Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Suspended from the WELS - Why?

(The views expressed below are the views of the writer and not necessarily the views of the other editors or subscribers to Intrepid Lutherans.)

On June 2nd, I presented a paper at our Intrepid Lutherans conference entitled, “Do We Want to Be Dresden Lutherans?”  In other words, are we thoroughly committed to the doctrine and practice confessed in the Book of Concord, published in Dresden in 1580?  This was the concluding paragraph of that paper:

I would like to know who is and who isn’t committed to walking in the same direction with me, and with whom I should walk, arm in arm with the Dresden Lutherans, not by force or for convenience’ sake, but by conviction and for the sake of the truth. I want it to be the WELS with whom I walk along that road.  Do we want to be Dresden Lutherans?  As for me, I am WELS for now; Dresden Lutheran forever. So help me God.

It turns out that “WELS for now” was a foreshadowing of what was to come exactly four months later on October 2nd.  As of that date, due mainly to one paragraph in the Dresden Lutherans paper, I am “WELS no longer.”

The dreaded Dresden paragraph:

If we want to be Dresden Lutherans, then we will teach justification by faith alone as the chief article of the Christian faith.  The justification of the poor sinner before God is presented explicitly and quite exhaustively in the Lutheran Confessions (and by other 16th Century Lutheran theologians) as including four key components, without any of which the poor sinner is not, in any effective sense, justified before God: 1) the grace of God, 2) the merit of Christ, 3) the means of grace, and 4) faith in Christ. The Confessions do not speak of an effective  sense in which all sinners have already been justified before God whether they believe in Christ or not, nor do I believe the Scriptures to teach such a thing, yet such is commonly heralded among Lutherans today as the “central teaching of the Bible.”   I contend that our Dresden forefathers did not miss anything or take anything for granted in this chief article of the Christian faith. They correctly taught the universal atonement or satisfaction made by Christ for the sins of the whole world, whether a person ever comes to believe it or not. Thus, forgiveness of sins, life and salvation were, indeed, won for all people by Christ on the cross, through His merit alone. But no one is forgiven, justified, made alive or saved apart from the means of grace and apart from faith in Christ, which is graciously worked by the Holy Spirit.  Dresden Lutherans would never think of qualifying Luther’s battle cry, “Faith alone justifies!”, with “Yes, but, only in a subjective sense, since we know that all people are already justified without faith!”

What did I say there to be labeled as a false teacher? Why was I suspended?

There is no short and sweet answer to that question.  Well, there is, but it’s inadequate and bound to cause confusion.   The short answer will satisfy arrogant men who have shipwrecked their faith and are left without a conscience or a clue.  “He denies objective justification!”  But men and women of good will and Christian conviction will understand that the short answer is both insufficient and inaccurate.  The short answer is no answer at all.

I have not gone around “denying objective justification.”  Instead, realizing that the terms “objective and subjective justification” and “universal justification,” along with their relatives “general justification” and “general absolution” are terms neither found in the Scriptures or the Lutheran Confessions, I committed myself to a study of the Scriptures and the Confessions—as well as Luther, Chemnitz, Melanchthon, Leyser and Hunnius—in order to understand how the Holy Spirit has taught us to speak about the justification of the sinner, and how the Lutheran Reformers understood and confessed the Scriptural truth.  After specifically studying this issue for several years, I reached conclusions that are fully consistent with the Lutheran Confessions and with the Lutheran Fathers from the age of orthodoxy, but at odds with some of the doctrinal statements of the WELS.  Then I did the unthinkable:  I said it out loud.

Part of the problem hinges on definitions.  Since the term “objective justification” is a novelty in the Church and not defined by either of the norms of Lutheran doctrine (the Scriptures and the Book of Concord), various definitions and descriptions have arisen over the years with no arbiter to decide whose definition is “the” definition.  Here are some examples:

  • At the time of the resurrection of Christ, God looked down in hell and declared Judas, the people destroyed in the flood, and all the ungodly, innocent, not guilty, and forgiven of all sin and gave unto them the status of saints. (Kokomo thesis #4, defended on and off by the WELS)
  • Romans 3:23,24 and Romans 5:18,19 affirm that all are sinners and all are justified.  Through Adam all are condemned, and through Christ all are justified. The astonishing reality is that God has forgiven the sins of the whole world, whether people believe it or not. (WELS seminary professor Forrest Bivens)
  • The Blessed Exchange (objective justification): That in the death of Jesus the sins of the whole world were charged to Christ’s account in order that His righteousness might be credited to the world. (Rev. Peter Bender, Lutheran Catechesis)
  • Jesus died for all people and made atonement for the sins of all people.  (Common definition I’ve heard from numerous WELS and LCMS pastors and laymen.)

I agree with the last two definitions but disagree with the first two.  So, do I deny objective justification?  It’s an irrelevant question.  The real question is, do I teach the truth of Scripture regarding justification?

There are more variations of objective justification out there—more twists and turns and contortions than I care to address.  It seems to be a malleable concept that can adjust itself to a person’s sensibilities.  Some find it all over the Book of Concord.  Others admit that it’s nowhere to be found in the Book of Concord but arose only more recently as doctrine evolved in response to this or that error or controversy. 

But why is it necessary? Did the Holy Spirit miss something?  Did the Lutheran Reformers fail to define justification sufficiently for themselves and their posterity?  Was justification one of those doctrines that just got overlooked or taken for granted at the time of the Reformation?  Please.

I know the arguments of those who try to read their version of OJ/SJ/UJ back into the Scriptures and the Confessions—not much different than the Roman Catholics trying to read purgatory back into the Scriptures.  The only way to do it is by ignoring the context and fixating on a phrase here or a phrase there.  One thing is clear: synods have a deep-seated need to defend their own histories.

My (now former) district president boiled it all down to two litmus-test-type questions, approved and supported by Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary and the WELS Conference of Presidents:

1)      “Did God forgive the sins of the world when Jesus died on the cross?”
2)      “Has God justified all sinners for the sake of Christ?”

  • Jesus paid for the sins of the world and made satisfaction for the sins of the world and earned righteousness and forgiveness of sins for all people at the cross. 
  • God only forgives and justifies sinners by imputing the righteousness of Christ to them. 
  • He only imputes the righteousness of Christ to faith. 
  • Faith is only created by the Holy Spirit through the Means of Grace. 
  • Therefore, I do not speak of God having already forgiven the sins of the world at the cross, because the Holy Spirit did not apply the merits of Christ to the world at the cross, nor did the world believe in Christ at the time of the cross.  We are justified by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone—not without grace, not without Christ, and not without faith and the means of grace.

His answer:
I am deeply disappointed that you have turned away from the teaching you learned in your ministerial training and have instead denied the truth and fallen into error. After numerous conversations with you and repeated efforts to admonish and instruct you from God’s word, you have made it clear that you are not in agreement with the doctrine of the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod (WELS).

Specifically, you have refused to acknowledge and confess that God forgave the sin of the world when Jesus died on the cross (John 1:29; John 19:30; 1 John 2:2; Romans 5:18; 2 Cor. 5:19; Apology IV, 103).

We expect you to acknowledge and confess the truth that God forgave the sin of the world when Jesus died on the cross, because this statement expresses the truth of God's Word and the historical teaching of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in simple, clear, and unambiguous terms.

You have stated openly that you reject the portion of the article on justification in our WELS confession This We Believe that says, “We believe that God has justified all sinners, that is, he has declared them righteous for the sake of Christ” (Article IV, 1). You have publicly acknowledged your disagreement with WELS doctrine and have made it clear that you do not walk together with the WELS in your teaching.

I am suspending you from membership in the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod. The suspension is effective as of the date of this letter. The vice presidents of the Arizona-California District, Pastor Steven C. Degner and Pastor David R. Clark, concur with your suspension.

Pastor Jon D. Buchholz, President
Arizona-California District—WELS

That's the official reason for my suspension, and some will remain interested only in the "short answer" that isn't really an answer. “He denies objective justification!” 

So be it.  “What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies.” (Romans 8:31-33)

For the sake of the elect and those who are interested in the “long answer” and in studying the Scriptures and Confessions, I will be answering the district president’s proof passages and elaborating on all of this over the coming weeks and months (and probably years) with details of what has happened and with Scriptural and Confessional testimonies that demonstrate the absurdity of the WELS position.  Some of this may take place at Intrepid Lutherans; some of it may take place in a different forum, to be announced.

Most of the laity in the WELS have never heard this doctrine that all people have been justified before God without faith in Christ.   There are many faithful Lutheran pastors, teachers and congregations left in the WELS who believe and teach the simple truth of John 3:16-18.  Some of them have stood by me openly.  Others, in secret.  Some are waking up from their synodical slumber and starting to study the Scriptures and Confessions without the lens imposed by suits and seminaries. 

The WELS spin on my suspension will be that they did not suspend me for teaching justification by faith alone, but for denying objective justification.  It’s kind of like the Roman Catholic spin on justification:  “We teach that sinners are justified by faith alone—understanding that works of love are included in the definition of faith.”  So the WELS spin says, “We teach that sinners are justified by faith alone—understanding that all sinners were actually justified once for all without faith, and then receive the benefits of that one-time justification by believing they were already justified without believing.” ???

Regardless of the spin, the truth remains: I have been condemned as a false teacher for teaching that “to the article of justification 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” (FC:SD:III:25).  I have been condemned for teaching that “men are freely justified for Christ’s sake, through faith, when they believe that they are received into favor, and that their sins are forgiven for Christ’s sake, who, by His death, has made satisfaction for our sins.  This faith God imputes for righteousness in His sight. Rom. 3 and 4.” (AC:IV)  Kyrie Eleison!

Christ's unworthy servant,

+ Rev. Paul A. Rydecki

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License