The true progress of the Christian life.
Gerhard Forde’s immensely helpful treatment of justification and sanctification.
Gerhard O. Forde’s book Justification by Faith: A Matter of Death and Life is an immensely helpful treatment of justification sola fide (by faith alone). Throughout, he analyzes the Augsburg Confession and some of its particulars, offering one an excellent dialogue on the role faith and works play in the Christian life. That, to be honest, is the marrow of ecclesiastical and doctrinal controversy. How one apprehends the scope of sola fide in one’s religious life will have a profound effect on one’s religious allegiances and activities. And, more to the point, I’d say that one’s grasp of sola fide has a direct impact on the delight with which one’s spiritual life is carried out. Excise justification sola fide as a total reality and all you’re left with is a burdensome life of “progress.” According to Forde, God’s justifying word, given to us in his Son, presents to us a death-life paradigm for faith, which, as he explains in the following extended excerpt, is irreconcilable with notions of legal progress. He writes:
When Luther wanted to talk about any sort of progress in the Christian life under the imputation of justification unconditionally, he grasped at formulations which stand usual understandings right on their head. The simul iustus et peccator makes it impossible to talk of some sort of moral progress in which one moves from one stage to another achieving a sort of perfection, and where every stage is the platform for the next leap. If that were the case, justification as an imputed, unconditional gift would make little sense. The higher one gets, the less grace one would need, until at last one could get along without it altogether. Justification by faith would be something like a temporary loan to cover the debtor until the debt was actually paid. Then the justification would no longer be needed. “Sanctification” and “good works” would be a matter of progressively paying off the debt, perhaps according to the popular slogan, “Become what you are!” where all the stress is usually on the become (you had better or else!).
The simul makes all such schemes of progress impossible. The justification given is a total state, a complete, unconditional gift. From that point of view true sanctification is simply to “shut up and listen!” Fro there can be no more sanctification than where every knee bends and every mouth is silent before God, the only Holy One. And God is revered as the Holy One only where the sinner, the real sinner, stands still at the place where God enters the scene and speaks. That is the place where the sinner must realize that his or her way is at an end. Only those who are so grasped that they stand still here and confess to sin and give God the glory, only they are “sanctified.” And there cannot be more sanctification than that! Whoever knows this knows that there is an end to the old, there is a death involved, and that being a Christian means ever and anew to be blasted by that diving lightning (for we always forget it) and to begin again.
The ‘progress’ of the Christian therefore, is the progress of one who has constantly to get used to the fact that we are justified totally by faith, constantly has somehow to ‘recover,’ so to speak from that death blow to pride and presumption — or better, is constantly raised from the tomb of all pious ambition to something quite new. The believer has to be renewed daily in that. The Old Being is to be daily drowned in repentance and raised in faith. The progress of the Christian life is not our movement toward the goal; it is the movement of the goal in upon us. The righteousness granted unconditionally is eschatological in character; it is the totality of the ‘Kingdom of God’ moving in upon us. The sin to be attacked and abolished is not merely immorality and godlessness, but also pious presumption, the refusal to believe in God or his creation, always taking flight toward some spiritual dreamland. Sanctification cannot, therefore, mean that the ideas of moral progress blasted by the divine imputation of righteousness are now subtly smuggled back in under the table. The sin to be removed is precisely such understandings of progress. The justification is not a mere beginning point which can somehow be allowed to recede into the background while the supposed “real” business of sanctification takes front and center. The unconditional justification is the perpetual fountain, the constant source of whatever “righteousness” we may acquire.1
This, I would say, is one of the fullest articulations of justification sola fide. And this isn’t merely some late-theologian’s argument — reading St. Paul’s letters to the Romans and Galatians would, likewise, afford you with the same contention (Rom. 1:16–17; 3:20–28; 4:5; 5:1; Gal. 2:16–21; 3:11–14, 24–26). We are so given to works-based religion that at the bare pronouncement of imputed righteousness, we hasten to find ways to couch and/or contextualize such words, terrified by the thought of grace run rampant. But, Paul was no rube. He, under inspiration of the Spirit, understood more than anyone that that is the bent of the human heart. Such is why the declaration of abounding grace (Rom. 5:20) is succeeded by the announcement of new life (Rom. 6:4–11).
The gospel of justification by faith alone, then, isn’t a token by which we are granted entry into the obstacle course of religion, wherein our grip of grace enables us to overcome each successively more challenging hurdle. Rather, it is the Word of the Father which comes to those who are dead, raising them to walk — and delight as they walk — in the righteousness freely given to them (Eph. 2:8–10). There are no merit badges rewarding all the good little lads and lasses for their progressively righteous behavior. No, there’s only the eternal reservoir of Jesus’s death and resurrection, out of which springs reconciled sinners walking “in newness of life.”
Grace and peace, friends.
Gerhard O. Forde, Justification by Faith: A Matter of Death and Life (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 1991), 50–51.