SYNERGISM -- ITS LOGICAL ASSOCIATION WITH GENERAL OR UNIVERSAL
JUSTIFICATION – By Pastor Vernon H. Harley
Many Lutheran theologians who teach a “General Justification” and also call it “universal” or “objective” justification contend that any denial of this teaching is also inherently a denial of justification by grace through faith and therefore that such denial makes one suspect of synergism, i.e., of mixing one’s own merits into the grace of God in the matter of justification.
Those who make such statements are without doubt sincere in their attempts to safeguard the sola gratia principle. Although they are aware of the fact that their opponents vehemently deny being synergists, they insist that synergism is logically inherent in any denial of general justification. The purpose of this essay is to refute this contention and accusation as being a non-sequitur argument and to demonstrate that the opposite is actually the case, namely, that general justification as taught by them has as its logical sequence strong synergistic elements.
But first let us hear the statements and accusations made against those who teach that justification takes place only in connection with faith. we offer here only a brief sampling.
In an article translated by Dr. Otto F. Stahlke which appeared in the April 1978 CONCORDIA THEOLOGICAL QUARTERLY, Fort Wayne
Seminary, Dr. George Stoeckhardt writes:
This doctrine of general justification is the guarantee and warranty that the central article of justification by faith is kept pure. Whoever holds firmly that God was reconciled being to the world in Christ, and that to sinners in general their sin was forgiven, to him the justification which comes from faith God. Whoever denies general remains a pure act of the grace of justification is justly under suspicion that he is mixing his own work and merit into the grace of God. P. 138.
In a series of three articles appearing in CONCORDIA THEOLOGICAL
MONTHLY, July, August, September, 1933, and reissued by Concordia Seminary
Printshop, Fort Wayne, in 1981, Dr. Theodore Engelder writes:
The chief purpose, however, is to keep this article (general justification) before the people for its own sake. It cannot be presented and studied too often. Its vital relation to the subjective, personal justification by faith, cannot be stressed too strongly. It forms the basis of the justification by faith and keeps this article free from the leaven of Pelagianism. Unless the sinner knows that his justification is already an accomplished fact in the forum of God, he will imagine that it is his faith, his good conduct, which moves God to forgive him personally in his sins. And unless he knows that God had him mind in issuing the general pardon on Easter morning, he will have no assurance of his justification. There can be no assurance under the doctrine that God justified the world, indeed, the world as a vague abstract and hazy generality, but not every single individual in the world. In the words of Dr. Stoeckhardt: “The entire Pauline doctrine of justification stands and falls with the special article of general justification. This establishes it beyond peradventure that justification is entirely independent of the conduct of man. And only in this way the individual can have the assurance of his justification.For it is the incontrovertible conclusion: "Since God has already justified all men in Christ and forgiven them their sins, I, too, have a gracious God in Christ and forgiveness of all my sins.”264. (Commentary on Romans, p. 264.) pp. 673-675.
In an article Perennial Problems in the Doctrine of Justification in the Fort Wayne CTQ, Dr. Robert D. Preus calls any attempt to make “faith a condition for justification” ...”an assault on the evangelical doctrine of justification by faith.” This essayist would agree if by “condition” were meant the motivating cause. However, if this means that no mention is to be made of faith in the matter of justification, as the article seems to imply, and if the justification of the sinner is to be taught as taking place prior to and apart from faith, if the sinner who has been told of “the boundless grace of God toward all sinners, grace which sent His own Son into the flesh to be our Savior and Substitute, grace which sent Him to the cross to pay for the sins of us all, grace to forgive us totally and save us forever,” is now not also to be told to believe this message, lest his faith and appreciation might condition God’s grace, this essayist cannot agree.
Again in the CTQ, January 1982, Dr. Theodore Mueller writes:
...... The resurrection is God’s public absolution of the entire world: “Your sins are forgiven, all sins of all human beings; and there is no exception.”
This is the meaning of the technical term “objective justification.”
The objective justification is central to the doctrine of salvation and derives logically from the facts that God’s reconciliation, forgiveness, and declaration of “not guilty” in no wise depend on the attitude or behavior of human beings. If objective justification is denied, then it must follow that those who are declared righteous in some way have contributed to God’s change of heart; justification is then no longer solely the result of God’s grace. p. 29.
It would be easy to multiply such quotations from other sources (F. Pieper, Dr. J. Meyer of the WELS, Dr. S. Becker, Dr. C. F. W. Walther, etc.), also from much recent correspondence. However, this should suffice to show that it is not a figment of our imagination that those are being suspected and accused of synergism who believe that justification of a sinner takes place when that sinner is brought to faith and that the sinner is and remains justified only while and as long as he is by faith “in Christ.” The above quotations suffice also to show that the proponents of “universal justification” are convinced that justification must be just that - universal- in order to exclude synergism from the article of justification. They are convinced that this is a necessary logical deduction which they must make despite disclaimers to the contrary on the part of those who teach justification alone by and in connection with faith.
At this point it is important to notice from the previous quotations that general or objective justification is spoken of as “the central article” whereas the Lutheran Confessions call Justification by grace through faith the chief article of the Christian faith. Justification is considered to be a matter completed in the past prior to and apart from faith, only to be received by faith; and that God is spoken of as having been “reconciled to the world,” whereas Scripture repeatedly speaks of the world being the object of reconciliation “unto God.” The close similarity of this teaching to the four Kokomo Statements should also be noted which were used several years ago to exclude two families at Kokomo, Indiana from the Wisconsin Synod. These statements, to this date never repudiated, hold that every sinner, even the damned in hell, whether he knows it or not, whether he believes it or not, has received the status of a saint.”
But since the proponents of “universal justification” do not hesitate to accuse those who deny this teaching of being guilty of synergism, the question arises:
IS THE ACCUSATION VALID?
At the outset we shall grant that there may be and are those who deny universal or objective justification because they are synergists and Pelagianists. However, many Lutherans like Dr. R. C. H. Lenski and others against whom this accusation was made already a century ago refused vehemently to admit that they were synergists. We do the same, absolutely insisting that we are justified and saved not “by the works of righteousness which we have done,” but alone by the grace of God in Christ Jesus. We also insist that by clinging to the sola gratia principle despite our denial of universal justification we are not involved in a “fortunate inconsistency,” but that such denial is necessitated by our adherence to the doctrine of “justification alone by grace through faith.”
We, therefore, also categorically repudiate any accusation made by the proponents of universal justification that synergism is logically involved in any and every denial of general or universal justification.
The reasoning of our accusers is that since faith is an act of man, to include faith in the process of justification is to take it out of the forum of God and make it an act of man. Therefore, to keep justification in the realm of pure grace, they hold that justification must take place ”prior to and apart from faith.” For example, in an open letter to Christian News, July 18, 1984, the Rev.
A. T. Jonas expresses it this way:
“Faith is in the heart and mind of man, the one who believes, and is therefore called SUBJECTIVE, because man is the subject of the sentence, “he that believeth.” It is not God that believes. God is not the subject, but the object whose truth man believes.”
Now such argument may sound impressive and logical, but it is neither. It is indeed man who believes; but that does not make man’s believing the motivating cause which moves God to justify him any more than man’s living is the cause of his living. I live. I, not God, am the subject of that statement and fact. But that neither means that I am the cause of my living nor a contributing factor in my having come to life. Neither is my living in any way meritorious in the sight of God. In a similar way it could be asked: Can we logically ascribe meritorious cause to the daughter of Jairus, to the youth at Nain, or to dead Lazarus, all of whom responded to the call of Jesus to arise from the dead and to live? Yet, though they in no way contributed, purely by
the goodness, power and grace of Jesus they arose from the dead at His call and began to live. So, too, according to Scripture and our Lutheran Confessions, FAITH is the NEW LIFE which we have from God never by our merit even though in every case where man believes man is the subject of the sentence: “I believe.”
The accusation made against us is certainly not based upon Scriptural logic or teaching. Scripture, with which we agree completely, gives God all honor and credit for faith. Note particularly these statements: “In Him was life; and the life was the light of men” (Jn. 1 :4). “That was the true Light which lighteth every man that cometh into the world” (v. 9). “As many as received him, to them gave He power to become the sons of God, even to them that believe on His name: which were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God” (vv.12,13). So that there can be no implication that man cooperates or synergizes in his conversion, in coming to faith, in being justified an saved, conversion in Scripture is called being “born again” (Jn. 3: 3-7), being “raised from the dead” (Jn. 5: 25; Eph. 2: 5,6), and the “first resurrection” (Rev. 20: 5). Therefore, also, though it is man who believes, Ephesians 2:8 & 9 clearly rules out any meritorious or causative power to faith and attributes man’s believing and his salvation alone to the grace of
God. Faith is “the gift of God, not of works....we are His workmanship, created
in Christ Jesus unto good works...”
WHAT IS REALLY THE PROBLEM BEHIND THIS ACCUSATION?
In dealing with justification, the proponents of general justification seem to view faith only from this aspect, namely, of it being a work of man. That’s why they want it excluded from God’s act of justifying the sinner. That’s why it is considered synergistic by them to include faith even though our Lutheran Confessions clearly list faith among the three “necessary elements of justification” together with the “grace of God and the merit of Christ” (FC, DD, III, 25).
It’s true, of course, that faith is also spoken of in Scripture as a work of man, as the “first work” (Rev. 2: 5), as something we are “to do” (Jn. 6: 28), but something which God nevertheless works in us (v. 29). “It is the work of God, that ye believe on him whom he hath sent.” Scripture calls faith an “obedience” (Rom 1: 5; Acts 6: 7; Rom. 15: 18; Rom. 16: 19, 26; 1 Pet. 1: 2, etc). However, it is never spoken of as being in any way meritorious on the part of the sinner. Rather, faith is always viewed as the product of God’s activity, even as the result of Christ’s suffering, death and resurrection (1 Pet. 1: 3; John 1: 1; Rom 6: 4,11). Just as justification - God declaring the sinner righteous - was made possible and takes place as a result of Christ’s atoning work, so also man’s coming to faith and being preserved in faith are the fruits and products of Christ’s meritorious works. This cannot be stated more clearly than in 1 Pet. 1: 3, “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ,
who according to his abundant mercy has begotten us again unto a living hope by the resurrection of Jesus Christ for the dead.” See also Hebrews 12: 2, where Jesus Christ is called the “author and finisher of our faith.”
The logic, therefore, is untenable on the part of those who rule faith out of justification in order to exclude synergism and instead teach a general justification of all men prior to and apart from faith only to be received by faith, instead of including faith in the process by which God justifies the sinner as our Confessions do, namely, as an essential element merited and effected by the atonement of Christ. The very premise with which the proponents of a “faithless justification” operate, namely, that in justification faith must be considered a meritorious work of man and therefore ruled out, is false and therefore all subsequent argumentation on their part misses the point.
It is, of course true that those who insist upon universal justification prior to and apart from faith nevertheless also speak of a justification by faith which they call “subjective justification” as distinguished from “objective” or “universal justification”. It is at this point that they add faith; and most proponents of objective, universal justification do hold that there is no final salvation without faith. To us, this appears to be a gross logical inconsistency. For, if justification is justification, if all sinners are indeed declared and accepted by God as righteous and holy (i.e., “given the status of saints”), what further need is there for another justification? To some it might also appear that since in the end they seem to come out the same as we do by nevertheless putting the unbelievers in hell and that believers in heaven, this whole matter is of little consequence and that no big issue should be made of our differences, unless, of course, one side or the other insists that only its position has a right to be taught in the church and begins to exclude the other.
A bible-believing Christian, however, can hardly consider the difference to be insignificant. Once a person has completely accepted the Scriptural teaching that justification is by grace through faith, that there are not two justifications (one general, universal and objective, the other subjective in the heart of man), but only one (the act f God by which He makes and declares the sinner righteous in His sight for Christ’s sake when He brings that sinner to faith in Christ and by virtue of Christ’s atoning work), then such a person rejects not only any labeling of this teaching as synergistic, but he begins to detect all kinds of dangerous and unscriptural implications in the general justification concept.
LOGICAL IMPLICATIONS OF GENERAL JUSTIFICATION
The first of such implications is an unscriptural universalism. The Bible clearly teaches: “Whom He justified, them he also glorified” (Rom. 8: 30); and the very passage used by some to teach universal justification (Rom. 5: 9: “Being now justified by his blood, we shall be saved from wrath through Him.”) clearly teaches final salvation from the wrath of God for all who are justified. In other words, to make justification universal, one must either eliminate a major portion of this and many other passages of Scripture or one must teach universal final salvation. Passages like this force a logical conclusion of universal final salvation upon all who insist upon making justification universal. We thank God, however, for the “fortunate inconsistency” of most Lutheran proponents of universal justification who despite their teaching on justification, nevertheless reject universal, final salvation as vehemently as we do.
However, now it should be obvious that the label of synergism really belongs upon the doctrine of universal justification; for if faith must first be ruled out of justification and justification must be made universal to avoid synergism and yet faith must ultimately be brought in via “subjective” justification so that man can be saved, then obviously this “work of man” (faith) must be the deciding factor in man’s final salvation. FAITH, the very factor first ruled out to avoid synergism, now must be added so that man can be saved. Who then is faced with the problem of synergism? Not we who consider faith in justification as the work of God effected by the atoning work of Christ, but those who first excluded it because they see it only as a work of man.
Again, we thank God that due to the “fortunate inconsistency” previously mentioned, most proponents of universal justification do not accept the logical conclusion their position would seem to force upon them.
But there are other problems with their position. If all men were justified, i.e., declared righteous, absolved at the resurrection of Christ, but if men must be justified again (subjectively) by faith in order to be finally saved from the wrath of God, then quite obviously God wasn’t at all serious in objective justification He didn’t really declare them righteous, give them “the status of saints,” nor remove His wrath from all. If objective justification doesn’t really remove the wrath of God and save the sinner from eternal condemnation until and unless faith is added, then it is no justification at all.
However, even to imply the above, namely, that God declared all men righteous, justified them, i.e., gave them the status of saints, and yet condemns the majority of men to hell because they do not believe, is a serious insult upon God and His veracity. Yet such insult, whether consciously or unconsciously imposed upon God, is a reality. It was Mr. David Hartman (one of those excluded from the Wisconsin Synod for refusing to accept universal justification and its logical conclusion that even the damned in hell are justified, that is, declared righteous and given the “status of saints,”) who clearly pointed out the inconsistency of teaching that God has long ago forgiven all sins of all mankind, hence also the sin of unbelief, but that God nevertheless condemns to hell the very unbelievers whom he has forgiven and does so on account of their unbelief. Obviously and logically, if unbelief now condemns, here is one sin that was not forgiven. Or is unbelief not sin? General, faithless justification actually has God refusing on His part to recognize his own declaration of “righteous,” “forgiven,” “absolved,” “freed from my wrath and everlasting condemnation.” It is no justification at all; and if insisted upon it makes a liar out of God.
This becomes even more clear when we consider its effect upon the holiness and justice of God. It has God declaring righteous (that is, giving sinners the status of saints), even though they possess no righteousness of any kind, neither their own inherent righteousness nor the righteousness of faith. Dr. Martin Chemnitz clearly refutes any such thought regarding justification with these words:
These things however, neither can nor should be attributed to God in any way in the justification of a sinner. For in Proverbs 17:15 and Is. 5: 23, God Himself pronounces it an abomination to justify the ungodly in this manner. Nor is it a right answer in this place if it is said, that, because God is the freest of agents, He acts justly even when He does what He Himself pronounces an
abomination... (Examination of theCouncil of Trent, Pp. 497, 498, CPH, 1971, Trans. by Fred Krahmer).
The point Dr. Chemnitz is making is that it would be an abominable act on God’s part to declare a sinner righteous (to say nothing about the whole world) and to give him the “status of saint” when the sinner possess no righteousness.
Therefore, the sinner must by faith possess a righteousness acceptable to God, namely, the righteousness of Christ, if he is to be justified or declared righteous (which is the same as “given the status of saint”). This same point is repeated and the very same passages from Scripture are used both in the Epitome and in The Solid Declaration of The Formula of Concord (Ep. III, 8; F.C. III, 17).
When such problems in the position of universal justification are pointed out, its proponents like to solve their problem by calling it a “stubborn contradiction” between Law and Gospel. They do this especially when their position has God’s wrath dismissed and removed from all men and yet God in wrath condemning unbelievers to hell. They also insist that not to hold both positions is to confuse Law and gospel. Here again we would remind them of the words of Dr. M. Chemnitz:
But it is God, when He justifies the ungodly gratis by grace, without the works of the law, in conflict with and contrary to Himself, because He has revealed His will differently in the Law?
Not at all! For in Mal. 3:6 He says: “I the Lord do not change." and Num. 23: 19: “God is not man, that he should lie, or a son of man that he should repent. Has He said, and will He not do it? Or has He spoken and will He not fulfill it?” Therefore Paul says, Rom. 3:31, that we do not overthrow the Law when we teach that a man is justified by faith without the works of the law. On the contrary, we uphold it.
(Examination...., P. 498).
Chemnitz follows the above with a lengthy discussion on how God Himself provides for man a righteousness which is all-sufficient, which He offers to man through the ministry of the Gospel, and which He then accounts to all whom He brings to faith through the Gospel. He concludes this section:
....hence Christ is the end of the Law for the salvation of everyone who believes (Rom. 10: 4). And Him God sets before us through the ministry, that through His redemption, by faith in His blood, we may be justified gratis by the grace of God.
(Rom. 3: 25). (Examination of the council of Trent, P. 499-500).
There are still other problems caused by the teaching of a general justification, unnecessary and unscriptural problems. Not the least of these are these two which we shall mention briefly.
1) Why preach the Gospel? If all men have already been justified, i.e., declared and accepted by God as righteous prior to and apart from faith, then logically there is no need for faith in order to be saved. Hence there is also no need for preaching the Gospel through which men are brought to faith. But then, also why believe at all in God? If God justifies sinners when they possess no righteousness at all, neither their own nor that of Christ by faith, and yet condemns them finally to hell because they have not appropriated Christ’s righteousness by faith, then God cannot be trusted. His justification amounts to nothing. And to counter with the argument that “Only unbelief damns,” as some do, only compounds the problem. Why put justified, forgiven sinners in
jeopardy of being damned by giving them an opportunity to reject the Gospel, especially if, as some are now saying, “only refusal to believe damns”?
2) Logically - and most people do think logically at least part of the time - if sinners are accepted by God as righteous even though and when they do not yet possess righteousness, neither their own nor Christ’s by faith, what’s so bad about sin? Why not continue in sin if God seems to have nothing against it, if He has no more wrath in His heart toward anyone since the resurrection of Christ? God's wrath then no longer need be feared even by the most wicked sinner and persistent unbeliever.
Again, we rejoice that not all, nor perhaps even the majority, of the proponents of objective justification logically draw these conclusions so inherent in their teaching. Despite the synergistic, universalistic, faith destroying conclusions logically involved in this teaching, its proponents for the most part do not draw the conclusions and even vehemently reject any such association with their doctrine.
So what’s the problem? The answer, of course, is that every deviation from scriptural truth is sin. It is an insult on the veracity of God and is a danger to our own salvation especially if and when the damaging logical conclusions are drawn, or when this false teaching is recognized as such and still held to and taught. This means that the differences between the proponents of a “faithless, universal justification” and those who insist upon one justification “by grace for Christ’s sake through faith” cannot be ignored or reconciled with each other. If the sola gratia principle is to be taken seriously, there needs to be open, hones confrontation between the two sides and full acceptance of the one justification taught in Scripture--that of “justification by grace through faith.”
Vernon H. Harley
511 Tilden, Fairmont, MN 56031