The Righteousness of God: The Heart of the Lutheran Reformation. By Don Matzat. O’Fallon, MO: Good News Books, 2017. 61 pp. Paper, $3.99.
Don Matzat is a Lutheran pastor and radio host. In this booklet, he explains the Lutheran doctrine of justification by faith apart from works.
In chap. 1, Matzat begins by giving a short account of how Martin Luther came to rediscover this doctrine. While historians celebrate Luther’s nailing of the 95 Theses to the church door in Wittenberg as the start of the Reformation, Matzat claims Luther’s Tower Experience was the pivotal moment in his life. “In his Tower Experience, Martin Luther uncovered the central New Testament teaching of justification by grace through faith because of Christ alone” (p. 11). Luther was meditating on Romans 1:17 when he finally came to believe that doctrine. Matzat quotes Luther: “Here I felt that I was altogether born again and had entered paradise itself though open gates” (p. 9).
In chap. 2 and 7, Matzat relates some sobering stories of how many Lutherans do not believe in justification by faith. Matzat tells how, after hearing that message, lifelong Lutherans have told him, “I never heard that before” (p. 15), or “All our pastors taught us we go to heaven by obeying the Ten Commandments” (p. 18). On another occasion, Matzat asked seventy-five members of his Bible study class who knew for sure they were going to heaven if they died tonight. Only three people raised their hands. “As a pastor, this was a devastating experience” (p. 55). The simple salvation message is difficult for people to understand, even when it is regularly preached. Hence, Matzat counsels, “When it comes to knowing the Gospel, clear teaching and repetition is necessary until eyes are opened and truth received” (p. 18).
In chap. 3, Matzat shows his Lutheran eschatology. He does not seem to distinguish between the Judgment Seat of Christ and the Great White Throne Judgment. He seems to expect a single last judgment day where believers will appear. He asks, “When you stand before God on judgment day, is it necessary that you have a perfect righteousness?” (p. 23). The correct answer is “Yes.” But that righteousness comes through faith in Christ, not from your own works. People often assume that God grades on a curve, so God’s actual demand for perfection needs to be emphasized: “For a person to grasp the truth of justification they must be confronted with the divine standard of perfection” (p. 24). “We may look good when compared to other people, but God does not compare us with other people. The Divine standard for holiness is God’s perfect righteousness” (p. 25). If that is the standard, it should be apparent that no one measures up. Our only hope is to be justified before God by faith, apart from works.
Matzat explains that sanctification “defines how we live based on our position. It is a cooperative effort between the Christian and the Holy Spirit. The Bible teaches us to live in Christ and not in Adam” (p. 27). He continues, “Christians need to be taught how to live in Christ or abide in Christ so that they bear much fruit and experience the righteous position they have in Christ” (p. 27). Part of this teaching includes confessing God’s Word, gathering around the Lord’s table, and setting your mind on the Spirit (pp. 27-28).
Chapters 5 and 6 deal with the psychology of accepting the message of justification by faith apart from works. These are more difficult chapters. Matzat distinguishes between the empirical “I” and the transcendental “I.” The empirical “I” is our conscious content. The degree to which we can reflect upon that content and detach ourselves from it to look at it objectively shows whether we are ready to hear the message of justification. When we hear God’s demand for perfection in the Law, we must then look at our lives objectively to see if we measure up. We ought to discover that we do not live up to that demand. “By looking at the content of my consciousness through the eyes of God I am confronted with the truth that all my life and deeds are nothing before Him and that everything in me, my entire bundle of stuff, must perish eternally” (p. 41). Matzat says, “the degree to which I am willing to pass judgment on the totality of my life is the degree to which I am willing to hear and receive the Good News of the alternative righteousness of Christ” (p. 42). JOTGES readers will agree that is probably what normally happens when you have been evangelized with the message of justification. But that is not strictly necessary, especially if you have been evangelized with the promise of eternal life. When Jesus offered people eternal life through faith in Him, there was no apparent psychological preparation to receive that gift. People did not have to experience a twofold subjectivity where the content of their empirical “I” stood condemned before the perfect demands of God’s Law. That can certainly happen, but it is not necessary to happen. The sheer graciousness of the gift of eternal life is reason enough to desire it.
Chapter 6 also describes the difference between objective and subjective justification. There are some good insights in this chapter, but also some flaws. Lutherans believe that Jesus died for all, not some: “Objective justification means that through the perfect life, the suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus, God forgives the sins of the entire world; imputes to the world the righteousness of Christ; and declares the world of sinners to be ‘not guilty’” (p. 47). If that is true, wouldn’t universalism also be true?
Matzat continues: “Subjective justification occurs when, as a result of the preaching of the law and the presenting of the Gospel of the blood of and righteousness of Jesus Christ, the sinner is brought to faith by the Holy Spirit and apprehends or appropriates to himself the benefits of objective justification, namely, the forgiveness of sins, life and salvation” (p. 48).
This reviewer does not understand the need for subjective justification if objective justification is true. If God forgives the sins of the world, what more is there to appropriate? I am forgiven. There is no need to appropriate it. I just need to believe that good news. Likewise, if God has imputed righteousness to the world, what would subjective justification add? I am already righteous. How much more righteous can I be?
This view also raises the question—why is anyone eternally lost? How can an objectively forgiven and righteous person be eternally lost?
That seems to be a contradiction. Matzat does not seem to mean that the world is only potentially forgiven and righteous, but actually so.
The problem here is that Lutheran thought takes the atonement as a “package.” It fails to sufficiently distinguish between the universal and particular aspects of the benefits of the cross. The cross has different benefits for different people under different conditions. Some benefits are universal and unconditional (e.g., that Jesus takes away the sins of the world). Other benefits are conditioned on faith and only given to believers (e.g., everlasting life). Careful Bible students ought to discover which is which.
“We do not tell people you must believe and get saved or right with God. We don’t have faith in our own faith. We proclaim that the world of sinners has been saved and declared to be right with God. Through this proclamation of the Law and the finished work of Christ, the Holy Spirit produces faith which grasps and apprehends the benefits of that finished work” (p. 50). Elsewhere Matzat says that it is not for him to judge whether people who have been baptized as infants but who have never believed “are going to heaven or not” (p. 57).
On the contrary, Jesus very definitely taught that you must believe to get saved or you are condemned already: “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life…He who believes in Him is not condemned; but he who does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God” (John 3:16, 18). If someone has never believed, he should know he is condemned until he comes to faith. That is what Jesus taught.
JOTGES readers will appreciate this passage: “Faith is not some non-descript emotion about God nor the mere acceptance of the historical facts of the Gospels. Faith is very specific. Faith grasps the promises of God. Where you have a promise, such as the promise of the forgiveness of sins and justification, their faith is active” (p. 53). Saving faith is faith in a promise, namely, the promise that Jesus gives everlasting life to the believer.
This booklet has several very good quotes Free Grace people will find valuable. However, its understanding of the atonement and eschatology are deficient. Recommended for well-grounded believers.
Journal of the Grace Evangelical Society