Can Confessional Lutherans Live in an “Imputation-Only World”?

05 Dec
“Gospel” bullying

“Gospel” bullying

[before we get started, I really do enjoy and delight in sharing the Gospel in the narrow sense – please see this last post if you are new here]

They cannot.

Just what am I talking about, you ask?  This: today, there are many who call themselves confessional Lutherans but also say that we should not really talk about things like the “mystical union”, “Christ in us”, or sanctification*, particularly “progressive sanctification”.  Christ “for you” is the answer to it all.*

The reason for this?  One reason seems to be the following: if we start talking about things like this too much – or, it seems, in a way that they are not basically subsumed under the doctrine of justification – persons are going to veer in the direction of Eastern Orthodoxy and American Evangelicalism, i.e. “works righteousness”.

They are mistaken. On the contrary, when we as Confessional Lutherans give proper place and attention to these things in continuity with the historic Christian Church, we are decreasing the chances that persons will go elsewhere to find what they do find in their Bibles but not in presumably conservative Lutheran parishes.

Lutherans rightly emphasize the power of the word of God. When God speaks, he brings things into being. It is His very word that brings us to faith (Romans 10:17) and that works in the Christian throughout their life (I Thes. 2:13) His words are Spirit and life.

Why do even some of the most liberal ELCA pastors like Radical Lutherans like Paulson?  Do you think they like Marquart?

Why do even some of the most liberal ELCA pastors like “Radical Lutherans” like Paulson?  What do you think they would think about the saintly – and steadfastly third-use-of-the-law-defending – Marquart?

We do, however, live from every word that proceeds from the mouth of God. And every example commended to us that every word in the Scriptures speak of (for example, the way Christ and the Apostles proclaim the law to Christians).  Even those Scriptures that are not explicitly about Christ or Christ for us per se!  Where some want to talk only about Christ and not the Christian, this creates a problem, because there is a Christian to address. There really is a Christian who, essentially, is a new man.

In sum:

  • Our relationship with God is based upon the essential righteousness of Christ, sacrificed for us. Within that relationship, God would make us, by His Holy Spirit, also essentially righteous [where we reflect the love of Christ (God)]. This work He begins in our baptisms and brings to a completion in the resurrection.

Can I get an “Amen” on this? If you cannot say “Amen” to this, you live in an “imputation-only world” derived largely from modern existential philosophy (there is not just a simul that we talk about but a partim) that is not the world of the Bible or the Confessions.

Let’s sum it up again, said differently:

  • There is a change that occurs in us – this is what we call our “incipient” or “inchoate righteousness”. It’s not just Christ in us or the Holy Spirit in us. It is what the Spirit and Christ bring about in us in terms of renewal of our heart and mind and, issuing from that, conduct of life from the inside out.

Again, can I get an “Amen” on this? Or do you live in an “imputation-only world”?

Let’s sum things up again in yet another way, this time including the idea of progressive sanctification:

  • Can we speak of real renewal and growth in sanctification – as regards the essential righteousness of the Christian (yes, had only via Christ in the relationship that is eternal life)? Or can we only speak of more works or fruit?***

Perhaps you say: what is this strange teaching that our modern Lutheran ears are hearing?

If that is your reply, what follows is just for you:


First, SD I lays out our problem:

“[due to] this hereditary evil is the guilt [by which it comes to pass] that, by reason of the disobedience of Adam and Eve, we are all in God’s displeasure, and by nature children of wrath, as the apostle shows Rom. 5:12ff ; Eph. 2:3.

10] 2. Secondly, that it is an entire want or lack of the concreated hereditary righteousness in Paradise, or of God’s image, according to which man was originally created in truth, holiness, and righteousness; and at the same time an inability and unfitness for all the things of God, or, as the Latin words read: Desciptio peccati originalis detrahit naturae non renovatae et dona et vim seu facultatem et actus inchoandi et efficiendi spiritualia; that is: The definition of original sin takes away from the unrenewed nature the gifts, the power, and all activity for beginning and effecting anything in spiritual things.”

Post-fall, there is a righteousness that grows in the Christian – you can clearly see it in SD II: 65 and 66 (the new powers *in* us), 68 (one is weak, another strong in the Spirit), and 71, 72 (these gifts – including virtues – are strengthened), for example:

“65] From this, then, it follows that as soon as the Holy Ghost, as has been said, through the Word and holy Sacraments,has begun ***in us***ll this His work of regeneration and renewal, it is certain that through the power of the Holy Ghost we can and should cooperate, although still in great weakness. But this [that we cooperate] does not occur from our carnal natural powers, but from the new powers and gifts which the Holy Ghost has begun ***in us**** in conversion, 66] as St. Paul expressly and earnestly exhorts that as workers together with Him we receive not the grace of God in vain, 2 Cor. 6:1. But this is to be understood in no other way than that the converted man does good to such an extent and so long as God by His Holy Spirit rules, guides, and leads him, and that as soon as God would withdraw His gracious hand from him, he could not for a moment persevere in obedience to God. But if this were understood thus [if any one would take the expression of St. Paul in this sense], that the converted man cooperates with the Holy Ghost in the manner as when two horses together draw a wagon, this could in no way be conceded without prejudice to the divine truth. (2 Cor. 6:1: Sunergou’te” parakalou’men: We who are servants or coworkers with God beseech you who are God’s husbandry and God’s building, 1 Cor. 3:9, to imitate our example, that the grace of God may not be among you in vain, 1 Cor. 15:10, but that ye may be the temple of God, living and dwelling in you, 2 Cor. 6:16.)

67] Therefore there is a great difference between baptized and unbaptized men. For since, according to the doctrine of St. Paul, Gal. 3:27, all who have been baptized have put on Christ, and thus are truly regenerate, they have now arbitrium liberatum (a liberated will), that is, as Christ says, they have been made free again, John 8:36; whence they are able not only to hear the Word, but also to assent to it and accept it, although in great weakness.

68] For since we receive in this life only the first-fruits of the Spirit, and the new birth is not complete, but only begun ***in us*** the combat and struggle of the flesh against the spirit remains even in the elect and truly regenerate men; for there is a great difference perceptible among Christians not only in this, that one is weak and another strong in the spirit , but each Christian, moreover, experiences in himself that at one time he is joyful in spirit, and at another fearful and alarmed; at one time ardent in love, strong in faith and hope, and at another cold and weak….

71] But since the question is de causa efficiente (concerning the efficient cause), that is, who works this in us, and whence man has this, and how he attains it, this doctrine informs us that, since the natural powers of man cannot do anything or help towards it, 1 Cor. 2:14; 2 Cor. 3:5, God, out of His infinite goodness and mercy, comes first to us [precedes us], and causes His holy Gospel to be preached, whereby the Holy Ghost desires to work and accomplish in us this conversion and renewal, and through preaching and meditation upon His Word kindles in us faith and other godly virtues , so that they are gifts and operations of the Holy Ghost alone. 72] This doctrine, therefore, directs us to the means whereby the Holy Ghost desires to begin and work this [which we have mentioned], also instructs us how those gifts are preserved, strengthened, and increased, and admonishes us that we should not let this grace of God be bestowed on us in vain, but diligently exercise it [those gifts], and ponder how grievous a sin it is to hinder and resist such operations of the Holy Ghost.

So, the 10 million dollar question: is this righteousness that grows in us just Christ and the Holy Spirit, or is it really the beginnings of our real righteousness, which yes, can only be had in communion with Christ and His Spirit?

SD III: 25 ( says :

“For not everything that belongs to conversion belongs likewise to the article of justification, in and to which belong and are necessary only the grace of God, the merit of Christ, and faith, which receives this in the promise of the Gospel, whereby the righteousness of Christ is imputed to us, whence we receive and have forgiveness of sins, reconciliation with God, sonship, and heirship of eternal life.”

Therefore, we speak of ongoing conversion, which would belong to sanctification. “Only the grace of God, the merit of Christ, and faith” are involved in justification. This implies that there is something more that is involved in sanctification, does it not?). Indeed, and it happens in us, in the righteousness that begins to grow in the Christian (inchoate righteousness)

Let’s look at SD III more closely:

“19] For, in the first place, the word regeneratio, that is, regeneration, is used so as to comprise at the same time the forgiveness of sins for Christ’s sake alone, and the succeeding renewal which the Holy Ghost works ***in those*** who are justified by faith. Then, again, it is [sometimes] used pro remissione peccatorum et adoptione in filios Dei, that is, so as to mean only the remission of sins, and that we are adopted as sons of God. And in this latter sense the word is much and often used in the Apology, where it is written: Iustificatio est regeneratio, that is, Justification before God is regeneration. St. Paul, too, has employed these words as distinct from one another, Titus 3:5: He saved us by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Ghost. 20] As also the word vivificatio, that is, making alive, has sometimes been used in a like sense. For when man is justified through faith (which the Holy Ghost alone works), this is truly a regeneration, because from a child of wrath he becomes a child of God, and thus is transferred from death to life, as it is written: When we were dead in sins, He hath quickened us together with Christ, Eph. 2:5. Likewise: The just shall live by faith, Rom. 1:17; Hab. 2:4. In this sense the word is much and often used in the Apology.

21] But again, it is often taken also for sanctification and renewal, which succeeds the righteousness of faith, as Dr. Luther has thus used it in his book concerning the Church and the Councils, and elsewhere.”

[NOTE: see Pastor Sonntag’s chapter in the Pless Festchrift on this – he talked about it here on Issues ETC.]

23] For true [and not feigned] contrition must precede; and to those who, in the manner stated, out of pure grace, for the sake of the only Mediator, Christ, without any works and merit, are righteous before God, that is, are received into grace, the Holy Ghost is also given, who renews and sanctifies them, and ***works in them love to God and to their neighbor***. But since the incipient renewal is imperfect in this life and sin still dwells in the flesh, even in the regenerate, the righteousness of faith before God consists in the gracious imputation of the righteousness of Christ, without the addition of our works, so that our sins are forgiven us and covered, and are not imputed, Rom. 4:6ff

Another key question: does this love created *in us* come from a renewed heart – a heart that is really made righteous through, with, and in Christ – not just by imputation?

Back to SD III:

28] In like manner also renewal and sanctification, although it is also a benefit of the Mediator, Christ, and a work of the Holy Ghost, does not belong in the article or affair of justification before God, but follows the same since, on account of our corrupt flesh, it is not entirely perfect and complete in this life, as Dr. Luther writes well concerning this in his beautiful and large exposition of the Epistle to the Galatians, …..

This means that the Christian the Christian’s real renewal is partially perfect and complete in this life. The Confessions do not just deal with us as simultaneously saints and sinners, but as partially saints and sinners (see the link above) There is real ontological change that happens by the power of Christ’s Spirit.

Back to SD III:

“32] 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.”

Note well that particular *in us* above and what it refers to.


“….. 35] Hence, even though the converted and believing [in Christ] ***have incipient renewal, sanctification, love, virtue, and good works***, yet these neither can nor should be drawn into, or mingled with, the article of justification before God, in order that the honor due Him may remain with Christ the Redeemer, and tempted consciences may have a sure consolation, since ,our new obedience is incomplete and impure.

Note our new obedience is incomplete and impure because our incipient righteousness *in us* is incomplete and impure.


“38] 2. That this remain the office and property of faith alone, that it alone, and nothing else whatever, is the means or instrument by and through which God’s grace and the merit of Christ in the promise of the Gospel are received, apprehended, accepted, applied to us, and appropriated; and that from this office and property of such application or appropriation love and all other virtues or works are excluded.

The statements in the SD where false teachings are condemned can also help us:

“…50] 6. Item, credentes coram Deo iustificari vel coram Deo iustos esse simul et imputatione et inchoatione, vel partim imputatione, partim inchoatione novae obedientiae (that is, also that believers are justified before God, or are righteous before God, both by imputation and by inchoation at the same time, or partly by the imputation of Christ’s righteousness and partly by the beginning of new obedience).”

Note the conflation of “inchoation” and the new obedience.

“51] 7. Item, applicationem promissionis gratiae fieri et fide cordis et confessione oris ac reliquis virtutibus (that is, also that the application of the promise of grace occurs both by faith of the heart and confession of the mouth, and by other virtues). That is: Faith makes righteous for this reason alone, that righteousness is begun in us by faith, or in this way, that faith takes the precedence in justification; nevertheless, renewal and love also belong to our righteousness before God, however, in such a way that it is not the chief cause of our righteousness, but that our righteousness before God is not entire and complete without such love and renewal. Likewise, that believers are justified and righteous before God at the same time by the imputed righteousness of Christ and the incipient new obedience, or in part by the imputation of Christ’s righteousness and in part by the incipient new obedience. Likewise, that the promise of grace is appropriated to us by faith in the heart, and confession which is made with the mouth, and by other virtues.”

Consider also this: are we justified by Christ’s merit (by His obedience) apart from His essential righteousness? Of course not….

“55] Accordingly, since in our churches it is acknowledged [established beyond controversy] among the theologians of the Augsburg Confession that all our righteousness is to be sought outside the merits, works, virtues, and worthiness of ourselves and of all men, and rests alone upon Christ the Lord, it must be carefully considered in what respect Christ is called our Righteousness in this affair of justification, namely, that our righteousness rests not upon one or the other nature, but upon the entire person of Christ, who as God and man is our Righteousness in His only, entire, and complete obedience.

67] Concerning what is needful furthermore for the proper explanation of this profound and chief article of justification before God, upon which depends the salvation of our souls, we direct, and for the sake of brevity herewith refer, every one to Dr. Luther’s beautiful and glorious exposition of the Epistle of St. Paul to the Galatians.




*Even when a person who wants to talk about these things tries to find common ground by explaining what he means by sanctification, the reaction is likely to be: “You should just be talking about Christ for you” and “in Matthew 25 the sheep didn’t know they were doing good works” [ergo: if the Christian ever is conscious of doing a good work, there is no way it can be one]

**This would basically mean taking something like this quote from Harold Senkbeil and interpreting it, running with it, in an extreme and unhealthy way:

“The more external the basis of our salvation, the more internal its effect.  The more secure and solid is the foundation of my righteousness in Christ Jesus, so then the more active and alive is the faith that clings to this root and source of our salvation.”

Harold Senkbeil, Issues ETC, Nov 6, 2006

*** Or would you… say that as our faith in Christ grows (perhaps with “growth in faith” defined exclusively as the Christian grasping ever more firmly the righteousness of Christ?) it does not become more righteous, but like a tree it simply produces more fruit? Would that sum up your position well?


Posted by on December 5, 2014 in Uncategorized


6 responses to “Can Confessional Lutherans Live in an “Imputation-Only World”?

  1. theoldadam

    December 5, 2014 at 2:00 pm

    The Lutheran Confessions are great…but they are not Holy Scripture. Melancthon, the humanist had a hand in putting together our Confessions. Plus, the political and religious climate of the day probably had much to do with tipping the hat to the law.

    I found this helpful (from Paulson):


    As my pastor says to any advocate of “3rd use”;

    “Christ is the end of the law…”

    Thank you.

  2. infanttheology

    December 5, 2014 at 2:35 pm


    Your first paragraph is utter nonsense. Further, I have read enough of Paulson to know that what he has to offer is not what Luther has to offer.

    Please continue to pay attention on the BJS thread. Watch that Sonntag guy. He brings beautiful light and truth like few others, I humbly suggest.

    No one is out to take away the precious doctrine of justification. On the contrary, the way that I and others are seeing things – it is more necessary than ever.

    And, by the way, what did you think about the content of my post?


  3. theoldadam

    December 5, 2014 at 11:46 pm


    I don’t think too much of it as a way to make me better.

    Nonsense? I think not. What you are after, it seems to me, is a sanctification ladder.

    I’ll stick with Holy Scripture. You can have your legal scheme.

    Thanks, Nathan.

  4. infanttheology

    December 6, 2014 at 1:11 pm


    Well, you are wrong about me – and make my point.

    Remember this conversation? You were wrong there to, remember?:


  5. Sam

    December 10, 2014 at 9:00 pm

    Basically, you are making a case for semi-pelgianism and/or synergism…..

    In fact you sound very Roman Catholic in your arguementation and your liguistic destoritians in your defense of the old adam’s favorite plea: “I have to have SOMETHING to do with it!”

    I mean, if we couldn’t at least follow the law to “earn” our own “holiness” then God wouldn’t be very fair, our “choices” would mean nothing, and we would be “robots”…….totally unfair!

    I mean my salvation and my righteousness cannot possibly come as free gift from God’s grace alone!

    I recently heard a Roman Catholic Priest preach on Luke 13:22-30 and claim in quite clear terms that faith alone in Christ’s work on the cross and his promises were not enough to let us enter the kingdom of God but we must “merit” our entry by following the law and performing works.

    You sound exactly the same to me………

    Clearly denying the sufficancy of Christ alone and clearly elevating self.

  6. infanttheology

    December 10, 2014 at 10:19 pm


    You are not arguing with me, but a straw man of your own construction. I believe faith alone in Christ is fully sufficient. Please deal with specifics. What do you not object to based on what I have written?



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