A Brief Response To Subdeacon Benjamin Harju (on the Role of Regeneration in the Lutheran Doctrine of Justification)

A Brief Response To Subdeacon Benjamin Harju (on the Role of Regeneration in the Lutheran Doctrine of Justification) June 12, 2014

Background: The following post is part of a longer conversation with Benjamin Harju, who used to be a Lutheran pastor (LCMS) but is now in the Eastern Orthodox Church. Last year he posted a critique of Lutheran soteriology. Trent Demarest ran across it and commented, and roped me into commenting as well (this is one of his hobbies). Later, Trent published a critique of Eastern Orthodoxy written by a mutual friend who goes by the name Quiet George. Earlier this year, Harju responded to that, and in the process said something that seemed relevant to our earlier debate. So this is what I wrote about that. (Please don’t feel that you have to read the whole back-story. Some of those posts are really long. I just linked to it in case you find the stuff below really interesting and want to delve).

*** Begin ***

I’m not going to try to respond to the entirety of Mr. Harju’s post, as it’s quite long and I’m not the author of the long piece that he’s responding to. Two things, though, before I get to my main point:

  1. Mr. Harju is poisoning the well when he writes, “The atonement made by Christ does not does change God so He will accept sinners.” Of course it doesn’t. He should save this phrasing for opponents who actually think it does—if he can find any. What the Lutheran Confessions say is that the Atonement reconciles God. Now, in human affairs, reconciliation usually involves a change of heart, but in God there is no change of heart. He loved us from the beginning; that’s why the Atonement happened in the first place. He is Himself the Author of this reconciliation. God has reconciled Himself to sinners through Christ, that He might save them as He has always desired and planned to do.
  2. I expect George knows that the Fathers he quoted also use other language in other places, saying things with respect to works and salvation that the later experience of the Western Church has taught us not to say. The relative merits of the Lutheran and Eastern Orthodox parsing of these contradictions (or tensions) is a much larger conversation. And George’s other point in quoting from Chemnitz’s florilegia was to defend his construction of the matter as genuinely Lutheran—which seems to have been a good idea, since in his reply Mr. Harju still suggests that George is flirting with Osiandrianism (see below).

The main point of my critique is one which I debated with Mr. Harju in the comments section of the post that began this exchange: his claim that the Lutheran understanding completely excludes the sinner’s Renewal from the doctrine of Justification. In our past conversation, I pointed out that he was ignoring Subjective Justification when he said this. I wrote:

The faith that believes unto salvation is not the operation of an unregenerate mind. It is a supernatural gift, a change wrought in the believer.

After a brief exchange, Mr. Harju’s last reply was:

Lutheran Justification involves no change in the sinner that is actually Justification; all changes taking place in the sinner are outside Justification (objective and subjective) proper and either preparatory (Conversion) or resultant (Sanctification).

Now in Mr. Harju’s recent response to George, we get the latest, most developed version of his answer on this point:

That is, in Lutheranism, the only thing that is transformed in the act of being justified in Christ through the Holy Spirit is the human will. It is transformed from an unbelieving will to a believing will. And a believing will grasps hold of Christ’s merits and possesses them, and is thus justified apart from any works. Any form of personal transformation beyond that of the human will is excluded from Lutheran justification and categorized as Sanctification — the fruits of being justified by faith.

So by the end of the previous discussion (May 2013), he had moderated his charge to allow that some change might attend justification in Lutheran theology, as long as the change is not itself “actually justification,” and now (May 2014) he seems to have decided what that something is: the transformation of the sinner’s will. This is real progress, a great increase in clarity. However, the benefit we reap from this new clarity is to see plainly that the qualification Mr. Harju offers does not actually qualify his charge, but disprove it.

This thing he describes — a transformation of the will alone, leaving the rest of the person unregenerate — does not exist in Lutheran theology. According to the Lutheran Confessions, the will’s inability to love and trust God is not an isolated ailment, but stems from the holistic sinfulness of human nature. If the will is to be cured, the whole person must be renewed:

Against both these parties the pure teachers of the Augsburg Confession have taught and contended that by the fall of our first parents man was so corrupted that in divine things pertaining to our conversion and the salvation of our souls he is by nature blind, that, when the Word of God is preached, he neither does nor can understand it, but regards it as foolishness; also, that he does not of himself draw nigh to God, but is and remains an enemy of God, until he is converted, becomes a believer [is endowed with faith], is regenerated and renewed, by the power of the Holy Ghost through the Word when preached and heard, out of pure grace, without any cooperation of his own (FC SD II, 5).

Furthermore, as we see in this quotation with its description of unregenerate man as “blind” and unable to understand the Word of God, the Confessions are quite clear that it is not just the will, but every power of the psyche, that resists God and hence must be renewed in conversion. Here are more testimonies to this effect:

Therefore the Scriptures deny to the intellect, heart, and will of the natural man all aptness, skill, capacity, and ability to think, to understand, to be able to do, to begin, to will, to undertake, to act, to work or to concur in working anything good and right in spiritual things as of himself (FC SD II, 12).

For, as Doctor Luther says [writing on Ps. 90], ‘In worldly and external affairs; which pertain to the livelihood and maintenance of the body, man is cunning, intelligent, and quite active; but in spiritual and divine things, which pertain to the salvation of the soul, man is like a pillar of salt, like Lot’s wife, yea, like a log and a stone, like a lifeless statue, which uses neither eyes nor mouth, neither sense nor heart. For man neither sees nor perceives the terrible and fierce wrath of God on account of sin and death [resulting from it], but ever continues in his security, even knowingly and willingly, and thereby falls into a thousand dangers, and finally into eternal death and damnation; and no prayers, no supplications, no admonitions, yea, also no threats, no chiding, are of any avail, yea, all teaching and preaching is lost upon him, until he is enlightened, converted, and regenerated by the Holy Ghost…’ (FC SD II, 20-21).

So if Mr. Harju is in fact willing to admit that Lutheran theology teaches a transformation of the will at conversion, he’ll have to abandon his claim that regeneration plays no part in the Lutheran doctrine of Justification. If there is some way other than regeneration to soften the unbelieving heart and open the eyes of the natural-born sinner, the Lutheran Confessions have no knowledge of it.

Now of course, Mr. Harju is correct in saying that this renewal does not enter the Article on Justification proper, and has the quotations from FC III to prove it, but he doesn’t seem to understand what this means. Maybe this is one reason why he’s no longer a Lutheran.

The Article on Justification asks, “What is our righteousness before God?” and “How do we attain this righteousness?” The answer given to the second question is quite simple: “By faith alone.” Now faith is a gift of God, the beginning of renewal, as I have just shown, and the most crucial continuing manifestation of the same, but the Article on Justification doesn’t unpack all that. It saves its detailed reply for the first question. That’s why Article III of the Formula is titled “The Righteousness of Faith,” not “The Faith that Embraces Righteousness.” It is in defining this righteousness that the FC rules out renewal and any consideration other than the forgiveness of sins based on Christ’s merit.

So FC SD III, 39 denies that “renewal, sanctification, virtues [or] good works” are the form or a part or a cause of our justification, “that is [of] our righteousness before God,” because “the righteousness of faith consists alone in the forgiveness of sins out of pure grace, for the sake of Christ’s merit alone.” Thus FC SD III, 54 denies that the indwelling of God in the believer is “the righteousness of faith of which St. Paul treats and which he calls iustitiam Dei, that is, the righteousness of God, for the sake of which we are declared righteous before God.”

These passages do not deny that renewal or indwelling have anything to do with the application of justification to the believer. What they deny is that either phenomenon comprises, catalyzes, completes, or augments the righteousness of faith, which after all is nothing more nor less than the perfect innocence and active virtue of Jesus Christ, imputed to us — in a word, forgiveness.

So Mr. Harju is wrong when he says that FC SD III, 54 rules out not only “pure Osiandrianism” but also the idea “that the Justification that comes by faith should involve an ontological change (or other form of change) within us that would turn us into something righteous within.” Justification by faith does involve such a change. Without it, there would be no following sanctification, no “new obedience.” Without it, the faith by means of which we are justified would not even exist in the first place. FC III does not deny that this happens, only that it forms any part of the basis for God’s verdict concerning us, or any part of the object on which our faith should depend:

It is also correctly said that believers who in Christ through faith have been justified, have in this life first the imputed righteousness of faith, and then also the incipient righteousness of the new obedience or of good works. But these two must not be mingled with one another or be both injected at the same time into the article of justification by faith before God. For since this incipient righteousness or renewal in us is incomplete and impure in this life because of the flesh, the person cannot stand with and by it [on the ground of this righteousness] before God’s tribunal, but before God’s tribunal only the righteousness of the obedience, suffering, and death of Christ, which is imputed to faith, can stand, so that only for the sake of this obedience is the person (even after his renewal, when he has already many good works and lives the best [upright and blameless] life) pleasing and acceptable to God, and is received into adoption and heirship of eternal life (FC SD III,32).

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