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Protestants in Crisis over Justification by Faith

Chapter 5 —
The Need for a Covenantal Framework

If redemptive history is the stuff of theology, the covenant is the governing principle behind that history. From beginning to end, the Bible is the story of the covenant.

In his dedicatory prayer at the temple, Solomon said, "O Lord, God of Israel, there is no God like You in heaven above or on earth below—You who keep Your covenant of love" (1 Kings 8:23). That which distinguishes the God of the Bible from all other gods is the covenant. The true God is a God of covenant. The covenant is sometimes called His oath, promise, word or even commandment. He will carry out the terms of His covenant with undeviating fidelity. He will never break His covenant (Ps. 89:34). As far as God is concerned, His covenant is exalted above everything (Ps. 138:2). He will even lay down His life for its honor. Calvary is proof of that!

Man, being made in the image of God, is a creature of covenant. He has a covenantal relationship to God, to society and to the world. The stipulations of that covenant are the Ten Commandments (Ex. 34:27, 28; Deut. 4:13). Sinning is not just breaking a code of conduct; it is a violation and disruption of covenantal fellowship. When man breaks the covenant, he mars God's image and dehumanizes himself to the level of a beast.1

The covenantal framework of the Bible has an important bearing on the justification-by-faith debate. When justification is presented as the covenantal thing that it is, it is the greatest defense for the Reformation faith. Unfortunately, however, Lutherans have tended to avoid anything sounding like covenantal theology for fear of Calvinism. This writer has detected such antipathy toward Calvinism among many Lutherans that they hesitate to give due emphasis to important biblical truths lest they might acknowledge something of merit in Reformed theology. It is certainly too bad when Lutherans are reluctant to learn anything from their brethren in the other great Reformation stream. We suggest that the Reformed have often done better than Lutherans in maintaining the forensic character of justification because they have a more positive view of the covenant and law. In saying this, we are not trying to defend all the aspects of covenantal theology which developed within Calvinism. But Lutherans cannot ignore this covenantal framework of the Bible without greatly impoverishing their theology.

Let us therefore consider the bearing that covenantal faith has on the crisis over justification by faith.

1. The covenantal framework of the Bible explains the Bible's preference for legal or juridical terminology. The men of the Old Testament never tire of depicting the relations between God and His people in terms of the court of law. The covenantal lawsuit is a recurring theme in the prophets (Isa. 1:18; 43:26; Hosea 4:1; 12:2; Micah 6:2; etc.) The New Testament does not abandon this preference for legal terminology. Paul's theology abounds in forensic speech.

"He preaches Christ crucified and glories in the cross. . . . Paul blandly works out the meaning of that event in a strictly legal framework. . . . Christ died, he seems to say, in order to achieve realities which can only be expressed in terms of law, and which are fully and adequately so expressed."2

Pauline words and concepts such as redemption, ransom, propitiation, reconciliation, representation ("in Christ"), substitution ("for us") and, of course, justification come to mind.

Much of John's Gospel seems to be written in the setting of a Hebrew law court in which witnesses are called to testify (a legal concept) that Jesus is the Christ. Many of the great words of the Fourth Gospel have a strongly forensic ring to them—words such as witness, accuse, judge, judgment, convince, Paraclete, falsehood, truth and overcome.

The whole New Testament is rife with legal terminology. Familiar words like forgiveness often have a strongly legal connotation. (In the New Testament, forgiveness means to discharge from a debt.)

Of course, the Bible uses other metaphors to express the reality of salvation. There are domestic, horticultural, pastoral, biological and medicinal metaphors. But if we are going to come to terms with the Bible, we must come to terms with the great predominance of the forensic categories of thought found there. Those who try to minimize the importance of justification simply because it is legal terminology or who deny its plainly forensic nature are failing to acknowledge the implications of the Bible's covenantal framework.

2. The opponents of forensic justification have thought to discredit the doctrine by associating it with legalism. They make a subtle identification between forensic (legal) justification and legalism. They think that if they can convict their opponents of showing too great an interest in law, they are halfway to confuting them. This attack on forensic justification has been so cleverly presented that many have been caught in the stampede away from all legal categories of thought lest they be guilty of legalism.

We need to stand our biblical ground and confront this issue. If using legal categories of thought and speech must convict us of legalism, then we are in good company with the writers of the Bible. But it is here that the enemies of forensic justification make a fatal mistake. They equate what is truly legal with legalism. When the Bible discusses salvation in legal terminology, it means a salvation which is lawful, just, according to law and in harmony with the highest moral and ethical principles. God is in the business not only of saving people, but of saving them justly. His power is not raw might that is oblivious to right; it is might that springs from right. It was not easy to save the sinner in a way which would not compromise His covenant. This is what Calvary was all about.

If salvation were just a matter of exercising His might, God could have dispensed with a costly atonement. If sin were only a matter of healing a disease, then Christ could have stayed in heaven and accomplished our salvation by moral transformation wrought by His Spirit. Then indeed the center of salvation would not have been justification but moral renewal. But surely Calvary teaches us—if we believe that the redemptive act took place in this historic event—that salvation was accomplished by an act of God independent of our moral renewal. That is why we must use juridical and covenantal language to describe the act of God. God certainly wants to deliver us from our moral disease, but He must first establish His right to place us under His saving rule.

Legalism is not something truly legal (lawful, right, just); it is illegal. It is a perversion of the legal. For instance, the man who presumes to keep the law to the satisfaction of divine justice is condemned, not for doing what is legal, but for doing what is illegal. He insults the law and the justice of God with his imperfect, broken obedience to the law. The law and justice of God demand a righteousness commensurate with the unflawed righteousness of God. The law will not relax its hold on the sinner until that righteous requirement is satisfied. If God would not be as just as that, He would not be God. If justice is not done, all talk about love and grace becomes cheap and frivolous. Love can only be love if it is grounded on the most uncompromising justice. Law and love are not inimical.

The only alternative to forensic justification is an illegal justification. The paradox here is that a salvation not according to God's strict justice will always lead to legalism. This is because it will not satisfy the sinner's conscience. If God has not saved him by satisfying the law, the sinner must try to satisfy the law himself by some devious method like "analytical" or "effective" justification. On the other hand, "legal" justification on the grounds of a legal atonement kills legalism. The believer realizes that in satisfying God's strict justice, Christ has destroyed the accusing power of the law as far as the believer is concerned.3

This antipathy to legal categories of thought extends to the entire structure of theology. Lutheran scholar J. C. K. Von Hofmann, for instance, attacked the orthodox theology of the atonement and justification in the name of a heilsgeschichtliche (salvation-history) theology. He thought that the law-structured theology of orthodoxy and a history-structured theology were inimical. He failed to see that salvation history is also covenantal history. Hofmann's attack on the law-based theology of orthodoxy led him to repudiate the time-honored doctrine of the vicarious atonement.4

In his book, The Law-Gospel Debate, Gerhard O. Forde aptly summarizes how the theology of orthodoxy was structured by law.

The key to the traditional orthodox position is the understanding of the place of the law in the theological system. . . . Law provides the basic structure for the whole orthodox system and so determines the understanding of all other related doctrines—the nature of the gospel, revelation, and of course, the doctrine of the atonement.

The orthodox understanding of law stemmed, no doubt, from its theology of justification. Orthodoxy made the doctrine of justification of central importance; this led quite naturally to a system based on divine law and justice. Justification must take place in accordance with this law. . . . Only a righteousness which is absoluta con conformitas with the divine law can count in justification.

The law provided, therefore, the structure which governed the understanding of other doctrines. This is most apparent in the doctrine of the atonement. . .

Vicarious satisfaction of the demands of the divine law is therefore the heart of the orthodox doctrine of the atonement.5

Protestant orthodoxy may have its weaknesses—such as its tendency to rationalism. But in challenging its law-structured theology, we would suggest that Hofmann and all other opponents of forensic justification have attacked orthodoxy at its strongest point. This law structure is not, of course, an innovation from the period of orthodoxy. It is a feature of the theology of Luther, Calvin and Chemnitz. And it reaches back through the line of all the great teachers of the church (Anselm, Augustine, Athanasius) to Paul himself.

Theology is a science. Any science must conform to law or it ceases to be science. In this, theology is no exception. Theology apart from a law structure is like a body without bones. It is like much modern art and music, which, ignoring the discipline of law altogether, becomes anti-art and anti-music. The fundamental fact of human existence is that man is a creature of law. He cannot successfully live in society, conduct business, marry, play a musical instrument or even play a game of marbles outside the boundaries of law. Just as we live in a time of decadent art, so we apparently live in a time of disintegrating theology. Theology without a law structure is anti-theology. Much so-called Christian teaching is subjective, sentimental, trivial and dehumanizing. Mystical union with Christ is an example. If this is not kept within the structure of the "juridical mysticism" of biblical thought,6 it may well end in a religion of erotic bridal imagery and romanticism about Christian existence.7

3. We have yet to consider the chief reason why justification is an integrating center in Christian teaching. While it is true that the Bible uses a variety of "models" to convey the truth about salvation—such as the slave market, the vineyard, adoption, forgiveness and new birth—there is none which so clearly shows the relation of the law and the gospel as justification.

The Holy Spirit has good reason to use the forensic concept of justification in describing the way of the sinner's acceptance before God. The word forgiveness, for instance, is rich in meaning, but it alone might allow us to mistakenly think that salvation is by divine amnesty. An amnesty simply waives the claims of the law, but the doctrine of justification will not allow us to believe this idea of salvation. God does not save by waiving the claims of His law but by satisfying them. This is the heart of Paul's teaching in Romans 3:21-31. In Romans 3:25 we are led into the most holy place of the gospel, for the apostle here uses the imagery of the mercy seat—hilasterion. (On the Day of Atonement the blood was sprinkled on the mercy seat. Beneath the mercy seat were the words of the covenant — the Ten Commandments — which the sinner had transgressed.) If the covenantal stipulations could have been waived or their demands relaxed, Christ need not have died. Paul's doctrine of justification by faith teaches that sin may be forgiven only because Christ has satisfied the law for us, and righteousness may be imputed only because Christ kept the law for us.

This means that forensic justification is antithetical to cheap grace. Forgiveness is not the result of an easygoing divine benevolence which takes sin lightly. Chemnitz said:

Worldly, secure, and Epicurean men think that the justification of the sinner is something easy and perfunctory.... However, the peculiar nature of the word "justify" shows how weighty and serious an action before the judgment seat of God the justification of a sinner is.8

Luther's theology was grounded on the premise that the law must be fulfilled, otherwise we must be without hope. The Reformer often said that while grace is free and costs us nothing, it cost another much to get it for us.

Grace and life were given you; but it meant bitter work for Him. It cost Him much.9

For God cannot be kind and gracious to sin, and cannot remove punishment and wrath, unless sin has been paid for and satisfaction has been rendered. 10

The forgiveness of sins does not take place without a payment or satisfaction.... It cost Christ His life, body, and blood.11

The doctrine of justification shows us, therefore, that the law is greatly honored in the process whereby the sinner is saved (Rom. 3:31). The important distinction that exists between the law and the gospel must not be understood as a kind of antagonism between the law and the gospel. The doctrine of justification not only preserves their proper distinction, but guarantees their fundamental unity. Never did the law receive greater honor than when Christ stood before the bar of justice to make reparations for the damage done (Rom. 3:31).

This concept of justification has profound ethical consequences. Reconciliation with God means reconciliation with His law (Rom. 8:7). The cross does not allow us to take sin—rebellion against God's law—lightly. Said Luther with his characteristic vigor:

For the law terrifies me more when I hear that Christ, the Son of God, had to fulfill it for me than it would were it preached to me without the mention of Christ and of such great torment suffered by God's Son.12

Then what becomes of the tired old charge that forensic justification is a cul-de-sac with no road leading to ethics? Such a charge is absolutely groundless. Justification, being a law-honoring way of salvation, is the basis of all moral reform. Justification by faith and antinomianism are absolutely antithetical. It is those who oppose forensic justification who open the door to antinomianism because they preach a salvation which pays no honor to the law of God. If the message of the free grace of God is not kept near the biblical teaching of justification, encouragement will be given to the spirit of antinomianism. Only a law-honoring salvation will lead to law-honoring behavior.

4. This leads us to reflect on the current "third-use-of-the-law" debate among Lutherans.13 Does the law have any positive informative function in the lives of Christians? Is it a norm of Christian conduct and a rule of life?

Many Lutheran scholars are trying to drive a wedge between Luther and the clear statement on the "third use of the law" in the Formula of Concord. Some are trying to juggle the Formula of Concord's statement on the third use in such a way that the third use becomes the second use. Leading this opposition to the third use of the law among Lutherans have been Nygren, Elert and Aithaus. We agree with Eugene F. Klug when he says, "Article VI of the Formula of Concord, 'The Third Use of the Law,' accurately reflects Luther's teaching on the subject."14 Klug and Stahlke also conclude, "Those who deny that Luther, or the Lutheran Confessions, taught the Third Use of the Law have no leg to stand on."15

It seems true that Luther never used the expression "third use of the law," and Melanchthon appears not to have used it until about 1535. It may be true that a disputed statement on the law's third use at the end of Luther's second antinomian disputation (1538) is apocryphal. And it is also undoubtedly true that Luther's greatest emphasis—as in the Lutheran movement generally—was on the second use of the law. But we must be careful not to use the Luther sources as if they were static revelations of Luther's thought. We must make allowances for his dynamic development and even for his rather hyperbolic prophetic spirit, which responded to current emergencies. During his conflict with Carlstadt about 1522, Luther did make statements which could be understood as denying the concept of the third use of the law. He was reacting to Carlstadt's use of the Old Testament. If certain flamboyant statements are taken in isolation, one could almost conclude that the believer who has the Holy Spirit lives quite spontaneously and needs no guidance from the law—in fact, he can even make his own decalogue. But Luther's statements are to be taken no further than the Puritan statement, "Work as if everything depended on you," or Bonhoeffer's, "Act as if there were no God."

We can be thankful that Luther lived until he had to meet the great Antinomian Controversy spearheaded by John Agricola. Agricola first attacked the second use of the law and finally the third use of the law. As we read Luther's response to the antinomians, we obtain the distinct impression that Luther was thankful he had lived long enough to put the record straight. It seems that he too sensed the danger of leaving the wrong idea about some of his former statements. If he had died before 1527, he might have been numbered with the great antinomians of church history. But it is in controversy that an author expresses his real sentiments. We agree with Bring, Fagerberg, Joest and Scaer that the concept of the law's third use can easily be documented from Luther.16

Just as Osiander lives on today in those Lutheran scholars who deny or compromise a strictly forensic justification, so it seems that John Agricola lives on in those who are now denying the third use of the law.

We should not be deterred from embracing sound theology by subtle debating techniques. One technique is to use the epithet "legalist" against anyone who shows even a legitimate interest in the law. In this age of moral confusion, situation ethics and contempt for absolutes, we should hesitate to brand as legalism any form of moral discipline or conscientious obedience to the Word of God. Another technique is a form of guilt-by-association. Calvin accepted the third use of the law and taught it clearly and forcefully. Perhaps at times it did assume legalistic overtones within the Reformed movement. But is there not a danger that a strong aversion to Calvin among some Lutherans might lead them to take a different position from Calvin even when there is no good reason to do so? Reformed theologian G. C. Berkouwer points out that there may be a difference of emphasis in Luther and Calvin on the uses of the law, but there is no difference in substance.17

One of the most serious weaknesses among Lutherans is a tendency to view the law only negatively and to deny that it has any positive function. This negative tendency is so strong that it turns the third use of the law into the second use. Thus, it is argued that inasmuch as the regenerate believer is still a sinner and retains his old nature, he still needs the accusatory function of the law. But this is actually only the second use of the law extended into the lives of Christian believers. This argument is correct in what it affirms but wrong in what it denies. That the law has any positive, informative function in the lives of Christians is still being denied.

We would like to challenge those who deny the third use of the law with the following questions:

a. If the law of God is not seriously accepted as His will for man's life (third use), are not all the teeth removed from the law's accusatory function (second use)? Do not the first and second uses of the law ultimately depend on a third use? Must not a person hear the law as a rule of life before he is accused of sin? And is it not the knowledge of the law as a rule of life which acts as a restraint in society?

b. If the law of God is not seriously accepted as a rule of life, does not the preaching of the second use of the law become a contrived psychological device for conditioning people to hear the gospel?

c. If we say that the gospel rather than the law informs a Christian how he ought to live, have we not turned the gospel into a new law? Is this not failing to maintain the proper distinction between the law and the gospel?

d. If we say that the Holy Spirit guides the Christian apart from using the law, are we not rejecting the old and well-established Lutheran principle of "the means of grace"? Does this not put us on the side of the Enthusiasts, who say that the Holy Spirit works in us apart from means? And does not the idea of living without an objective rule of life expose us to all types of romanticism about Christian existence?

e. If Lutherans persist in relaxing the moral imperative, will not the gospel of justification by faith cease to be urgent and eventually fail to be relevant altogether? In other words, was not Luther right when he saw that the very preservation of the gospel was ultimately at stake in Agricola's attack on the law?



1 A beast lives without covenantal relationships. Hence, a beast does not steal, commit adultery, etc.
2 J. Duncan M. Derrett, Law in the New Testament (London: Darton, Longman & Todd, 1970), p.397.
3 If we understood the world of biblical thought better than we do, we would see that terms like forgiveness are not far removed from the law court. Forgiveness actually has the meaning of release from a debt. Perhaps we need to ask ourselves the fundamental question, Does God save us by making us good enough or by paying our debts? Even the Johannine word overcome (see Rev. 12) has the meaning of emerging victorious in a juridical contest, especially where there is accusation against us before the Judge.
4 See Gerhard O. Forde, The Law-Gospel Debate: An Interpretation of Its Historical Development (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1969), p.3.
5 Ibid., pp.3-8.

6 See Publisher's Note in Theo Preiss, Life in Christ (London: SCM Press, 1954), p.7.
7 Adoff Koberle makes the following excellent statement: "The sickly, sentimental, erotic bridal metaphors of the syncretistic Hellenistic cults, the passionately sensuous language of Persian Sufis that are all too closely related to Wagner's burning strains in the Venusberg, have been permitted to cross the threshold of Christian devotional literature unhindered in the allegorizing of the Song of Solomon by Bernhard, Mechthild, Theresa and Zinzendorf. while the Old Testament, with unmistakable clearness, uses the frequently recurring metaphor of "betrothal" as a picture of fidelity, but uses it in a strictly legal, moral sense, Christian mysticism revels in the most turgid, questionable pictures of sexual impulses as the expression of the loss of personal consciousness in the ecstatic union. Besides the erotic sensations all sorts of comparisons have been drawn from natural relationships to express the thought of absorption, intermingling, dissolution and submersion. The stupefying intoxication of mysticism that overtakes every youth who is susceptible to artistic impressions, at least once in his life is doubtless and chiefly due to the poetic force and beauty of the imagery that meditative contemplation has always been creating anew in inexhaustible profusion. The single drop of water that is absorbed in the infinite ocean, the little flame that loses itself in the original fire, the wandering summer cloud that dissolves into the azure sky, the diminishing sound that dies into silence, the shadow that fades in the light, all become for the mystical suppliant a parable of the submersion, absorption and disappearance, the dissolution and fusion into the divine 'onliness' " (Adolf Koberle, The Quest for Holiness [Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1936], pp.101l).
8 Martin Chemnitz, Examination of the Council of Trent, Part 1 (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1971, p.476.
9 Ewald M. Plass, comp., What Luther Says: An Anthology, 2:604.
10 Ibid., 1:516.
11 Ibid.
12 Martin Luther, "Against the Antinomians," The Christian in Society, IV, ed. Franklin Sherman, Luther's Works, American ed.,

13 Melanchthon was the first to define the generally accepted Reformation position on the three uses of the law—1. as a curb, 2. as a mirror and 3. as a rule of life. The first use is called the "social use." In this the law acts as a restraining influence in society. The second use is the "pedagogic use," in which the law points out sin and drives the sinner to Christ. In the "third use" the law becomes a rule of life for regenerate believers, instructing them how they ought to live in praise of grace.
14 Cited by Wilbert Rosin and Robert D. Preus, A Contemporary Look at the Formula of Concord (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1978), p.203.
15 Eugene F. Klug and Otto F. Stahike, Getting into the Formula of Concord (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1977), p.48.
16 See R. Bring, Gesetz und Evangelium und der dritte Gebrauch des Gesetzes in der lutherisehen Theologie, Publications of the Luther-Agricola Society in Finland, no. 4, (1943); Holsten Fagerberg, A New Look at the Lutheran Confessions (1529-1537) (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1972); W. Joest, Gesetz und Freiheit: Das Problem des tertius usus legis bei Luther und die neutestamentliche Parainese (Gottingen, 1951); David P. Scaer, Getting into the Story of Concord (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1959).
17 G. C. Berkouwer, Faith and Justification, pp.164-82.