There is probably no heresy as dangerous in the church today as that of Radical Lutheranism.
The reason is that Radical Lutheranism, like no other heresy, seems to get so very close to the heart of the Gospel message of Jesus’ free forgiveness, life and salvation for sinners.
It is, however, all a lie.
A horrible, insidious lie which has captured even many a good theologian (very painful detail — start with part 1).
And sadly, whether they realize it or not, these theologians excel in creating straw men[i] en route to advancing their own theology vis a vis traditional orthodox Lutheranism/Christianity.
What are some examples of Radical Lutheran straw men of orthodox Christian teaching?:
- All those Christians who oppose (or even just question) Radical Lutheranism do not believe that the law always accuses the Christian at some level.
- Any attempt to find a positive role for the law in the lives of Christians inevitably leads to self-justification (because they claim the nature of original sin is self-justification by the law).
- Any person who believes that the law of God can be used to guide the Christian qua Christian (“third use of the law”) takes the position of Erasmus (vs. Luther, as in the Bondage of the Will).
- Everyone who thinks you can preach the third use of the law does not realize that the Holy Spirit applies the law as He wills. (but for some reason you can preach the second use of the law).
- Any theologian who holds to the “Western tradition” based on creation, fall, and redemption also takes the position of Erasmus!
- Everyone who believes “sin [is] anything said, done, or thought against the Law of God” is a medieval Roman Catholic of the worst kind.
- Every theologian post-Apostle Paul and prior to Luther did not really believe that God wanted man to live from the favor of God but rather by the law of God.
- All other Reformers after Luther (Melancthon, Chemnitz, Gerhard) did not “get” Luther’s theology and betrayed it.
- Again, “theology which concerns itself with propositions, or with things as they are in their essence, is a theology of glory, or a theology ‘about the cross,’ rather than a theology of the cross…” (see above picture)
One might think that no one even relatively involved in the practice of academic theology could get away with this many straw men, but, evidently, it is possible (and won’t even keep you from being endorsed by respected church historians). The following tweet helps to identify the issue at the root of the problem which needs to be rooted out:
What, however, causes one to narrow the content of preaching in this way? Let’s look at the biggest Radical Lutheran straw man of them all: outside of people like the Apostle Paul and Martin Luther, the church has taught that the law forces God to send His Son to die.
And in its most crass form, found in Steven D. Paulson’s book (misleadingly titled Lutheran Theology), this culminates with Jesus Christ Himself being implicated in actual and original sin:
“[On the cross] Christ comes to believe he was guilty…. Confessing made it so, and thus Christ committed his own, personal sin—not only an actual sin, but the original sin… not only did he confess our sins as his own (and believed it), but he proceeded to take on every single sin ever committed in the world: “I have committed the sins of the world” (“Ego commisi peccata mundi”).” (Paulson, Lutheran Theology, 105).
Evidently, we are to believe that this is at the heart of the atonement and is God’s will!
Let’s look at something presumably less rhetorical (Is that what that was? Does anyone really know?) and more careful: an article on the atonement of our Lord Jesus Christ from the recent Dictionary of Luther and the Lutheran Traditions, from the same Steve Paulson along with Nicholas Hopman:
The Father and Son did not conduct a legal transaction between themselves in which the Son gained a legal righteousness though accepting the results of the Father’s supposed need to pour out His wrath. Instead, the Father and Son, in mercy, worked together outside the law, stealing sinner’s most precious possessions, their sins. The law then reacted and legally condemned Christ for his sin (48-49, bold and italics mine).
This tracks with another thing Paulson says in his book above: “Paul’s point is exact: the law is no respecter of persons, it does not identify Christ among sinners as an exception to the rule. Law as ‘blind lady justice’ executes its judgment regardless of race, color, creed—or divinity.” (104). Later on in his article with Hopman, he says that “Christ makes a “payment for sin to the law” and “once Christ satisfies the law on the cross… the Father owes Christ his resurrection” (50, italics mine).[ii]
What an odd way of framing the orthodox doctrine of the vicarious satisfaction – and only in order to knock it down, of course, and claim the crown for itself!
And as is always the case in Radical Lutheranism, notice how the enigmatic and sneaky Law gets loose and does its own thing, even, supposedly, justly accusing Christ of sin. This is because, shockingly, in the radical Lutheran reckoning of things, the Law really has no connection with God’s character!
Nevertheless, on the one hand, one can see why Radical Lutheranism sounds so good.
It sounds great because it gets oh so much right! For instance:
“Christ pays for sins, suffers punishment, and makes satisfaction. However, this satisfaction is not the goal or driving force behind his dying. The primary force is the Father’s merciful will that Christ comes to take away the sins in order to prevent the sins from damning sinners. Therefore, Christ suffers and pays the price of sin, which is death (Rom. 6:23)” (49).
Amen! Sound it from the rooftops! Go tell it on the mountain!
And yet, the devil is not even usually in the details, but is simply in what is never said, never proclaimed…
Deny the penal substitutionary atonement, and the “for you” of the Gospel disappears. pic.twitter.com/lgblBKSlgG
— Todd Wilken (@toddwilken) January 7, 2019
Still, as we can see from that first Paulson/Hopman quote above, there are some details that really do give things away. Note in particular the following two quotes which make clear the dislike for God’s eternal law.
When it comes to Christ’s work of atonement, the Father should be understood apart from such a law:
No lex aeterna (eternal law) or unstoppable desire to pour out wrath compelled the Father to sacrifice his Son to fulfill legal righteousness or wrath… (48, bold and italics mine).
And, not to be outdone, the Son of God’s work on the cross really has nothing to do with the eternal law either.
No law within God (lex aeterna) compelled Christ to do [His work on the cross]. His completely free will, bound only by his love for sinners and his love for his Father, obeyed His Father (48, italics mine).
What is missing here?
First of all, let’s state the obvious: God the Father was not forced by Himself – or by some Law which regulated Him – to put Jesus to death. Nor was the Son so forced.
Again, what a strange way of putting things! This is not orthodox Christianity, but a tired caricature of the same. Orthodox Christianity does not teach that God was “subject to the law” (51), but that law and gospel exists precisely because of the character of God the Father and His Son. This character also explains the true significance of the cross in Romans 3: we see the reconciliation of justice (“so that he might be just”) and mercy (“and [be] the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus”).
This is in accordance with who God is and what God wants to do.
All done for our sake, as not only the Father, but the Son, were “compelled” only by love for the world (John 3:16).
One of Jesus' most powerful statements is "Father forgive them…." Stephen follows suit.
So let's think on this carefully.
Supreme eagerness to forgive, even action doing everything so that reconciliation takes place. Yes. (2 Cor. 5)
Meeting demands to forgive and forget? No.
— Nathan Rinne (@NathanRinne) January 2, 2019
To continue putting the nails in the coffin of Paulson’s and Hopman’s program (and may it have a quick and blessed end), we should address their peculiar droning on about “legal righteousness” (see the bold and italicized portions of the quotes above).
What happened at the cross, and beyond, was not that “the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit… work together outside the law in mercy” (51, italics mine). Understood most simply, legal righteousness, or righteousness according to the law, specifically in the Ten Commandments, proclaims an imperfect picture of what must be done, what is prescribed. Even better, given that it is from God, reflects God, and is for man, legal righteousness simply proclaims what real righteousness looks like. And it does us well to note here that legal righteousness involves both justice and compassion (see, e.g., Matthew 23:23).
In other words, legal righteousness, in its essence, describes the man Jesus Christ, the one mediator between God and man (and what is truly ours through his work on our behalf).
“Luther bound himself to the Word of God. There he stood because that’s what God had clearly said. Radical Lutherans, on the other hand, have to torture Scripture until it confesses to what they’ve already chosen to believe.” https://t.co/X2igPq1CF3
— Todd Wilken (@toddwilken) January 4, 2019
For them, second generation Lutheran reformers (like Flacius and Chemnitz) preserved Luther’s teaching of the atonement even as they insist that they changed it as well (make up your mind!): “for [them], this obedience to the law is not only to suffer its punishment passively, as in Luther, but atonement also depends of Christ’s actual obedience to the law” (49).[iv] To say the least, this is assuming a lot about Luther – without any evidence or argument to support such assertions.
Paulson and Hopman’s overriding desire to show pastoral compassion, in line with Martin Luther, can elicit sympathy. They write:
“Luther repeatedly returns to the claim that everything the Father and Son are doing in the atonement is for the sake of providing comfort to sinners, specifically in the present. [In Luther’s commentary on Galatians,] the aim of Luther’s commentary/preaching is faith (fiducia=trust) in the hearer” (50).
Again, amen! And Paulson is right to point out the Christian’s consistent need to hear the Gospel message throughout their life (Outlaw God, xxxvii-xxix). Amen and amen and amen! From this Gospel word alone we live!
There is no greater news!
At the same time, does not comfort for sinners also means that all evil, evils outside us and evils inside us, will be finally dealt with, as Luther well knew?
Evil must be relentlessly identified, excised, and slain.
All this must happen by the fiery justice on display at the cross, with God’s wrath either being quenched in the flesh and blood of the Christ, or on the Great Last Day, when vengeance for God’s people will involve the “banning” (see Hebrews 13:13) of all those following in Satan’s train, in accordance with their various degrees of guilt.
My Christian brethren enamored or even just friendly towards Radical Lutheranism, please listen to me: “Can you see what is going wrong here?” Listen to Luther:
…and abandon the notion that “If God has been satisfied, where is God’s mercy?” is the question.
Embrace our Fearsome and Good King.
"Would you say God is incapable or unwilling to love us outside of/before Jesus' death? In other words, is Jesus' death a prerequisite for God's love?"
— Nathan Rinne (@NathanRinne) December 6, 2018
[i] A “straw man” is when you improperly characterize the positions of those who oppose you in order to defeat them more easily.
[ii] They also state that God “owes salvation to the sinners who apply Christ’s fulfillment of the law to themselves through faith” (50).
[iii] Just like feminists are terrified of the prospect of an enduring male-female polarity, the consistent Radical Lutherans is terrified that the character of God does not change, and is accurately reflected in His law.
[iv] “Lutheran Orthodoxy failed to understand Luther’s teaching about Christ’s death and the relationship between law and gospel in this critical locus, greatly harming Lutheranism throughout the world and helping to deliver it into the legalistic arms of Pietism, antisacramental Protestantism, and modern secularism” (51).