are contradictory. If you cannot be saved by a “dead faith” (defined as faith without works), but only by a “true faith” (defined as one that “certainly” produces good works), then works are part of the condition of salvation. The Epitome has not “completely excluded” good works from any question of salvation. On the contrary, it has made works part of the condition of salvation.
Later, the confession says that good works are necessary in the sense of being morally obligatory:
“5. Of course, the words necessitas, necessarium are not to be understood as compulsion when they are applied to the reborn, but only as the required obedience, which they perform out of a spontaneous spirit…”
Free Grace would agree with that—we should do good works. It is obligatory for discipleship and for growing to spiritual maturity (not to mention, for saving your neighbors from trouble!). But I suspect the Epitome means more than that.
Then the Epitome denies that it is up to us to choose to do good:
“6. …that is not to be understood as if it were up to the discretion of the reborn human beings to do good or not to do good as they wish, and that they would nevertheless retain their faith even as they deliberately persist in sin.”
Free Grace would say that, since we have free will, we need to choose to do good. That is our responsibility. It is up to our “discretion.” We are free to fail, free to revert, free to stay carnal. But we would agree that if you do persist in sin, it is very likely that you will lose your faith in Christ (but not your salvation).
But then the confession says this:
“1. Accordingly, we reject and condemn the following manner of speaking: when it is taught and written that good works are necessary for salvation; or that no one has ever been saved without good works; or that it is impossible to be saved without good works.”
I think Free Grace would agree with this. We would agree that good works are not necessary for salvation and that everyone has been saved apart from their works. But does the epitome really believe that? Not based on what they say about the salvific difference between true faith and dead faith.
The Epitome also denies eternal security:
“3. We also reject and condemn the teaching that faith and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit are not lost through intentional sin, but that the saints and elect retain the Holy Spirit even when they fall into adultery and other sins and persist in them.”
I may be wrong to read this as a denial of eternal security. I think that’s what the Epitome means when it speaks about losing faith and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. I believe Lutheranism takes the “salvation by continuous faith” view of salvation, so that losing your faith, or losing the Holy Spirit, means that you lose salvation. So you need to keep doing good works to be saved or to stay saved. If you persist in sin, you’ll lose your salvation.
By contrast, Free Grace affirms eternal security. Once you have believed in Jesus for eternal life, you have it, and it is eternal. However, the quality of your fellowship with God, and your spiritual maturity depend, in part, on not persisting in sin. If you persist in sin, you lose your fellowship with the Holy Spirit, but not His indwelling. The indwelling is permanent. To regain your fellowship, you must confess your sin and walk in the light again (1 John 1:7-9).
In his commentary on the Epitome, Wengert expresses some surprise that Lutherans keep falling back into works-salvation, “Nothing could be more clearly stated, and yet it is rather sad how quickly Christians, perhaps especially Lutherans, fall back into some works-righteousness trap or another” (A Formula, p. 71).
Call me crazy, but I think the reason why Lutherans keep falling back into works-righteousness is that they are taught they need to have good works to be saved.