Friday, February 2, 2007

No Ifs in the Gospel

“In defining the essence of the gospel, everything depends on whether it is a conditional or an unconditional message of grace.”
- August Pieper, The Proper Distinction of Law and Gospel and Its Application for Pure Teaching and Spiritual Life (1910)

One of the characteristics of Luther’s more radical theology was his understanding of the gospel as an unconditional proclamation. He did not see it as an invitation. Or an explanation. Or an argument. Or a theological contruct. It was a proclamation preached without conditions.

The gospel can be said in many different ways, but, to be the gospel, it cannot contain any if’s. So it sounds something like this:

“Your sins are forgiven.”
“God loves you just the way you are, for Jesus sake.”
“Jesus died on the cross to save you from your sins.”

This is in contrast to a gospel with conditions, which might sound like this:

“Your sins will be forgiven if you repent and are truly sorry for them.”
“God loves you and wants you to accept his love. If you do, you will be saved.”
“Jesus died on the cross to save you from your sins. If you believe in him, you will be saved.”

These conditional gospels are very common in the church, and sound entirely Biblical. True as they might sound, however, they are not the gospel. This took me a long time to really understand.

I think maybe I always believed in an unconditional gospel, but never quite understood how it could be preached so boldly - especially in the face of what seems to sound like a whole lot of conditions in the Bible. Both Forde and the Wauwatosa theologians were of particular help to me here.

In the essay quoted above, August Pieper lays out the Biblical case for preaching the gospel promise without any conditions. He does not mince words. A gospel preached with conditions is not just an impure gospel, or a watered-down gospel, or a hedge-your-bets gospel. It is no gospel at all.


Anonymous said...

Do you mean to say that we are saved regardless of whether we have faith? ... that everyone is or will be saved?

Thanks for the blog and your reflections, by the way.


T. Hahm said...

No, we are only saved through faith.

But faith cannot be taught as a "condition" of salvation, at least not in the traditional sense, since faith is not conjured up by us. It is created in us by the Holy Spirit though the Gospel itself. So the Gospel message cannot have any conditional clauses. It creates what it requires.

When we add any conditionals, they put the burden back on us - the very opposite of the Gospel. They distract us from the real power of God's grace, turning the Gospel into Law. Then we mistakenly think we saved ourselves (or contributed to it) by believing. This is how faith gets turned into a work, rather than a gift - and the whole notion of "saved by grace" runs amuck.

There's a pretty good explanation of how we can understand the requirement of faith in light of an uncondtional gospel in a letter by Gerhard Forde posted on another blog.

Is Faith a Condtion of Salvation

Thanks for your question. I had a hard time with this issue. It makes the Gospel more radical and more powerfult than I thought. I credit Forde's writings with fully clarifying this for me.