Sunday, January 22, 2006

Abusing Luther

In the combox, David Bickel, a confessional Lutheran, accuses the Auburn Avenue/Federal Vision crowd of misunderstanding or misappropriating Luther on the subject of sacramental assurance. He then refers the reader to the following link

By way of reply:

I’m not going to take issue with Bickel’s analysis of the difference between Luther’s position and the misuse of him in AA/FV circles. Indeed, it’s useful to have an outside observer weigh in on the battle between Old School Presbyterianism and the Federal Vision.

BTW, where Doug Wilson is concerned, my inclination is to delegate that wing of the debate to the tender mercies of the redoubtable Frank Turk. Because Doug Wilson is such a prolific writer, I wouldn’t know where to begin. And, in any event, he and Frank have an ongoing dialogue, which relieves me of any duty to jump in.

I am, however, going to comment on some of the material that David Bickel links us to:

“In response to an article maintaining that God made the covenant of grace only with the elect, a pastor in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church recently asked how he could attain assurance of election given that ‘The identity of the elect is one of those hidden things that belong to the Lord.’”

As I’ve had occasion to say before, this objection is specious. Although election is hidden, the elect are not hidden.

A seasoned OPC pastor ought to be able to grasp that elementary distinction.

To draw a parallel, regeneration is hidden, but the regenerate are not hidden. The cause is hidden, but the effect is open. Invisible causes have visible results.

“Although Scripture teaches unconditional election and total depravity, it does so in order to strengthen confidence in Christ alone for eternal life.”

Is this a true statement? Not that I can see.

Scripture teaches unconditional election and total depravity because they are true.

These may also be practical doctrines, but they are taught because they are true, not because they are practical, per se.

“Misuse of these doctrines can have the opposite effect, as when Puritans desperately looked for their own faith, sanctification, or work of the Spirit within as evidence that they had been chosen.”

Several problems with this statement:

i) It’s true that the Puritans could be guilty of morbid introspection. This is due, in part, to an overemphasis on the subjective conditions of assurance, resulting an underemphasis on the objective conditions of assurance. A balanced formulation will do equal justice to both.

ii)It also suffers from a misplaced burden of proof, as if we ought question our state of grace merely because we are able to question our state of grace.

iii) When the Westminster Confession, which is a Puritan document, talks about the grounds of assurance, it is not limited to the subjective dimension. It also talks about the “promises” of salvation (WCF 18:2).

iv) When, in addition, the Westminster Confession talks about the subjective grounds of assurance, this is not something it simply makes up of its own accord. It is appealing to Scriptural teaching on the inner life of the faithful.

When critics dismiss the subjective dimension because, in their estimation, this introduces an element of uncertainty into what would otherwise be the firm assurance of salvation, they are setting aside certain aspects of Biblical teaching because they don’t like the perceived consequences of those particular teachings. This is no way to treat the word of God.

“Luther contrasted this objective certainty of baptism with the doubts that arise from probing into the secret things that belong to God.”

Two problems:

i) Baptism would only confer objective certainly if everyone who was ever baptized was certainly saved.

One wonders why so many otherwise intelligent Christians are so blind to such an obvious flaw in their reasoning. It seems that their emotional need for a shortcut to the assurance of salvation causes oxygen deprivation to the brain.

ii) The Calvinist appeals to election because election is a revealed doctrine. It is not one of the “secret” things of God.

“Luther echoed the good news proclaimed by Peter, who encouraged suffering believers by assuring them that they had been born again by the preached Word, that they had been saved by a visible Word, baptism (1 Peter 1:23-25; 3:21).”

The appeal to 1 Pet 3:21 either proves too much or too little. Is everyone saved who was ever baptized?

Blind faith is baptism is guilty of the same presumption as the blind faith of many Jews in circumcision or the Temple as a religious rabbit’s foot.

“Regeneration by water and the Spirit is certain precisely because it rests on the will of the truthful and loving God, not on anything in people (John 1:12-13; 3:5-8).”

This assumes a sacramental reading of Jn 3:5, which is anachronistic considering that Christian baptism had not even been instituted at the time Jesus was addressing Nicodemus.

“Another Letter in the same issue shows how the doctrine of limited atonement undermines the assurance of consistent Calvinists.”

And another illogical objection. Universal atonement would only ground the assurance of salvation if everyone for whom Christ died was heaven-bound. Only a universalist can consistently appeal to universal atonement to ground the assurance of salvation. Barring universal salvation, the inference is fallacious.

Again, why do otherwise intelligent Christians fall prey to such obviously specious reasoning?


  1. “Luther echoed the good news proclaimed by Peter, who encouraged suffering believers by assuring them that they had been born again by the preached Word, that they had been saved by a visible Word, baptism (1 Peter 1:23-25; 3:21).”

    The appeal to 1 Pet 3:21 either proves too much or too little. Is everyone saved who was ever baptized?

    a. Why would a paedobaptist appeal to this text, especially one that says that the grace conferred in baptism can die and the person baptized become an apostate? A Presbyterian has a better case here by pointing to baptism as a seal of what is to come, but a consistent Presbyterian, I would think, would also say that one can't look to his infant baptism for anything if he's not personally converted. I would think a Lutheran would do the same on that count, but then that same Lutheran also affirms the poasible apostasy of the converted too, no?

    b. A credo-baptist, because they believe in a regenerate church membership (both universal/invisible and visible/local) may, in theory, appeal to this verse more effectively. If one cannot lose one's salvation, and, in theory, one is being baptized as a sign of his conversion, which has already occurred, then one can, in that instance look to it as a public testimony and a tangible assurance of your salvation.

    c. Ergo Lutheran sacramentology cannot sustain such an appeal, and neither can its ecclesiology, unless it argues for a regenerate church membership. A Presbyterian would have a better claim in that respect, but still it would only be true if the infant baptized was converted. Regenerate church membership per se is, however, a Baptist distinctive, and, even then, credo-baptism assumes genuine conversion has taken place. Unregenerate, yet baptized church members are a big problem in synergist Baptist churches in particular; just ask an SBC pastor, thus even this breaks down in practice, though not at the conceptual level.

    d. The reference to baptism here is a typological reference to the Flood, the other metaphor in the text. As the flood symbolizes judgment and subsequently the cleansing of the land, so the rite of baptism is seen to outwardly symbolize the believers identification with Christ, who has endured judgment for sin for His people and been raised from the dead on their behalf. The Flood figures baptism; baptism figures salvation. In both instances, the water speaks of judgment (the death of the wicked in the Flood parallels the death of Christ for the believer). Baptism "saves you" not by the water itself, but by a good conscience, that is, by participating in it, the believer is demonstrating an inward reality, his acquienscence to the Lordship of Christ, who is in heaven with all power and authority over him. Effectively, by entering into it, one is appealing to God for a clear conscience, that is to say, it is representative of an inward spiritual reality that would affirm a voluntariness on the part of the individual. Either it is occurring as the individual enters the waters, functioning like a sacrmental "sinner's prayer" now function in many traditions, or after conversion itself, which is the way credo-baptists, less Campbellites, practice it.

    The way the text is adult believers...seems to support the credobaptist view of baptism here, because an appeal to God for a clear conscience and submission to Christ's Lordship implies a personal act of the will, a need for a clear conscience, not merely a presumptive promise of what God will do for a child.

    Rather than baptism conferring a grace that must be nourished in order to prevent apostasy, it is a type of the work of Christ in his deah, burial, are resurrection. It is these effectual works of Christ that "save" us in baptism, in that the act is representative of the inward appeal we have made for forgiveness of sins and submission to Christ's Lordship. A Reformed understanding of what lies behind that appeal, the electing and regenerating grace of God, is what underwrites that effectualness, and limited atonement underwrites saving faith and repentance as benefits purchased for the elect via the cross and the resurrection vindicating the righteousness of Christ for the imputation of that righteousness to the believer via justification and subsequently keeping said convert believing and persevering to the end.

    However, Lutheran baptism denies the effectual nature of baptism in that respect, for the grace conferred must be nourished lest it die and the individual apostasy into perdition, so to appeal to a text that says baptism saves you (an effectual phenomenon) and then to deny its effectualness denies the text its weight.

    One can thus only look to baptism as a means of assurance if one has actually been converted. The best sustainable appeal here would logically lead to a doctrine of a regenerate church membership and a doctrine of the security of the believer from apostasy, neither of which confessional Lutheranism generally sustains.

    “Another Letter in the same issue shows how the doctrine of limited atonement undermines the assurance of consistent Calvinists.”

    Au contrare, just the opposite is true. Under a theory of non-univeralist, but general atonement, nobody's salvation is *secured*. Limited atonement secures the salvation of the believer completely. Universal atonement requires synergism. Limited atonement is the corollary of election which secures fully and completely all the spiritual benefits conferred upon believers, including regeneration, repentance, saving faith, etc. Furthermore, Christ dies for those given to Him by the Father. In securing redemption for them, He fulfills this portion of His covenant with the Father, and the Holy Spirit is thus sent to apply those benefits infallibly to those persons. Thus, according to Calvinism, the faithful preaching of the Gospel has a guaranteed success rate. Only God knows the percentages, but, according to Calvinism, a set number will be saved by the preaching of the Gospel. But, according to a synergist theory of the will, far fewer people might respond to the Gospel or even none at all; ditto for those baptized as infants.

  2. Steve, thank you for this opportunity to reply to your interesting critique of my post. For clarity, I organized my responses under two headings.

    Abuse of the doctrine of election
    You maintain that Scripture does not teach total depravity and unconditional election in order to strengthen believers’ confidence in Christ for eternal life, but merely because those doctrines are true. They are true indeed, but so are a lot of things never revealed in Scripture. For example, the fact that light travels faster than sound was not written therein. The whole world could not contain all the books needed to record everything Christ did. But what was written is there, not to satisfy our curiosity, but to give us hope (Romans 15:4). This was recognized in the Formula of Concord (1580): “Accordingly we believe and maintain that if anybody teaches the doctrine of the gracious election of God to eternal life in such a way that disconsolate Christians can find no comfort in this doctrine but are driven to doubt and despair, or in such a way that the impenitent are strengthened in their self-will, he is not teaching the doctrine according to the Word and will of God, but in accord with his reason and under the direction of the devil, since everything in Scripture, as St. Paul testifies, was written for our instruction that by steadfastness and by the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.” As a result, Calvinism and the opposite extreme, synergism, were condemned.

    Christ’s unconditional, effectual promise made by word and by water
    The Westminster Confession does, as you say, speak of “promises” of salvation, but, departing from the faith of the Augsburg Confession, makes those “promises” conditional on subjective evidences. This makes it very difficult for Calvinists, myself, until recently, included, to understand how Luther could gain such certainty from the objective promise of the gospel in the spoken word, in baptism, etc. Since Christ himself promised me forgiveness and eternal life, I can believe him without putting my faith in my own belief or works.* If trusting Christ alone for eternal life is not assurance of salvation, then what is? But if I cannot put saving faith in Christ until I can look to my own saving faith, then such faith cannot ever begin. Charles Hodge and John Owen made some revealing attempts to solve this problem, which necessarily arises from Calvin’s doctrine of limited atonement. Let me tie this back to the means of grace and answer the main objection made by Gene: both in the preaching of the gospel and in my baptism, Christ himself promised me that his death, as a propitiation for the sins of the whole world, effectually reconciled me to God (epistles of the apostles Paul and John). If I believe that promise, the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, do I not have eternal life? If some apostate rejects the promise made to him in his baptism, that is indeed mysterious, but certainly no more so than the Incarnation, and my faith in Christ’s revealed promise need not be shaken by my failure to understand the depths of those mysteries he has not revealed to me. If that sounds too easy, then you have understood the good news. Why speak of assurance as if it were something to earn by works? Luther did not seek “a shortcut to the assurance of salvation,” causing “oxygen deprivation to the brain,” but rather the apostolic doctrine of justification, igniting the Reformation of the church.

    * Note that this does not logically imply that everyone believes the promise. Others’ faith, or the lack thereof, is not the object of my faith.
    ** It should go without saying that this has nothing to do with Arminian or other synergistic delusions about an atonement to give people the chance to choose to believe, but if any doubt remains concerning what Lutherans teach about decisionism, Luther’s Bondage of the Will and the Formula of Concord can dispel it.