The Popularity of Steven Paulson’s Adaptation of Luther’s Theology. Part 2.

24 Apr

What does he mean? How difficult is it to discern?


First of all, I want to repeat: “I firmly reject as extremely wrong and unhelpful the notion that any severe criticism of Steven Paulson is alarmist and divisive.” And, furthermore, I want to thank everyone who has offered public or private support for my unauthorized holy inquisition. It is greatly appreciated!

Now….this longer post is all business — for the seriously theological types. 

The last part of the post (the seventh part!) will definitely look at the influence Steven Paulson’s theology has had on some up-and-coming theologians of 1517 Legacy, which again, I am re-labeling as 2011 Legacy (the year Paulson’s widely acclaimed Lutheran Theology was published)

The first several parts of this post, however, will take the time to look at some of Steve Paulson’s words as well as interpretations and severe critiques — which I believe are fully justified — of the same.

First however, we will take a look at a bit of what Luther said about Galatians 3:13, since this is where those who defend Steve Paulson’s remarks that “Christ committed sin” go first.

“Whenever someone tries to out-Gospel the Gospel, it always destroys the Gospel.” — Todd Wilken (tweet out the quote)

One Paulson proponent offered the following passages:

“Without any doubt, the prophets in the Spirit saw that Christ would be the greatest transgressor, assassin, adulterer, thief, rebel, and blasphemer that ever existed on earth. When He was made the sacrifice for the sins of the entire world, He is no longer innocent and without sin. He is no longer the Son of God born of the Virgin Mary but a sinner…”

“I answer, if you deny Him as a sinner and accursed, you should also deny that He was crucified and put to death because it is no less absurd to say that the Son of God (such as our faith confesses and believes) was crucified and suffered pain of sin and death than to say that He is a sinner and damned.”

“Every sin that I, you, and we all have committed, and will commit from here on, are Jesus’ own sins, just as much as if He himself, had committed them. In brief, our sin should become Jesus’ own sin Otherwise, we are lost forever” – Martin Luther, Commentary on Gal. 3:13 (emphasis mine)

These passages of course, which in turn echo and amplify certain Biblical passages, have always been interpreted by serious Lutherans — and not only them! — as Jesus bearing the whole weight of the sins of the world, as they are credited, or imputed, to Him.

Passion of the Christ, 2004

Those who would like to read more quotes like this from Luther’s Galatians commentary can also see my blog post “Jesus Became Sin – But Did He Also Become a Sinner According to God’s Law?”

So, to underscore the reason for beginning the post in this fashion: A big question about this debate — in the minds of Radical Lutherans, at least — is whether a special degree of latitude is being offered to Martin Luther that is not being offered to Steve Paulson. I’d contend that that is most definitely not the case, and I hope that this post better helps you to answer that question as well.


Second, we move onto what Paulson says, beginning with what Pastor Jordan Cooper quoted from Pages 103-105 in his book Lutheran Theology in his post “My Problem with Steven Paulson’s Theology” (all italics are Pastor Cooper’s):

“[Jesus] wants to take your sins and leave it to no one else; so he sins against the Golden Rule.” (Lutheran Theology, 103).

“When Christ took sin by association, he not only transgressed the law, but placed himself “under an evil lord.” (Lutheran Theology, 104).

“Here 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.” (Lutheran Theology, 104).

“Christ comes to believe he was guilty.” (Lutheran Theology, 105).

“Confessing made it so, and thus Christ committed his own, personal sin—not only an actual sin, but the original sin.” (Lutheran Theology, 105).

“Fifth, Jesus could not seem to stop himself once this sin began rolling downhill, 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”).” (Lutheran Theology, 105).

Pastor Cooper ends his brief post: “Read the section yourself, and come away with whatever conclusion you will, but as far as I know, Paulson has not publicly corrected these comments.”

Hence, I tweeted this:

Give Steven Paulson the respect he deserves.

His words mean something. Take them seriously.

When he says Christ committed sin, he means it.

And there are no doubt good reasons why he says what he says.

He too has a well-thought-out theological system…

of #FakeLutheranism


Third, Pastor Todd Wilken offers his own quote from Paulson’s 2011 book with the following view and appraisal:


  • “Confessing made it so, and thus Christ committed his own personal sin–not only an actual sin but the original sin.”
  • “He felt God’s wrath and took that experience as something truer than God’s own word of promise to him.”
  • “He looked upon himself on the cross and believed in his own belief!”

Does one really need anything more than this?


Are these not plain words that are going far beyond anything Martin Luther would have said, dared to say, or ever dreamed of saying? Paulson states that “…somehow [your sins] must be the product of Christ’s own, specific, incarnate, deep-in-the flesh will… The will is the cause of sin… it is proof of bondage and hatred of God… If Christ were obedient to the law, rather than obedient to the Father, then doing what the law required would not be free, willing, and so sponte. Christ’s obedience is outside the law, since the Father is not the law…” (Steven Paulson, 102, Lutheran Theology)

And when Mark brown says: “This… is exactly what makes RL so potent a distortion. You can talk is rather orthodox language (it is the glory of God to conceal things), and it requires some wisdom to understand the picture of God that it paints lines up with what Satan says in the garden.

I echo him: “Yes, the dichotomy is jarring, and Paulson pushes it for all its worth. And its also interesting how, presumably, doing what the Father wants has nothing to do with the will, which, we are told, is the cause of sin….”


Fourth, in his journal article, “Lutheran Theology by Steven D.Paulson: A Review Essay”, Dr. Eric Phillips gives Steven Paulson’s careful words (this is an academic book folks) the attention they deserve, and goes on to interpret Paulson in the following way:

Because Paulson is a gifted communicator, you can usually follow him from sentence to sentence and paragraph to paragraph, but when it comes time to summarize and evaluate his big-picture ideas, the reader has to do a lot of synthesis, drawing from all over the book and figuring out how to resolve the contradictions that arise….

How did Jesus save us? By breaking the Law Himself:

Christ goes deeper yet into flesh to take our sin. Although he did not commit a sin, he not only ate with sinners, but acknowledged sins as his own, that is, he confessed (confessio) them. This is like a man whose son has committed a crime, and out of selfless love the father steps in to take the punishment, but then goes too far— he irrationally comes to confess this crime so vehemently that he believes he has committed it— and as Luther famously said, “as you believe, so it is.” …Unfortunately, Christ suffered on the cross the cost of anthropological projection of the heart’s faith, where he came to believe that his Father was not pleased with him, thus multiplying sin in himself just like any other original sinner who does not trust a promise from God. …Then finally in the words on the cross, “My God, my God…” he made the public confession of a sinner, “why have you forsaken me?” Confessing made it so, and thus Christ committed his own, personal sin—not only an actual sin, but the original sin. He felt God’s wrath and took that experience as something truer than God’s own word of promise to him (“This is My Son, with whom I am well pleased”). (104-5)

Here is a contradiction much more confounding than the one mentioned above. “He did not commit a sin,” Paulson writes, and then less than a page later, “Christ committed his own, personal sin.” The first statement is what we expect to hear any Christian confess, but the second statement, the blasphemous one, is carefully justified and explained much differently than the confusing stuff in the middle about “irrationally coming to confess” the crime of a loved one. “He felt God’s wrath and took that experience as something truer than God’s own word of promise to him.” That’s exactly how Paulson defines Original Sin in another part of the book: “It is to receive a word from God in the form of a promise, and then to accuse God of withholding something of himself—calling God a liar” (152). Paulson attempts to resolve the contradiction by distinguishing between obedience to the Law and obedience to God: “This does not change the fact that the Son was obedient to the Father; it only confirms the fact that obedience to his Father is not the same thing as obedience to the law…” (107). But even that doesn’t work, because he has accused Jesus not only of violating a commandment, but of “calling God a liar.” That is, the sin Paulson accuses Him of was committed directly against the Father, so what does he hope to gain by suggesting that Jesus could disobey the law while obeying the Father? It seems he must mean that the Father told Him to sin, and so by sinning He was really obeying the Father, even if the Law had to condemn Him, not being in on that little secret.

And how is this supposed to work salvation for sinners, that the spotless Lamb should join them in the mud? Paulson says that by identifying so deeply with human beings as to take their sin and actually experience the act of sin, He confessed not just that He was a sinner, but that He was every sinner, the only sinner. The result of this confession, for some reason, was that “once the Law accused Christ, it looked around and found no other sin anywhere in the world and suddenly, unexpectedly, when Christ was crucified, its proper work came to a halt” (110). It is not clear at all by what principle this works. It seems a bizarre and inadequate theory to prefer to the Substitutionary Atonement taught in the Lutheran Confessions, but this is what Paulson means when he says that Christ “fulfilled the law” (e.g. 183).

His use of this terminology is misleading at best, because the way you fulfill a law is by obeying it, and that is the opposite of what he means. He means only that the law is spent, used up, passed away. “The law is eternally in the past for those who have been put to death in baptism; it is a memory. Their future is without any law, since a good heart does the works of the law—without any law at all— perfectly freely” (225).

Note that this interpretation coincides with Pastor Cooper’s and Pastor Wilken’s points and concerns. And note also that this interpretation certainly appears to do justice to all of Paulson’s words, also taking into context the rest of what he says in the book.

“To call Christ a sinner, and to treat Him as such, is to number Him with sinners. To call Christ sin is to call Him a sin offering, because this is how the OT sacrifices consistently speak of it (“sin offering” is simply the word “sin”).” — Pastor Eric Phillips


Fifth, in my own blog post, “What Does the 1517 Legacy Project Believe Concerning the Nature of God’s Law and the Atonement?” I offer the following summary of what I believe to be Paulson’s viewpoint, and bring in other Luther quotes and Radical Lutheran beliefs as well:

Luther tells us that “the law’s proper effect…you always ought to remain in the chief (principal) definition of the law, that it works wrath and hatred and despair…”

According to [Paulson], Jesus Himself felt this wrath: “[Jesus] felt God’s wrath and took that experience as something truer than God’s own word of promise to him”

By its own standard, which cannot be violated (as a friend once told me “When the Law says ‘stone’ you stone!), the law “justly” but falsely accuses Jesus of being a sinner.

([As [Paulson] say[s]:] “Here 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.”)

Why? Is this perhaps where we say that the law, though good, is weak? It is “good” temporally, and has a practical function for the time being, but ultimately is a creation of this world that is passing away?

Is it because the Law, focused on externals, can’t distinguish between a cry of dereliction that dishonors God and one which, though without faith, was, given the circumstances, in some sense justified?

When[, as [Paulson] say[s],] Christ “irrationally comes to confess this crime so vehemently that he believes he has committed it— and as Luther famously said, “as you believe, so it is,” does God, seeing this occur, change His mind about sin?

Is this where the will of God accepts Christ’s lack of trust and cry of dereliction that results when Christ personally takes on the sin of the whole world? – i.e. this unbelief is somehow understandable?!

For [Paulson] then, does the law falsely accuse Jesus of sinning when, in fact, by God’s judgment (which makes it so!) “ontologically Christ didn’t sin” (not sure where this quote is from, but someone claimed it for [Paulson])? [update: see Lutheran Theology, 109]

If so, the law of God here, on the other hand, does not accept this. Because, ultimately, the law of God is not the will of God – in the end it is distinct from, apart from, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

[As [Paulson] say[s]:] “As long as God’s anger at sin, his law, is his righteousness, then his righteousness is in the process of destroying the whole cosmos”

“[A]ll laws that regulate men’s actions must be subject to justice [Billicheit], their mistress, because of the innumerable and varied circumstances which no one can anticipate or set down.” (LW 46:103; WA 19:632)

When it comes to law, good decisions are made “as though there were no books.” “Such a free decision is given, however, by love and natural law, with which all reason is filled ; out of books come extravagant and untenable judgments” (LW 45:128 ; WA 11:279)

In the end then, Jesus did not just, as the Scriptures say, “Become sin” for us – He also became a Sinner according to God’s law, which now passes away…

E.g. [as [Paulson] say[s]:] “The law is eternally in the past for those who have been put to death in baptism; it is a memory. Their future is without any law, since a good heart does the works of the law—without any law at all— perfectly freely.”

My conclusion: Per [Paulson], God’s will does not see Him as a sinner. The law falsely does. What happens here though? What is the inevitable result? Now is it harder for us to see Him as God to…. Or is that just our theology of glory talking, which can’t stomach weakness in God, who should be strong?”


Sixth, before moving on to what the 1517/2011 Legacy folks say about this, I should also point out that Steve Paulson, when asked about this by Pastor Craig Donofrio, said the following:

“…the sins are really ours and never Christ’s, until he takes the sins, and becomes sin. He is innocent, sinless. Yet became sin.

We can understand this a little, since even now others can take our sins in their bodies, but not each and every one. And then not only took them, but became them. Who can believe that?

But what people really can’t believe is that there and then the law ended. But that is what faith is, which is faith in Christ, not law. I hope that helps, especially when you are defending me out there. But it is more important to defend Scripture.”

This seems to be in line with what he said in another one of his books, “Luther for Armchair Theologians”:

“Jesus knew no sin, but for our sake God made him to be sin. Luther saw the problem in the subsequent Bible commentaries. They agreed Jesus knew no sin, but balked at the bald assertion that Jesus became sin for us. Yet if you take that out then you remove forgiveness itself. Then heaven is dependent on your finding ways to get rid of the sin you still bear (like the church’s system of penance).”

And, *significantly* I think:

“Luther said, Jesus is not only a sinner, but he became a ‘curse for us’. On top of that he ‘has sinned or has sins’. Moreover, Jesus was ‘sinner of sinners’ and ‘the highest, the greatest, and the only sinner’. And in near madness (were forgiveness itself not at stake) Christ became sin itself. If your trust lies elsewhere, such as in logic’s fundamental principle of ontology (that a thing cannot have one attribute and its opposite at the same time), then Christ who is sinless and sinful at the same time must be rejected.” (italics mine)

Paulson seems to be wanting a specific kind of “two natures in Jesus Christ”… sinner and saint… perhaps making our life-and-death struggle his life-and-death struggle? Is this how He becomes like us in every way, even, in some sense, with sin? Even committing actual and “the original” sin?

I think it is clear that none of this novel theology would be possible if men liked Paulson believed, like Luther, that “only the Decalogue is eternal” (see my Concordia Theological Quarterly paper on this topic, vs, Paulson’s student Nicholas Hopman, here).

Luther had some very direct words about this, which he uttered in his dispute with the antinomians of his day: “These true disciples of Satan seem to think that the law is something temporal that has ceased under Christ, like circumcision.”

Seventh, and finally, what do some of 1517/2011 Legacy’s people have to say about this? One can find hints of what they believe, but not in any one place or article. Here are some examples of what you can find if you know where to look…

First of all we see Pastor John Hoyum, challenging Pastor Jordan Cooper on his promotion of Dr. Eric Phillip’s article, in part quoted above:

What also is clear is that John Hoyum believes that Paulson has support for his teaching in LC-MS seminaries:

Here is 1517/2011’s Caleb Keith on the topic:

As one can clearly see, Keiths’s interpretation, though on the face of it perhaps believable, does not really deal in any seriousness with the fuller picture that Paulson painted in his 2011 book Lutheran Theology. When challenged, he, like Paulson himself, simply refuses to address the very clear and controversial remarks (for the whole thread where these tweets appeared, see the original post/tweet)

John Hoyum also presumably thinks that Paulson’s critics have been less than fair, and is not shy about saying so…

Again, whatever you think about it, Hoyum says this theology is now in the very heart of LC-MS theological formation (see the concluding paragraphs here).

At the end, eventually, you have to take men’s words — yes, in their full context — seriously…

And you will need to decide.

Part 3 in a few days…



Posted by on April 24, 2020 in Uncategorized


3 responses to “The Popularity of Steven Paulson’s Adaptation of Luther’s Theology. Part 2.

  1. delwyncampbell

    April 24, 2020 at 11:48 am

    Hi Nathan,
    You know, I probably have met this gentleman, but I have never read any of his books. I know that a lot of Lutheran theologians like to try to emulate Luther by being “shocking,” but that is why I always point out that I have not taken an oath to preach and teach in accordance with Luther, but in accordance with the Confessions. The Confessions are clear, and even Luther should be understood in the light of them, rather than the other way around. The Reformation is bigger than one man.
    That’s why I don’t like “Lutheran Satire.” Being sarcastic is not speaking the truth in love, it’s using words as weapons.


    • Nathan A. Rinne

      April 25, 2020 at 2:29 pm

      Pastor Campbell,

      Thank you, as always, for the thoughtful comment. I am not sure I fully agree, but perhaps I do. I think satire might be done well — when your intention is to show love to the one who is on the receiving end. If you don’t want to be misunderstood though, you will go out of your way to make this clear. What do you think?


  2. Rex Rinne

    April 26, 2020 at 3:01 pm

    Wow Son! Keep up the battle! peace always…

    Sent from my iPhone



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