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Justification and the Law


and the Law

An inquiry into the relation of

the doctrines of justification


the role of the Law of Moses

in Christian ethics

Huizer Art Center Publication

Robbert Veen

Huizer Art Center Publishing
Trompstraat 65
1271 SZ Huizen

By the same author:

Fulfillment of the Law, Huizen 2005

ISBN 1 – 4116 – 5927 - 9

The End of the Law?, Huizen 2005

This edition 2005 @ by H.A.C. and R.A. Veen

Printing on demand:

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced, stored in

a database or retrieval system, or published, in any for or any way,
electronically, mechanically, by print, photoprint, microfilm or any
other means without written permission from the publisher.


Introduction ...................................................................... 9
1. Christian morality in tension ...................................... 11
2. The central function of Paulinism ............................... 17
3. The new image of Paul............................................... 23
4. Cognitive and moral autonomy................................... 27
5. The conceptual logic of justification............................ 33
6. Justification as the ethical condition .......................... 49
7. A common understanding of justification................... 57
8. Justification as the pattern of sanctification ................ 63
9. Sanctification as prerequisite of justification.............. 73
9.1 Augustine: making man righteous........................ 74
9.2 Thomas Aquinas: cooperative grace ................... 77
10. The distinctiveness of Mennonite faith .................... 83
11. Sanctification as basic pattern of justification .......... 95
12. Ambiguities in the Anabaptist Confessions of Faith 115
13. Evangelical duty versus external legality................ 121
14. The social ethics of salvation ................................. 131
Selective bibliography .................................................. 141


In a series of three books my goal has been the development

of a thesis by John Toews from Mennonite Brethren Biblical
Seminary, that deals with the relationship between the faithful
community and the Torah of Moses. In 1982 Toews presented
his design for a theology of law in the New Testament. In my
view, this opened up a debate around basic issues of the
contents and method of Christian ethics that needed to be
I would summarize his position in this manner: In the
teachings of Jesus of Nazareth the Torah is normatively
interpreted for the community of Jesus’ followers, who affirm
His messianic position, and the nucleus of this interpretation is
the love of God and neighbour.
From this thesis we can develop a number of implications,
that I have tried to explore in my dissertation Obedience to the
Law of Christ.1 In this present volume, chapters 1 and 2 of my
dissertation have been revised and combined to make a
statement about the various ways in which the doctrine of justi-
fication determine how the role of the Torah is defined within
Christian ethics.
The main issue remains the same. If the above thesis by John
Toews is valid, how did it come about that the Christian
Churches ignored this central position of the Torah? What
doctrine took the place of the Torah in grounding Christian
ethics? Moreover, how did we arrive at the almost insur-
mountable schism between the demands of the Kingdom and
the exigencies of ordinary life in the modern state? Is a
Christian primarily a citizen with a specific religious attitude? Is
he a citizen of the Kingdom of heavens, that awaits the return
of Christ while living in the remains of an old order, destined to
fade away? It seemed necessary to look with a fresh mind at
the Pauline epistles and the gospels, as well as at the historical
context of the Reformation theology to answer these questions.
After all, in modern Christianity, there seems to be no place for
the concept of a true obedience to the Torah as an integral part
of Christian ethics.2

Obedience to the Law of Christ, diss., Maastricht (Shaker), 2001.
In this volume I try to deal with some minor aspects of dogma history. In
That is true to some extent also for the Churches that
originated in the so-called Radical Reformation, despite their
insistence on sanctification as the corollary of (extrinsic)
justification. It was necessary to consider the basic shapes and
inner logic of the doctrine of justification by faith as the doctrine
that expressed most forcibly the need to abandon the Torah.
Here the (magisterial) Reformation formulated its basic concept
of the essential form of Christian ethics, only partially followed
in this respect by the Churches of the Radical Reformation.
Such introductory questions needed to be addressed in order
to gain a perspective on the meaning of our questions about
the function of Torah and the shape of Christian ethics. After
such an introduction, I could begin to deal with the exegetical
questions that form the heart of this dissertation. The debate
around the 16th century doctrine of justification is one of two
historical perspectives that I presupposed in my readings of the
NT, in order to redefine the basic principle of a Biblical ethics.
The dissertation, as well as the three books that emerged out
of it, are to me a way of preparing the ground for a different ap-
proach to Christian ethics. It is my belief that a Christian Hala-
kah, a code of moral rules according to the principles and met-
hods of rabbinical ethics, needs to be worked out.

Robbert Veen
Huizen, December 2005

Fulfillment of the Law (Huizen, 2005) I presented my reading of Matthew,

Mark and James, and in The End of the Law? (Huizen, 2005) I discussed
Paul’s letters to the Galatians and Romans.
1. Christian morality in tension
A Christian theology might be tentatively defined as the labour
of reflection on the ideology and practice (or discourse and
behaviour) of a living faith in Jesus of Nazareth as Christ,
exemplified in a particular tradition and embodied in historic
communities that shape their lives by it. It is a normative labour
as far as it is the task of theology to judge the authenticity of
that faith against its only standard: the Scriptural tradition.
I do not aspire to execute any abstract program of Christian
theology. Instead, I am committed to the (Mennonite) tradition
in which I stand because it will provide me with a basic
perspective. Now, a perspective both limits and enables one’s
sight. For that reason part of the task of the theologian is
always the critical examination of his or her primary
perspective. As C. Norman Kraus put it: we must have an
“examination and elucidation of this system of meaning and
discourse” that belongs to the Church as a community of
“shared experience and discourse.”3 In other words, we must
come to an understanding of the limitations of the historical
perspective in which we try to see our object under
examination. Nevertheless, the main function of a perspective
is that it allows one to see. It is not a blindfold, and therefore
elucidation of a tradition by itself is like describing the eyes
instead of the vision. A Mennonite theology must go beyond
self-description and seek to verify the truth-claims of its
particular version of the Christian faith, and it must do so by
comparing them to their given source and standard in
Scripture. It must first be a biblical theology concerned with
truth, not a descriptive theology concerned with clarification of a
given terminology, even if embedded in a way of life.
Nevertheless, even in such a biblical theology traditional bias
and the needs of one’s Church are likely to play a part.
It is for that reason that I turn first to an assessment, however
fragmentary, of the perspective that I bring to my present in-
quiry. The necessary starting point for an inquiry into Christian
ethics in my view must be the simple definition of that ethics as
obedience to the Christ of Scriptures. But what does that
mean? It seems obvious to theologians and laymen alike, in all

Cf. C. Norman Kraus, God our Savior, Scottdale, 1991, p. 13.
major Christian traditions with the possible exception of
extreme liberalism, that Christian ethics is at least formally
determined by such obedience to Jesus Christ and the
Scriptures. The Christian life is certainly never thought to be
without some kinds of specified duties, even in those traditions
that emphasize justification through grace. It is primarily the
material elements of this obedience and the explanation of its
possibility that are contentious.
I would express this formal starting point for a connected
series of questions from a Mennonite perspective as follows.
• First, Christ is seen as a new “Torah” (though not taken
the way Judaism did its Torah), a source of understanding of
God’s righteous demands, and not as an example of a “good
man” to be followed. The embodied Torah is equally present
in His teachings as in His life, and since the two cannot be
separated, there is no room for an imitatio Christi that would
ignore the teachings.
• Second, the authority of the teachings rests in the
authority of the Teacher. If Christ commands to love the
neighbour, it is our duty to do so because He commands it.
His messianic status is paramount in understanding the
meaning of the commandments.
• Third, if He teaches a new Torah, in addition to being
the embodiment of the Mosaic Torah, the question remains
open whether the obedience required can be construed as a
following of rules and principles of behavior along the lines of
Jewish halakah. Mennonite ethics usually followed the familiar
pattern of the distinction between a legalist and a moralist
view on ethics.
As I have tried to show in my exegesis of Matthew 5 and 18,
(in the first volume of this series, Fulfillment of the Law) there
can be little doubt that Matthew thought Christ’s new halakah
was congruent with the structure of the written Torah and with
oral tradition in general. In addition, the persistent critique of
Pharisaic hypocrisy, if we want to avoid declaring this a polemic
bordering on anti-Semitism, can only be understood as a
specific Matthean hermeneutic insight: that the test of any rule
of law is its possibility to be done, and that its truth therefore
rests on the integrity of the one teaching it. The authority of the
Messiah, as enacted in His full and complete submission to His
heavenly father, can then be the basis for the Christian’s obe-
dience to the messianic Torah.
However, one might argue against this by stating that surely
all of this emphasis on obedience and the importance of the
Mosaic law can be seen as a further development of relatively
late strata in the New Testament. Paul’s letters to the Romans
and the Galatians express a rejection of the Mosaic law as way
of salvation and as guideline for behaviour. After all, did not
Paul state clearly “righteousness is now revealed apart from
law and prophets”?
But the evidence in the New Testament does show differently.
The canonical letter of James does speak about the law of
freedom, apparently referring to the Mosaic law (not to be
diminished to the “imperative side of the gospel” - Goppelt),
and even to Paul some kind of inner congruence with Christ’s
command is called being ennomos: “in the law of” Christ. Going
forward in time to the gospels, especially that of Matthew, this
emphasis is still clearly present. The antitheses to a particular
this-worldly and lax interpretation of the Mosaic Law in the
Sermon on the Mount describe God’s radical commandment as
the result of the breaking in of the eschatological Kingdom,
showing that probably the earliest sources of the New
Testament also contain such an ethical emphasis without ever
breaking the link to the Old Testament. Obedience to Christ,
submission under God’s sovereignty in the kingdom that He
preached, allowing for rules of behavior to be set by the
learned or by the “discerning community,” seem to be the alpha
and omega of early Christian ethics.
An independent stress on obedience as compliance with an
external command, some have argued, is a post-biblical
phenomenon and a return to Judaism. According to the author
of the 2nd-century letter of Barnabas, Christians need to seek
out the “ordinances” (dikaioomata) of the Lord. In 2:6 Barnabas
mentions the “new law of Christ, which is without the yoke of
necessity.” Evangelical law, as it was sometimes called much
later, though resting on grace and God’s redemptive initiative in
history, was still a ‘law’: a code of defined behavior.
Such differences in emphasis, wavering between narration
and reenactment of salvation, on one hand, and stress on a
new code of behavior on the other, can be put into historical
order with the aid of a model of social development. The
position I referred to above would then indicate some
paradigmatic milestones in the development of Christian ethics
between Paul’s original law-free gospel, through Matthew’s
theological reflection on Christ’s messianic teachings, onto Bar-
nabas’s establishment of a Christian way of life that again ack-
nowledges a formal statute of (evangelical) law.4 They indicate
movement between the law-free paraenetical ethics of Paul
and the formalization and institutionalization of the ethics of the
Church during the time when the parousia seemed to be very
far removed and the Church was trying to establish its foun-
dations in what was later called early Catholicism. To the extent
that Christians in the Roman empire were a persecuted
minority consisting of gentiles without Jewish training, far from
the influence of a Palestine being ransacked in the aftermath of
the Jewish revolt of Bar Kochba, their morality must have been
an adaptation of and addition to civil morality.
It is not insignificant, though not decisive, how we look at this
from the historian’s point of view. The common understanding
of this development is part of a received set of presuppositions
within the area of New Testament studies that provides a frame
of reference for theology which has hardly been challenged
since the days of 19th-century modernism, and which has been
especially firm since Harnack’s thesis that the 2nd-century
Church developed forms of legal organization by adapting
synagogal and Roman rules of law.5 In that approach, the
distinction between obedience as a particular Christian virtue
and the gospel of grace and redemption came to the fore. For
our time, it is in particular Bultmann’s Theologie des Neuen
Testaments that provided a monument for the conviction that
the law-free gospel of Paul and its justification of the ungodly is
the center of the New Covenant and was seriously corroded by
the return to Jewish moralism and legalism at the end of the 1st
century. With Bultmann and Käsemann, the Lutheran absolute
antithesis between law and grace and the secondary role of

The author’s main aim has since long been recognized as dissuading
Christians from succumbing to the attractions of Judaism. This ofcourse
presupposed both in the historical reality of the Church of his day as in the
intended audience of his letter, that there was common grojnd, spec. In the
deep respect for scriptures and in thearea of moral exhortation. Barnabas
integrated a Jewish text in his letter in chapters 18-20 which shows precisely
that. Equally important is that the distinction between moral and ritual
commandment is not made in Barnabas, though the ritual commandment is
spiritualized. Cf. alsoGraham Stanton, “Other early Christian writings”, in
Barclay, Early Christian Thought, pp. 181-184.
Cf. A. Harnack, Verfassung und Recht der alten Kirche, Leipzig, 1910.
Harnack of course argued that the transformation of the charismatic Church
into a Church governed by rules and appointed ministers was both necessary
for and beneficial to its survival.
sanctification and the law was expressed for a second time. 6
In the Reformation era, the importance of duty and obedience
was not denied, but it was hardly ever stated as an
independent requirement,7 and it was emphatically not taken as
a way to salvation. Opposition to Church law, sacramentalism,
the penance practice of the Church, its claim to be the source
and place of redemption, and its doctrine of merit, was worked
out in a radical fashion. Christian ethics was grounded upon a
doctrine believed to be the core message of the Pauline
gospel: justification by faith. Because justification was an act of
God and received in faith, the ethical situation had changed
decisively, making Christian obedience a responsive act of
gratitude to a salvation already received, in opposition to a
continuing effort to achieve a prescribed behaviour and through
it earn redemption. Obedience in faith was defined in
opposition to another type of obedience: obedience to external
rules of behaviour with the intent of amassing merit, doing
“good works” with the intent of earning salvation. Faith was the
single most important act of obedience; it grounded a life of
spontaneous submission to the revealed will of God in the

There were of course important differences between Bultmann and
Käsemann. The latter published a lecture entitled “Das Problem des
historischen Jesus” in 1954 (Reprinted in Käsemann, Exegetische Versuche,
pp. 187-214), in which he argued that the center of the New Testament is not
only the proclamation and preaching of the gospel, but also includes historical
facts. The historical Jesus could not be ignored in matters of faith, as
Bultmann had tried to do. In this re-evaluation of the historical, Käsemann
effectively inaugurated a new era of theological research. The new pupils of
Bultmann all remained faithful to the existentialist interpretation of the gospel,
with the exception of Käsemann who returned to a position more orientated
towards the historical basis of the gospel.
We must be mindful of the difference between Lutheran and Calvinist
theologies here. Both had accepted that the law had several functions in the
life of the faithful. To Luther, there were two: (1) the usus civilis, in which the
law became a source-book for ordering society and (2) the usus elenchticus
sive theologicus, in which man became aware, through the law as indictment,
of his inner sin and guilt before God. Calvin added to these two the (3) usus
in renatis, its use for the reborn. God has written His law in their hearts (cf.
Jer. 31) but the written law may still grant them insight into the contents of the
divine will, may drive them toward obedience. Menno did accept the second
of these, but rejected the first and third and instead focused on the meaning
of the gospel as law of Christ, i.e., evangelical obedience superseded the
Mosaic law in his view. In that sense, he declined to accept the tension
between gospel and law within Christian faith and laid heavy emphasis on the
covenantal character of the Christian Church.
specific circumstances of life, summed up in the command to
love one’s neighbour. The latter was a response to God’s
grace, whereas the former was an autonomous effort of man to
earn salvation under the guise of obedience, which by its own
logic would lead man to a defiance of God’s will and the intent
to define for himself what was right and wrong. Paul’s reference
to justification, which figured so prominently in Romans 1-4 and
in the letter to the Galatians, could be read as a firm doctrinal
basis for a theology of justification that separated the status of
the faithful (having been justified) from their condition and
The hermeneutic landscape had changed considerably by
then. A widespread 16th-century criticism of prevailing Catholic
practices and the general apocalyptic and introspective mood
of the age was read into the historical situation of the early
Church. Christianity, so it seemed, had moved away from the
“Jewish” ethics of obedience that could only lead to feelings of
guilt and despair and its “works of the law” as a means to
escape from judgment, by shifting the emphasis to faith as a
passive reception of amnesty and God’s Grace in Christ. The
sharp antithesis between works of the law and free grace was
decisive for all the various Reformation groups, including the
Anabaptists. Thus, Sola Gratia could become the identifying
trait of the whole of the Reformation, notwithstanding the fact
that there were important differences of emphasis in this regard
between the Anabaptist, Hutterite, Lutheran, and Calvinist ways
of approaching this matter. Calvin’s insistence on sanctification
as the goal of justification, and as its inner telos, was one such
characteristic source of difference. Luther’s insistence on the
justification of the ungodly and Menno’s demand that
redemption was granted to the penitent sinner who showed the
reality of his faith in saintly living were competing perspectives.
A tension between law and Grace pervaded all of these move-

2. The central function of Paulinism
Basically the Reformation’s solution to the tension between
law and grace has been Paulinist in its contents, and that goes
for both the Lutheran and the Calvinist positions. The terms of
the discussion, and even the basic answer to the questions,
were given to the Church through the apostolate of Paul and
the way the Church tried at some junctures of her history to
renew her understanding of him. This is true also for the earlier
doctrinal establishment of Catholicism with Augustine, and
most certainly holds for the Reformation understanding of Paul
by Calvin and Luther. Paul, as no other, shaped the doctrinal
framework of the Church by being the author of a set of
important decisions for the Church: by rejecting circumcision for
non-Jewish Christians, by opposing the validity of the Jewish
law for Christians, and in the establishment of a pagan Church
that soon found new experiences and ideas that severed her
completely from the synagogue as early as the time of the
Neronic persecutions (67 C.E. In the affirmation that
redemption rested on the Cross of Christ accepted in faith, and
not on the “works of the law,” it was Paul who determined how
the gospels were read and how Jesus of Nazareth was
But how exactly then was Paul understood with reference to
Christian ethics? And how could he have become the main
supplier of Christian ethics? We must take into account that it
would have been far more obvious to accept the Sermon on the
Mount as the decisive constitution of the Christian life than any
moral exhortation that derived from other sources. The Roman-
Catholic solution was to define the ethics of the Sermon on the
Mount as the exemplary ethics of a specific class within the
Church, devoted to a rigorous evangelical discipline. However,
to those for whom Paul was the basis of all theology in the 16th
century, it seemed clear that Jesus, despite the Sermon on the
Mount, did not teach an ethics at all, did not give His disciples a
code of commandments. When doctrine arose, a salvation eco-
nomy was worked out. It was held that after His resurrection
Christ was revealed as the One who gave his life as a
propitiatory sacrifice for all mankind. Through Christ, God had
provided believers with the gift of justification. From that central
assertion, the problem of ethics was determined by the Pauline
polemic against Judaizers and Jews about the now discarded
role of the law. Anselm’s doctrine of atonement, e.g., that
emphasized vicarious suffering and a substitutionary sacrifice,
became a guiding principle in the Church’s thinking about re-
demption. Christ’s statements about the law, and in particular
his Sermon on the Mount, were understood to be an expla-
nation of the radical demand of the law, to show that the Pha-
risees underestimated and weakened its demand by the
introduction of human teachings. The Sermon on the Mount
lost its status of ethical instruction and became a preparatory
statement, defining man’s need for redemption instead of being
an instruction to the way of life of the redeemed. Christ’s
“ethics,” if there at all, implied only condemnation, preparing
humankind for the unfolding of the gospel of grace. After it had
come to its full expression in the gospel of Paul, the Sermon on
the Mount could in retrospect be seen as the epilogue of the
Having dispensed with the possible primacy of the ethical
appeal of the gospels8 through this distinction between
preparation and fulfillment, the Reformers still had to deal with
the undoubted presence of paraenetical material in the gospels
and Paul’s letters. But the ethical contents of Paul’s letters
could be read from that same perspective as a set of guidelines
for the life of faith - an “inner” morality could be stressed, joined
to a doctrine of works of gratitude and a concept of the rule of
law in Christian society. The otherworldly direction of this ethics
could be upheld, because for the present world it was not
Christ’s demands but compromise with societal powers that
was taught. Christian ethics became a dualist ethics, defining a
spiritual principle of love alongside a “carnal” principle of
worldly rule. The division between law and Grace echoed that
between Church and state. Paul’s polemic against a salvation
doctrine that mixed grace with obedience to Torah for gentiles,
advocating instead a life in the Spirit, was construed as the
doctrinal basis of Christian morality. The this-worldly emphasis
of the Sermon on the Mount and of some of Paul’s paraenesis
could be relegated to the realm of utopia if it was not read as
an epilogue of the law, and the inner experience of guilt and
forgiveness thus became the centre of a Christian’s self-
consciousness. Sanctification as the corollary of justification

Which might have led to a concept of ‘evangelical law’ or even the
introduction of self-righteousness through works.
was thereby effectively removed from the daily practice of
Christian living, and the ordinary life of the believer was solely
determined by the exigencies of life under the rule of the state.
Within mainstream Protestant thought, Luther’s discovery of
the justification of the ungodly remained the secure centre of
the gospel and the basic feature of the definition of ethics.
Calvin’s doctrine of sanctification counterbalanced that stress in
part, as had Luther’s concept of “living faith,” which had
included much of what Catholics regarded as a secondary
principle and condition of salvation: love. Works in the sense of
“good works,” acts of ethical compliance with the gospel,
summarized in love for the neighbour, were conesquences
rather than conditions of faith and justification. Ethics became
almost identical to the responsible life of the citizen; or
sometimes it became the saintly (or heroic) ideal that could be
achieved by some through grace as a particular sign of the
coming kingdom. This-worldly obedience to the political powers
and an ethics of conformity to them were placed side by side
with the aspirations of individuals toward the higher evangelical
ideal. Christian ethics became divided in itself. In any case,
ethics remained a consequence of salvation granted. The deed
that was in conformity with God’s demand was (1) a
consequence of God’s grace operative inside oneself and (2) in
itself not an act in harmony with a given rule of behaviour, but
one whose value was decided by the purity of its inner intent -
inner faith became in itself the defining principle of a good
From that vantage point, some elements in Paul were
stressed to the detriment of others. Paul had preached - so it
was taught - submission to the state (Rom. 13), the acceptance
of slavery (Eph. 6:5; Col. 3:22), the submission of women to
men (1 Cor. 14:34, 35; Eph. 5:22; Col.3:18), and a hierarchy
within the Church which made it clear that the social and
political critique and teachings on salvation of Jesus as
portrayed in the gospels were merely an interlude, an “interim-
ethic”,9 that no longer had a place in the life of the Church after

The term “interim ethic” must be understood in its wider sense of ethics for
the present day on this side of the eschatological fulfillment. A. Schweitzer, I
believe, coined the phrase to indicate the eschatological ethic of the Sermon
on the Mount that derived its legitimacy from the nearness of the Kingdom. It
was therefore a heroic ethic to be applied during the short time before that
kingdom became a reality.
the resurrection. Paul’s ethics was about accepting the status
quo, relying on the gradual Christianization of the world, of
fulfilling the demands of the kingdom through a step-by-step
improvement of civil society.
Eschatology was the dimension into which the full demand of
the Kingdom could be projected. So the Kingdom might come,
some day, and in the meantime Christians would need to work
with what existed within their societies, accepting together with
all other citizens of the state the moral demands of the era and
the legal (and penal) system of their societies. In the era
following the Reformation, such doctrines lent themselves rea-
dily to secular versions: obedience to Christ was transformed
into a commitment to civil virtues and allegiance to the state,
because that had been the concrete shape of the ethics of the
former era; justification was transformed into a statement about
the inherent goodness of humanity. (Wesleyanism had tried to
maintain a special status of conversion within the wider body of
Christian society by stressing the path of inner experience.) So
the general modern image of Christian ethics emerged: the
Christian was to be obedient to civil powers while working on
his inner sanctification. Ethics was now primarily about what
you were and not about what you did, and justification dealt
with that. The gospel shaped the character, and character
produced morality. To work at the improvement of society from
within became the secular fulfillment of the eschatology that
had motivated Paul’s ethics.
The Reformers themselves were sometimes more precise
than their common understanding allowed for. Calvin expressly
emphasizes that justification and sanctification belonged to one
and the same process. Even though to be justified does not
mean to have become ‘just’, it does mean: esse in ipso motu
seu cursu ad iustitiam ( “to become taken up in a motion or
drive toward righteousness”).10 The notional element of forensic
imputation guards the extrinsic character of the ground for
justification, so that only the foreign righteousness of Christ can
be the ground for salvation, but it does not imply a mere
outwardness of the result. In Pesch’s terminology, the forensic
and effective dimension of justification cannot be seen as an
antithesis in Calvin’s view. Paul’s exhortations could then be
understood as expressive of this sanctification as the other side
of the coin. This connection was all too easily lost from sight

Cf. Pesch 130, WA 39, 1, 83
even to some extent in Calvinism. In Lutheran orthodoxy this
became particularly clear. In Melanchthon’s “Loci” of 1521,11
justification gets hardly any stress, but where it occurs the
effective dimension is made secondary to the forensic. Now
justification only means imputation, and sanctification is
primarily dealt with as an eschatological reality.
In the wake of this development Paul came to be read,
especially in the late-18th and 19th centuries, either as the
champion of inwardness and of the secondary nature of
(external) morality and law, or as a hurdle of foreign
Jewishness that needed still to be overcome. The interpretative
principles in the Lutheran reading of Paul (anti-works, anti-
legalistic, stress on autonomous freedom) were now severed
from their Pauline context and used against what was seen as
Jewish remnants in Paul's theology and paraenesis. Some
maintained that this was actually Paul’s intent all along. He
had emphasized the priority of grace and the secondary role of
ethics - by denying any meaning for “works of the law” and by
stressing a “being-declared-righteous” that was extrinsic.
This second stage of the Paulinist “revolution” in Europe was
decidedly ‘spiritualist” in nature, either in its breaking away from
the Jewish Paul or its affirmation of the Hellenist Paul. What to
the Paul of the Reformation had been the extrinsic work of the
Spirit within man following justification came to denote the inner
autonomous ground of morality. (In Immanuel Kant e.g.) This
modernist and rationalist appropriation of Paul or rather the
new understanding of the interpretative tendency of the
Reformation, now existed alongside a further development of
the 16th-century Lutheran approach (in Schleiermacher e.g.) ,
which however took on elements of this spiritualizing tendency
as well. Faith became identified with the conscience of man
and as the extension of human reason or intuitive faculty. But
modernity in the 19th century was equally adamant that in Paul
the emancipation from legalism and outward moralism had
been completed. Whenever he was not read as the champion
of inner morality, he was mostly rejected as too Jewish.

Cf. Pesch 133
3. The new image of Paul
The images of Paul that motivated these developments have
now all been overturned again and the anti-Jewish bias of the
19th century has been severely weakened. Biblical exegesis
learned to view Paul more as he must have sounded in his own
day and age. A new image of Paul emerged - and it must be
admitted, again there were pressures from contemporary
history behind it. Against the traditional understanding of Paul,
these three dimensions of interpretation came especially into
play in the decades after the second World War:
(1) A new reading of Paul’s context brought an increasing
understanding that there were important elements missing and
misrepresented in the traditional reading of Paul.12 Specifically,
the historical situation of the newly formed Church communities
that Paul’s letters wanted to address, which in the case of
Romans and Galatians was concentrated in the issue of
communion between Jewish and pagan Christians, was now
better understood. It led to reevaluation in particular of
Romans and Galatians, the prime sources for understanding
Paul’s view on Christian ethics. The pastoral and occasional
nature of his writing was leading theologians away from their
concentration on Pauline “doctrine,” and studies in canon
history affirmed that Paul could not be considered the single
normative source for Church doctrine. There were other,
differing voices as well, whose contributions had been drowned
out in the chorus of Paulinists that had soon emerged in the
2nd- and 3rd-century Church.
(2) A profound reappraisal of Judaism brought an increasing
awareness that the Church was unable to define its own
mission without carefully developing an understanding of the
ongoing status of Israel and her Torah.13 That was an insight
that with some difficulty could be found in Paul as well,

(1) 12
Cf. James D. G. Dunn, The New Perspective on Paul, 1982,
published in Jesus, Paul and the law, Louisville, 1990. Dunn mentions E.
P.Sanders’ Paul and Palestinian Judaism. Comparison of a Pattern of
Religions (London, 1977) as the most decisive study in this reappraisal of
(2) 13 Cf. Paul M. van Buren, A Theology of the Jewish-Christian Theology,
New York, (1980-1990, in three volumes) as the most elaborate development
of this thesis.
especially in the Romans 9-11 passage. That has led to a new
appraisal of the Jewish roots of the Church and Paul’s
theology. Apart from that, it was affirmed in the field of Biblical
theology that Rabbinic tradition needed to become part of the
tools of New Testament exegesis. Its approach showed Paul
not only using Jewish forms of exegesis and staying closer to
1st-century Jewish thought and imagery than ever before
imagined, but it also showed how favourably Paul viewed the
ongoing meaning and existence of the Jewish people. Pagan
Paulinism was not up to the demands of theology that this
essentially Jewish Paul had set.
(3) An emphasis on the social and political dimension of
theology led to an increasing stress on the social dimension of
faith and ethics,14 which was in part adopted from the various
“liberation theologies” that came to the fore especially after the
1950s. In anthropology, human individuality was seen as
intrinsically connected to the self-definition of the community to
which the individual belonged. Social-justice perspectives
made it harder and harder to overlook or spiritualize the this-
worldly ethics of the Sermon on the Mount. Within this
perspective the traditional motives for the classical
interpretation of Paul as polemics against works-righteousness
became less important – but it must be asked if this does
justice to the apostolic witness.
Within these contemporary dimensions of a renewal of
theology - very broadly defined here as a new exegetical
perspective and a new general orientation on ecclesiology and
social identity - the questions concerning the foundations of
Christian ethics can and need to be asked again.
The first dimension accounts for the re-examination of the
Pauline concept of justification and its relationship to moral
obedience. Recent scholarship has shown that the Protestant
schematics of received grace being followed by paraenetical

In the USA this emphasis was already present since the 1880s and 1890s
in the so-called Social Gospel movement. Especially in the period between
1900 and 1914 it was highly active, as were many such similar movements
in Europe. They did not lead to as much reappraisal of Paul as can be said of
the political gospel movements of the 1960s. The former were to some extent
influenced by socialism and the questions of capital and labor; the latter were
more concerned with the indigenous images of social justice as the people
themselves would define them. The former movement can be summarized in
Rauschenbusch’s famous dictum: “The Kingdom of God is a social idea.” It
must be realized by human beings, working together.
teaching as to proper conduct was not instigated by Paul at all.
It was at best a secondary motif in Paul’s continual
presentation of the “Triumph of God” over sin and death.
Justification and sanctification were more intrinsically
connected, and the concept of obedience in concrete acts
(easily dismissed as “works” and as opposed to “life in the
Spirit”) was far more central to Paul than it had seemed to
Luther. Paul advocated a kind of “Christian halakah” based
partly on Christ’s teachings, partly on Rabbinic tradition, and
partly on the developing lifestyle of the early Church in its
contacts with Greek religious culture and Roman law.
In fact, the central disagreement of his day was shown by
James Dunn to be that on the issue of table fellowship between
Christians of Jewish and gentile descent. That surely seems to
break down the traditional image of Paul’s ethics completely.
Paul’s doctrine of justification was now being read as having
originated primarily in its ecclesiological dimension and in its
use as a polemical device to restrain Jewish Christians who
tried to combine Christ and Torah into a higher unity. That
perspective also changed current views on Paul’s basic
terminology. As James Dunn especially tried to show, the
“works of the law” were no longer the moral duties through
which one acquired merit, but specifically those
commandments that defined the separate status of Israel:
circumcision and food laws in particular. Paul’s insistence that
there was no salvation based on works of the law implied that
belonging to Israel was not the prerequisite of salvation; but it
did not mean what the Church had said throughout her history,
that moral action was not a prerequisite of salvation - why
should Paul after all have said such a thing? Based on what
and against whom? Nobody was holding that salvation was
earned; some might have argued that a deed could be virtuous
by dint of its moral effect on others, enabling them to serve God
better through example, or by counter weighing other offences.
The late mediaeval doctrine of merit was not in place in the 1st
Read like this, Paul could no longer serve to ground an ethics
that dispensed with concrete acts of obedience, since his
polemics was not aimed at obedience as such, but against a
salvation doctrine that continued to exclude gentiles, as well as
against a pagan doctrine that set aside the whole of the Mosaic
law. Judaizers and Gnostics were therefore both excluded. In
this rereading of Paul, the whole emphasis of the Reformation
reception of Paul on the antithesis between grace and law falls
away or is at least seriously compromised.
The second dimension - stressing the common ground
between Israel and the Church - leads to a new appraisal of
this basic concept of obedience, for so long defined with
reference to that righteousness of works of the law which was
identified with Pharisaism and Rabbinic Judaism. It was
Lutheranism, along with its philosophical expression in
Kantianism, that had established the idea of moral autonomy
as the basis for ethics, with its sharp distinction from mere
“outward” obedience or legalism. That concept of autonomous
moral liberty became the cornerstone of modern political
thought, and efforts were made to see in Paul’s writings the
defence of a more inner, spiritual morality. The foundational
notion of modern society, as expressed in Hegel’s philosophy
of Right, became the notion of freedom. Even if going beyond
the confines of individual autonomy, Hegel reasserted the
rational autonomy as that of a life within the confines of the
state, which expressed, maintained, and grounded rational
freedom and superseded individual ethics in a life that
conformed to “realized” (not simply commanded or valued, but
institutionalized) patterns of behaviour and political institutions
that safeguarded the autonomous liberty of the state as a
The third dimension, finally, inserted the concept of social
identity into the debate: justification was a matter of being a
righteous community. Only then could the individual be “righte-
oused” too. It signified a move away from the focus on the
individual’s conscience and guilt-problems. Man was
essentially defined by the group to which he needed to belong.
The Church could be viewed as “counter-community” (Lohfink),
or as anticipatory realization of the coming Kingdom (Yoder).
All of these influenced the way Pauline exegesis went forward.

4. Cognitive and moral autonomy
Besides these revisions of Paulinism in our era, there was a
major attack on the presuppositions of modern theology as it
shared them with general Western culture and philosophy.
Modernism and liberalism in their individualistic, spiritualistic
(mystical), and socialist shapes, had in a way taken over
presumptions of modern European philosophy - especially the
basic notions of autonomy and freedom. In liberalism,
Christianity changed from being a redemptive religion into
being a religiously inspired secular ethics.
Philosophically, these basic notions of rational freedom and
moral autonomy (the project of modernity) were criticized
sharply in modern Jewish thought. E. Fackenheim and E.
Levinas, e.g., both developed a decisively anti-modernist
position. Levinas’ claim that the concealed fundament of the
modern state and its principle of autonomous rationality is
actually the heteronomy of the moral relationship - appearing
phenomenologically in the presence of the Other as Face - not
only brought Rabbinic Judaism onto the scene of contemporary
philosophy, but it reminded many Christian theologians of their
Jewish and Old Testament roots. Justification as forensic
declaration of acquittal might be seen as an escape from the
heteronomous obedience and responsibility that were inherent
in the order of creation (Torah) itself. These new insights might
be affirmed against the 16th-century antinomies between grace
and law and its connected anthropology of sin, as well as
against the dominant paradigm since the Enlightenment, that of
rational autonomy and moral freedom.
The basic paradigm and stumbling block for theologians since
the Lutheran Reformation had been increasingly that of
autonomy. Of course they had not all sought its centre in
humanity as had Kant, but most often in the faithfulness shown
in God’s extrinsic act in history: the Cross of Jesus Christ. Their
polemic was aimed primarily at Augustine’s theory of
justification as initial grace, evoking the cooperation of man -
grace that perfected the human endeavour of love. On that
account, moral autonomy, even if ultimately grounded by God’s
grace as Augustine had seen it, was rejected. But faith was
predominantly expressed as an individual, inner experience
and condition, even though doctrinally faith was a gift and part
of God’s sovereign dealing with humanity. Faith as individual
act of consciousness (an affirmation) was the centre of a
cognitive autonomy, and increasingly so in the various shapes
of Puritanism. The quest for the certainty of salvation seemed
to signal a return to Christian morality, because only in the life
of good works could there be a corroboration of faith. Even
those Lutheran thinkers who emphasized obedience and ethics
had to do so after the Enlightenment, within the general
framework of thinking that identified reason and consciousness
as the prime expression of autonomous liberty in man.
Paradoxically, the extreme stress on the extrinsic source of
imputed righteousness came to be bound up with an equal
stress on the inner conscience as its recipient. The opposition
to the imperial authority of the Pope and the priests that had
prepared the Reformation - in the Sacramentalists’ movement,
in the Modern Devotion, and in other sects of the 15th century -
was transformed in Kant’s philosophy of morals into general
and principled rejection of the moral use of all heteronomous
law, through this intermediate stage which combined cognitive
autonomy with moral heteronomy. The 19th-century modernists
deliberately attempted to reinterpret Jesus’ and Paul’s
teachings to reflect this basic moral autonomy.15 The pervading
tendency was well expressed in the work of Schleiermacher,
who defended the thesis that all theological statements were
actually statements about human religious consciousness, yet
maintained that in the most inner dimension of human
consciousness there was an awareness of absolute
transcendence which could not be reduced to human
autonomy. (If the latter was lost to sight, religion was reduced
to anthropology as in Feuerbach.) Inside himself, man
experienced his finitude in such a way, that he became aware
of the absolute as its condition. The Lutheran paradox of
extrinsic righteousness imputed to me from the outside and still

Exemplified, e.g., in a theologian like J. A. L. Wegscheider. Forgiveness of
sins is reduced to a growing of hope and confidence with the increase of
virtue. Substitutionary sacrifice is contrary to reason and therefore to be
rejected; the death of Christ is merely the symbol of the love of God; grace
equals a specific form of providence. Justification is true only in so far as it
teaches that man is acceptable to God, not through singular deeds and merit
but only through an inner conscience directed towards God (Wegscheider
uses the term ‘Gemut’). Such a direction of consciousness needs to be
‘exercised.’ In Barth’s judgment: “This is the theology of pure rationalism.” (K.
Barth, 1946, p. 407)
experienced within my innermost conscience developed into
the paradigm of all human religious consciousness in
Schleiermacher’s theory.
The relative autonomy of conscience and faith of the 17th
century was followed by the absolutist humanism of the 18th. In
the era of the Enlightenment the concept of autonomy moved
from being one of man’s basic (ontic) characteristics vis-à-vis
nature and society to become the ontological notion that
defined man and society. Instead of having concrete freedom,
to the degree possible for a finite being, man was freedom
realized. All in all, this development could not but obscure all
elements both in the gospels and in Paul that stressed
submission to God and heteronomous obedience. The
metaphor of living-in-the-spirit, which Paul had derived from
Jeremiah’s prophecy of the New Covenant, was continually
being read to mean inner, autonomous morality instead of a
“movement” of the Spirit extra nos that guided our actions (as if
or in reality) from without. And Christ’s teachings were now
seen in particular as a breaking away from orthodoxy; i.e., they
were valued only in so far as they included a break with
established orthodoxy and not in their positive end result.
There were other developments as well. Moral autonomy in
particular became since the 18th century (Socinians!) a
paradigm for a new type of secular theology. Man could only be
expected to obey a divine commandment if he at the same time
was able to understand such a commandment - or even more,
if he was able to construe, purely by the light of his own reason,
that he might have issued it himself. Practical, moral autonomy
became wedded to cognitive autonomy. The moral life for Kant
was now about making choices on the basis of rationally
defendable principles. In 19th-century modernism that took its
cure from Kant, Christ soon became the example of moral
living, both in the sense that the pattern of his ethical life (with a
stress on his non-conformity with Pharisaic rules, but as equally
congruent with acceptance of social morality) ought to be
copied, and in the sense, that he was Himself a mere example
of the ethical life that was to be followed. The “positive” or
“mythical” form of religion, in which Christ had been this
concrete individual man and God (the two-nature doctrine), was
to be redeemed by the universality of Christ-in-us. But that
implied that the particular nature of Christ’s moral teachings as
obedience to the extrinsic reality of the approaching Kingdom
was transcended by the pattern of the inner motivation for
“good behaviour”. Concrete ethics was found in keeping the
morality of the surrounding culture - since society as such, and
not the Church, was the (universal) community that grounded
and defined ethics - with the gospel as a particular motivating
narrative to do so.
In 19th-century modernism it was Paul who got the reputation
of turning the moral gospel of Christ into the “magical”
(Schleiermacher) doctrine of the God-man becoming the cultic
sacrifice for mankind. In the Netherlands, the highpoint of
modernism was around 1860 with the work of Reformed
theologians J. H. Scholten (1811-1885) and C. W. Opzoomer
(1821-1892), and the Mennonite teacher S. Hoekstra (1822-
1898). Hoekstra especially tried to keep the middle ground in
the effort to find the synthesis between Christian tradition and
modern secular culture, by trying to integrate neither Fichte’s
nor Hegel’s idealism into theology – which would lead to
variations of pantheism and spiritualism – but by trying to
integrate Kantian philosophy. He tried to construct a formal
religious a priori based in man’s personality. That personality
was not a formal construct but a living person, seen as a
developing entity under psychological laws. This made it
possible for him to speak about remorse, contrition, rebirth, and
the like in a psychological manner. Other Mennonite themes
from the past could surface again, like the notion of the
redeemed community, now interpreted as a social environment
in which man was able to progress in his own inner
development from guilt to new moral freedom. Even the idea of
the personality of God could find a place with him.
Hoekstra’s interpretation of Paul is interesting in this context.
Righteousness, according to Hoekstra, does not mean virtue,
“but the spiritual condition of someone who is justified by faith,
that is, of him whom God has forgiven his sins.”16 The status of
the believer is seen as “psychological” or as “spiritual
condition,”and not as legal status. Beyond this psychologically
based affirmation of Paul’s doctrines, Hoekstra’s rejection of
other elements in Paul’s theology is also that of the 19th-
century scientist. The main thought in Christian theology might
very well have been that Christ’s blood has been shed unto
forgiveness of sins, but “on a scientific standpoint, this is
untenable if only because the concept of the relationship

S. Hoekstra, Christelijke Geloofsleer, Amsterdam 1898, part II, p. 202.
between God and the human world as a covenant is only
adequate to the rather anthropomorphic concept of God in
ancient Israel… [on the contrary this relationship] proceeds
from God’s eternal being with strict necessity…and from our
spiritual nature. There can be no ‘blood of the covenant’.”17
Hoekstra the psychologist cannot affirm the historical and legal
language that the Biblical concept of justification presents to
him. In sum, the doctrine of salvation in the Church is a
“conglomerate of untrue, often even absurd theses, a doctrine
that cannot fail to impress anyone who is not under the spell of
theological misconceptions to be lacking in seriousness.”18 To
suffer and die for the sake of religious convictions was a
pattern of life for Christians and Christ alike. However, the
essence of that was a “revelation of their powerful faith and
their real moral character.”19 The experience of faith has now
become part of man’s psychological nature, historically a
recourse to the actual faith of the first Church, and redemption
through the Cross has become a general martyrdom for
religious convictions, showing the moral fiber of the martyr. The
Christ of scriptures was a mental projection of human religious
needs and aspirations unto the history of this singular man,
Jesus of Nazareth.
Behind this tension between an orthodox Paulinism without
ethics20 and a liberal moralism (accepting or rejecting some
image of Paul) without doctrine lay a cultural difference. From
the days of the Enlightenment, Christian culture had become
ruptured. On the one hand there was the modernist effort
exemplified in Hoekstra and Kant to show that classic Christian
symbols were actually in full alignment with the dictates of
autonomous reason or else should be rejected as part of an
antiquated belief system; on the other there was the
conservative attempt to preserve a Biblicist outlook by

Hoekstra, ibid, p. 227
Hoekstra, ibid, p. 233.
Hoekstra, ibid, p. 234
That of course was the modernist’s way of putting it. After 1870 the
response to modernism gained momentum in the movement of Confessional
Theology, propagated by A. Kuyper (1837-1920) and H. Bavinck (1854-1921)
Against modernism and “mediation-theology” he emphasized that Scripture
remained the objective principle of knowledge, based on objective revelation
through the Holy Spirit. The subjective principle of cognition was faith, the
witness of the Spirit within us. The ethical-psychological method of Hoekstra
and others was rejected.
defending an ultimate congruence with modern rationality or
(as in Neo-Calvinism and Confessionalism) propagating a
division between Christ and culture.
The modern distinction between “fundamentalism” and
“liberalism” as tendencies within theology has its roots in the
Reformation and Enlightenment periods. But both these
tendencies have something in common on which their conflict
is based: that we are autonomous, whether in the reception of
faith or in the liberty with which we accept and follow the moral
demand. In either case we define that moral demand for
The 19th-century clash between the older Lutheran
Orthodoxy and Pietism on the one hand, and the morality and
psychology of the Enlightenment on the other, share the basic
presupposition that ethics must in some way be grounded on
autonomous freedom, either restricted to cognitive and
experiential autonomy of faith or broadened to equal moral
autonomy or self-determining freedom.

5. The conceptual logic of justification
I have chosen a particular perspective from which to tackle
the problems of this development. This study starts with the
relationship between what God has done in Christ (usually
referred to by the term redemption or “justification”) and the
new situation man is brought into and/or what man should be
doing as a consequence of that (sanctification, renovatio in
Lutheranism, the realm of Christian ethics). My basic question
was this: is our response to God’s revelation in Christ a form of
obedience to a law – whether after Mosaic law or a “law of
Christ” - or a new “spirituality” that grows from the narrative of
Christ’s suffering and resurrection, that shapes the source of
our attitudes and behavior from within? Does justification lead
to life under a new law, a renewed ethics, or a transformation of
life? Some combination of these? Or all of the above?
Coming from a (Mennonite) tradition that has always stressed
the notion that “knowing Christ is to follow Him in life,” i.e., faith
is obedience to (the law of) Christ and thus obedience makes
one understand who He is, this question takes on a specific
shape. We ask whether it is possible to maintain a moral and a
cognitive heteronomy in Christian ethics, as indicated by the
dictum of Hans Denck. Following Him (moral heteronomy)
leads to knowing Him (cognitive heteronomy). Is righteousness
in man a passive result of God’s declaration of amnesty and
being taken up in the movement of the Spirit? Then we have an
extrinsic act establishing cognitive and moral autonomy. And is
therefore Christian ethics a pneumatological motivation within
an ever changing ethical situation at best? Or does the New
Testament teach obedience to the law of Christ, implying the
ability to comply with the known will of God through a free act
of our own volition? Or does this opposition between the two
wrongly state the issue? Because we might see later that to
Paul, at least, the presence of the Spirit in man actually
constitutes a fulfilling of the law.
With regard to the ecclesiological emphasis of our time, the
same questions take on a slightly different shape. Is righte-
ousness about moral qualities and behavior (a condition) or
does it signify entrance into the covenant community changing
our situation? Is it about obedience to the Mosaic law, as
interpreted by the ordinances and the law of Christ, mentioned
in the New Testament i.e., a new kind of messianic Torah for a
new type of community? And then of course the decisive
question: if so, what is this “law of Christ”? What are the
ordinances and instructions that shape the life of the Christian
community? Against such an emphasis on the difference and
concreteness of Christian ethics many have protested. Is
Bultmann right in his assertion that the post-Pauline Church
slipped back into a moralizing and judaizing attitude that
produced a Christian casuistry and lost sight of the
righteousness that God revealed in Christ? (Bultmann, 1953,
We can also put the question into more classical theological
jargon: how are justification by faith and sanctification and/or
the Christian life of good works related to each other? In the
domain of general ethics, the question might be put differently:
is there any specific Christian character in ethics when it is
based on justification by faith? Or are Christians committed to
the same standard of right and wrong as they find in the
societies they are in, better motivated perhaps than others to
do the good and avoid the bad? All these questions can be
summarized into one: what does Christian obedience mean?
We should at this stage first try to understand in broad terms
the meaning of the term justification and the inner logic that
showed itself in its reception history from the 17th century up
to now. Let us consider first what we ordinarily mean by
justification by faith, starting with the Reformation period.
McGrath21 gives us three distinctive characteristics of the
primary Protestant doctrines of justification, as established in
the literary output of the theologians of the Lutheran and
Reformed Churches over the period 1530-1700:
1. Justification is defined as the forensic declaration by God,
proclaimed through the gospel, that the believer is righteous
because he is in the right place, rather than by the process in
which he is made righteous. Justification involves a change in
his status or situation rather than his nature or condition. (In
other words: it is basically the divine verdict that someone will
be pronounced acquitted in the future judgment and the change
in situation for the present that is its consequence.)
2. A deliberate and systematic distinction is made between
justification (the external act by which God declares the sinner

Alister E. McGrath, Iustitia Dei, A history of the Christian Doctrine of
Justification, Cambridge, 1986, vol. 2, p. 2.
to be righteous) and sanctification or regeneration (the internal
process of renewal within man). Although the two are treated
as inseparable, a notional distinction is thus drawn where none
was conceded before.
3. Justifying righteousness, or the formal cause of
justification, is defined as the alien righteousness of Christ,
external to man and imputed to him, rather than a
righteousness which is inherent to him, located within him, or
which in any sense may be said to belong to him. God’s
judgment in justification is therefore synthetic rather than
analytic, in that there is no righteousness within man which can
be considered to be the basis of the divine verdict of
justification; the righteousness upon which such a judgment is
necessarily based is external (extra nos) to man.
The most important element in this context is the clear deline-
ation between justification and sanctification whereas
Augustine still understood justification to mean primarily: justum
facere, i.e., to be made righteous whereby the two concepts
remained one. The point of the separation is of course that now
no intrinsic righteousness of man can be seen as the basis of
God’s declaration of righteousness so that the practical life of
sanctification is now no longer a road to salvation but a way of
life of the redeemed. In part this functions to fend off notions of
self-redemption or a human assistance in God’s work of
redemption, and it also fit better into the comparatively gloomy
view of human nature that was pervasive in that age.
The anthropological notions of the 17th century were well
expressed in the doctrine of the fall, which was taken to imply
the absolute corruption of man’s nature (though some argued
not in man’s essence, but in his accidental qualities). To be
able in one’s power to obtain the status of righteous was
consistent neither with the high notion of righteousness in itself
nor with the prevalent view on man’s inaptitude. Justification by
works would imply, so it was understood, that man had
“earned” it through his own merits, which was deemed also to
be unacceptable within the anthropological understanding of
man’s inability to comply with God’s demand and the radical
nature of that demand, in itself involving the complete inner
submission to God’s will that was taken to be part of the
messianic, radical understanding of the law.
If justification addressed the situation of man and not his
condition, this implied a twofold understanding of sin. Sin in
general is defined as defectus naturae et actionum in naturis
intelligentibus, pugnans cum lege (“a defect within the nature
and actions of intelligent beings that conflicts with the law”). As
peccatum imputatum the original sin is guilt, which is attributed
to the nature of man. Man’s actions based on his nature are
perverted by the objective situation of his standing guilty before
God and if he acts without taking that into account, all his
subsequent actions are sinful again. Besides that there is
peccatum originale inhaerens (the original sin) that is the reality
of sin in man. It was explained as an attitude and direction of
human activity that is opposed to God. Through it, human
nature was corrupted: Peccatum originale est reatus et
corruptio totius generis humani ex lapsu illo primo inde ab
origine conceptionis inhaerens. That’s why man was (1)
deprived from the good and (2) inclined to all evil.22
This meant that sanctification that related to human behavior,
and therefore involved the second notion of sin, could only be
seen as a secondary result of justification and as separated
from it both in time and in substance. Any connection between
the two was of a logical nature, as if a practical deduction: if we
are righteous before God by declaration, let us then conform to
that and act righteously in every-day reality. Righteousness in
practice was motivated by our response to received righte-
ousness: gratitude.
But even then, the logic did not fail to produce a still greater
emphasis on grace. The “works of gratitude” themselves had to
be caused by God, humanity still being unable to respond
freely to God’s grace after having been declared righteous.
Otherwise the forensic nature of that declaration and eo ipso
God’s sovereignty would be compromised. The logic of
justification therefore tended to destroy all human liberty in so
far it involved spontaneity and thereby reduced man to an
object in the hands of God. The doctrine of predestination,
especially in its form as “double predestination,” expressed
that. Man was elected by God’s sovereign grace either to be
saved or to be doomed for eternity. The emphasis shifted from
justification by faith to justification of the ungodly expressing a
sovereign act of God that remained extrinsic (solo verbo) to the
believer expressing the pattern of Christian life even after
conversion. The inability to serve God was not removed after

The source of these quotations is: Heppe, die Dogmatik der Evangelisch-
Reformierte Kirche, 1958, pp. 254-258.
The general dynamic of this doctrine can be summarized with
reference to Bultmann’s theology as an indicative-imperative
transition, whereby elements of the imperative were continually
being integrated into the indicative to the point that their
distinction got blurred. With such a logic in place, a particular
reading of Paul could be developed. Especially Paul’s letters to
the Romans and Galatians were read in this light. It became
necessary to make a clear distinction between justification of
the sinner (God’s extrinsic and sovereign act dealing with the
human situation) and evangelical obedience or sanctification
(man’s response, or rather: God’s continued work in the
believer, dealing with his condition), even if that distinction
could only be made in “conversation” and could not be found in
the texts. As we will see, this distinction, though perhaps
meaningful in discussion, tends to weaken the intrinsic
connection between the two that is apparent in Paul’s
terminology and treatment of the matter. Sanctification must
neither be interpreted after the pattern of justification so as to
maintain a sense of their unity, nor the other way around. What
we seek is a concept that will hold the two together in their
intrinsic unity without blurring their distinction.
What kind of connection is made between justification and
ethics? We can clearly hear the distinction between justification
and sanctification, e.g., in the words of John Calvin:
“I trust I have now sufficiently shown how man’s only
resource for escaping from the curse of the law, and recovering
salvation, lies in faith; and also what the nature of faith is, what
the benefits which it confers, and the fruits [my emphasis]
which it produces. The whole may be thus summed up: Christ
given to us by the kindness of God is apprehended and
possessed by faith, by means of which we obtain in particular a
twofold benefit; first, being reconciled by the righteousness of
Christ, God becomes, instead of a judge, an indulgent Father;
and, secondly, being sanctified by his Spirit, we aspire to
integrity and purity of life [my emphasis]. “23
So “integrity and purity of life” is something we aspire to on
the basis of our having been justified, “being reconciled by the
righteousness of Christ.” The concept of sanctification seems to
be added to that of justification. The reconciliation referred to

Calvin, Inst. III, 11, 1
here is therefore not a restoration of man’s ability to perform
God’s will, that would unite the forensic and the intrinsic
meaning of justification, but it does provide the basis for our
“aspiring” to it. Calvin wants to make sure it is understood that
justification by faith and sanctification by the Spirit belong
together, but still he emphasizes that justification is the main
pillar of the Christian faith.24 Justification is a full reality at the
moment when faith begins (even though it is predestined from
eternity), and sanctification starts as a correlated process. The
grace of God is not an aid in acquiring inherent righteousness -
since God’s grace is not a perfection of nature but a radical
renewal - but it is an imputation of an alien and undeserved
righteousness, a benefit which is conferred by God and
experienced by man through faith, i.e., the righteousness of
Christ. Or in another imagery: sanctification is in no way a
prerequisite of justification, but rather a fruit which it produced
over time. It is understood that sanctification has its origin
extrinsically, just as justification does.
In that way the concept of justification becomes the criterion
or the fundament of what can be said about the role of ethics in
Christian life, and it determines both the form of evangelical
obedience and the shape of the community that is constituted
by it. Justification, understood as declarative amnesty, as
extrinsic to man, becomes the logical pattern of sanctification. It
is this doctrine of justification that provides a specific basis for
Christian ethics, since it makes the forensic declaration of
righteousness the main pillar of faith and makes sanctification
into a process that transforms man from the outside by
constant reference to this imputed righteousness. But we must
take note that Calvin’s language has no problem with a word
like ‘aspires’, which connotes human effort though he states
that the process is a gift. Because extrinsic justification defines
man’s basic ethical situation, the language of sanctification and
obedience can still refer to human endeavor, because it is

A characteristic passage in Calvin is the following: “The shortest transition,
however, will be from faith to repentance; for repentance being properly
understood it will better appear how a man is justified freely by faith alone,
and yet that holiness of life, real holiness, as it is called, is inseparable from
the free imputation of righteousness. That repentance not only always follows
faith, but is produced by it, ought to be without controversy.” [Italics mine]
(Calvin, Institutions, book 3, pg. 682) The connection between justification
and sanctification is affirmed, but their relationship is structured along the
lines of condition and effect. Menno stresses the simultaneity of both.
understood that this is a consequence of God acting within
man, and not man acting on his own.
Though Calvin purposed to keep justification and
sanctification together, the way he understood both makes it
possible to apply the logic of the connection in a different
manner. In other words, once you disengage the contents of
sanctification from the concept of justification, you possibly lose
sight of their intrinsic relationship. In modern, post-
Enlightenment Protestant thinking, this logic of extrinsic
connection has been used to define a new mode of
“obedience” as obedience to the voice of inner conscience or
moral self-awareness and to express the whole as a
relationship between a motivational event or reality and a
universal, human ethics. Especially in the early 19th century,
the demand for liberation from all external bonds and
authorities grew to the point that even Christ as Model or Ideal
of human life was put forward only as an external motivation to
discover the inner Moral law. Love was set against any kind of
external obedience to law. Sola fide was exchanged, one might
say, for sola corde (only through the heart), and a moral and
inner certitude replaced the response of faith to the Biblical
What was lost here was the Reformation’s insistence that
both justification and sanctification were processes and events
that originated outside of us, extra nos. (But modernism at
least addressed the problem that justification and sanctification
were only extrinsically connected.) The logic of justification in
the early Reformation had stressed an inner morality consistent
with the pattern of faith as gift, as opposed to any kind of
outward legality. In this first stage, the doctrine of justification
defined the ethical situation as basically extrinsic, as a situation
in which man is placed of which his inner faith is merely the
awareness; now that same logic (in its third, pietist-modernist
stage) produced interiority as the basic inner value and
justification as an inner process leading man to autonomous
morality. The cognitive autonomy of consciousness that
experienced outward grace was gradually strengthened to
imply moral autonomy, the inner experience of the “voice of
conscience.” When the Enlightenment declared the main
essence of humanity to lie in his freedom and defined that
freedom in the manner of Leibniz as “having the ultimate
ground of being in itself” or in the language of Spinoza as
(participating in) the absolute substance as causa sui, all
relational (extrinsic) aspects of human nature were relegated to
a place of secondary importance. The relation to God, as the
“external” relation per se, external from the human side, that is;
immanent from the side of God, was replaced by the God-in-us
In the19th century this development reached its culmination
when German idealism made the Spirit, God in His immanence
in creation, into the most basic ontological category, and
defined it by freedom. The measure of all things was now not
only man in his finite, concrete nature (as the 17th-century pre-
enlightenment had tried to show), nor man as a creature of
both intellect and corporeality (Kant), but man in so far as he
was able to be in the manner of a self-relating closed, monadic
identity. Fichte’s concept of the universal monadic ego and
Schelling’s vision of the absolute Being beyond our intellect
were sides of one and the same coin. Hegel’s conception of the
Absolute Spirit as immanence in the world trying to overcome
the vestiges of transcendence, which would lead to a secular
fulfillment of Paul’s vision of God’s being “all in all,” was the
most forceful statement of that enterprise.
Through this momentous change in the basic paradigm of
theology in the 18th and 19th centuries, not only was the
specific nature of Christianity severely weakened, but the
logical connection itself between jsustification and ethics, the
concept of faith as obedience, was impaired. Justification now
became more objectively the cosmic drama of the narrative of
Christ, with pedagogical or psychological value only. To quote
just one example, Joseph Fuchs wrote:
“The specific and decisively Christian aspect of Christian
morality is not to be sought first of all in the particularity of
categorical values, virtues and norms of various human
activities. Rather it resides in the believer’s fundamental
Christian decision to accept God’s love in Christ and respond to
it as one who believes and loves, as one who assumes the
responsibility for life in this world in imitation of Christ, that is,
as one who has died with Christ and is risen with him in faith
and sacrament thus becoming a new creation.” 25
The point of this passage is that the specific Christian
character of ethics resides in the motivational power of the
Christian faith as a force that pervades our whole person and

In: Hauerwas, Kingdom, 1983, 57
brings us to give an answer to Gods Grace. Justification had
made all of morality, all “good works,” immaterial to salvation,
but had kept in its early stages and in Calvin the connotation of
(evangelical) obedience. The extrinsic righteousness of Christ
led to our being set on the road of obedience to God’s
demands, not society’s. But now the concept of justification is
seen as a force that motivates and stimulates Christians to a
better behavior that was in itself formally defined according to
the values and standards of western culture, even if that culture
was no longer permeated by Biblical values.
Christian values are then not different from other human
values in our different societies and are not the private domain
of Christians. In a sense, as soon as the connection between
biblical sources and Christian ethics was given up because that
would constitute “moralism” or a return to a Judaistic works-
righteousness, as soon as justification became an internal
event within man’s consciousness and sanctification a matter of
character and no longer of outward obedience, there were
specified Christian values but no specified Christian behavior.
These values could only “work” when they were ingrained in
society and practiced in Church. But they got the status of
ideas and goals that were ultimately successful only if they
were in themselves in conformity with the demands of universal
reason. The utopian dream of rationalism replaced concrete
obedience to rules and institutions. National societies replaced
the counter-community of the Church as the primary
environment of Christian values. The development of western
European anthropology, with its modern insistence on inner
freedom and the role of the state as the embodiment and
guarantor of that freedom, took over from scripture as the
material source of Christian ethics.
That development not only made the Old Testament law and
the idea of commandment in itself immaterial for salvation,
which was the polemical edge of its inception phase, but it also
declared the striving for all works that accord with the principle
of obedience to law, or by which man strives for merit, or, in
more modern language, that include self-conscious acting
according to external rules of behavior, to be in opposition to
the very essence of salvation. Salvation was freedom, not
bondage, not even to Christ. The antithesis between a cursing
law and a liberating grace precluded any possibility of
accepting evangelical obedience as an analogy to Torah-
obedience, i.e., as “law of Christ” or as “messianic Torah
The more general problem in this connection is whether we
can truly ground a Christian ethics by defining it as behavior in
accordance with the values prevalent in a society or seen as
foundational to the well-being of that society, and our deeming
the traditional Christian values to result from compromise in the
confrontation between gospel and society. If the elements of
forensic and external imputation are taken away from the doc-
trine of justification because the prevalent anthropology of
society has changed, then the result seems to be that the con-
nection between justification and sanctification falls away or is
at least modified beyond recognition. If justification is thought of
as extrinsic, then sanctification is equally extrinsic, i.e., a
process that leads man into a sanctity that is not necessarily
identical to that of surrounding society, though Calvin is more
adamant that Christian ethics retains its specific character than
is Luther.
Our disagreement with Calvin might be about the source and
the nature of Christian ethics, not that it has a specific
character. Calvin applied the logic of justification to the issue of
practical sanctification in such a way, that he needed the law to
provide its contents, thereby preserving the specific character
of Christian ethics. Because however the law also had to
function as the incentive for accepting the gospel, as indictment
against humanity, the function of the law became intrinsically
ambiguous. Justification and sanctification could then never be
understood as parts of the same process. When the
Reformation made sanctification into the secondary corollary of
justification, it provided later centuries with a problem: their
change in the appreciation of justification was prompted by
changes in anthropology since the 17th century, in particular
the Enlightenment, because if justification is intrinsic, a mere
corollary of human self-improvement under the guidance of
reason, then sanctification implies commitment to society’s
values. It might very well be the case, that the change in the
understanding of sanctification reversely influenced this rein-
terpretation of the extrinsic justification into the motivational
background of moral behavior. Society’s values changed as
well, making a life in accordance with predetermined values of
a pre-Enlightenment age more difficult to hold on to, though
some tried.
The result of the particular connection made between
justification and sanctification by 17th-century Reformation
theology was that, with the change in anthropology and social
morality, justification had become a motivational pedagogy
leading to Christians observing the political and social values of
the day.
That was particularly true for the 19th century, but this con-
nection between theology of grace and society remained in full
force as a prime concern for Christians. In our less optimistic
age, political responsibility has become the major paradigm of
love for the neighbour, and as a result the Church is seen by
many as an instrument of social critique. Liberation theologies
of various kinds preach the primacy of action over liturgy and
prayer. With respect to the doctrine of justification, and its
insistence on the primacy of grace, this meant a decisive
change. Salvation was not the free gift of God to the body of
believers, and through them a present reality, but consisted in
gradual changes within society. Grace could no longer be the
pure inner reality of faith, but must be present and active in a
real progress in society toward a greater degree of real, social
justice. So salvation is never a present reality, it is something
we hope for and strive for. It is fundamentally a thing of the
future. “Hope” has become one of the major paradigms for
Christian thought and living.26 This tendency is reinforced by an
alternate change in theological paradigms: the notion that
reality counts as it is experienced and not as it is evaluated by
faith. Bultmann had argued in 1962 that faith in the existence of
God was only possible against experience.27 Now the paradigm
shifted away from faith to experience: either grace is a visible
experience in the social and political dimension of life, or it is
abstract and/or absent.
Starting with experience implies starting with man. The quest
for God’s grace must begin with determination of the self-
experience of man and his view on his condition. We can only
determine in what sense God’s grace is the answer to man’s
predicament if we have first established what man’s condition
really is. Grace is then defined as liberation from whatever ails
and oppresses man. If man is approached from his own (self-
)experience, his liberation must be empirically concrete, with a

Cf. Pesch, op. cit., 385.
R. Bultmann, the translation of this 1962 address was published in 1964
(Jesus Christus und die Mythologie, Hamburg) p. 99, in Bultmann, Existence
and Faith, Hodder and Stoughton, 1961
view to changing the real conditions in which man lives as a
social and political being. But the definition of his predicament
is then not informed by insight into what grace is, but just the
other way round.
In this development, four stages can be clearly observed.

• The classic debate – 16th century

In the first stage, justification by faith as opposed to
justification by works was the point of disagreement among
Catholics, Anabaptists, and Protestants, specifically as regards
the objective nature and externality of justification. Differing
anthropological and conceptual differences were largely
responsible for the variance among their basic views. The
Reformed view ran like this: If I was a sinner and justified as
such, my faith made me the recipient of external forensic
justification; a declaration which set me free. Sanctification was
a direct consequence of the life in the spirit that was made
possible by the initial amnesty of God’s grace. Justification was
the condition of ethics, defining the new situation in which I was
placed before God. I remained a sinner, so moral behavior
could not involve autonomous action in compliance with the
known will of God as expressed in commandments. Still, the
motivational force of justification led to specific Christian duties
that were added to our common duties under civil government.

• The Scholastic stage – 17th century

Drawing on the same pessimist anthropology and continuing
along the lines of searching for the ultimate expression of
God’s sovereignty, the Scholastic phase of Lutheran theology
came to stress the extrinsic imputation as a declarative, not
constitutive act, thereby severing the intrinsic link between
justification and sanctification. One of its expressions was
double-election theology, in which all vestiges of human
cooperation and liberty were denied. One of the responses it
provoked was Puritanism, which tried to reconnect the two by
stressing the inner experience of faith-conversion as a
subjective process

• The turnover in the 18th and 19th century

In its tertiary stage, the doctrine was taken up into a decisively
different anthropology, which stressed man’s moral and
spiritual freedom. Justification came to express an element of
the inner life of man, i.e., the common morality of humanity
could be expressed in a Christian fashion without its being a
Christian prerogative. Christian morality was about affirming
man’s inner moral nature. In this liberal or Enlightenment stage
of the process, specified Christian duties were non-existent.
The social and political virtues of the various Christian societies
were normative sources for our knowledge of the good. This
was the era of modernism.

• Social and political critique – 20th century

Then there was the dawn of a fourth stage. In the sixties of
our century, this conformity with social virtues of the day was
transformed into a more or less radical position of social
critique. Liberation theology defined the life of faith as social
activism, striving for the concrete improvement of society,
holding on to the hope of a just society but also demanding that
part of this hope be realized in the present-day.
The exegesis of Paul’s letters in the New Testament remains
a source for this fourth approach to Christian ethics. It has been
said recently that Paul is an “antinomist” 28 who wants to have
nothing to do with laws, whether of a legal or a moral nature.
Christian ethics is about being “taken up in the movement of
the Spirit," without rules of conduct, not as a task to be
performed, but as a reality of the heart.29 Paul’s exhortations
are not commandments, but descriptions of Christian spirituality
that intend to let others become involved in a new reality. The
objective nature of this involvement lies in the social and
political critique to which it leads and the rejection of inner
experience, including the life of faith, that would stand in the
way of this movement toward social reality. Zuurmond’s
position conforms to the paradigm of the post-60s theology that
we sketched briefly above. This position breaks away from
traditional Reformed thought by stressing three things:

1 Justification by faith is not an amnesty for my private

sins and is not experienced in an individual emotional

Zuurmond, Vrijheid, 1990, p. 85
Ibid., 83.The position that ethics, as a knowledge of the good that leads to
improvement in doing the good, has been disrupted by the justification of the
ungodly is a particular emphasis of the school of E. Kasemann. Leander E.
Keck, e.g., speaks about the breakdown of ethics. If Christ is the ‘end’ of the
law, the goal of ethics is already achieved. (Rechtfertigung, ed. J. Friedrich,
1976, p. 199)
event. This of course addresses not the doctrines of the
Reformers themselves, since Calvin, e.g., is very much
concerned with the extrinsic character of the imputed
righteousness, and not with the emotional condition in
which it is received, but its anti-Wesleyan intent leads to an
exaggerated objectivity. Still, at the same time this
objectivity is also a matter of experience in the sense that it
is oriented toward the real political experience of freedom.
2 Justification by faith does not refer to “private” faith,
but faith is understood as a personified power that works
within the congregation. So in conjunction with the removal
of the individual experience, the emphasis now falls on the
social dimension of the gospel, and faith is “objectified” to
become a descriptive term of a historical movement or a
tendency in what happens.
3 Justification is not about the final state of man before
God, not something that will be real in the future, but is
about the present of a community: it is about creating the
conditions in which we can live as free human beings.30
That sentence refers directly to the a priori value of being a
“free human being” and takes the social dimension as the
condition for experiencing that freedom. If “hope” plays a
role here, it is still an expression of the reality of salvation in
terms of hope. Thus it is to be distinguished from the
orientation to the future that is, e.g., present in classical
Marxism, in that it does not accept a preliminary stage on
the road to salvation.
As a consequence of such a position, and increasingly so as
the doctrine moves from its classical to its modern variants,
there emerges a clear antithesis to morality as such, let alone
biblical morality, which is argued as non-existent. Morality
belongs to “this” world as long as it expresses itself in the
imperative. The new life can only be expressed by
transcending the command and its shape of obedience and
heteronomy, i.e., only by using a morally inspiring narrative.
Christian freedom was once understood as freedom from
powers of sin leading to a particular kind of new obedience, but
this obedience was declared to be a gift of God in faith, i.e., in
the “inner man”, and not a task or duty presented as a goal for
man’s activity. This understanding of obedience as “internal”
was the key for the development that followed. The moral

Zuurmond, ibid., 78-79.
perspective that goes with it would describe obedience as an
act of the will in conformity to the will of another, making the
question of who is obeyed, who is Lord, the primary one.
Obedience implied submission to authority. But the modern
notion of freedom as exercised within a community is felt to be
inconsistent with a morality that defines a priori limitations to
the exercise of that freedom. It is sometimes held, as a popular
belief and axiom, that there can be only legal restraint, which
must ultimately be grounded upon the necessity to ensure that
different freedoms do not destroy each other. The freedom that
is exercised in the shape of submission to scripture must of
necessity now seem to be an alienation and a bondage under
external powers.
In conformity with Luther’s renewal of Paulinism, modern
Lutheran theologians like Bultmann not only reiterate the
position that “good works” are mere straw since they only
address the outward behavior (the “legality”), but add to this
that the underlying attitude (the motivational side of acquiring
merit to Luther, of being self-centered in Bultmann) is itself
sinful. Zuurmond posits a pneumatic ethos as a direct opposite
of “morality” whereby the latter only has meaning in those
practical circumstances where decisions must be made
concerning right and wrong. So freedom is not understood as
self-centered, as in the early half of the 19th century in German
idealism. Rather, it is the eccentric rather than the egocentric
freedom of man that places him in essential relationships, that
is deemed to be the core essence of this human freedom. The
modern concept of individual, inward autonomy is changed to
mean independence from everything that is not contributive to
the welfare of the social whole to which one belongs. It is that
social whole that becomes the bearer of a collective autonomy.
The pneumatic ethos in Zuurmond’s reading of Paul is a social
ethos, but, in distinction from Yoder, it is no longer a morality. It
is a description of God’s work in man beyond his inner
experience focusing on the community, and not a concept of a
condition granted to man enabling him to respond in a specific
and prescribed manner to God’s will.

The general outcome of this entire development of the

concepts of justification and sanctification, as they moved
beyond Calvin’s effort to separate them “in conversation” but
hold them together experientially, is that Christians would have
no special insights toward a better morality, they would only be
motivated differently in seeking to conform to the standards of
modern society. The contents of such ethics would still be
derived from a universal human condition and be grounded in
the practical possibilities of political freedom, not in the
commandments of the eschatological Kingdom. The Kingdom-
ethos would be a force that moves us beyond such matters of
morality and legality and, to some extent, beyond all practical
matters of good and evil.

6. Justification as the ethical condition
The most fervent advocates of the doctrine of justification
(now stressing the justification of the ungodly as in Rom. 4:5)
can be found in the school of Rudolf Bultmann, in particular E.
Käsemann. Here we find the statement that this doctrine really
is the canon in the canon, repeating the Lutheran insistence
that justification is the issue on which the Church stands or
falls. In particular this defense of the Lutheran thesis contends
that justification is not part of Paul’s disagreement with Jewish
Christians on the issue of “boundaries”, as has been defended
recently by Sanders, and James Dunn; at the same time it tries
to develop a position that goes beyond the anthropocentric
(existentialist) presuppositions of Bultmann’s own position.31 I
will illustrate the inner structure of the modern argument in
favor of the individual justification-doctrine by briefly
summarizing the position of one of Käsemann’s pupils.
In 1976 Leander E. Keck published his contribution to the
Festschrift in honor of E. Käsemann under the title:
“Justification of the Ungodly and Ethics.” The article deals with
a lot of issues, including the question of what is to be seen as
the center of the New Testament and the role of canon history
in finding the core message of the gospel. I want to focus,
however, on the main issue of the article, which is the question
of how justification and ethics are related. According to Keck,
the doctrine of justification deals with the core problem of
Christian ethics. Paul’s key contribution to ethics is not that he
answered the questions that have traditionally been seen as
the definition of ethics since Kant: What must I do? and, How
can I know it? Paul focuses on the third question of Kant’s
ethics: What is man? Paul “transforms the situation of the
doer.” That is consistent with the former conclusion that a major
difference between Anabaptism and the Reformation lies
specifically in the area of the anthropological presuppositions of
the doctrine of justification and ties in with the post-
Enlightenment emphasis on justification as about character or
being and not about deeds. The key problem in ethics,
according to Keck, is the dichotomy of “condition” versus
“situation.” Is it true that justification changes the situation and

Cf. Pesch, 1981, p. 356-359
not the doer himself?
To 1st-century Judaism, the answer to the first two Kantian
questions would have been: Torah. The Mosaic law both tells
us what to do and how to prepare for doing it. The Torah is
many things, civil law, cultic law, ethical exhortation and moral
pedagogy. It therefore details a system of restoring the
unwitting sinner, the one who sinned because of ignorance. It
was equally positive that sins, perpetrated with intent and
knowledge of evil had no means of being atoned for unless
they were punished and in that sense it kept a condemning
edge, though Rabbinic literature expanded the efficacy of
repentance to such a degree that it worked for almost
everything. Now to Keck, the issues of law and of ethics
become interwined to form one and the same argument. Paul
took up the matter of law by arguing that (1) all are under the
curse of the law since no one is able to do all that the law has
commanded (Gal. 3:10), and (2) the law gives us knowledge of
sin, but it does not give us the power to abstain from evil. The
law is weakened by and even perverted by the flesh. The
power of sin actually abuses the law to promote sin. That is not
a problem of the law in itself, but a problem of the human
condition vis-à-vis the law. “The utter perversity of sin is
manifested precisely in its ability to work death by means of the
good and life-promising law.”32 So the problem with the law and
all ethics of obedience is that its situation (the being “under” the
law; freedom having to obey) does not harmonize with the
condition of the moral subjects under it.
Still, the law makes a promise of life. It states that
disregarding what needs to be done has serious
consequences, and it posits that doing what is commanded is
validated by God, who controls the consequences of any act. In
short, law and ethics both make an assumption with regard to
the “moral order” as a concurring “situation” that takes the weak
condition of man into consideration. “A God who would or
could not vindicate the good and the right of which He is the
ground is either immoral or incompetent.” Seen against that
background, divine Mercy must then consist in forbearance and
patience in the face of human failure. Grace can be seen as a
moderation of the human situation with respect to obligation.
Jew and gentile are only different in this respect because the
Jew has the knowledge of the good in the Torah and can

Friedrich, op. cit. p. 202.
therefore rightfully pass judgment on others because of their
ignorance of the law, and the gentile is “still asking the ethical
question,” but apart from that both “construe the ground of the
good to be commensurate with what they are trying to do.” So
the law makes the question: What to do? the most basic
question and separates people into those who know and those
who do not know the answer to it, the latter then being unable
to comply with the demand.
We must note in passing that to Keck the law still figures
prominently in this model of “moral order” as a system of rules
of behaviour, punishments and rewards. No effort is made to
understand the law from its inner core as means of
reconciliation, as if Leviticus 16 dealing with the Day of
Atonement were not an integral part of it. From the outset, the
law is not taken as “Torah” (instruction), but as “lex.”
If God nevertheless vindicated the condemned Jesus, Keck
continues; if God resurrected a Jesus who despite his complete
compliance with Mosaic law had become cursed under that
same law by hanging from a tree because that was the
punishment for those who broke the law and opposed it, then
there is a righteousness beyond law and ethics. The situation
rather than the condition of man has been changed decisively.
Christ’s death proves that the situation of man under the law
will not work the good, because it cannot address human
weakness. So now the good as known is no longer a reliable
guide to answering the question of what to do. The problem of
ethics is no longer solved by changing the condition alone (by
preparing man for obedience) because that is a hopeless
enterprise, nor by ignoring the human condition and changing
the situation (by removing the law), but only by changing
man’s moral condition and his situation under the law both at
the same time.
More to the point: the clue to the improvement of the condition
of man is no longer given in the situation of man under the law.
Right relationship to God is no longer based on the
presumption that knowing the good is knowing the Creator.
God is not the guarantor of the moral order if God justifies and
resurrects someone whom the law must condemn. So it is no
longer our achievement that grounds moral judgment, since
Jesus in terms of the moral order failed to accomplish anything.
If God vindicates Jesus, then it must be said that God justifies
the ungodly, not those who are perfect in terms of the moral
order or the law. For Jesus was vindicated Himself after taking
the place of sinners, effectively by dying the death of a sinner.
The right relationship to God is therefore not based on trust in
God as the basis of the moral order, but on trust in a God who
transcends that moral order and in doing so frees mankind from
its obligation, because that obligation only strengthened the
power of sin under which man suffered.
If this is the new basis for ethics, then the moral demand gets
a new face. The justification of the ungodly becomes the
decisive context of ethics and as a consequence ethics is no
longer an issue of harmonizing the situation of man before God
under law with the human condition. It means that the good can
now be done
• without calculating the effect of the good that is to be done;
(because there is no moral order any more that can ground
such calculation)
• with the understanding that doing it does not add to or
supplement what one is; (so the situation of man before
God is detached from his actions)
• in freedom from self-regard and egocentric motivations;
• without fear of the judgment of others;
• with a new ability to return good for evil and to accept
suffering. (That implies an enablement to live beyond the
dictates of moral law in sacrificial love.)
So Keck can conclude: “...for Paul ethics is not a matter of
paraenesis for the justified, but rather the justification of the
ungodly transforms the ethical situation of the doer with respect
to the obligatory good and its ground.”33

We have been investigating the general structure of the

various doctrines of justification for a specific purpose: to find
the inherent logic with which these doctrines approach or
define the problem of Christian ethics. In the Reformed
tradition, justification by faith basically means the imputation by
God of Christ’s righteousness to the believer, who thereby
receives amnesty for his sins and is declared guiltless in the
sight of God. Having obtained such a once-and-for-all pardon,
man gets the possibility to start a new life, on which, however,
his salvation does not depend. The moral order, as Keck would
say, is rendered invalid. Ethics, then, in practice involves
obeying both human and divine authority, but the criterion for
Friedrich, op. cit. p. 209.
Christian ethics remains the inner submission of man to God’s
grace. The imperative in a way follows the indicative. Such is
the basic pattern of the Reformed understanding of the
doctrine. A bleak anthropology and misgivings about human
spontaneity and liberty accompany a tendency to increase the
inherent force of the concept of God’s sovereignty to the extent
that, finally, we play objective parts in an unfolding divine
Catholic teachings emphasize, however, that this justification
is not merely declarative, but also constitutive. Justification
refers, beyond amnesty, to a process of transformation from
the condition of wickedness to the state of righteousness and to
God’s grace in preparing man for a renewal of life. In this
perspective there is no contradiction between affirming God’s
grace and demanding works of obedience as well. Grace is
seen as enabling and perfecting, human response and
cooperation is still needed to obtain full salvation. But this grace
is dispensed through the institution of the Church: in
sacraments and works of obedience to Church law.
Mennonite doctrines, though using much of the language of
Reformed (Lutheran) teachings, are closer to Catholic doctrine
on this point in their 16th-century shape. Menno Simons in
particular combines justification as God’s forensic act in grace
that changes the status of the believer, and as the operative
grace that transforms and re-creates man, into one single
experiential concept: repentance, the betterment of life. The
amendment of life becomes indistinguishable from conversion
and faith. In the balance between sanctification and
justification, sanctification becomes not only the dominating
concept, but it also serves as the point of departure for the
understanding of the basis, nature, and goal of justification,
without becoming identical to it. Most importantly, the
Anabaptists did not share the anthropological assumptions of
the Reformers, and instead accepted an amended Augustinian
doctrine: the liberty of fallen mankind was restored to allow a
free decision for or against God to take place. Their insistence
on believers’ (adult) baptism and their doctrine of a possible
relapse of believers into sin was grounded in that. In that
sense, they had a Christological basis for their anthropology
and did not use the categories of natural theology: it was Christ
who in his propitionary sacrifice made free acceptance of the
gospel, conversion as an act of human will, possible.
Later we find in various Confessional statements the
increasing tendency to express a separate doctrine of
justification conforming to general evangelical-Protestant
teachings, but at the same time maintaining the emphasis on
sanctification, repentance, and renewal that separated Menno’s
teachings, e.g., from those of Luther. The emphasis on the
visible Church and concrete obedience in the sense of
submission of the free and unhindered will of man under God,
is made possible again by the specific notion that Christ’s work
implied a liberation of the will for all of mankind. The
experiential and ethical side of the life of faith cannot be
separated from the declarative element of amnesty and pardon
that is part of redemption also.
In contemporary theology, the school of Bultmann, in
particular his pupil Käsemann, have maintained a vigorous
insistence on the justification of the ungodly as the main
emphasis of the biblical message. That has consequences for
ethics, since it redefines the moral situation as such. The
believer must be removed from the old moral order where his
deeds are weighed against the standard and where knowledge
of the good is the essential prerequisite of doing what is
demanded. The essential feature of Christian ethics is the
doing of the good because of its inherent nature and not on the
basis of obedience to God, or on the basis of the acquisition of
merit, or on respect for the standard. We argued that L. Keck,
who defended this doctrine in the early seventies, has actually
made a Kantian approach to morality the basic notion behind
Paul’s doctrine. The social dimension of ethics and the
insistence on obedience fall away because of the identification
of ethics with the concept of law in Paul.
In the one example of a modern Anabaptist theology that we
will discuss (J. H. Yoder’s), Christ’s teachings of a new righte-
ousness are developed as a Christian ethics, giving paramount
importance to the Sermon on the Mount though again restating
general allegiance to a justification-by-faith position. By taking
up the exegetical insights of the seventies, Yoder manages to
steer clear of the older grace-law antithesis still found in the
Bultmann school. The law gives life, and does so for the
Church as well, the voluntary nature of keeping the law and the
changed social situation (the law is to be fulfilled by a
community that rejects all social distinctions) defines the social
ethics of the Church. So here justification comes to mean the
process of peaceful integration of Jews and gentiles into a
community that serves God according to the messianic pattern.
In this approach, the justification of the ungodly is only
minimally present and we can see an overemphasis on the
element of sanctification, though it is not connected with
individual achievements, but to social ethics.

7. A common understanding of justification
Most often we find that a discourse on justification starts with
an anthropology. We state as our first premise that man is a
sinner and that this is a defining trait of human beings. His
tendency to evil is so ingrained in his being that no effort on his
part will be able to solve the problem of his inner weakness and
immoral tendencies. At most, he is able on his own to curb his
immoral desires outwardly or to be restrained by fear of violent
retribution. Even in his positive tendencies, in his love for
offspring and parents, there are traces of egoism and self-
serving evil that make him less than perfect even in that. If man
is understood like this, he is part of the problem of evil in this
world and not part of the solution. “Nobody is righteous”, Rom.
3:10. Most often this is accompanied by an exaggeration of the
demand of the Mosaic law. William Romaine could write about
young believers’ ignorance of the full demand of the law,
tempting them to legalism:
Secondly, from their ignorance of the law. They are not
acquainted with its nature; for it demands what they cannot
pay. It insists upon an obedience, spiritual, perfect, and
uninterrupted; for the least offence, if but in thought, it comes
with its fearful sentence. "Cursed is every one who continueth
not in all things that are written in the book of the law to do
them." On him who does not continue in all things, and not one
man ever did, this sentence takes place; and if he was to live a
thousand years, he could not do anything to repeal it. The law
will always be to him the ministration of condemnation, and the
ministration of death, and that is all it can do for him. It provides
no remedy, and gives him no hope, but leaves him condemned
to the first and to the second death; and yet, such is the
blindness of the sinner, that he will be still leaning to the law,
and afraid to trust wholly to the righteousness of Christ.34
Man obviously does not live up to the perfect standard that
God has set for him; creation is a broken reality, in need of
redemption. Not only in his individuality, but more particularly in
his social organizations, ranging from the “natural” life of
families, tribes, nations to the social institutions of the state that
are meant to curb his evil passions, man is unable to redeem

Cf. William Romaine, (1714-1795), The Legal Spirit Slaine.
himself. And even if he did reach a condition of controlled evil,
this would not alleviate the more basic fact that man as such is
estranged from his creator in his innermost being. Not only part
of him, but his whole being is alienated from its intended
condition. Man is a sinner before God and not only before his
fellow-humans. Man is unable to do good. And the solution
does not lie in the institutions that restrain him, but in a change
of both his condition and his situation before God. As the
“Puritan Catechism” states:

17. Q. Wherein consists the sinfulness of that state whereunto

man fell?
A. The sinfulness of that state whereunto man fell, consists in
the guilt of Adam’s first sin, (Romans 5:19) the want of original
righteousness, (Romans 3:10) and the corruption of his whole
nature, which is commonly called original sin, (Ephesians 2:1;
Psalms 51:5) together with all actual transgressions which
proceed from it. (Matthew 15:19)

We are guilty, unjust and corrupt, weak and unable to redeem

ourselves. We are under the power of sin and even our
conscience is unable to be our guide. After all, I might know
what is good, and yet find myself unable to do it (Cf. Romans
7). Sin is the human condition: it is the inability to do good and
the corruption of my will and conscience so that I do not do
what I can know as good. We can find the same kind of
anthropological condemnation of humanity in other catechisms
as well. The gospel Luther taught may be summarized by this
quotation from his Small Catechism:
For when we had been created by God the Father, and had
received from Him all manner of good, the devil came and led
us into disobedience, sin, death, and all evil, so that we fell
under His wrath and displeasure and were doomed to eternal
damnation, as we had merited and deserved. There was no
counsel, help, or comfort until this only and eternal Son of God
in His unfathomable goodness had compassion upon our
misery and wretchedness, and came from heaven to help us.
Those tyrants and jailers, then, are all expelled now, and in
their place has come Jesus Christ, Lord of life, righteousness,
every blessing, and salvation, and has delivered us poor lost
men from the jaws of hell, has won us, made us free, and
brought us again into the favor and grace of the Father, and
has taken us as His own property under His shelter and
protection, that He may govern us by His righteousness,
wisdom, power, life, and blessedness.”
Here we find a different emphasis, not on our condition, but
on our situation. It is release from captivity, from the bondage
of sin and death and salvation from eternal damnation that gets
the prime attention. The situation described therefore does not
sound like an anthropology at all, but like a fundamental
theological statement of our situation before God. Sin therefore,
defines man not only in his anthropological condition but also in
his theological situation. The first describes man’s inability and
corruption as something intrinsic to man, the second his status
of alienation from God and of being captive to forces outside
himself. Both the human condition and the human situation are
therefore to be defined as ‘sin.”
Still, whether the statements focus on the condition or the
situation of man, the complete weakness and absolute inability
of man to stand before God equals the emphasis on the
brokenness of creation and the power of sin that was
expressed in the Westminster catechism.
God is unable because of His character of absolute righte-
ousness to let pass the sins of man. There is an absolute
necessity for justice. He must remain true to the law and punish
the sins of man and can only do so by condemning man to
(eternal) death. If God wants to redeem man, He cannot
overlook the demand of justice. It is not his “metier” to forgive,
as Voltaire had put it. The price that God demanded for this
satisfaction must be fully congruent with the debt that mankind
had incurred for its sins. Most of all, sin was an offense against
God’s majesty and honor. Divine grace had to comply with the
demand for justice in order to be operational in the forgiveness
of humankind.
And now comes the main point. Into this dismal state of affairs
God wanted to bring a decisive change; faith affirms a historical
initiative on the part of God. There is another basic
determination of mankind: man is a created being, intended by
his Creator to be good and to live by his relationship with God.
The existing anthropological condition of man is neither his
original state nor is it desired that he remain like that. If man
was unable by his own obedience to God’s revealed will to
redeem himself, then only God’s initiative could bring it about.
God therefore had to reveal Himself both in His justice and in
His infinite mercy and did so through the Cross of Jesus Christ.
For sin to be removed, it had to be atoned for. Only death
could remove intentional sin. On the cross, Jesus Christ died
as the expiatory offering for all and the substitutionary offering
for all believers, at the same time satisfying God’s demand for
justice and expressing His merciful love for mankind. Behind
this is a reference to the idea that grounds the sacrificial
theology of the Old Testament: that sins (unintentional
transgressions against the covenant law) can be symbolically
imputed to an innocent animal and then are removed through
the death of the animal, i.e., are removed from history and are
no longer part of the (moral) life of the perpetrator. Extending
this imagery to include all sins (and not merely sins by mistake;
intentional sins were ultimately atoned for by the death of the
perpetrator) and combining it with the notion of the martyr’s
death that atoned for the sins of the whole people, the human
sacrifice of Christ could be seen along those lines as expiatory
sacrifice. This sacrifice for all sin had to be the eternal Son of
God, because only a divine intermediary is able to die in
someone else’s place and to be completely innocent and free
from sin at the same time.
Through Christ, then, the ethical condition of man changed,
since all guilt and sin have been removed to satisfy Gods
justice, and for all those who accept in faith that God has
worked through Christ, this expiation becomes a personal
reality: God reckons our faith as righteousness, by imputing
Christ’s righteousness on the Cross unto the believer granting
him a new life in communion with his creator. No effort on
man’s part is necessary to obtain this forgiveness, only the
sovereign act of election and redemption by God. The believer
is therefore justified by faith and not by works of the law. A
typical expression of this atonement theory can be found in this
quotation from a modern Baptist preacher.
“The real issue is this—What did Jesus Christ do? Did the
Son of God die to make salvation a possibility for all men, or
did he make an infinite satisfaction to divine justice,
accomplishing the eternal redemption of his people? The
modern theory of the atonement is this, the Lord Jesus Christ
died at Calvary to make it possible for all the people of the
world to be saved, though he did not actually secure and make
certain the salvation of any. And when any sinner believes on
Christ, the blood of Christ becomes powerful and effectual to
save him. This notion makes the blood of Christ a dormant and
useless thing until the sinner's faith makes it meritorious and
effectual. But what does the Word of God say? If there is
anything plainly taught in the Bible, it is this, the Lord Jesus
Christ did actually put away the sins of his people, and did
actually obtain eternal redemption for us when he poured out
his life's blood unto death at Calvary (Rom. 3:24-26; II Cor.
5:21 Heb. 9:12,26).”35
The doctrine, summed up catechetically and in its general
Protestant version above, is not a marginal issue within
Christianity. According to Alister McGrath, a variant of such a
doctrine of justification is the “real center” of the theological
system of the Christian Church, which betrays a certain
Protestant emphasis.36 Without “proclaiming, in word and
sacrament, the truth of what God has done for man in Christ,”
the community of faith cannot exist. To be more precise, the
doctrine aims at explaining how God has set man into a new
relationship to himself. It is a description of God’s redeeming
acts in Christ and therefore expressive of the essence of the
gospel. Before we go into the issue of sanctification, the ethical
condition that is defined by this doctrine of justification, we
need to understand in particular how this doctrine differs from
competing approaches to salvation.
McGrath may be right that this doctrine is at the center for
Protestants of Lutheran and Calvinist persuasion, but it might
also be called the greatest stumbling block, since no other
issue has so divided the Church as this one. Justification has
been discussed as identical to, or at least as intrinsically
connected to deification through the Spirit (Eastern-Orthodox
tradition) and righteousness through faith and works
(Anabaptist tradition); as grace perfecting nature (Catholic
tradition); in connection with the nature of repentance and
conversion, becoming the bone of contention between
Lutherans and Anabaptists; as a prerequisite of sanctification
with the rise of Calvinism; as a secular optimist ideology of
man’s divinely received goodness in modernism; as part of the
vision of the eschatological Kingdom in contemporary social
theology. Each of the three words in “justification by faith” has
been understood in as many ways as there are participants in
Don Fortner, Enemies of the Cross. Internet publication. 4 July, 1999
found on
Cf. J. Heinz, Justification and Merit, Michigan, 1981, pp. 33- 37 who
shows with quotations from Catholic authors, that the issue is not considered
as central to the Christian faith by all.
the theological debate. We must give our inquiry a more
specific starting point: what then is the general outline of the
Reformed view on justification?

8. Justification as the pattern of sanctification
The question before us is how Reformed doctrine explained
God’s response to the situation and condition of man. The
Reformation took the doctrine of justification by faith to be the
center of Pauline theology and thereby as the center of the
gospel of Christ. “Justification” was considered a “legal fiction”
because it involved the act of amnesty on the part of God,
based on the righteousness of Christ as its external ground,
that was imputed to believers. It was not a declaration of
righteousness based on any intrinsic quality of the believer.
Imputed righteousness remained very much disconnected from
any objective and empirical achievement by the believer, since
man could not win God’s favor through works of the law or by
any other merit (not even in the sense that the intrinsic
righteousness of the elect after being sanctified by God in the
eschatological future was the real basis of His declaration in
the present).
In the words of the 17th-century Westminster Confession of
Faith, God justified by “pardoning their sins, and by accounting
and accepting their person as righteous.”37 It was similarly
stressed that not even faith, through which justification was
gained, could be counted as a work of merit, since faith was a
gift of God and not “an act of believing or any other evangelical
obedience.” Of course, we must not take this notion of legal
“fiction,” which means to exclude any intrinsic righteousness of
the believer, to imply that justification has no basis in reality at
all. God justifies man based on a substitutionary atonement
that is very much real. The declaration of amnesty is a
judgment in truth, though the righteousness on which it is
based is alien and imputed and is intrinsically that of another
person, i.e., Christ.
The so-called imputation is, however, not merely declarative,

The German word Rechtfertigung as used by Luther and Melanchthon
has a decidedly legal sense that is somewhat lost in modern usage. To justify
also meant: to declare or prove one’s innocence in a court of law. To justify
on the side of the judge implied the execution of justice on the culprit. A
‘sharp’ justification meant torture; ‘painful’ justification implied execution by
hanging. Christ, in such parlance, is then the one who is subjected to a
punishment brought upon Him by the execution of justice. (Cf. Pesch, 1981,
p. 135)
but also constitutive.38 It signifies the beginning of a process of
sanctification of which man’s evangelical obedience is the
visible sign. If “imputation” is not about reality but a mere legal
fiction, then it would make no sense to speak of Adam’s sin
being imputed to his posterity (so Rom. 5:12, 15 in this way of
reading), nor of the imputation of the sins of the believers unto
Christ. In these cases it would not be sufficient to take
imputation to mean “declaration” only. So the language of “legal
fiction” must not lead us astray here: Reformed doctrine might
use legal metaphor, but it is very much aware that it is precisely
that. The legal metaphor is a description of a spiritual reality. To
Luther, the declaration is a creative judgment, a “making
righteous by declaring righteous.” As a consequence one might
say, that to Luther, not only justification is by grace alone, but
also sanctification is by grace alone. The pattern of justification
(extrinsic, solo verbo, on the basis of God’s sovereign act
alone) was the pattern of sanctification as well. What was then
the connection between justification as extrinsic act and the
works of faith?
In principle, the forensic and the effective dimension of jus-
tification were not separated sharply in Luther’s or Calvin’s
time. Justification could also comprise the entrance of the
believer into the community of the Church, in which the justified
could be counted as one of the just and be transformed by the
creative force of the Spirit. The strict usage would refer to
imputed righteousness, meaning that God would not remember
the sins of the believer, would give to him the righteousness of
Christ, and would reckon him to be righteous because of
Christ’s righteousness. Though Luther sometimes accentuates
this forensic element, there is at least an eschatological
dimension of justification in its wider usage, in which the

Melanchthon, especially, made the forensic-imputative interpretation of
justification into the cornerstone of his theology. Man was declared righteous.
Osiander had emphasized against Melanchthon that man was also made
righteous. Along the same lines the Council of Trent had used the concept of
justification to be inclusive of sanctification. In the logic of Melanchthon the
language of sanctification, renewal and transformation was a consequence of
justification, Osiander had taught that it was simultaneous. Only Catholic
doctrine seemed to have made the declaration of righteousness into a means
of becoming righteous, thereby taking up the logic of justification into the
wider concept of sanctification. If sanctification means a subjective-moral
improvement, it would be at odds with imputative justification, but Catholic
doctrine usually refers to an objective-ontic sanctification that is effected by
believer will become intrinsically and fully righteous (cf. Pesch,
1981, p. 130). Besides that, however, Luther often expressed
that faith is the most basic act of a person, and has its centre in
his behaviour. To Luther, the declaration of righteousness was
a creative judgment.39
As we have seen, such a doctrine, which flows from the
founding event of Christianity, must of necessity become the
only foundation of discipleship and Christian obedience, the
very heart of Christian ethics. From this central doctrine, all
forms of obedience are seen as the fruits of gratitude, resulting
from the fact that the justification takes us out of fallen creation
and sets us apart. One of those fruits might be a specific
ascesis: we make use of the world as if we do not use her to
the full (1 Cor. 7:29-31) and the children of the wedding party
will fast after the bridegroom is no longer with them (Cf. Matth.
9:15). All our works get the character of witness, they are
demonstrations of our trust in God, anticipatory to His promise
of a new earth, where righteousness dwells (2 Pet. 3:13).
Prayer, obedience, and patience are the ingredients of this
sanctification that is expressed more as inward than as outward
reality. Ascesis then becomes a general attitude of response to
a changed situation: our being in the world as a provisional
The Reformation, of course, particularly opposed the Roman
Catholic doctrine of justification, which it considered to be
unclear (Luther against Augustine) or false (Luther against
Thomas Aquinas) on the issue of man’s cooperation with God’s
grace, allowing human merit to become grounds for
redemption. That is presumably why the doctrine got such a
polemic edge in the expression “by faith alone,” which formula
was nowhere in the Bible except in Luther’s translation and
possibly also in James’s rejection of popular Paulinism. The
centrality of the doctrine is therefore in this sense a specific
characteristic of the Reformation. Yet, without this doctrine or
any other vision of what God has done for man in Christ, there
can be no Christian Church, as McGrath has reminded us. For
in the gospel, as Paul put it, the righteousness of God is
revealed from (God’s) faith to (human) faith and it is that

Cf. E. Schlinck, Theologie der lutherischen Bekenntnisschriften, Munich,
1948. “Denn Gottes rechtfertigendes Urteil ist niemals ‘nur’ Urteil, sondern
dieses Urteil setzt Wirklichkeit.”, p. 140.
message which has the power of salvation to every one that
believes (Rom. 1:16, 17). Such a clear statement on the core
message of the gospel could hardly be ignored.
The emphasis on the revelation of God’s righteousness and
the act of justification as extrinsic to the person of the believer
has profound consequences for theology and ethics. Through
it, the Church inherited the problem of the disjunction of the
teachings of Christ with the doctrine of His person and work.
The life of Jesus and His relationship to 1st-century Judaism,
and the gospel of God’s Kingdom as He preached it, could then
only be understood as a preparatory stage in the unfolding of
the gospel as Paul understood it to be. Paul’s word of the risen
Christ, that we “do not know Him any longer according to the
flesh” summarizes that viewpoint. One of its main
characteristics is the position that the Sermon on the Mount
was meant to increase the awareness of our inability to perform
works of the law, and was not meant to function as a code for
actual obedience.
Furthermore, beginning from such an interpretation of
justification, the development of an early Christian ethics and
casuistry, as exemplified, e.g., in James, Barnabas, and
Clement, can then only be seen as a return to legalism. The
soteriological emphasis of Paul is perceived to give way to a
disconnected doctrine of “good works.” This vestige of Judaism
must then be a return to (in a theological sense) pre-Pauline
ideas of unclear Jewish-Christian origin, or the result of the
Christian-Jewish debate, and in either case a major deviation
from the gospel. For any doctrine of good works that does not
begin with justification as an extrinsic act of God leads to a
denial of God’s saving act in Christ, and it therefore endangers
the very heart of the gospel. Human righteousness and divine
redemption are seen to be mutually exclusive.
This does not mean that the value of good works is denied,
but that they are interpreted as a consequence or expression of
faith. Faith itself is “the true fulfilling of the First Commandment”
(Luther).40 Without faith, good works do not justify. But with

Cf. Luther: “And this faith, faithfulness, confidence deep in the heart, is the
true fulfilling of the First Commandment; without this there is no other work
that is able to satisfy this Commandment. And as this Commandment is the
very first, highest and best, from which all the others proceed, in which they
exist, and by which they are directed and measured, so also its work, that is,
the faith or confidence in God’s favor at all times, is the very first, highest and
best, from which all others must proceed, exist, remain, be directed and
faith, good works are not performed as if they stood on their
own. Faith is the commander in the process, work only the
witness. The work itself needs no commandment, it occurs by
itself with the Christian. And all emphasis on works in the
synoptics is merely intended to warn the believers not to
neglect their obedience. All deeds of man need an inner
connection to the principle of faith that “outward” works of
prayer, fasting, acts of repentance etc. never have. Whether
they are considered to be effectively provoked by gratitude or
obedience, they have faith, i.e., the inner certainty and
acknowledgment of God’s righteousness in Christ, as their
principle. They are outward expressions of an inner acceptance
of an objective reality, and that inner reality is the will of man
which is obsessed with God’s will, not the will of man acting
independently and of its own accord in conformity to the will of
someone else. They are in that sense emphatically not
intended as works of obedience. Christian ethics as concerned
with works of faith implies nothing less than a change in the
ontological status of human freedom.
Nevertheless, works are the sign of living faith (James 2) that
works the good through love. So the result of living faith is a life
of works that show and express the inner faith. In principle,
therefore, justification, though in itself an extrinsic act of God
and a legal fiction, is not just an objective change of our legal
position before God. It leads by necessity to a subjective
transformation as well, which is then shown by outward acts
insofar as they are in conformity with faith. This can be shown
from a passage from Luther’s introduction to the letter to the
Romans, where he states:

“Instead, faith is God’s work in us, that changes us and gives

new birth from God (John 1:13). It kills the Old Adam and
makes us completely different people. It changes our hearts,
our spirits, our thoughts and all our powers. It brings the Holy
Spirit with it. Yes, it is a living, creative, active and powerful
thing, this faith. Faith cannot help doing good works constantly.
It does not stop to ask if good works ought to be done, but
before anyone asks, it already has done them and continues to

measured. Compared with this, other works are just as if the other
Commandments were without the First, and there were no God.” Luther
(1520), pp. 112-113.
do them without ceasing. Anyone who does not do good works
in this manner is an unbeliever.”41
If faith in this sense is the source of good works, it is indeed
something else than obedience, which must be aware of what
is demanded before doing it. Obedience, by contrast, would not
be constant, and would not work without being asked, and,
most importantly, it would include an awareness of being
motivated to act from within. The commandments are seen as
the extrinsic and direct motive for obedience, and the concept
of such an obedience seems to imply a self-centered
awareness of duty. In this self-awareness of acting upon a
commandment, faith seems to be violated, since it necessitates
that man be directed to himself instead of to God. If faith is the
transformation of inner man (hearts, spirits, thoughts and
powers), then the works of faith can never be separated from
life. Faith, then, is the total condition of inner man in his
transformation by God, and as such is the standard of good
John Dillenberger said it as follows:
“In faith, man stands before God in the light of grace. For him,
even at his best, there is no other possibility. Hence, for Luther,
good works are not determinative of one’s relation to God; they
follow from faith as day follows night, as good fruit comes from
a good tree. Where there are no works, there is no faith; the
seriousness and joy of belonging to God are not known.”42
So works flow from faith and are the consequence of it. It is
obvious that Luther was adamant that works and faith go
together. But the problem lies in the relationship that the
believer has with his works:
However, the temptation of the believer is to look at the
works, which he does in faith, and suddenly to reinstitute works
and merit as a new form of slavery in the very citadel of the
freedom of the gospel. For Luther, the ethical rigor of the New
Testament and of the law should convince the Christian that
he, too, is still sinner.
The emphasis on “faith alone” is meant to intervene where

Martin Luther's Definition of Faith: An excerpt from "An Introduction to St.
Paul's Letter to the Romans," Luther's German Bible of 1522 by Martin
Luther, 1483- Translated by Rev. Robert E. Smith, Dr. Martin Luther’s
Vermischte Schriften. Johann K. Irmischer, ed. Vol. 63 (Erlangen: Heyder
and Zimmer, 1854), pp.124-125. [EA 63:124-125] August 1994
From: Introduction to Martin Luther: Selections from his writings, John
Dillenberger, Anchor Books, 1991, p xxix.
man might try to impose “works of grace” as a new kind of
obedience that does not flow from faith, but replaces it. But in
this sense, faith as “joy” and the feeling of intimacy with God is
set up as the standard of behavior: It implies taking the ethical
demands of the New Testament, of Christ in the gospels,
merely as a pedagogical measure to instill in us even further
the impossibility of obedience. Obedience is replaced by the
inner feeling of submission; instead of acting against my own
will by accepting God’s will as higher authority, I must
“dislocate” my own will, or mortify my “flesh” and let God act
through me.
Moreover, the very looking at one’s works spoils them.
Genuine works point to God, not self. This is why Luther can
declare that, apart from faith, all works are nothing but “truly
wicked and damnable sins.” On the external, moral level, they
may be better than other courses of action. But in terms of their
total orientation, that is, in terms of one’s status before God,
they are of no effect. On that level, everything is a matter of
relationship, a relationship into which man enters by virtue of
God’s unaccountable activity. Confronted by God, man cannot
depend on a combination of works and faith, or faith and works,
but only in faith not without works, or of faith active in love. The
Christian is to live and to struggle, to be a Christ to his
neighbor, and above all to trust God.43
The reference to the works of faith is in a way ambiguous. It is
not claimed that faith enables man to work out his salvation in
obedience to Christ.44 The reason we are commanded to do
good works, or rather, bring forth the fruits of faith, is faith itself,
not the desire for redemption or reward. The Catechism of
Heidelberg states (Sunday 32, resp. 86) that good works are
helpful to be assured of a justifying faith. If works of gratitude
are there, then the reality of faith that is their cause is also
At a formal level, the logic of this argument is shaky. The

Menno argued (Works, p. 111) “That the Lutherans teach and believe, that
we are saved by faith alone, without any regard to works.... Faith is of such a
matter that no work can be suffered or allowed beside it.” But the argument
is not scholarly, but taken from its practical result, that an appeal to salvation
‘through the blood of Christ” was in fact connected to “carnal vices.” That
would make justification by faith alone into “an occasion of their unclean and
sinful flesh.”
syllogism that would deduce the existence and reality of faith
from the existence of the works of faith is valid only if the works
of faith are there only if faith works, if we have a correlation
between the two.45 The works of faith must then be
recognizable as by faith alone, and not able to be produced by
secular motivations. If we lose the conviction that there is such
a thing as a specifically Christian act, then this correlation is
lost, and the deduction will not work. We cannot deduce the
reality of faith from doing good as such. But the 16th and 17th
centuries apparently did not have this problem, so it could be
argued that good Christian works were present but were merely
testimonies of God’s work in us. As Calvin stated in his
“Conscience being thus founded, built up, and established is
further developed by the consideration of works, inasmuch as
they are proofs of God dwelling and reigning in us [italics mine].
Since, then, this confidence in works has no place unless you
have previously fixed your whole confidence on the mercy of
God, it should not seem contrary to that on which it depends.
Wherefore, when we exclude confidence in works, we merely
mean that the Christian mind must not turn back to the merit of
works as an aid to salvation, but must dwell entirely on the free
promise of justification. But we forbid no believer to confirm and
support this faith by the signs of the divine favor towards him.
For if when we call to mind the gifts which God has bestowed
upon us, they are like rays of the divine countenance, by which
we are enabled to behold the highest light of his goodness;
much more is this the case with the gift of good works, which
shows that we have received the Spirit of adoption.” (Inst. III,
14, 18)
The outward reality of the works of obedience is there to give

If ‘p’ stands for faith and ‘q’ stands for the works of faith, then we can say:
p<=>q, q, =>p. This would imply that having works of faith is so much a part
of the life of faith in itself, that the presence of particular works indicates the
presence of that faith, which is the sole cause of their presence. If the major,
however, is a relationship which defines faith as the independent condition
involving a divine act which remains extrinsic to man and works of faith as the
outward effect, remaining outside the definition of faith, then we get the
invalid form: p->q, q, =>p and indeed, works of faith are then impossible to
distinguish from other kinds of works and their presence does not imply
anything with regard to the presence of faith. To deduce faith from the
presence of works would involve the invalid logical form of affirmatio
testimony to the reality of faith,46 not to give that assurance to
others as signs of the authenticity of the faith, nor are they the
intended goal of faith, though that goal is expressed in Paul,
e.g., in Rom. 6:4. And of course they are certainly not intended
to secure salvation as a necessary addition to the effect of
As the fruits of faith, the works of gratitude are not performed
for their own sake; in fact they are not performed at all. It
should be asked whether we have here a reference to works of
obedience, since obedience in a general sense implies an
activity of the human volition in compliance with the will of
another. The activity of the will is there in order to achieve the
intended work, not to produce it as a mere sign of its own
presence or to signify its extrinsic source or motivation. If the
works of faith do not have that character of submitting my
freedom to the known will of God, it is doubtful whether we can
speak of obedience in this sense of the word. But if there is no
specific Christian character to our works, which would formally
be expressed by faith-obedience, the question is what Christian
faith can have to do with ethics at all. We are left then either
with a reference to the narrative context of Christian acts, as if
there is a moral order in which moral acts would work better,
e.g., to produce the Kingdom of God which Christians alone
know about, or, we would have a reference to the motivation of
Christians to do good. The definition of that good would be left
to contemporary society. The contemporary development of
Protestant ethics has shown how difficult it is to determine the
specific Christian contents of ethics. Secular humanism has
been able to ground approximately the same historically
Christian values on the basis of human dignity or the
requirements of rational freedom.

According to Luther faith and works are combined into the concept of
“living faith.” Faith lived through love fulfills the commandments and
demonstrates its genuiness. Good works are necessary for to testify to faith,
but they are not necessary to effectuate salvation. Cf. J. Heinz, Justification
and Merit, p. 49 and the sources referred to there.
9. Sanctification as prerequisite of justification
The Council of Trent opens its statements on justification with
the thesis that man cannot “be justified before God by his own
works, whether done through the teaching of human nature, or
that of the law, without the grace of God through Jesus
Christ.”47 The grace of God, according to the second canon, is
not merely lending assistance to man’s effort to live justly and
merit the eternal life. All of this seems to be in accord with basic
Reformation teaching.
The opposition to Reformation doctrine, however, comes
through clearly in canon IX, where it says:
“If any one saith, that by faith alone the impious is justified; in
such a wise as to mean that nothing else is required to co-
operate in order to obtain the grace of justification, and that it is
not in any way necessary, that he be prepared and disposed by
the movement of his own will; let him be anathema.”
By taking up Luther’s emphasis on “faith alone” and opposing
it to the notion of a cooperative work of “grace and charity
which is poured forth in their hearts by the Holy Spirit and is
inherent in them” (Canon XI), the subjective transformation of
man’s condition is emphasized above the legal and objective
transformation of man’s position before God. Catholic doctrine
presents us with a view of God in the end establishing righte-
ousness in a believer, not merely declaring him righteous from
the start.48 Obviously, different notions of righteousness and
justification are involved here. In Roman Catholic doctrine,
justification is the opposite of wickedness and as such
something we do (Jer. 22:3); it is, though resting on God’s
grace, our own. In Reformed doctrine, justification is the
opposite of condemnation, and righteousness is only
attributable to Christ. In Roman Catholic doctrine, being
righteous is the opposite of being a sinner. In the one,
justification is used legally; in the other, intrinsically or ethically,
we might say, if such terminology would not add to the

Sixth Session, canon I
CF. J. Heinz, Justification and Merit, p. 37: “The recognition that the non-
reckoning of sin represents one aspect of justification has long been
demanded of the Catholic theologian by the Church dogma. In the same
breath however, the dogma forces him to identify this forensic declaration
completely with effective sanctification.”
confusion by being ambiguous in itself.

9.1 Augustine: making man righteous

The etymology of the word iustificatio that Augustine
introduced proved to be of the utmost significance for the
development of western theology. Augustine takes it to mean:
justum facere, to “make righteous”, iustitia therefore refers to a
quality within man and not God. And what a justus, a
righteous man, was, could be gleaned from Cicero and through
him from Aristotle: iustitia meant reddens unicuique quod suum
est (to give to each his own), or what is most often referred to
as distributive justice. The Latin verb iustificari then takes on
the meaning of being righteous instead of being righteoused,
whereas the Greek verb dikaioun connotes being considered or
estimated as righteous.49 So the question now became, how
does God make man righteous? First of all, faith must be given
to man since man’s freedom is not perfect. Man’s free will is
taken captive by the Fall of Adam and cannot attain
righteousness unless it is set free from its captivity under sin by
divine action. This is not a denial of free will, since it functions
within man as the ability to choose between good and bad, and
on that basis he will finally be judged. Grace must come in,
however, to heal this defective freedom and make it capable of
striving for the good and desiring salvation.
Faith as a gift from God does precisely that. God operates
within man’s rational soul to make him believe the gospel.
However, man also has to receive this gift and appropriate it for
himself. The divine operation leads to cooperation between
man and God. Justification by faith is therefore initiated by God
but its goal is to restore man’s own will to desire to do the good.
Only when man cooperates with divine grace will he become
perfected and righteous. So we must distinguish between the
act of justification that initiates a process within man that
produces faith and restores his freedom, and the process of
justification in which man cooperates with God in his own
sanctification. Augustine expresses this cooperation in several
places. Let us quote Augustine’s own words here:
“Now no man is assisted unless he also himself does
something; assisted, however, he is, if he prays, if he believes,
if he is “called according to God’s purpose;” for “whom He did
foreknow, He also did predestinate to be conformed to the
McGrath, Iustitia Dei 1986-1, 15
image of His Son, that He might be the first-born among many
brethren. Moreover, whom He did predestinate, them He also
called; and whom He called, them He also justified; and whom
He justified, them He also glorified.” We run, therefore,
whenever we make advance; and our wholeness runs with us
in our advance (just as a sore is said to run when the wound is
in process of a sound and careful treatment), in order that we
may be in every respect perfect, without any infirmity of sin
whatever, a result which God not only wishes, but even causes
and helps us to accomplish. And this God’s grace does, in
cooperation with ourselves, through Jesus Christ our Lord, as
well by commandments, sacraments, and examples, as by His
Holy Spirit also; through whom there is hiddenly shed abroad in
our heads that love, “which maketh intercession for us with
groanings which cannot be uttered,” until wholeness and
salvation be perfected in us, and God be manifested to us as
He will be seen in His eternal truth.”50
The work of divine grace in man’s justification therefore boils
down to “assistance” of man’s liberated freedom, the initial
justification being precisely this liberation of free will that is
required to even desire to do righteousness. This cooperation
of God is not exclusively based on faith in Christ, as Augustine
And this God’s grace does, in cooperation with ourselves,
through Jesus Christ our Lord, as well by commandments,
sacraments, and examples, as by His Holy Spirit also.”
Commandments, which allow man to acquire merit before
God, though still seen as a gift of God to the sinner.
Sacraments, baptism in the first place, without which there can
be no salvation. Examples of holy living, to be emulated by the
believers after their conversion. And the Holy Spirit, which
sheds the love of God in our hearts and is given to us in
justification. Justification therefore comprises the process of
sanctification as well as the ethical and spiritual renewal of the
sinner through the workings of the Holy Spirit. Finally, man
receives faith and love by divine action, but if God has not
given him perseverance, he will miss his final goal of becoming
a righteous person, i.e., justification.
Now what effect does this doctrine have on the basic shape of
Christian ethics? Augustine makes a difference between the

Fathers, Nicene & Post-Nicene, s.1, v.5 (15) (CD-Rom edition in PDF)
substance of an act (officium) and its inner motivation (finis).
Righteousness is the possession of good will (on the basis of
effective or operative grace) and the actualization of that good
will through cooperative grace. Only a Christian, therefore, is
able to do a good work in the face of God. A correct inner
motivation is only possible through the work of the Holy Spirit
that causes love to be the inner motivation of that work. If
man’s ability to perform a good work is dependent on his inner
motivation, and if that is only restored by the act of justification,
then righteousness is only possible on that basis.
Of course pagans are able to perform good works according
to their substantive character, their officium. In other words,
they can follow a rule of behavior which produces a correct
deed. But they do not acquire merit before God, since the
source of these acts is not the aim of achieving divine
righteousness but their own defective free will in independence
from God. Only through justification is man able to submit his
will totally to the will of God so that the source (motivational
power) of his acts is God alone, and only through this can there
be a righteous deed and, ultimately, a righteous creation again.
The inner motivation is deemed so important here that it
becomes the criterion for the distinction between good and evil.
Up to a point, then, the outward reality of a moral act is denied
to have significance. It is then obvious that such a position can
hardly be called “legalist,” as if it only accentuated the outward
character of a human act. But it posed the question of what
constituted the proper inner motivation and how man acquired
it. Luther’s answer, that a good deed flows from faith, is not
unlike Augustine’s position in this respect.
We see in Augustine the emergence of what we might call the
typical Roman Catholic doctrine of justification by faith.
Righteousness is the opposite of wickedness; it is a real and
inherent property of man, intrinsic to his nature as the ability to
do righteousness, understood as to give to each his own. Since
man’s liberty has been defective since the Fall of Adam, he
needs God’s grace to be restored. God’s gift is the gift of faith,
whereby we can seek God and strive for perfection. Then, in a
secondary act, God’s cooperative grace steps in to assist
man’s restored liberty toward the state of perfect
righteousness, which will eventually be reached fully in the
future. Justification by faith could therefore never mean:
justification by mere knowledge or intellectual assent. Faith that
saves is a trust in God that transforms man from the condition
of wickedness into the condition of grace that works
But how can man in his state of depravity be said to possess
this faith? If God gives this faith, man is no longer depraved
and wicked, but justified intrinsically, and if God did not add
justification to the gift of faith, the faith that is left would merely
be an intellectual assent that does not save. Augustine, then,
takes justification to be all about God’s grace, declaring man
righteous and making him righteous intrinsically. The
cooperation that is demanded of man is in itself a gift of grace
and not a human contribution which God only needs to perfect.
Despite this stress on grace, however, Augustinian ethics is
primarily concerned with the change in man’s condition and not
with his situation. Grace acts more like a teacher, restoring
freedom, guiding man through the sacraments towards an
improvement of his inner will. Justification is not the decisive
pattern of sanctification, but only the removal of an obstacle
that lies in its path. Christian ethics is about self-improvement,
even if such is only possible through the grace of God, and it is
an inner reality, not shown in the material nature of the specific
Christian acts that are required. One and the same act, in
conformity with the rule of behavior, could denote a good deed
with merit for a believer and still be a sin for a non-believer who
lacks the proper motivation.

9.2 Thomas Aquinas: cooperative grace

We must turn now to the position of St. Thomas Aquinas.51
The notion of cooperation does not seem to (formally) diminish
the sovereignty of God’s grace or its necessity. Without grace
man is unable to do any good; he is not only not perfect, but
lost. He cannot acknowledge what is needed for salvation
without grace, he cannot acknowledge even what is his natural
good, he cannot love God above all else, and he cannot earn
eternal life. Man needs grace in two forms: as healing “form”
and as divine movement. Only God’s grace as movement is
necessary to be prepared for the reception of grace as form, to
endure within the state of grace and to avoid sin. The
theological basic statement is therefore: nothing can be done

What follows here is in essence derived from the summary in Pesch
(1981), pp. 80- 107.
without grace, but with grace, it is man who is doing it.
The basic necessity for God’s grace is the radical submission
of man under the power of sin. Grace changes this situation by
effecting a change within man’s soul. God creates the
conditions under which man can receive this changing effect.
Grace is a relationship between God and man that effects
something in man precisely because it is God’s activity. Grace
is therefore a movement within God toward man, and results in
a “quality” or a changed condition in man. If God’s grace had
no such effect, and if man was not brought into such a
condition, then God would in a way hold himself back precisely
where He gives Himself fully. We would be able to withstand
God’s grace, or else the concept of grace would lack the
correlated notion of power. The Christian existence needs to
have a quality of spontaneous self-movement in the love of
God, otherwise the notion of a personal communion of life
between God and man would become illusionary. So grace is
understood as doing something within man and providing
thereby the basis for what man can do himself, because the
ultimate goal of grace is a free response from a liberated
human being in moral action, and not only in acknowledgment.
God’s grace, therefore, is the arrival of God’s eternal love in the
center of human existence, by which man is removed from the
limitations of his nature unto a communal life with God. God’s
grace is completely sovereign in this work
So what about the cooperation of man? God’s grace works
twofold: as “assistance” and as “form.” (1) As assisting grace,
the operative principle is the way God causes in man an act of
volition by which he turns from evil to good. As cooperative
principle, however, the volition that is set in motion by God
commands other activities that work together with the primary
volition. (2) The form-principle of grace as operative, however,
gives a new being; cooperative grace, the response of man
worked by God, leads to a new activity by man under the
guidance of his new being. The justification of the sinner can be
called an effect of operative grace: turning man from evil to
good, transforming him into a new being. Merit, on the contrary,
is the cooperative side of both aspects of grace: the activities
that follow the primary volition toward the good, and the deeds
of man that are under the guidance of his new being, all of
which are workings of grace under the double aspect of coming
to man from the outside, but as God’s activity having an effect
in the innermost self of man.
In the Summa Theologiae II, 2ae, we find Quaestio 113,
entitled: “About the effects of grace.” Article 1 discusses our
topic: “Whether justification of the ungodly (impious) means
remission of sin?” This first article deals with the question of
whether the justification of the impious lies only in the remission
of sins. If justification signifies a transformation of man, a
change in a man’s soul, the removal of guilt that is extrinsic or
forensic cannot be equal to it. Every change or transformation
means a change from one condition into its opposite. But a
remission of sins does not signify such a transformation into the
opposite. If we look at the removal of guilt in a different light
and see it as a purification, Scripture seems to attribute that to
faith, as in Acts 15:9. By faith their hearts have been purified.
The soul of man is made free from sin by the act of faith.

Thomas answers this question and the objections by stating:

If we speak about justification in the passive mood, it signifies a
being-changed into righteousness (justitia) in the same way as
heating signifies a change to being hot. Such justice can then
be considered under three aspects: (1) as a certain condition
in which a man lives, including a certain relationship in which
man stands to his fellow-men. And (2) as a direction of man’s
reality with respect to the common good of all men, as social
justice. There is still a third sense of justice: (3) the right
relationship between man and God.
This third sense of justice is either something which belongs
to man by his nature, as could be said of Adam after his
creation, or it could be said to come to exist in a man who is
transformed from one extreme into the other. And that is what
is meant by the phrase: justification of the impious. The word
“justification” derives its meaning from the goal of the act; the
being righteous, and not from any intrinsic (forensic) meaning
of the act itself or its source. I John 3:4 makes it clear that
injustice means sin, disobedience. Being transformed into a
state of justice must mean: the removal of that state of sin
which is disobedience. In that sense, justification does mean
the remission of sin, but not into a condition of innocence or
removal of guilt, but into a positive new condition: being
righteous. So evidently, Thomas agrees with Augustine that
justification must mean that a man is being made righteous
intrinsically. The removal of sin can then only be a condition to
be fulfilled in God’s economy of salvation, in order to produce
that condition in a man.
If we can take Augustine and Thomas to be our only sources
here, it is the basic view of the Roman Church that forensic
declarative righteousness is combined into one process
together with effective sanctification, a transmutatio quaedam
de statu injustitiae ad statum justitiae,52 as Thomas puts it.
Bonaventure called it a repair of the soul. Justification as an act
of God within man is not extrinsic because an act of God
toward man can never be extrinsic! How could God be limited
by our nature in His effects on us? One might argue that only
when a new paradigm for human consciousness (as
monadically closed unto itself) was about to break into
European culture could the possibility of a forensic and outward
justification be expressed as the most fundamental. Luther’s
emphasis on the paradox that we are justified precisely “as”
sinners brings out this duality of our extrinsic status and our
intrinsic condition quite sharply. The Reformation’s opposition
to medieval Catholic teachings on justification and grace was in
part prompted by the new paradigm of human consciousness
and the anthropology of man’s utter depravity. But in its
medieval shape, justification meant a change in the human
condition first, and a change in his situation before God
But there remained also this basic difference: whereas
Catholic thought focuses on the inner condition of man53,
aspiring to an inner submission to the will of God while
considering the outward deeds to be important too, Protestant
thought focused even more on this “inner” reality while
grounding it on the absolute extrinsic nature of justification as
the new situation of man before God. The inner morality of
Catholicism that was bound to outwards acts of piety was
replaced by the destruction of external morality in
Protestantism. Both agree that the external moral deed cannot
be the bearer of a specifically Christian character. (Augustine
after all sought the difference between good acts of unbelievers

As a rough translation I propose: “A transformation of sorts from a state of
injustice to a state of justice.”
The gratia infusa then led to a state of grace, habitus infusa that could be
understood on the basis of grace, as an intrinsic righteousness of man. E.
Jungel has argued, that this in fact open the doors to a rejection of the
justification by faith position and made in effect som,ething other than God’s
sovereign grace the formal cause of redemption. Cf. Jungel, Evangelium pp.
and those of believers in the intent behind the deed.) Both
agree that obedience to God is not shown in outward acts as
such. Both agree that the difference between believers and
non-believers cannot be ascertained on the basis of “works.”
But to Catholicism, the nature of the inner response and
transformation is first of all about the real human condition and
not the human situation.
In our survey of the issue we have found so far that both
Protestant and Catholic doctrine ground man’s redemption in
the work of God’s grace in Christ, but differ on the meaning
both of justification and of faith as part of that redemption.
Protestant doctrine takes justification as the declaration of
amnesty that is based solely on Christ’s righteousness, which
in turn provides the condition and pattern of sanctification;
Catholic doctrine speaks of a transformation from being wicked
to being righteous, effected by God’s grace. In the one, God’s
grace intervenes from the outside and grants a radical change
in the inner life and the status of the believer; in the other,
grace operates within human nature and offers symbolic aid
through the sacraments: grace perfects nature. 16th-century
secular anthropology seems to provide one cause for the
difference. The assessment of the intrinsic depravity of human
nature, the relocation of the center of man in his moral self-
awareness and the closed nature of human individuality,
provided the background. We must turn now to the Anabaptist
position and see how it is related to the basic model of the
Catholic and the Reformation positions. We will try to show that
in Anabaptism the separation between condition and situation
that defined the common ground between Catholics and
Protestants is dropped in favor of a different model. What
Anabaptists defended against is the insistence on the “inner”
nature of either condition or situation that led to the schematics
of inner condition and outer situation, or inner situation and
outer condition. Both faith and its corollary in works were
”external” in the sense that they were both commanded.

10. The distinctiveness of Mennonite faith
The Anabaptist position is most often portrayed as a response
to the Lutheran doctrine of “justification by faith alone,” and we
will try to approach it from that perspective.54 The controversy
over the relationship between justification and sanctification
can be considered at least in part to be the cradle of the
Anabaptist movement.55 As Balthasar Hubmaier wrote in 1526:
“Faith alone and by itself is not sufficient for salvation. ...
Faith must express itself also in love to God and the neighbor...
Faith must be active in love (Gal. 5). Therefore faith by itself is
like a green fig tree without fruit, like a cistern without water,
like a cloud without rain.... O, we wish to be good evangelical
Christians; we boast about our great faith, but have never
touched the works of the gospel and faith with the smallest
finger. Therefore we are nothing but mouth Christians, ear
Christians and paper Christians, but not action Christians.... I
confess this article with all my strength: that faith by itself alone
is not worthy to be called faith, [ital. mine] for there can be no
true faith without the works of love.”56
The “absence of a visible renewal and sanctification of
individual and corporate life” (Voolstra) was the main point of
dissent between Lutherans and early Anabaptists. There was
no argument over Luther’s insistence that acquittal before
God’s judgment was only based on Christ’s sacrifice and merits
and that this act of God had changed the situation of man’s
striving for the good. Anabaptism firmly sided with those who
held that faith, and faith alone, was the basis of man’s
relationship with God and his fellow-man, defining as it did his

It is clear however from studies by Goertz, Voolstra and others, that the
influence of the Sacramentarians and late-medieval piety on the Anabaptist
movement was substantial. The polemical situation in which the Anabaptists
found themselves was determined by their fragile contact with the magisterial
Reformation in the Swiss and Dutch contexts in particular.
Cf. S. Voolstra’s inaugural address, published in English as “Justification
and Sanctification,” The Conrad Grebel Review, Ontario, Canada, Fall 1987,
pp. 221ff., where he states: “The controversy over the meaning of justification
and sanctification, centering on the relationship between faith and works, also
gave life to the Anabaptist movement.” In this statement, the controversy did
not spring up after Anabaptism was established as a movement, but it was in
part the cause of its existence.
Quotation from Westin, “Quellen” (461-462) in: Anabaptism in Outline, ed.
Walter Klaassen, Ontario, 1981, p. 43-44.
ethical situation. But the corollary and aim of that faith was to
the Anabaptists “becoming like Christ through learning
obedience with him to all that God has commanded.”57 The
laxity of Roman-Catholic moral and ethical behavior was in part
responsible for the Anabaptist movement.58
The Anabaptists’ view on the external nature and descriptive
contents of obedience was decisively different from Luther’s,
who had emphasized the certainty of salvation and the quieted
conscience. Lack of assurance was to him an incentive for
adding good works to faith, whereby faith lost its central
position and justification was annulled. In Luther’s view, the
kind of emphasis that the Anabaptists placed on works was
equal to Schwärmerei, a sentimental fervor. But to early
Anabaptists and in particular to the later Mennonites, a faith
without moral improvement of life would hardly deserve that
name, and an insistence on man’s inability to obey after
conversion was tantamount to a denial of God’s transforming
grace. As Keeney expresses the issue: “The gift of faith not
only changed the status of man before God, it was also active
in transforming the individual.”59 That was an emphasis that
remained close to the Catholic doctrine of man’s cooperating
with grace, but emphasized in contrast the gift of faith and
God’s initiative in transformation. As we will see, the notion of
the shape of human liberty and the consequences of the Fall of
mankind were controversial as well, Anabaptists in general
affirming with Augustine the renewal of human liberty to
mankind as a necessary prerequisite of divine judgment. But
this renewal was never understood to amount to an
autonomous liberty that had to act on its own in conformity with
grace to achieve its purpose.
Without ignoring these differences, it is believed that the early
Anabaptists agreed generally with the overall Protestant
position. According to Walter Klaassen, to name one classic
example, the Anabaptists had no argument with the core
doctrine of justification as presented by Luther, Calvin and
other Reformers.60 The difference was that they rejected the
Lutheran view that since faith was the basis of salvation, moral
behavior as well as works of righteousness were secondary, or

S. Voolstra, ibid, p. 223. (see note 74)
W.E. Keeney, Dutch Anabaptist Thought, p. 115
Walter Klaassen, Anabaptism, 1973, p. 28
at least relatively unimportant. The ethical requirements of the
gospel were not seen as the preparatory indictment of the law
in its effect on the human conscience but as the visible sign of
the reality and authenticity of faith. Faith meant to be called
into a covenant relationship with Christ, within which our
obedience was the very first requirement. Faith in the context of
ethics was not the standard of all behavior as something that
belonged to the inner self, as in Luther’s insistence on faith as
the first commandment, and it was not the inner criterion for
outward action as in Augustine, but only its presupposition.
Faith as a gift of God enabled man to be obedient. Obedience,
as the visible sign of faith, was faith shown outwardly, and this
drive to externalization was taken as the essential feature of
inner faith. 61
Obedience and faith were sometimes practically synonymous,
as is shown, e.g., in Menno Simons’s Fundamentboek, where
the gospel is more often conceived of as to be obeyed
(including the response of faith) than as to be believed.
Obedience was not understood as an inner acceptance, but as
a manifest outward response and as existing only in outward
actions in conformity with the commandments of Christ as set
forth in the New Testament. This outward response proceeded
from sharing the nature of Christ. If man shares the divine
nature, “he too must be characterized by a love for God and
man which results in obedience to the commands of God and is
evident in his relationships with men.”62

Klaasen agrees in this assessment with Robert Friedmann’s earlier
attempt in the 1950s to distinguish the Anabaptists from the Lutherans,
Zwinglians and Calvinists by the lack of systematic theology (Anabaptists
would have an implicit theology) and from the Catholics by the rejection of
priestly institutions. Friedmann’s posthumous Theology of Anabaptism
(Scottdale, 1973) presented this case. Others have stressed that the
Anabaptist movement belonged to the Reformation but was distinguished by
its radicalism in the issue of the separation of Church and state, opposing it to
the “magisterial Reformation”. George H. Williams presented that viewpoint in
his The Radical Reformation (Kirksville, 19923). J.A. Oosterbaan presented a
third option, defining the Anabaptist movement as a “Reformation of the
Reformation”. Now the Reformed Churches stand in the middle of a spectrum
defined by the Catholic Church on the one side and the Anabaptist movement
on the other. Cf. Oosterbaan’s article “De reformatie der Reformatie” in:
Doopsgezinde Bijdragen 2, Amsterdam, 1976, pp. 36 - 61. The essential
characteristic of the Mennonite Church, as seen from this third option, is that
of the renewed man, that lives in full obedience to God.
W.E. Keeney, Dutch Anabaptist Thought, p. 115
It is important to note, according to Klaassen, that notwith-
standing this emphasis on the saintly life, the Anabaptist
doctrine of justification was “in no essential different.” The
difference would reside in the emphasis only. The innovation of
Anabaptism in the beginning of the 16th century was not in the
formulation of the doctrine itself nor in the acceptance of its
importance, but in the added understanding of faith as a free
and unforced obedience to Christ and the resolve not to let that
faith retreat either into sacramentalist objectivity nor into the
pure inwardness of man’s self-consciousness. 63
Undoubtedly this insistence on man’s obedience implied the
perception that man was able to submit to God’s demand, so
that it came into conflict with the anthropological
presuppositions of the magisterial Reformation, to wit, their
development of the doctrine of the fall of mankind and its
corollary: God’s election. But to Anabaptists there could be no
shrinking from the consequence of the fact that there was such
a thing as a demand for obedience: if obedience was not
possible, Christ’s teachings on a “more perfect righteousness”
(Matthew 5:20) would have been a mere pedagogical
preparation for Paul’s central message of justification by faith
that was interpreted by Lutheran Scholasticism and modern
evangelicals alike as salvation through assent, which of course,
besides falsifying the real condition of redemption, made Paul’s
gospel more important than Christ’s teachings. This
consequence was rejected. Christ’s teachings were read as
straightforward demands that should be obeyed, not as
preparation to the doctrine of grace. Christ not only did the will
of God unto the Cross and thereby imputed righteousness to
the faithful by paving the way for a new covenant, he also
taught it as a commandment for those who accept His call to
discipleship. The life of Jesus in the flesh was understood on
the basis of Menno’s incarnation doctrine to imply that Christ
should be taken as the Example, in the sense of the Imitatio
Christi of Tyhomas a Kempis (translated in Dutch as Navolging
van Christus, the “following” of Christ). According to Keeney,
the sentimentalist individualism of Thomas a Kempis and the

John H. Yoder expressed this succinctly when he wrote: “ For Roman
Catholics this act of justification may be found to be in correlation with the
sacraments, and for Protestants with one’s self-understanding, in response to
the proclaimed Word; but never should it be correlated with ethics.” This third
option was however, the view of the minority that constituted the Mennonite
movement. (Cf. Yoder, Politics, p. 8)
Brethren of the Common Life was transformed by the
Anabaptists into a similar moral emphasis applied now within
the framework of the Church and in conflict with the world.64
There was a Catholic mood to all of this, even though there
was no hint of an explicit infusion doctrine. Justification in its
Anabaptist version retained much of the Augustinian sense of
becoming intrinsically righteous. Man really did become
righteous because of his faithful following of Christ and his
participation through spiritual rebirth in the divine nature (and
not by his reception of sacraments or by doing the outward
works of penance), and that necessitated a further
presupposition: that the beginning of that discipleship was a
free act of the will to submit to God, implying adult baptism and
the rejection of the radical doctrine of sovereign election.
It was held by many that his state of righteousness could be
lost. The esteem for human liberty was so high that they
accepted that the possibility of choosing against God and
falling into disobedience was still there, even after conversion.
Faith as a condition of covenant relationship was perpetually
based on a connection between inner resolve and outward
action. To the experience of a life of faith belonged the capacity
for repentance, which implied in its turn that perseverance was
essential. Justification was not a metaphysical or legal
condition that was there beyond the grasp of the believer. Acts
and perceptions of God’s involvement in life strengthened the
inner conviction, which itself motivated outward action. Faith
was about living the life of faith, not about a state of mind in
man’s inner being untouched by the conditions of everyday life,
nor was it based on heavenly bookkeeping that assigned status
without an experiential reality in the believer’s life. That God’s
action of justification was extrinsic did not mean that man’s
reception remained a pure inner acceptance.
On this issue, therefore, Anabaptist doctrine remained quite
close to traditional Roman Catholic teachings. Its view on
justification was not based so much on the inner experience of
guilt and the inability of man to achieve righteousness, which
had especially prompted Luther’s thinking, as on the
experience of repentance and contrition as a means of
restoring communion with God. To the Anabaptists, justification
was not a possible escape from the painful duty of achieving

E.H. Keeney, Dutch Anabaptist Thought, p. 116
righteousness, but a powerful aid in achieving it.
The Anabaptist tradition, for a variety of reasons, was neces-
sarily ambiguous in some respects because of this origin within
the Reformation. While the Anabaptists, with the Reformation,
stressed the importance of the imputation of Christ’s righte-
ousness as the basis of man’s renewal, they denied Luther’s
view and emphasized evangelical obedience and
perseverance to the point where it seemed (to Luther at least)
to become the primary prerequisite of salvation. Sometimes
they were represented as a charismatic movement, but equally
well they could be portrayed as a legalist form of Christianity
with emphasis on sanctification and individual holiness. To
modern Mennonite theologians since the beginning of the
century, there has been the tendency either to represent
Mennonites as Protestants who emphasize obedience but cling
to justification by faith as Luther taught it, or as having freed
themselves from the issues of guilt and salvation to produce a
more this-worldly ethics of moral involvement, especially in the
radical peace movement and in post-Mennonite liberalism.65
The question must be asked: how can we understand the
Mennonite position? Is it a Reformed position with an added
emphasis on sanctification? Or did it remain a Catholic position,
because of its more optimist anthropology and its insistence on
the intrinsic reality of justification?
As a matter of fact, this ambiguity about the Mennonite
position in these matters is not a new phenomenon, and we
should pay some attention to wavering attempts to establish a
clear position. Anabaptist teachings in the 16th century ranged
from spiritualist and charismatic to legalist and moralist, to
which the Dutch Mennonite movement, especially, added its
involvement in modernism and liberalism in the 19th and 20th
centuries. In recent times efforts have been made to provide
one single definition of the Anabaptist movement. After World
War II this discussion evolved from a theological into a

I would use the term ‘post-Mennonite liberalism’ to describe the shape of
theology and congregational life that has evolved in the Netherlands since the
early decades of the 19th century, which seemed very much concerned with
finding in itself and identifying in the surrounding world the secular expression
of a part of Mennonite doctrine, especially with regard to the separation of
Church and state, the voluntary character of faith, and the insistence on an
ethical life. Such (now) civil virtues came to be expressed without recourse to
essential Christian doctrines, and made theology at times seem like a social
or moral ideology.
historical discourse and introduced the notion of a “polygenetic”
origin of the Anabaptist movement. We will discuss two
documents that still provide some unifying vision of the
Anabaptist movement. First we’ll discuss “The Anabaptist
Vision” by Harold Bender, and then we will return to the
Schleitheim articles that in a way began the development that
we are examining.
The position that ethics, or Nachfolge (discipleship), was the
core doctrine of Mennonitism was put forward by Harold S.
Bender in his speech of 1943: “The Anabaptist Vision.” That
was a programmatic and theological statement, destined to
celebrate Mennonite particularity in the face of the
fundamentalist seduction. In his lecture Bender stressed a
variety of emphases: the ethic of love and nonresistance along
with the ecclesiological view of nonconformity to the world,
especially in matters of violence and rejection of state authority.
But it seemed as if Mennonitism was an ethically revised
Lutheranism, apart from differences in ecclesiology that were
not portrayed as decisive, with the exception of the issue of
adult baptism. But can it be shown that Mennonite Anabaptism
is irreconcilable with mainstream evangelical Christianity,
especially because its biblicism is not the flat-Bible literalism of
the inerrantists, and its doctrine of justification is not centered
around justification of the ungodly by faith as purely extrinsic,
and it does not accept the Puritan emphasis on the inner
struggles of conversion?66
Bender emphasized these three key issues:
“Having defined genuine Anabaptism in its Reformation
setting, we are ready to examine its central teachings. The
Anabaptist vision included three major points of emphasis; first,
a new conception of the essence of Christianity as discipleship;
second, a new conception of the Church as a brotherhood; and
third, a new ethic of love and nonresistance.”

In the late 1800s North American Mennonite leaders came under the
influence of revivalism and Sunday school and mission movements that
tended to move them away from the emphasis on peace and nonresistance
as the focal points of Christian (social) ethics. T. Schlabach showed this ”shift
away from the references to the nonresistant gospel” in a study of the
language patterns in the Mennonite Quarterly Review, July 1977. In his
Keeping Salvation Ethical (Herald Press, 1997), J. Denny Weaver
documented this theological shift from an identification with a nonresistant
Christ to an adoption of a penal substitutionary theory of atonement.
Bender explained this first emphasis in this manner:
“First and fundamental in the Anabaptist vision was the
conception of the essence of Christianity as discipleship. It was
a concept which meant the transformation of the entire way of
life of the individual believer and of society so that it should be
fashioned after the teachings and example of Christ.[26] The
Anabaptists could not understand a Christianity which made
regeneration, holiness, and love primarily a matter of intellect,
of doctrinal belief, or of subjective "experience," rather than one
of the transformation of life. They demanded an outward
expression of the inner experience. Repentance must be
"evidenced" by newness of behavior.”
That leaves open the issue of what it was that had to be
“evidenced” by newness of behavior. Repentance is a change
of attitude towards one’s actions and a resolve to mend one’s
ways, congruous with an exercise of the will. The word implies
a certain distance from Lutheran insistence on the primacy of
faith. Bender dealt with that issue:

The great word of the Anabaptists was not "faith" as it was

with the reformers, but "following" (Nachfolge Christi). And
baptism, the greatest of Christian symbols, was accordingly to
be for them the "covenant of a good conscience toward God" (1
Peter 3:21), the pledge of a complete commitment to obey
Christ, and not primarily the symbol of a past experience. The
Anabaptists had faith, indeed, but they used it to produce a life.
Theology was for them a means, not an end.
Bender could then summarize his view by differentiating
between the three strands of Reformation theology:
“As we review the vision of the Anabaptists, it becomes clear
that there are two foci in this vision. The first focus relates to
the essential nature of Christianity. Is Christianity primarily a
matter of the reception of divine grace through a sacramental-
sacerdotal institution (Roman Catholicism), is it chiefly
enjoyment of the inner experience of the grace of God through
faith in Christ (Lutheranism), or is it most of all the
transformation of life through discipleship (Anabaptism)? The
Anabaptists were neither institutionalists, mystics, nor pietists,
for they laid the weight of their emphasis upon following Christ
in life. To them it was unthinkable for one truly to be a Christian
without creating a new life on divine principles both for himself
and for all men who commit themselves to the Christian way. “
The problem is that Bender’s emphasis on discipleship seems
to give so much importance to the Church as a means for
growth in sanctity that it completely obscured the Lutheran
insistence on the personal nature of faith as an inner
experience. Was Anabaptism only a (works-) ethic? In
reviewing Bender’s “Anabaptist Vision,” Stephen Dintaman
spoke about its “essentially behavioral” definition of
Christianity.67 Christian behavior was stressed among
theologians who adhered to Bender’s vision, and while
discipleship was stressed, they gave only “passing, non-
passionate attention to the work of Christ and the work of the
Spirit in the inner transformation of the person.” “The
Anabaptist Vision,” according to Dintaman, gave us (1) “little
insight into human behavior.” Its Arminian emphasis on free will
tended to obscure the bondage of the will and weakened
compassion for human frailty, as exemplified in addiction and
other forms of bondage under sin. It led (2) to an “inadequate
awareness of the liberating work of God through the death and
resurrection of Jesus.” The gospel should not be reduced to
Jesus’ teachings about peace, leading to “peace and justice
social activism.” The gospel is not about peace ideals, but
about the work of God that has brought peace through the
blood and in the body of Christ. Finally, (3) our “sense of the
spiritual presence and power of the risen Christ” has been
impoverished. A “pre-Pentecostal” discipleship refers to a
failure that was corrected only by Jesus’ spiritual presence after
His resurrection.
Dintaman evoked both positive and negative responses.
Richard Showalter responded in the fall of 1994 by explaining
that Dintaman had merely emphasized the inner experience
that Bender had presumed to be the heart and the backbone of
his behavioral vision.68 Bender had insisted that the Anabaptists
gave outward expression of the inner experience. His
Anabaptist vision was undergirded by “a vision of the spiritual
presence and power of the risen Christ.” Dintaman was right
that this element in Bender’s vision was not heavily
emphasized and had been overlooked by subsequent

S. F. Dintaman, “The Spiritual Poverty of the Anabaptist Vision,” The
Conrad Grebel Review, Spring 1992, pp. 205- 208.
R. Showalter, ‘The Spiritual Poverty of the Anabaptist Vision’: A Critical
Assessment., The Conrad Grebel Review, fall, 1994, pp. 14- 18.
Still, it was there as an integral part of “The Anabaptist
Vision.” In the same issue of The Conrad Grebel Review, a
radical new approach was opposed to Dintaman’s call in the
desert. Pastor Mitchell Brown argued for a new radical theology
that returned to the biblical image of Jesus and would not allow
dogmatic faith to gain supremacy over discipleship. Dintaman’s
plea for affirmation of the basic truths of Pietism must be
denied. Pietism, in Friedmann’s view as quoted by Brown, is
characterized “by the subjective experience of the fact that the
sinner, though incapable of doing any good, is yet saved
through the atoning death of Christ and the subsequent joy
which goes with such experience.” Anabaptism, on the
contrary, is radically different, and understands rebirth to be
about the “resolution to a new way of obedience to the “law of
Christ.” The emphases on justification through faith alone, in
Lutheranism, and the enjoyment of its fruit, in Pietism, were
foreign to the early Anabaptists. Anabaptist faith was more
about the fear of God, a reverential trust and obedience that
indeed chooses for a ”spiritual poverty,” as Dintaman called it.
Anabaptism has to choose: either spiritual fullness along the
lines of Pietism and Lutheranism, or the fear of God,
“existential” Christianity.
The question that concerns us now is whether the 16th-
century Anabaptist view of justification makes it at all necessary
to turn to the Lutheran and Pietist perspectives to complement
the Anabaptist Vision. If there can be such a thing as a
“spirituality of obedience” (C. Norman Kraus), there would be
no need to resort to Pietist inwardness. If Anabaptists
understood Christ’s work of atonement as including
“enlightenment and enablement,” then they did not return to a
works spirituality. They rather took out the elements of
mysticism and returned to a sober look at Christian praxis.
Against Luther, they maintained that the Christian did not only
live by faith, but lives his faith.69
As a matter of fact, historic research after Bender’s speech
came up with part of the answer. After historians had
developed a more “polygenetic” view of the origins of
Anabaptism, rejecting Bender’s implicit thesis that Anabaptism
was in its authentic form only a Swiss movement, it became
obvious that 16th-century Mennonites in general did not share

C. Norman Kraus, “Spirituality for the 21st Century,” The Conrad Grebel
Review, Winter 1995, p. 31.
the doctrine of justification by faith alone that was developed by
Luther and Calvin. Their concept of the “Besserung des
Lebens” comprised both justification and sanctification.70
Justification meant becoming righteous through a process of
learning and experience under the guidance of God’s Spirit.
Faith was understood as intrinsically connected to obedience,
conversion, contrition, and penance, leading to a saintly life
(Menno Simons), based on the cooperation of grace and
human will in the innermost soul (Hans Denck), the recovery of
“innocence” which leads to “works of faith” (Hubmaier);
justification and sanctification therefore were seen as one
(experiential) process. But most importantly, this process of
regeneration was not developed purely as an individual’s
experience. It is in the ecclesiological dimension of justification
that the Mennonite movement developed its peculiar
characteristics. Justification was a process involving a
redeemed community that was set aside from this world as the
bride of Christ, trying to remain pure and sanctified to the day
of His return.

Cf. Goertz, Die Taüfer, 1988, p. 67.
11. Sanctification as basic pattern of justification
Let us turn now to the writings of the Dutch reformer Menno
Simons to see how the Anabaptist position on justification
connects justification and sanctification. Hans-Georg
Tanneberger has shown in his 1997 dissertation on the
“Anabaptist perceptions of the justification of man’’ that Menno
Simons and Dirk Philips had stressed the following theological
• Grace as an universal offer to all people
• The liberty of the human will, as a result of the
redemptive work of Christ
• The structure of justification in two parts, the
acceptance of the gospel in faith and the moral labor that
followed it
• The impossibility that sins, committed in full awareness
of their injustice, could be forgiven.71
The notion that man could be reborn, and could live outside
the domain of sin, was ultimately based on a Christology of a
monophysite nature. According to Menno, who followed
Melchior Hoffman in this respect, Christ was not of Mary’s
flesh, he was God made flesh, or having become flesh, but that
“flesh” was of a heavenly nature. Hoffman claims that “even as
the dewdrop falls into the oystershell and therein is changed
into the pearl”, so the eternal Word came into Mary’s womb
through the Holy Spirit and became flesh and blood without
partaking of the flesh and blood from Mary’s body. 72 In the
words of Auke de Jong: “The Word of God did not unite with
the flesh of Mary, but it became flesh itself. The unity of Christ
as a Person can be guaranteed in that way, but also the
complete newness of the person of Christ. He does not
participate in the human and sinful nature of Mary. Christ, true
God and true Man, is only öf”God, and not of Mary. … Fallen
man has to be reborn from Jesus and become equal in form to
Him.” 73 To participate in Christ as a member of his Body, the
Church., meant to share a new life-principle beyond the
clutches of death and sin. So how did man gain such a grace?

H.-G. Tanneberger, Vorstellungen, p. 218.
W.E. Keeney, Dutch Anabaptist Thought, p. 89
Cf. Auke de Jong, “Menno Modern?” in Onaangeroerd Tegoed,
Zoetermeer 1996, pp. 59, 60.
Of course man needed a Redeemer to gain the new life. And
the Redeemer could only redeem others if He himself was
sinless, as Anselm had demonstrated. If Jesus however had
the same nature as humanity, how could Jesus be sinless? But
if Jesus was not conceived from Mary, but in Mary through the
Holy Spirit and born out of Mary and not from Mary, then it
could be asserted that Jesus was completely human and yet
without the corruption of Adam. The human nature that Jesus
had was therefore pre-lapsarian, and untainted with sin!
Underlying this was the physiological theory, also held by
Thomists, that in human generation the woman was passive
and contributed no substance to the child. If the Holy Spirit was
the active principle in Jesus’ generation, then Mary did not
contribute her substance to His human nature. While this
theory still allowed for the acceptance of the justification-
doctrine – because a sinless Christ could be the substitutionary
sacrifice – it also prepared the way for a doctrine of
sanctification. Participation in Christ meant having a restored
nature, a breaking down of all natural bondage, to begin with
the bondage under the nature of Adam after the corruption of
his nature. Just how this intrinsic link between justification and
sanctification was worked out we will have to show now on the
basis of Menno’s own wording of the issue.
In the first chapter of his Foundation of Christian Doctrine,
Menno begins with the assertion that “now is the time of grace”,
referring to the age in which the gospel is offered to people who
have received the full freedom of accepting that gospel, being
restored by Gods grace sufficiently to make a responsible
decision. The margin shows Rom. 3:24 to be the likely source
for that contention. Now Rom. 3:26 is one of the classic loci of
the doctrine of justification, since that verse states that all will
be “justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in
Jesus Christ.” Vs. 26 speaks of “this [present] time” in which
God’s righteousness is declared, and it is probably this notion
of the present that prompted Menno to write of the “time of
grace.” The “time of grace” then, is linked to Menno’s own
understanding of justification.
But in his own text, Menno apparently speaks outside of the
context of this quotation. The time of grace is a time
“…to awaken from the sleep of our ugly sins, to have an
upright, renewed, broken and contrite heart, to indite our souls
before God with our previous reckless, impertinent way of life,
that we crucify in the fear of God our sinful and evil flesh,
character and nature and die unto it and rise with Christ to a
righteous, repentant and new being, as He said: the time is
fulfilled and the kingdom of God is near: better your life [KJV:
repent ye] and believe the gospel (Mk. 1:15).”74
It is obvious, then, that to Menno “being justified” means
something like “being righteoused” (Sanders), since the
process he speaks of is called “awakening,” “renewal,”
“repentance,” that together lead to a righteous life of a
repentant and new being. Whereas we would expect Menno to
take Rom. 3:24, 26, together with vs. 28 (man is justified by
faith without works of the law), as referring to the doctrine of
justification in a Lutheran sense, the entire passage in Paul
(including also Eph. 4:22 and Gal. 5:23 in the margin) is taken
as an introduction to Christ’s own gospel of repentance,
summarized in Mark 1:15. That verse however speaks about
the nearness of the kingdom of God and the acceptance of
God’s sovereignty in all aspects of life. Faith is here the active
following of Christ and obedience to the divinely appointed
King. The reference to Mark 1:15 is also relevant, because it
provides the basic structure of repentance Æ faith Æ
obedience that is so characteristic of Menno’s position.
The term repentance that KJV uses there is transformed, or
rather elucidated, by Menno’s saying: “improve, make better
your life.”75 It is clear, from such a treatment of the locus

The English translation of Menno’s works corrected this reference to
Mark 1:15 according to KJV and so it reads: repent ye and believe the
gospel. Menno’s particular emphasis is then lost, because the original reads:
“betert u [better your life] ende gelooft den evangelio.” In Anabaptist parlance,
though, particularly among conservative groups like the Amish, ‘repentance’
and ‘Besserung’ (Old Dutch: beteringe) are saying about the same thing.
Cf. S. Voolstra, "'Van ware penitencie"', Doopsgezinde Bijdragen * 248-
265. “The evangelical-Anabaptist Reformation makes the contritio interior the
precondition for an anticlerical and anti-sacramentarian, semi-pelagian
religious practice, which is characterized by the aspiration to freedom from
sin and the performance of evangelical works in accordance with faith in
Christ. True penitence on the part of both believers and servants of the
Church confers a biblical validity and effectiveness on baptism, communion
and Church as media of salvation. Strict discipline is intended to preserve the
pure Church as the place where assured salvation is to be found and the
place where penitent religious conventions can be practiced. In this way, the
content of belief remains traditional, although the form of belief is renewed in
accordance with the biblical model. It was not the principle of the division
between Church and state which constituted the most important impediment
to the Anabaptists' ability to fulfill the role of public Church, but the emphasis
classicus of the justification doctrine, that Menno sees
“justification” as equal to “becoming a righteous person,” as
being “righteoused” and not as being (extrinsically and legally)
pardoned. It requires repentance and contrition and in that
sense it is an active answer to a call and not the passive
reception of a gift.76 It is obvious also that such an
interpretation of Paul was used to bring it into harmony with the
implications of Christ’s call for repentance in Mark 1, which is
accepted as the more important, so Paul is read from the
gospel’s perspective.
That can be shown especially by seeing how the concept of
faith came to include a whole series of human responses to the
gospel. The necessity for repentance as a condition of faith is
stressed, e.g., in chapter 2, “On true repentance,” where
Menno states that those who maintain that they have been
given amnesty for their sins cannot glorify in that gift unless
they have true repentance. Luther was wrong to reverse the
biblical order of repentance which leads to faith. It was wrong
also to hold that repentance was merely a response to God’s
law, after which faith as a response to grace took over.
Repentance was the continuing condition for the continuing
renewal of faith. It is not enough, Menno states, that we say
that we are Abraham’s children, but we should live like one of
them. Repentance in that sense is distinguished from contrition,
insofar as it indicates a deliberate and constant change in one’s
way of life, which is not the same as contrition as committed
reflection on the past life in the light of God’s judgment.77

on true penitence and the corresponding aspiration to perfection.”

For a contemporary (conservative) Mennonite treatment of repentance in
conformity with Menno’s original doctrine see e.g., L. M. Haines, Redemption
Realized, Northville, pp. 114- 121. His position is decidedly against the ‘faith-
alone’ position.
S. Voolstra has argued that Menno in his reaction to Catholic practices
wanted “more penitence, not less. His objective was to restore to the contritio,
or the true, heartfelt repentance, the profundity and intensity which it had
lost.” His rejection of the priestly confession had nothing to do with the
general reformers’ thrust to lighten the burdens of faith. Voolstra, Justification
and Sanctification 1997, p. 40. So the argument here is against the
sacrament’s actually reducing the burden of confession, not against the
practice of confession in itself, that served the purpose of bringing sin into the
light and to intensify repentance. (ibid, p. 39) Contrition must not be equated
with a feeling of sorrow. Precisely because confession was the means of
deepening it as experience, we must emphasize its character of reflective
meditation on one’s own life in the light of God’s word which was its inner
Trust and obedience and endurance in trials are also part of
the life of faith and are integral components of the appropriation
of redemption.78 Nonetheless, redemption in the sense of
acquittal is also highlighted by Menno, and in that sense the
doctrine seems for a moment close to Luther’s again, but after
what has been said before it can be no surprise that the
meaning of this amnesty is changed: it is present not so much
in a legal as in a practical and exhortatory sense, as shown,
e.g., in 1 John 1:2: if we “do” the truth, then the blood of Christ
washes away our sins. Acquittal therefore comes to mean:
being cured of an ailment so as to be able to live a new life. It
is the starting point of a new life, not its quintessence.

Having said that, however, in the third chapter of the Funda-

mentboek we find many sentences that are in apparent
conformity with classical Reformed doctrine, e.g., where Menno
states that faith is a gift of God and no “work” to boast of (fol.
9b),79 or when he speaks about those who are justified by faith
and have peace with God and then again quotes Rom 3:24 to
emphasize this point. This verse apparently contributed to his

The importance of the notion of obedience in this connection was also
stressed by Voolstra (1997, p. 53): “The reinstatement of the penitent in a
state of grace, the justification of the sinner, is not unconditional. Without
contrition, without real penitence, there can be no absolution, which is no
longer granted by the priest, however, but by Christ himself. Faith is a
process of penitence and reformation of the life being led. Faith is not faith
unless it becomes effective in love. And this love is principally a deed of
obedience, besides being a creed and a fruit of trust. Love is also a
commandment. Grace which fails to bring about any change in how life is
lived is only cheap grace. Grace is not absolution alone, but also starting to
behave as a liberated person. Law and Gospel, law and Grace, penance and
faith, justification and sanctification, God's work and human activity are
closely interconnected in the theology of Menno Simons and are sometimes
difficult to distinguish. His traditional, penitential piety is made to serve a
practical objective, namely the raising of the evangelical quality of Church
and society, a renewal which demands obedience.”
Grace and faith are given in Christ, according to Luther. It is a gift that is
part of the act of justification and the means by which it, or rather Christ, is
apprehended. Faith to Luther is neither Augustinian intellectual assent, nor
affirmation of key doctrines, nor inner response to Christ in a free choice, but
an existential in Heidegger’s sense of the word, of the reborn and elect. (It is
at once the mode of their being and the way by which they know and
experience that.) In that sense, justification is not “by” faith, but by Christ,
(known to us and grasped in life, partially) through faith in Christ. Cf.
McGrath, Iustitia Dei, II, p. 10 –20.
understanding of “justification” in a real sense of transformation
and renewal of man, as well as in the sense of Christ’s work of
redemption as a forensic justification appropriated solely by an
acknowledging faith. The Beteringe des Lebens therefore
cannot be described as anything but a combination of
justification and sanctification. To conceive of it like this implies
that the combined elements were understood in a different
manner, as immediately implying one another. And so we find,
again and again, that the same gift of faith that is the cause of
salvation is thought to have a threefold fruit by which the tree is
known: forgiveness or pardon for one’s sins, a renewed inner
man, and eternal life.
Because of the context, it is doubtful whether this “pardon”
Menno refers to, means to the same concept that in the
Reformation was called justification. A pardon can be
interpreted as an amnesty for past sins alone, clearing the way
for new obedience. Sin after conversion would then of course
need a new pardon, which was obtained by boete (contrition),
confession, and repentance. So justification by faith implied
obtaining amnesty at the beginning of the new life in faith, but
did not necessarily entail a once-and-for-all pardon, stretching
to future sins as well. So here again, though the language
seems close to Reformed doctrine, which seems to imply that
Menno only added a peculiar emphasis on one concept, or
chose to combine the two concepts but maintained their
Lutheran meaning, it is doubtful whether the substance really
is in harmony with it.80 It seems more appropriate to state that
to Menno the concept of justification became an integral part of
his concept of sanctification, and that he in making this
connection changed the meaning of both.
The same goes for other concepts involved: their integration
into the logical pattern of the concept of sanctification changed

The reason that Menno’s teachings on justification were so filled with
references to the experiential side of faith can be explained by two factors.
One of them is his insistence that the sacrament as objective process could
not grant the assurance of salvation that his parishioners were seeking.
Menno’s theology in that sense is a ‘practical theology’ developed from his
‘pastoral experience.’ (Voolstra, 1997, p. 41) The other is the view on
anthropology that in Menno’s case was enhanced by his teaching on the
incarnation. Menno reasoned that Christ’s flesh could not be anything other
than a new creation by God, so Jesus did not share the flesh of his mother
Mary. That prepared the ethical insistance on the removal of sin in a practical
non-forensic sense. Only a completely perfect Christ could bring about such a
total transformation. (Cf. Voolstra, 1982)
their intrinsic meaning. Faith, e.g., is always understood in an
experiential and “ethical” context. In the same passage Menno
immediately uses the Jamesian pattern of “true and living faith”
(James 2:14-26) that works through love (Gal. 5:6), brings forth
fruit, and proves its nature. Faith itself ”steps into the path of
justice in freedom.” Such true faith can be called a gift of God,
and such faith is the source of life for the just. It is clear that
though Menno affirms that justification is a work of God based
solely on the sacrifice and merits of Christ and that faith is not a
“work” but a gift of God, the faith he is talking about is
connected to repentance, renewal, the power of the new life,
working through love, and showing itself in obedience to Christ.
The New Testament did in fact become for Menno a nova lex
evangelica because Christ’s commandment is life, Christ alone
is the lawgiver and Teacher of the New Covenant. We must
take note however that this also means to Menno, that Moses
and the law of Israel have served their purpose and have no
direct relevance for the Christian Church. Nevertheless the law
can aid us in understanding our sins, and help us keep
ourselves dead for the flesh and the impulse to sin.

Menno obviously meant to say that justification means

becoming righteous, and faith was the gift of enablement that
made it possible for man to be righteous, to be someone who is
just and lives by faith. The elements of active trust and
endurance then completely overshadow the element of
acknowledgment (assensus) that was present in some
traditions of the Reformation. The basic question of the
Reformation, how can I be sure of salvation, was replaced by
another: on what basis can I act in conformity with God’s
demands? To the Anabaptists it was the certainty of the moral
life and not the certainty of the moral conscience that was the
real goal. Certainty of faith was not a result of an inner struggle
with God’s grace, nor a deduction from the fruits of faith, but
self-experience through hardship and persecution in an effort to
live the life of obedience through faith.81

To Luther, certitudo (objective certainty) derived from the word of God and
went hand in hand with a lack of securitas (subjective certainty). Pharisaism,
which derived certainty from its own actions, was the height of injustice and
lack of faith. Man cannot rest in his understanding of the law or his
accomplishments in fulfilling that law. Though certitudo is said to be based on
the external Word, the mode of our certainty is purely subjective, i.e.,
Menno Simons, though seemingly affirming the doctrine of
grace as held by the Reformers in some of his statements,
does so with a different logic, in a different context, and with a
different reason. His motivation is not opposition against
Catholic teaching on the necessity of the cooperation of man
through works, since that is how he understands the meaning
of faith (as obedience and trust) and being justified (becoming
intrinsically righteous) in the first place, though his language
may be different. It is not the restoration of what was perceived
as Pauline doctrine on the antithesis of grace and works, or of
gospel and law, that drove his thinking in the way it did for
Luther. Faith is a gift of God, surely, but one that transforms
man if it is really present and sincere; though to Menno it is
also certain that the cleansing of sin is done by God on the
basis of Christ’s work without any use of sacraments and is not
earned by meritorious works. Still, there can be no real faith
without the cooperation of man’s will, so being justified is one of
the consequences of a life of faith and not an extrinsic condition
for it.82
Menno’s reason for opposing Catholic teaching lies
elsewhere: in the definition of those works that are required as
an essential feature of the faith that justifies, not in the idea that
man cannot cooperate with God or should not perform good
works. In his “Of the Correct Christian faith” (78a, b) Menno
states that Catholic teaching makes redemption dependent
upon obedience to the Pope and the use of the sacraments.
The falsity of that doctrine to Menno is in the contents, not in
the formal definition of obedience and its relationship to
salvation. His quarrel with Rome is about the sacramental
context of obedience, not about the principle that faith and
obedience cannot be separated and that only a faith that

knowledge or persusasion. Dialectically, the objectivity is based on

subjectivity. Menno’s insistence on certainty derived from faith-experience is
subjective insofar as the inner word must accompany the external Word. But
it is objective in the sense that the results of faith are there for all to see and
Such a doctrine, which accepts both imputed righteousness and external
grace and an infusion of grace and works of righteousness – though from
faith, caused by justification – cannot but be described as semi-Pelagianism.
The analytical distinction between external (forensic) justification and its fruit
in a life of holiness is its counterpart and extreme opposite. But as I set out to
show, Menno’s position is not that of Wesleyanism, in which the believer
needs to add to the primal justification in order to be fully saved and to “earn”
– ultimately by grace, as in Augustine – his redemption.
expresses itself in charity and good work is the right one.83 Of
course Luther agreed on the principle that faith leads to good
works. But he would have denied that faith is an act of
obedience.84 In conformity with this, Menno’s, Denck’s, and
Hubmaier’s doctrines are determined by what Goertz calls the
“anticlerical situation.” In that perspective, Menno sees Rome
as demanding works that are extraneous to the faith and
obedience that are demanded in scripture. The quarrel is
therefore not about the principle, but about the contents.
As for the doctrine itself, we are not convinced that Anabaptist
thinking really amounts to a denial of justification by faith and
should be read as a straightforward Catholic position of “justi-
fication-by-works-helped-by-grace.” It seems more appropriate
to think of Menno’s position as acceptance of the core essence
of Lutheranism, but denying the specific anthropological
presupposition that went along with it and rejecting the division
between the forensic and the experiential side of justification,
all of which led to a change in what was seen as the core
essence of the gospel, a shift from justification to sanctification,
sanctification thereby becoming the main paradigm of all other
concepts. Four major differrences arise between Anabaptists
and the magisterial Reformation: the anthropology of sin, the
issue of inner conscience, the meaning of justification as

Luther differed on the principle of good works with Catholic doctrine
precisely because of its motivation and the lack of faith that was expressed in
it. So he can state in the Sermon on Good Works “When we reject the great,
pretentious works of our time, which are done entirely without faith, they say:
Men are only to believe and not to do anything good. For nowadays they say
that the works of the First Commandment are singing, reading, organ-playing,
reading the mass, saying matins and vespers and the other hours, the
founding and decorating of Churches, altars, and monastic houses, the
gathering of bells, jewels, garments, trinkets and treasures, running to Rome
and to the saints. Further, when we are dressed up and bow, kneel, pray the
rosary and the Psalter, and all this not before an idol, but before the holy
cross of God or the pictures of His saints: this we call honoring and
worshiping God, and, according to the First Commandment, “having no other
gods”; although these things usurers, adulterers and all manner of sinners
can do too, and do them daily.” Sermon on Good Works, p.123 (211). Faith
then as an act of “obedience” to the first commandment is immediately taken
in the sense of certainty and trust and as such becomes a form or quality of
human actions.
To Luther faith in this context is the certainty or inward trust that God finds
pleasure in what we do connected to our acceptance that Christ is the One
that God has sent. (John 6:28) Cf. Sermon on Good Works, p. 112 (LWW, VI,
renewal, and the matter of what constitutes the condition of

(1) The difference in presupposed anthropology

It seems obvious with regard to anthropology, e.g., that the
16th-century Anabaptists did not agree with the magisterial
Reformation’s view that man’s nature was to be identified with
his alienated and fallen state. Such a presupposition is alien to
their minds, and if they had accepted some such doctrine they
would have used the notion of Christ’s propitiatory sacrifice to
neutralize it by arguing that Christ changed that condition for all
mankind by defeating the power of sin, releasing all of mankind
from its bonds and setting them free to obey again.85 On the
basis of the bleak anthropology of man’s utter depravity,
however, sovereign election had to be the answer; making
God’s election necessarily an act outside of human history
(before creation, as some of the Biblical texts do state), with the
ethical consequence that any righteousness that man could
hope to achieve within history is then completely useless and
condemned from the start, merely by being part of man’s effort.
Man in his fallen state can do no good whatsoever, granted, but
what about man in his transformation by the grace of God? If
God must be shown to be sovereign in His election, can He not
also be sovereign in his enabling mankind to obedience? In the
diagnosis that mankind is unable to do God’s command, even
to a Christian there is perhaps both an abstract exaggeration of
what constitutes sin as well as an acquiescence in the apparent
lack of evangelical virtues in those who became members of a
state-Church by baptism in infancy and subsequent
The Anabaptists differed profoundly on this issue. They saw
Christ’s propitiatory work as effective in that it restored
humanity’s freedom to choose to obey God. In this respect they
On the other hand, Mennonite theology does not amount to Pelagianism,
since it does not accept the latter’s basic thesis that man is able on his own
account to achieve salvation and live according to God’s will. Pelagianism lies
in the assumption of the plenary ability of man; his ability to do all that
righteousness can demand, i.e., to work out not only his own salvation but
also his own perfection. Experientially however, the notion that man is
restored to full freedom by Christ’s sacrifice would amount to the same thing,
since the recognition of Christ’s work has no role to play in it. Here enters the
importance of the notion that freedom is restored only in so far as the ability
to repent is concerned. Freedom brings insight into man’s predicament and
his need for grace.
disagreed with Augustine, who thought this part of Christ’s work
was effective only for the elect and not for all of mankind. It
would have made no sense, however, for God to condemn
mankind on the basis of its inability to do any good since the
Fall. Then we would have indeed the mere declarative situation
that all are condemned because of the sin of Adam which is
imputed to all his descendants, and they are not condemned
because of their own sin.86 (This will prove, however, to be an
incorrect reading of Romans 5.) For how can anyone be
condemned for the failure to do the good if that failure is not
part of his own choosing?
This difference in anthropology was pervasive amongst
Anabaptists. To cite just one other 16th-century example, we
could refer to Caspar Schwenckfeld. He had converted to
Lutheranism as early as 1518, but, according to G.H. Williams
(1993, 202), his interpretation of justification was different from
that of Luther. He thought he had learned from Luther: “that the
sons of Adam, after they have by faith been incorporated into
the Second Adam, are capable of exercising their free will to do
good” which essentially reiterates Augustine’s notion of grace
restoring man’s defective freedom to its intended condition. In
that way, the doctrine moved away from its Lutheran emphasis
on forensic justification of individual man to a progressive and
experiential sanctification of the believer as part of the Church.
The logical pattern that correlated a pessimist anthropology
with a doctrine of election and/or predestination thereby
stopped short. On the Cross, Christ restored man’s freedom of
will and effected the removal of all sins in the world. On the
basis of this “Christological anthropology” the emphasis again
could shift from reception of faith to response to revealed
Menno was not the only defender of this position. Most 16th-
century Anabaptist soteriology, according to G.H. Williams87
presupposed the expiatory removal of original guilt for all
mankind. Its anthropology was therefore not a natural theology
based on essential misgivings about human nature, but a part
of Christology. The result was a different view both of human
Still, Paul states in Rom. 5:12 that death reigned over Adam’s posterity
because ‘all have sinned’. The imputation of Adam’s sin to his children is not
a matter of being ‘reckoned’ unjust with no basis in man’s actual behaviors.
But as an attribution of guilt it is the basis of our being left in the power of sin.
Williams, Radical Reformation , p. 1270
responsibility and of the ability of humanity to serve God. So
man was able to do good works and could be taken to account
if he did not. Here Anabaptism moved away from Augustine. In
opposition to the father of Catholicism, this expiation was not
merely for the elect, and it was not sufficient to know this, which
contradicted Augustine’s more intellectual notion of faith. His
formula for this doctrine : “Justification derives from the
knowledge of Christ through faith” separates knowledge from
the life of faith. It clearly shows that justification, though resting
on a divine initiative, received its full meaning only in the
experience of regeneration and discipleship that followed suit.
Such a doctrine of justification as restoration of creation, in
this case, free will, was directed against the doctrine of the
complete corruption of man’s free will, developed as a battle
cry against forms of (semi-)Pelagianism, which required the
Reformation to add predestination of the elect to the doctrine of
justification. Anabaptism therefore could base its concept of
faith as obedience on the notion that if man was able to seek
God, it could be enough that God prompted him to do so. The
human response could be a free conversion of man to God,
accepting the offer of God’s grace in Christ in an act of the will
that was in all respects of his own doing. After conversion, this
basic freedom remained intact, so man could live out his life of
faith in obedience and accountability. Anabaptist theology, by
stressing Christ’s intervention as objectively effective for all of
mankind, could go for the maximum of human freedom and
responsibility. The pattern of ethics was not the inner reception
of outward justification but the outward act of inner obedience
in conversion and baptism.

(2) The emphasis on the real versus the inner man

A related bone of contention is the anthropological emphasis
on the inner man, the guilty conscience as well as the certitude
of redemption which is so characteristic of 17th-century
theology in the wake of conditions that simultaneously
produced Cartesian rationalism. Any righteousness that can be
attributed to man, which the Reformers actually allowed and
called iustitia inhaerens objective (righteousness that is
inherent in man objectively), is not then the inherent
righteousness of his works, but only a subjective certitude
about the sincerity of faith and the reality of his state of grace,
through the testimony of his works and walk in life. This is
called iustificatio iusti (the justification of the righteous), and this
is what Menno seems to stress, with the exception that it was
not correct to speak of the testimony of good works, or the fruit
of (i.e., attitudes flowing from) faith, but of the fruits (i.e.,
concrete and distinct acts) of obedience. But more important, to
Menno the issue is not about certitude at all, but about external
visibility; not about a subjectively experienced reality with
primary reference to the status of faith, but about the objective
way of life that is visible to all. So here Menno does not side
with the interiorization of faith that resulted from disagreement
with what was perceived as a Catholic stress on outwardness.
Menno rejected the sweeping anthropological statement
concerning man’s sinfulness and modified the equally abstract
confirmation of the internal experience of shame and guilt,
which in combination had produced such a bleak picture of
human inability.

(3) The justification of the sinner

A third difference is apparent when we look at the iustificatio
peccatoris (justification of the sinner, cf. Rom. 4:5), which is at
the heart of the Reformation. In Reformed doctrine there is no
infusion of righteousness (actus physicus, i.e., a real trans-
formation) but only a forensic act, a declaration. It is a change
of outer man (mutatio hominis exterior), not of inner man.
The effective cause of that declarative righteousness is the
righteousness of Christ, or rather His objective work on the
cross as substitionary atonement. The righteousness of Christ
atones for our lack of it, insofar as righteousness is demanded
of us. So His righteousness takes the place of ours, and He
stands in our place in God’s judgment. This righteousness is
nothing but that demanded under law. The result is not the
removal (remissio) of sin, but its forgiveness, (i.e., taking away
the punishment), which makes adoption by God possible. So
justification is achieved by imputation, forensic declaration, with
Christ’s righteousness as its real basis. Here we might have
only a distinction within the terminology. Justification does
originally mean both: the declaration of man-being-righteoused
before the day of judgment frees man from the fear of that
judgment and makes possible his position as adopted child of
God in the present.
That this cannot be separated from the renewal of man
through the spirit, so that God’s judgment has also a basis in
man’s righteousness, expresses the other and real
consequence of the fact that Christ’s Spirit dwells in us. Menno
emphasizes the result of the imputation: if we cannot call the
imputed righteousness our own in any sense, it does not help
us at all to know of Christ’s righteousness. It needs to become
our own, and it must be attributed as well as imputed to us.
Anabaptist logic would have it thus: if Christ’s righteousness is
“my own” (because Christ is called “our” righteousness), then
this must be visible in my life, and not merely in my inner
conscience, else we take Christ’s righteousness to be effective
only in God’s court of law and not in real life. We thereby make
our inner resistance to God’s grace a real obstacle to God’s

(4) The condition of salvation

Now there is the final matter of the condition: faith in the work
of Christ is in some sense the condition for being justified. It is
of course not the effective cause, as if faith could force God to
justify, but it can be called the instrumental cause of
redemption. An effective cause could only be righteousness
under law or good works. Therefore, it is not faith that justifies,
but Christ’s righteousness justifies through faith as its means of
accomplishing it.
If that is so, it is improper to speak of faith as the effective
cause (“by faith”) of being justified. The phrase “justification by
faith” suggests that faith is the effective cause, even if faith is
understood as a gift. (Living) faith that is not seen as the cause
of redemption can then only be understood as the sign and
inner experience of being justified by God, part of that process
which is in itself the result of its declaration by God. We then
take “by faith” to refer to the material cause. Such a faith is then
the result of Gods redeeming act working upon a human being.
As soon as we emphasize that justification is by faith, we set up
faith either as an effective cause and in that sense an active
condition, or as a material cause, as a passive condition.
Menno might have agreed with Luther that faith cannot be
either the effective or material cause of redemption, so both
would contend that “by faith” refers to the instrumental cause.
Faith is what God gives when He redeems and justifies and at
the same time, it is what He uses to make a human perfect
before Him. Nevertheless, to Menno this concept of faith as an
instrumental cause would not be the sufficient condition of
redemption since it would limit what God is prepared to do for
It is different if we define faith not as a belief, or even as trust
in God’s promise that is there in single moments of persuasion,
but widen the concept to include also the works of faith, the life
of hope, endurance, and perseverance; if we speak about faith
not as assent or certitude of the mind but as a life of
submission of the will in concrete acts. In that sense, faith could
perhaps be called, from an Anabaptist perspective, the
condition of salvation and the instrumental cause of it. It is not
as if salvation can be earned, but because salvation is “worked
out” – becomes effective, in such a life. Faith can be that
condition in two ways: as the condition of our knowledge of
salvation in others, or ourselves and as a condition already
met, because the life of faith is identical to the life of salvation.
That left Anabaptism with a dual strategy: they could say, with
Luther, that faith was the sign of grace received (cognitive
condition), and they could argue that this was not enough, that
faith was also the shape of the saintly life (material condition).
The former looked at faith as the acknowledgment of God’s
action in Christ, which was the primary gift of God, and the
latter took faith to be the life of faith that originated in the
acknowledgment of God’s act but was experienced fully only
through repentance, renewal and perseverance.
On the basis of the above, the general Anabaptist position in
the 16th century can be described as the outcome of these
three factors working together:
1 Because Man is not considered to be totally depraved
and corrupt as a result of the fall, because only body and soul
but not the spirit was corrupted (Hubmaier), or because he is
considered to be freed from those consequences by the
propitiatory work of Christ for all of mankind (Hoffmann), he is
able to be free and active in his decision for Christ (hence
adult baptism). Faith is then understood actively as a
response of submission to God’s revelation in Christ. It is
made possible by the propitiatory sacrifice of Christ for all
mankind but is only effectively realized in those who obey and
accept it. To them, Christ’s work can be said to be a
substitutionary sacrifice as well.
2 Because Anabaptists agreed that faith as defined by
belief and assent is not the instrumental (nor the effective)
cause of being justified, but merely a sign of being made
righteous by God, they could further argue that it is not an
effective condition of justification (so the slogan justification by
faith cannot be used to describe it). Against that they stated
first of all that faith and living justly must go hand-in-hand,
which was the Calvinist solution. On the other hand, if faith is
defined within the Anabaptist perspective as the real
experience of the life of faith, involving contrition, repentance,
endurance, obedience, and the like, it can be properly called
a condition of salvation, because then it is taken to be
identical to repentance (cf. Mark 1:15), which is a condition of
salvation or of spiritual rebirth, in which God’s grace enables
man to make a new life, “industrious in good works.”
3 What the Reformation approached as an issue of
certitude, speaking about the testimony of works with regard
to the reality of faith, is then taken to mean: the reality of
works and faith working together, which is not that different
from Calvin’s understanding of the relationship between
justification by a living faith, working through love.88 The works
were acts of faith, not so much the fruits of faith; put
differently: faith was the power of “good works,” not its inner
motivation or its pattern. It is this anthropological
presupposition of the relation between inner and outer man
and the emphasis on faith as certitude within inner man that is
taken differently.
What of course is also denied is the further consequence of
the Reformed logic of justification that we mentioned earlier:
that if faith must be maintained as a condition and instrumental
cause of justification, it cannot be the work of man at all,
therefore faith itself is nothing but a gift, which can then, within
the doctrine of predestination, be taken as the sign under which
the elect are called within history. In opposition to that, the
Anabaptists held that the subjective factor had dignity as both
an active and a passive response to God’s side: acting outside
and inside man (Christ’s work and the Spirit’s renewal). To take
faith as a gift only, and not as a response, overemphasizes that
Calvin’s appraisal of the Anabaptist movement was perhaps guided mostly
by the aberrations he saw in its spiritualist (South-German) version, which
went through Lutheranism first (Hubmaier of course came from Zwingli, not
Luther) and laid heavy emphasis on spiritual rebirth and the new life. Calvin
had no sympathy for that kind of fanaticism: “Some Anabaptists in the present
age mistake some indescribable sort of frenzied excess for the regeneration
of the Spirit, holding that the children of God are restored to a state of
innocence, and, therefore, need give themselves no anxiety about curbing
the lust of the flesh; that they have the Spirit for their guide, and under his
agency never err.” (Cf. Calvin., Inst. III, 3, p. 693. Cf Also Beachy, Grace, p.
faith can only be an inner reality in the sense of Calvin’s empty
jar, in which grace is received from the outside. Though it can
be argued simply that while God gives us the gift of faith, this
gift implies that we believe. It then becomes a question of how
we view this fact that “we” believe, i.e., what degree of relative
independence we give to this fact. It has to be stressed that this
acceptance of the role of man’s liberty was nowhere leading to
the view that redemption was based on man’s activity in itself.
But obedience was emphasized to a degree unknown to other
reformers, because God’s grace was seen to be effective in the
transformation of human life, and not only presented as
declarative formula. We will analyze here one typical example
to show how faith and obedience were connected in Menno’s
thinking. Menno stated, in his “Reasons for Teaching and
1. Behold, most beloved reader, thus true faith or true
knowledge begets love, and love begets obedience to the
commandments of God.
Therefore Christ Jesus says, "He that believeth on him is not
condemned." Again at another place, "Verily, verily, I say unto
you, he that heareth my word, and believeth on him that sent
me, hath everlasting life, and shall not come into
condemnation; but is passed from death into life," John 5: 24.
2. For true evangelical faith is of such a nature that it cannot
lie dormant; but manifests itself in all righteousness and works
of love;
it dies unto flesh and blood; destroys all forbidden lusts and
desires; cordially seeks, serves and fears God; clothes the
naked; feeds the hungry; consoles the afflicted; shelters the
miserable; aids and consoles all the oppressed; returns good
for evil; serves those that injure it; prays for those that
persecute it; teaches, admonishes and reproves with the Word
of the Lord; seeks that which is lost; binds up that which is
wounded; heals that which is diseased and saves that which is
sound. The persecution, suffering and anxiety which befalls it
for the sake of the truth of the Lord, is to it a glorious joy and

3. All those who have a faith as is here mentioned, namely, a

faith that makes desirous to walk in the commandments of the
To do the will of the Lord, and which shows itself in all
righteousness, love and obedience, also acknowledge that the
word and will of our beloved Lord Jesus Christ is true wisdom,
truth and life, yea, unchangeable and immutable unto Christ
Jesus shall reappear in the clouds of heaven at the judgment
day; they do not scoff at God’s word as if it were a vapor, as do
the ignorant world, saying, "What can water avail me?" but they
will diligently try to obey the word of Jesus Christ in every
particular, even at the risk of death according to the flesh..89
[italics mine]
In this arrangement of the text we see something of the
characteristic style of Menno’s work. Every statement is
followed by a series of biblical quotations which are then used
to develop the argument further. Let’s look at the first instance.
The thesis is:
Behold, most beloved reader, thus true faith or true
knowledge begets love, and love begets obedience to the
commandments of God.
Faith leads to love, love leads to obedience. What is the
biblical source?
Therefore Christ Jesus says, "He that believeth on him is not
So what is the implicit reasoning here? That obedience
equals “not being condemned”? A statement like that would
need some support! It is given, again implicitly, in the next
quotation, where the “hearing of the word” is mentioned as a
prerequisite of salvation. So we have this train of equations:
faith begets love which begets obedience to the
commandments which begets salvation (as implied in the
quotation). The text quoted mentions two components:
believing on him (the first in Menno’s train), which leads to
salvation, the implied conclusion of the series. If someone who
believes is not condemned, then to Menno this situation of
being saved implies the presence of a faith that (1) is active in
love and (2) is active in obedience, and only then can it indeed
lead to “no condemnation.” Behind the quoted text that
mentions belief as the condition of salvation, Menno discerns a
train of concrete conditions that are implied in this full and
complex concept of faith that now emerges in the commentary.
The same comes to the fore in the next verse where a similar
train is assembled: hearing His words = obedience (hear the
word, believe in Him, implying obedience, hath everlasting life).

Complete Works of Menno Simons, 1871, II, p. 246
In the passage as a whole is the same equation: (1) obedience
to commandments equals (2) works of love, equals (3) righte-
ousness, love and obedience and these are the major steps in
the argument. The basic argument is simply this: evangelical
faith is faith practiced as concrete obedience, sealed by
baptism on the risk even of death. The common element of all
of these steps is the word obedience that occurs in all three
paragraphs. Though there is an apparent lack of structural
words, the implicit threading of quotations and equations of
terms is in itself a coherent way of making an argument. It is
typical of a mind that is constantly commenting on texts and
formulating the result of readings, not a mind that forms
concepts or complex syllogisms which may move beyond the
confines of the text. This mode of biblical exegesis , producing
glosses on scriptural texts by which concepts were given
logical coherence, involving all kinds of logical connections,
was of course typical of the age.
All of the above explains why Menno, through his synthetic
way of reading Scripture, cannot conform to Lutheran doctrine,
which emphasizes “by faith alone” to such an extent that not
only does it negate the necessity of the specific works that
Rome demanded, but it seems to imply that faith is something
in itself, completely apart from works. Works are then rightly
understood as works of obedience, as the compliance of the
free will of man with the will of his Creator, not as works that
flow from faith as an inner power, working mysteriously within
man’s soul. Menno Simons could only agree with Luther insofar
as these “works” that are not necessary for and are even hurtful
to faith are the works prescribed by un-evangelical obedience
to the Roman Church. Arguing, however, that works of
obedience are not necessary is to him similar to arguing that a
dead faith can also save. The contention that faith is an inner
source of works of gratitude means positing obedience as a
state of mind in the inner man. That would mean blurring the
difference between submission and obedience, instead of
emphasizing actions in the outer world, where obedience and
suffering count and are visible to others. The analytical
distinction between obedience and faith is therefore countered
with the synthetic reading of faith and obedience into one
composite concept, closer to biblical thought-categories and
providing a synthetic framework in which various texts can be
harmonized, and most importantly, providing a conceptuality
that can be correlated with a way of life as a whole.
So, moving beyond Luther, it is not merely the case that
Menno wanted to see works as proof of a living faith. He
disapproves of the notion that obedience can be an inner
assent or motivation without an obedient concrete act, that is,
one that conforms to an “ordinance.” What Menno therefore
takes aim at is a potential exaggeration of Luther’s position that
would hold not only that no works are necessary for salvation,
not even those that rightfully belong to the new life of faith, but
even that all attention paid to works is harmful, that they cannot
be part of our life in faith as such, i.e., as ordinances with some
specific and individual status as precisely this concrete
demand. For the works that are thereby denied, and the shape
of obedience that is relegated to a “Jewish” works-holiness, are
to Menno precisely the heart of Christian ethics as it appears
under the New Covenant as obedience to the ordinances of
Christ. How can a believer not obey Christ’s commandment to
celebrate the Lord’s Supper, which is a clear ordinance in the
New Testament? If there is disobedience to this outward
commandment, how can there be real and living faith?
Ultimately Menno’s position can be described in this one
sentence: if we do not accept in faith Christ as our Lord, how
can He be our Savior? 90

Cf. J.C. Wenger, The Doctrines of the Mennonites, p. 62. Wenger
summarizes Menno’s point of view: “It is faith that saves and faith alone, but
where there is no discipleship there is no saving faith.” [Ital. mine]
12. Ambiguities in the Anabaptist Confessions of Faith
Menno’s solution of combining justification and sanctification
into one concept of obedience in faith, stressing that God
sanctifies the believer (i.e., through inner, transforming grace
shown in outward behaviour), was not followed consistently,
which contributed perhaps to some ambiguity in the formulation
of the Mennonite position in later centuries. To be sure, the
basic understanding of what Menno would have called “true
and living faith,” that is, an active faith, experienced in con-
trition, repentance, and renewal, and in a justification that is a
real transformation from being wicked into being righteous, has
been reaffirmed many times in confessional statements of the
Anabaptist movement. But there is nearly always the presence
of an added Lutheran emphasis on forensic justification, as if
Mennonite doctrine could never fully accept the inner con-
nection between justification and sanctification out of which the
movement as a whole was born.
E.g., according to article 6 of the 1963 Brief statement of
Mennonite Doctrine, issued by the Mennonite General
Conference: “We believe that Salvation is by grace through
faith in Christ, a free gift bestowed by God on those who repent
and believe.”91 Salvation by grace through faith could certainly
be part of any formulation of a justification by faith doctrine, as
is the notion of salvation as a free gift. Possibly the expression
“through faith” avoids the problematic elements of “by faith”
which might refer to faith as effective cause. But the recipients
of this gift are characterized as “those who repent and believe,”
bringing into play all the elements of renewal and regeneration
that are connected with the notion of repentance and
obedience. So here we do not have Menno’s insistence that
justification only makes sense as an element of sanctification,
but a kind of return to Lutheranism, which deems sanctification
to be an independent consequence of extrinsic justification.
Menno’s synthetic way of thinking was here subjected to ana-
lytic modes of thought.
It is the same with other statements of faith. The Mennonite
Confession of Faith, adopted in the same year by the
Mennonite General Conference, first states less ambiguously
that ”salvation is appropriated (italics mine) by faith in Christ,”

Loewen, 1985, 78.
which is on the surface a derivative of the “by faith alone”
position. Yet again, the term appropriated puts an emphasis on
the experiential side of faith. The article (6) even returns to the
language of repentance where it later says, “Those who repent
and believe in Christ as Savior, are born again and are adopted
into the family of God.”92 Nevertheless, these modern
confessions of faith clearly have tried to incorporate the
language of justification by faith into the former Anabaptist
emphasis on the “improvement of life,” which shines through so
clearly in the Schleitheim Confession of 1527: “Baptism shall
be given to all those who have been taught repentance and the
amendment of life.” 93 But then, of course, the Schleitheim
Confession had no need to argue the Anabaptist position to
outsiders, but was meant to be a statement of unity amongst
diverging Anabaptist congregations. One gets the impression
that the separate emphasis on justification in later confessional
documents was the answer to a question put to Anabaptists by
believers who were concerned about Anabaptist loyalty to the
justification doctrine.
The Brethren in Christ “Statement of Doctrine” of 1961 even
uses the analytic distinction of judicially and experientially to
separate God’s accounting us as guiltless and “as recipients of
the imputed righteousness in Christ” from “spiritual birth and
the new life.” It is the Evangelical Mennonite Church that went
the farthest in its effort to remain within mainstream Protestant
thinking, and in 1936 it adopted a separate article on
justification that equates justification with pardon of sins,
righteousness being “reckoned” through faith. But even here
repentance is placed next to faith as a sacred duty (art. VII),
and regeneration (i.e., being born again not as a synonym for
conversion but more akin to amendment of life) is called a
prerequisite of salvation (art. VIII), which in a sense
counteracts the original thrust of the justification by faith alone
So we must doubt very much, precisely because of the way
Mennonites have reasoned about their faith since Menno
through their various statements of doctrine, whether this
appearance of the language of justification by faith in
Mennonite work and confessions, does indeed represent a

Ibid., 74.
Ibid., 79; [Ital. mine]
Ibid., 214.
shared doctrine of the Magisterial and the Radical Reformation.
We found in our brief survey of Menno’s Fundamentboek that
some of the language seems to refer to the Lutheran doctrine
of salvation without works, but that that impression is
misleading if the key concepts of faith and righteousness are
used differently. The same goes for the various Confessional
statements that either by juxtaposition or in separate articles
both affirm and restrict the doctrine of justification by faith, in a
sense, try to avoid the stress on “by faith alone” that was so
characteristic of Luther while at the same time adopting its
basic assumption.
This duality sometimes breaks out in minor controversies
among Mennonite scholars today. One illustrative example
might be worth mentioning here. In 1962, J. C. Wenger of
Goshen Biblical Seminary presented his “Grace in Anabaptist
Theology” at the 7th Mennonite World Conference (held in
Ontario with the theme the “Lordship of Christ”). Quoting
Menno Simons, Wenger argued that the Anabaptists knew
about the sufficiency of grace and did not teach a justification
by works, or a synergism at all. Menno had said:
“You see, kind reader, we do not seek salvation in works,
words, or sacraments, as do the learned ones, although they
accuse us of that very thing; but we seek them only in Christ
Jesus and in no other means in heaven or on earth. We rejoice
exclusively in this only means. We trust by the grace of God to
continue thus unto death.”95
.A response was written by Alvin Beachy, at that time a
minister for the General Conference Mennonite Church in
Souderton, Penna. He argued that he agreed with Wenger that
Anabaptist sources do not in general teach synergism.
Nonetheless, this does not mean, as Wenger implied, that the
Anabaptist doctrine of grace fits in without problems with
mainstream Protestant thought. Beachy goes on to show that it
was the anthropology of Anabaptism that made them reject the
bondage of the will, and as a consequence the doctrine of
double predestination. (The election of the believers was also
taught by Menno, e.g., in his meditation on the 25th psalm, but
not as a consequence of anthropology.) A doctrine of
justification that starts from the freedom and not from the

Complete Works, pp. 504- 505. Quoted in the proceedings of the
Conference, p. 436.
bondage of the will leads to a totally different result, much
closer to Thomas Aquinas’s position.96 Dutch Anabaptist
thought, especially, emphasized the demand for repentance
and contrition as a condition of regeneration. But if this capacity
for repentance is in itself a consequence of God’s initial grace,
it prevents the accusation of legalism. To Menno, the initial
grace effects a restoration of freedom, making repentance
possible; to Marpeck, the initial grace only makes man aware of
his guilt and depravity and in need of Christ. Marpeck therefore
stands closer to Luther in the end, than does Menno.
Another Anabaptist emphasis that seems to vitiate the need
for grace is that on Nachfolge, or discipleship. According to
Beachy, the Anabaptists could stress this because their
concept of regeneration involved “a concept of salvation which
is predominantly the divinization of man, combined with a
Church-Christ mysticism which was intensely strong in both
Menno and Dirk (Philips).”97 Present holiness and justification,
therefore, went hand in hand, and the presence of the Holy
Spirit as the source of the “victorious life in Christ” made all the
difference. Both the Catholic doctrine of the fragmented
presence of Christ in the Church’s sacraments and the
Protestant one-sided doctrine of justification were challenged
by this return to the New Testament’s dual perspective of
justification and sanctification.
The faith-alone position moved in another direction, much
different from Mennonite theology. Luther’s emphasis on
justification by grace, received in but not grounded on the
experience of faith, gave way to a more scholastic position, de-
fining faith as assent to a rationally understood doctrine. With
Augustine, the relative intellectualizing of his concept of faith
was partly negated by his insistence that faith needed the other
theological virtues of love and hope to become perfect in man.
To Reformation doctrine, no such refuge was open. If man was
unable to cooperate with God then God’s sovereign initiative
was all-important even in this matter of understanding and
believing doctrine. If salvation is dependent on the correct
understanding of doctrine, then of course God’s sovereignty
must be seen to achieve the certainty required here that man
Alvin Beachy shows from Marbeck (sic) that some Anabaptists agreed in
general with the notion of ‘first grace’ that is like a light that shines unto every
individual, and for which every individual is responsible for submitting to it.
Ibid, p. 438. Their use of the doctrine was different.
Ibid, p. 439.
could not. There must be an infallible basis for the
understanding of doctrine, and faith itself must be proven to be
authentic by its conformity to the confession. The Westminster
Confession speaks about this saving and authoritative doctrine
as “expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary
consequences [...] deduced from Scripture.” And then it was
not far to the conclusion that only God could have produced
such a book of perfect doctrine.
In a way, this approach to the infallibility of scripture both
promoted and hindered the development of the doctrine of
justification by grace. For on the one hand it seemed to finally
state the grounds that made Paul’s gospel authoritative and
central in Protestant theology. Paul’s gospel was not a part of a
developing self-understanding of the early Church, but a
textbook of perfect statements that we needed to understand
and affirm in order to be saved. But on the other hand it
changed the meaning of faith in Christ into assent to doctrine,
which deepened the gap between faith as mental attitude and
faith as a way of life. In that sense, Lutheran orthodoxy
returned precisely to the conception of faith that it had
discovered in Catholic scholasticism, and which needed “love”
as an addition to signify the whole status of sanctity in man.
We have found, so far, that the Anabaptist doctrine of
justification implied the transformation of man (as in Catholic
doctrine and particularly in Augustine) but denied the
anthropological presupposition connected to the fall as implying
the total degeneracy of man, and thereby also gave a higher
status to man’s free will. It resisted Augustine’s notion that hu-
man liberty was restored only in the elect. From then on,
justification and sanctification have remained in a tense
relationship, as we have seen by studying the shape of the
doctrine in Menno and the more recent confessions of faith. We
have found, on the other hand, a Reformation consensus on
justification by faith alone that stresses God’s initiative and
denies the cooperation of man in the work of his salvation. It
sees works as part of the effect of the gift of faith, as a sign of
its existence, but not as an accomplishment of man. Grace
does not help man help himself, grace does it all. Anabaptism,
on the other hand, while not refuting the sufficiency of grace,
saw it work in different ways. Their doctrine made them
vulnerable to the accusation of legalism, and even amongst
Mennonite scholars, the Dutch variant of Anabaptism is
sometimes referred to as such.

13. Evangelical duty versus external legality
So what did the Anabaptist movement do with the issue of
commandment and law? Having established that the expe-
riential life of faith as obedience was the core issue in
Anabaptism (expressed in the concept of discipleship), we turn
now to the question of what sources Anabaptists recognized as
formally defining Christian ethics. In general, the early
Anabaptists, and especially Marpeck and Menno, were in
agreement with Luther and Calvin that sinners must be
“broken” by the law, led to contrition, as a part of receiving faith.
The sinful human will was in rebellion against God, even
though the Anabaptists in principle accepted the notion that the
human will is capable of responding positively to God.
Repentance and contrition were given emphasis in the Dutch
Anabaptist movement at least equal to that of Luther and
Calvin. The difference emerged, however, when the question at
issue became what happened after a person had responded to
grace. Luther maintained that the prosecuting, condemning role
of the law continued to be important in the life of a Christian.
The openness and need for grace had to be reaffirmed over
and over again through the condemning judgment of scripture.
The pedagogical use of the law was thereby emphasized to
have a leading role in the Christian life.
Anabaptists, however, were not content to speak only about
faith that saved, but added the notions of regeneration and
obedience. We have already made this clear from our study of
the Fundamentboek by Menno Simons. The law to them,
therefore, could function in the sense of a very real demand
that was replaced by evangelical obedience, to be sure, but not
invalidated on principle. At the same time, the Mosaic law not
only condemned the sinner, but also drove him to Christ and
made him worthy of forgiveness. For Dirk Philips, the law
teaches knowledge of sin, the fear of God, and from this follows
the broken and contrite heart that is acceptable to God. The
beginning of faith was therefore not the confession of being a
sinner, but repentance emerging in a changed way of life.
On that basis, Anabaptists could have gone into the direction
of Calvin’s third sense of the law, his “usus in renatis.” Though
the Spirit of Christ in the believer replaced obedience to the
law, it did make the believer fulfil the Mosaic law as seen in its

moral aspect. Knowledge of the written law was therefore indis-
pensable as an aid to understanding what God wants from us.
“Could,” we said, but in actual fact it hardly ever happened like
this. The law had almost no direct pedagogical function, and
most often a preparatory and condemning one. Illustrative of
this negative appraisal of the Mosaic law is this quotation from
Pilgram Marpeck:
“This Jesus Christ is the free Son of God and man, and He is
without commandment or prohibition against His own, the
faithful. For the rebels and transgressors of the
commandments, however, the commandments of God are only
the commandments of man, and the whole law only the law for
damnation. For, where there is no sin or wickedness, no
command or prohibition is needed; there is freedom from all
law. Where commandment or prohibition rule conscience,
heart, and even God’s law, one is not free, but is in bondage to
sin and wickedness. There no free grace, peace, or joy in the
Holy Spirit but, rather, the threat of punishment, fear,
sorrowing, and anxiety about the vengeance on sin through the
coming wrath of God. Because of this fear, external works and
fruits of sin are at times neglected. Such fear of God is the
beginning of true repentance, the hope to become free of the
law of sin and to become free, through faith in Jesus Christ, in
the word of grace. Such fear is the beginning of wisdom and
the knowledge of God in His Son, who is the wisdom of His
Father. In this manner, Jesus Christ, the Son of God, sets one
free. He alone, through His Holy Spirit makes godly the heart
and the entire disposition of man. He erases the handwriting of
the devil so that it is no longer the law that reigns, but grace
and freedom in Jesus Christ, according to the nature of the true
love of God and neighbour. This love in God is the real
freedom. Without any coercion, this love truly fulfils all
commands and prohibitions of the whole pleasure of God. That
is the true freedom in Christ Jesus. Whomever He thus sets
free is truly free, for whoever remains in His words is His true
So for the regenerate the law has no function at all; for the
unregenerate, the law is there to instill in them repentance that
leads to the fear of God, which in turn leads to the acceptance
of the gospel in faith. Evangelical obedience does not follow the

Pilgram Marpeck in a letter called, Judgment and Decision, 1531, in
Klaassen, 1978, p. 315.
pattern of the law in so far as it does not result in compliance
with ‘mitzvoth’ as rules of behavior, but nevertheless obedience
and submission to the moral standard and ordinances
contained in the written record of Jesus’ teachings are part and
parcel of the life of the Christian. That is why in the 6th
ordinance of the Church of God, according to Dieter (Dirk)
Philips, the “keeping of all of Christ’s commandments” has no
reference to the Mosaic law at all, but instead to the maximum
moral requirements of “godly life,” confession, forsaking all
things, meekness, fasting and praying without cessation, and
other similar virtues, all of which could be summarized by the
“Rule of Christianity” (Gal. 6:16) that Christians are to follow the
Example of Christ.99
So it is clear that it was not the Mosaic law as a collection of
requirements, but the life and teachings of Christ that took
primary place in exhortation. Luther’s decision to have a
Christian follow the public law and obey the same statutes and
legal practices as the rest of society was thus denied by the
Anabaptists. Calvin’s reinstatement of the Mosaic law as the
written record of the divine will that was now inscribed into the
hearts of the faithful under the New Covenant was discarded as
well. Only the shape of obedience under the New Testament
was seen as the complete and sufficient description of
Christian morality. Marpeck and Philips in particular seem to
agree that the law as external obedience had no place in a
Christian life, not as the model of evangelical obedience or as
the pattern of societal rule of law. In that sense they radicalized
Luther’s position. An obedience to the “law” (a Mosaic law
applied only externally within society’s understanding) in that
sense would even be tantamount to disobedience to Christ.
Nevertheless, the pattern of obedience is still there. The
concept of discipleship (Nachfolge) that is at the heart of
Anabaptist ethics is not directed at achieving ethical
transformation (in other words it is not a variation of
Pelagianism), but it does presuppose an ability to comply with
an external will by demanding obedience. Such an obedience
is real, but distinct from what was seen as compliance with
outward rules of behavior and at the same time different from
the mystique of inner regeneration. Yoder put it like this:
Because the Messiah came and poured out God’s Spirit,

English edition of the Enchiridion, p. 396, Funk, 1910.
obedience is possible [emphasis mine]. The obedience which
was a potentiality became a reality in him. Pelagius affirmed (if
the biased sources we have can be trusted) that there is
something good left in human nature; an affirmation about Man.
The "possibilists" [referring to Anabaptists, Jews, and
Wesleyans to name a few, RAV] on the other hand are making
an affirmation about God. The affirmation that obedience is
possible is a statement not about me nor about human nature,
but about the Spirit of God.100
So a true obedience is possible on the basis of God’s activity
in man, not on the basis of a “neutral” anthropology; but what is
its shape? Nachfolge is not about spontaneous good works
flowing from faith or works of gratitude, nor is it obedience out
of fear to a specific set of rules. It is neither inner spontaneous
submission nor external legal compliance. “Evangelical” deeds
of gratitude may be motivated by faith, but they are neither
exclusively defined by faith nor only possible on the basis of the
motivation of faith, so therein does not lie the distinctive pattern
we are seeking. Their contents remain to some extent linked to
those of the social environment, can be understood as
response to prevailing morality. But Anabaptist obedience as
Nachfolge Christi is about non-conformity to that environment.
The source for the specific contents of Christian ethics in the
Anabaptist perspective is not the contents of the law, nor the
inner structure of faith, but the shape of the new community
that is headed by a crucified Son of God. We will try to show
that part of the answer lies in the ecclesiological emphasis of
Mennonite christology. Its emphasis stems in my understanding
exactly from where it will prove to be in Paul’s theology: in the
distinctive shape and goals of the community that is defined by
the obedience to Christ. It is the ecclesiological dimension that
sets the Anabaptist ethics apart from all others. Yoder put this
difference in the following manner:
“What I propose to call "the nomic element" is therefore
epistemologically more important than in the other traditions,
since for them the need is only to motivate an ethic of social
conformity, whereas the Anabaptists’ ethic must both motivate
and inform a costly counter-cultural life style.” 101

John Howard Yoder, unpublished. A paper presented to a seminar of
Jewish and Christian Theologians, at José C. Paz (Buenos Aires), Argentina,
November 18, 1970.
The “nomic” element is what we have been describing as the
specific shape of non-conformist radical obedience. Yoder
insists rightly upon the fact that the understanding of the gospel
as to be obeyed is connected to the different life-style of
Christians, and we would dare to add here that this life-style is
realized in the distinct and separate community. The basic
elements of this nonconformist community were exemplified for
the 16th century in specific do’s and don’ts, such as not
swearing oaths, adult baptism, repentance, and the
amendment of life, all grounded in the commitment to follow
biblical teachings as the highest authority in life. The basic
pattern of evangelical obedience in Anabaptism was the
corporate identity of a nonconforming community, committed to
follow the example and the teachings of Christ as their mission
in the world.
We have expressed some surprise that Anabaptists, despite
their emphasis on obedience to Christ, have not accepted
Calvin’s usus in renatis of the Mosaic law for the faithful.
Nevertheless, their concept of Nachfolge does imply obedience
to an external will, expressed in commandments, and not an
inner spontaneity in following the covenant ordinances of the
New Testament. Their use of the “law of Christ” still has a
“nomist” shape. That this ‘nomic’ element was not expressed
as a form of affirmation of the law (in the sense we now have
learned to take it as “Torah,” instruction) can on closer
investigation really be no surprise.
First of all, they shared the perspective of their era on what
Jewish law could possibly mean. That Torah as “instruction”
also comprised grace was not fully understood. That is
something Christian theologians have learned very slowly over
the centuries, as anti-Jewish bias gradually broke down.
Second, Mennonite tradition must have been influenced
strongly by the prevailing Lutheran antithesis between Grace
and law, and it had to contend with an interpretation of the law
that made it a valid source or functional equivalent of state-
controlled public law. Against that use of the law it supported
the Lutheran insistence that the law was a preparation for the
gospel, but they differed on the way it functioned. With Luther
they agreed the law condemned, showed our guilt, and led us
into accepting God’s forgiving grace, to which Anabaptists
added: and led to a renewal of life or repentance as a
prerequisite of faith. Nevertheless, Mennonites came to
emphasize obedience in faith to such an extent that the gospel
in fact came to function as the law of the redeemed community.
In the Mennonite experience, the Church was a visible
community of people, a brotherhood consisting of people that
did not belong to the pagan society in which they lived. In fact,
the Church was defined by separation from this world, identified
by baptism, discipline, morality and martyrdom. The state
belonged, together with all other forms of secular power, to the
old order that was on the verge of disappearing. Separation
from the world was the basis of all its institutions. The Church
must be visible in this separation from the world as a City on a
Hill, and its members could not reside in the valley of worldly
society. Let us show this more directly from a peculiar
document in Mennonite history.
The Schleitheim Confession of 1527, more than any other
document of Mennonite faith, exemplifies the basic tendencies
of its peculiar ethics and its ecclesiological dimension. The
meaning given to baptism showed the primary insistence on
morality and separation. Baptism should be given to those who
had been taught repentance and the amendment of life and
who desired to walk ‘in the resurrection of Jesus Christ.”102 That
this was not a mere moral rigor was expressed by demanding a
true faith in the atonement, which after all defined the ethical
situation of the believer. Rejecting infant baptism was vital to
the Anabaptist understanding of the nature of the Church.
Baptism was not entrance into civilized Christian society; it was
rejection of the believer’s natural status as citizen of the state,
because it signified his death with Christ and his resurrection
unto a new life. The only biblical way to deal with sin and evil in
this world was to separate or flee from it. No fellowship with
unbelievers was possible and allowed. Furthermore, entry into
the community of the faithful was to be voluntary. Only an adult
can enter a covenant with a doctrinal and moral commitment.
Rejection of the state implied also rejection of the violence
that the state had in its employ to sanction and force people
into submission. The rule of Christ as explained in Matthew 18
was seen as the paradigm of resolving differences and
maintaining a biblical standard of behavior. To be part of the
Church meant to be a brother or sister, not a citizen.
Inadvertent error and sin must somehow be dealt with. It
implied that the behavior of anyone had influence upon the

Schleitheim Confession, Loewen, 1985, p. 79b.
entire community, which was devoted to holiness and purity.
Celebration of the Lord’s Supper had to be postponed until
such time as these differences were resolved by the
disciplinary process of Matthew 18. That meant that the
‘sword’, i.e., the entire system of punishment, sanctions,
rewards, and other means of force and persuasion by which
society organizes itself, was rejected without compromise, as
an “ordering of God outside the perfection of Christ.” Instead,
“mercy and forgiveness” are seen as the better way to deal with
sin and sinners, and for Christians the only way. Christians
were not allowed to seek punishment or to settle strife and
disputes between people by judicial process. Because the
sword was an instrument of society to regulate its affairs, all
those with any political power had to use it or affirm its use. No
Christian, therefore, could be a magistrate, if he was to follow a
King in exile. After all, “the rule of government was according to
the flesh.” Christians, however, had a citizenship in heaven.
Besides that, the rejection of violence led to the position of non-
violent resistance that was based on Christ’s commandment to
love the enemy. The decision not to engage in any kind of
violence, that violence that was deemed necessary to preserve
the integrity of the national state, brought Anabaptists in
continuous conflict with the governments of western Europe.
The process of truth within society was rejected as well, in
conformity with that principle. The oath was said to be “a
confirmation among those who are quarreling or making
promises.” It meant that truth could only be found where the
sword was used as threat, and in the understanding that it was
normal within society for individual interests and liberties to
clash with one another. It also referred to the system of mutual
services that an ordered society produced by contracts and
enforced by state power or by social sanction, as in the case of
promises per se. The oath, therefore, stood for the way truth
and trust were enforced within societies and thereby
transformed into a matter of outward behavior. Against that,
Mennonites maintained that all swearing is forbidden, because
“we are not able to change the smallest part of ourselves.” A
promise or an oath implies society’s fiction of total self-control
and the universal necessity of truthfulness, which is
contradicted by the very fact of a system of sanctions. Human
beings who are not able to control themselves or the conditions
in which they live and act are unable to affirm the future act of
their own volition. But they are able to speak truthfully
according to what they are, their yes should be yes, their no
should be no. Truthfulness is demanded as a matter of
personal integrity, but not as a public matter of social duty. The
visible community of the Church is dependent on this practice
of truthfulness without force and risk. More important, the
system of oaths implies unconditional affirmation of the
authority of the state to demand public truth, even if that
affirmation would then be used to exercise violence, making
the swearer of the oath into the accomplice of state violence.
To swear to the truth making God a witness and guarantor of
one’s utterance means implicating God in the performance of
human (in)justice.
John Calvin attacked Anabaptists for making a division in this
regard between Christ and the Old Testament:
“The Anabaptists, not content with this moderate use of oaths,
condemn all, without exception, on the ground of our Savior’s
general prohibition, “I say unto you, Swear not at all: Let your
speech be Yea, yea; Nay, nay: for whatsoever is more than
these cometh of evil” (Matthew 5:34; James 5:12.). In this way,
they inconsiderately make a stumbling-stone of Christ, setting
him in opposition to the Father, as if he had descended into the
world to annul his decrees. In the law, the Almighty not only
permits an oath as a thing that is lawful, (this were amply
sufficient,) but, in a case of necessity, actually commands it
(Exodus 22:11).103
It is true that Mennonites presupposed a direct authority of the
New Testament in distinction to the Old Testament. Submission
(not obedience) to the official state as a form of love for the
enemy, accepting the secondary status of human government
in this world while we await the return of Christ as the rightful
King and accepting the official state’s moral intention to do
good, is not the same as the duty to obey the state as if it were
a God-given instrument to produce righteousness in this world.
To be a part of the economic system without making that into
the foundation of human solidarity (Matthew 22:21), and to
accept the authority of the emperor without accepting the status
he claims for himself (1 Tim. 2:2; Titus 3:1), is not identical to
affirmation of and obedience to the state. Even in the form of
passive refusal to obey, whenever the government demands
something that contradicts biblical commandments, the state is

John Calvin, Inst. II, ch. 8, p. 450
still affirmed as the basis of our citizenship in this world. The
alternative that is to be rejected here is insurrection against the
state, because to use violence against a state that is rejected
precisely because she uses violence against people would not
only directly oppose biblical precepts, but would be self-con-
tradictory. It is this view on the distinct natures of Church and
state that drove Anabaptists, more than anything else, to move
away from affirmation of the Old Testament as a direct source
for morality.
The breaking of bread, the most powerful symbol of the unity
that is sought for within the Church, also implies a break with
the old order. Unity in society at the level of the state expresses
the delegated power of a plurality of independent liberties. The
unity of the state is the symbol, and also the reality, of our
common interest in an ordered state of things, in which each of
us can exercise the maximum of individual freedom. Morality
and legality are means to an end. So the state starts with
individual freedom and has its final goal in it. The Church,
however, is considered to be a collective of people “who must
beforehand be united in the one body of Christ, that is the
congregation of God, whose head is Christ, and that by (adult)
baptism.”104 This unity is in itself of a moral nature. Believers
share one bread because they are united into the one
fellowship with Christ and follow His ways. They show explicitly
in their lives that they are committed to obedience to Christ’s
commandments, and they do so within the Church as their
primary place of allegiance.To be a part of Christ’s body is a
condition of the morality that we exercise over against the
powers of the world.105

Loewen, Mennonite Confessions of Faith, p. 80.
In like manner, Paul in Romans 12 first establishes the inner nature of the
Church as a collective devoted to Christ and ordered along the lines of faith,
not those of power and interests.
14. The social ethics of salvation
Let us turn now to a contemporary Mennonite theologian to
elaborate on the ecclesiological dimension of the Anabaptist
concept of justification. The question we take with us from the
previous paragraphs is this: how can one understand the new
ethical situation from an Anabaptist perspective, in which justi-
fication is about obedience in faith as well as extrinsic amnesty,
and where the evangelical law does not signal a return to (mere
external) legalism? As we will see, Yoder is concerned with the
constitution of the community that has the obligation to fulfill the
ethical demand and the radical different and concrete nature of
Christian ethics, in contrast with and opposition to general
cultural demands, because here lies the possibility for
Christian ethics to retain its particular character.
In chapter 11 (“Justification by Grace through Faith”) of his
Politics of Jesus, published four years before Keck’s article on
justification in 1972,106 Yoder affirmed the centrality of the
doctrine of justification and the distinctiveness of the Mennonite
emphasis on regeneration and sanctification. He agrees with
what he holds to be the consensus within Anabaptist tradition
as a whole, that there is a “personal character of the
righteousness God imputes to those who believe,”107 apparently
agreeing here with Klaassen’s statement that this Reformed
doctrine was shared by the Anabaptist movement, in conformity
with other contemporary statements which seemed close to the
evangelical-reformed doctrine. Now the Reformation doctrine is
again challenged on the issue of the relationship between
imputed righteousness and ethics, faith and works. What went
“The act of justification or the status of being just or righteous
before God is therefore radically disconnected from any
objective or empirical achievement of goodness by the
This statement is laden with implications. As we will see. (1) it
is precisely this disconnection between the evangelical good
and the moral order that is the primary focus of Leander Keck,
who took this to be the core message of the entire New
See par. § 5. Justification as the definition of the ethical condition for the
discussion of Keck’s article.
J.H. Yoder, Politics, 1994, pp. 212-227.
Testament. At stake here is one of the consequences of the
adoption of justification as the foundational message of the
gospel, i.e., the setting aside of Christ’s ethical teachings as in
a way preparatory for Paul’s gospel. Yoder expressly negates
the dissolution of the moral aspect of the gospel, emphasizing
instead its character as social ethos of the redeemed
community. And furthermore, (2) we find here again the
argument against that Lutheran retreat into inwardness which
made faith into a state of mind rather than a way of life, and a
criterion of good works instead of a prerequisite. The personal
character of the imputation is not to be understood in 16th-
century concepts. So here the notion of contrition and
repentance is reevaluated to signify primarily a rational
awareness of the righteousness of (social) action, especially in
connection with issues of peace and violence. The gospel
ethics is aiming at achieving peace along the path of mediation,
nonviolent resistance and sacrificing love, not the inner peace
of conscience.
As Yoder argues, insistence on justification by grace alone
and by faith alone, “apart from any correlation with works of any
kind,” implies the loss of a radical ethical and social concern.
The ethical tradition that Paul acquired from his contemporaries
is then nothing but a vestige of the old world, destined to fade
away into oblivion. If the real basis of Christian ethics is the
Christian community in which the possibility of acting under
God’s commands is being shown, then there is a ‘moral order’
in this world that defines the context of Christian acts: the
Church. In such a Church, the old order of power politics is
reversed, but it is still a moral order. By reading Paul’s
statements in Galatians and Romans to be primarily about the
”new moral order, i.e., the reality of the Church of Jews and
gentiles, Yoder can retain the concrete meaning and force of
the Christian way of life as separate and distinct.
All of the above statements about what Paul had in mind by
justification of the ungodly have come under fire with the
advent of new scholarship, some of it already available in the
early seventies, but apparently its results were evaluated
differently by Keck and Yoder. Yoder’s remake of classical
Anabaptist polemics is enhanced and deepened by his use of
new exegetical insights into the social dimension of the concept
of righteousness in the New Testament and a new appreciation
of the ecclesiological or political dimension of the gospel, and,
in Yoder’s specific case, very much deepened both by the
doctrine and the experience of the peace witness or non-violent
resistance. Still, even Yoder tries to establish a moderate
position, which, like the majority of Mennonite creeds, does not
stray too far from the central emphasis of mainstream
Protestant (evangelical) Christianity. The gospel is first
interpreted as a social ethics for the present, and only then as a
proclamation of individual salvation as well. The latter,
however, must be taken without the normal stress on
individualism that has become characteristic of the modern
age. which is so deeply determined by the “Introspective
Conscience of the West,” to quote Yoder’s main source: K.
Yoder then asks the question as to whether the righteousness
of God and man is better conceived of as having primarily
social or cosmic dimensions. Righteousness is then not first
and foremost a matter of individual morality, and the moral
order is not the cosmic causal order, ruled over by God, who
rewards every individual good act and punishes every bad act,
over against which Keck sought for a transformation of the
ethical situation of the doer. Yoder is asking here, first of all,
whether the question: Who is doing the good? cannot be
answered better by a reference to a community instead of man
in his individuality. Second, Yoder affirms the general outcome
of studies in Paul by Davies, Sanders, and Dunn, that Paul did
not see the law as a system of duties, or as an instance that
made people know their guilt, but “The law was rather a
gracious arrangement made by God for ordering the life of his
people while they were awaiting the arrival of the Messiah.”108
law makes its opposite more visible, but it is an exaggeration to
say that this was its primary purpose. Knowledge of sin was not
the purpose of the law (as Keck emphasized), but the ordering
of the life of a community in order to realize the good.
In the same line of reasoning that moves away from

Yoder moves a little too fast here by incorporating the Pauline concept of
the law as preparatory (Gal. 4) into his thesis regarding the Jewish
experience of the law. Later on he chides Luther for interpreting the
pedagogos of Gal. 4 as the schoolmaster instead of as tutor, which is a
necessary correction, but the Jewish experience was not that the law kept the
people under restraint until the coming of the Messiah would bring spiritual
freedom. The law itself was freedom! In fact, there was serious debate about
the ongoing function of the law even after the Messiah had come, with some
arguing that the Messiah would restore the Torah to its full force.
individualism, faith can now be understood to be basically the
affirmation of the coming of the Messiah in Jesus of Nazareth.
It is not about a sense of sinfulness and trust in God’s promise
to justify the ungodly, at least not primarily. The subjective
meaning of faith is built upon this core affirmation of the present
Kingdom. Paul did not debate with those who viewed the law
as the means of salvation, since Jewish Christians, and non-
Christian Jews, for that matter, did not believe that in the first
place. Paul did not want to use the law as the schoolmaster
that showed us the judging impact of the righteousness of God
before allowing man to enter into the new covenant, because
the law did not function like that. Paul’s polemics with regard to
the law was solely about the social form of the Church, and the
law was opposed when it was used to form a barrier between
Jews and gentiles.
So what then does justification mean, and how does it relate
to ethics? Following Markus Barth and Hans Werner Bartsch,
Yoder concludes that justification means ”setting things right,”:
between God and man, between Jews and gentiles, bringing
peace to a divided humanity. Justification is aimed at
establishing a new kind of community “where the brokenness of
humankind is set right and where persons who were not born
under the law obey it from the heart.” In that perspective the
law continues to have a function in the live of the believers, as
Keck also argued, but with a completely different function in
Both argued that the relationship to the law was changed. But
Keck sees this difference in the removal of the “moral order” in
which knowledge of the law would lead to doing the good,
implying the right to pass judgment on others and the necessity
of being self-aware in the doing of the law. It is still the
individual in his moral situation who is addressed by
Yoder concentrates on the transformation of the moral order,
i.e., in the breaking down of social barriers and a new
obedience to the law that is of a voluntary nature. We could
conclude that where Keck argues that justification abrogates
the law as a moral system of obedience, Yoder argues that
justification allows us to view the law (God’s righteousness) as

Keck wrote: “Thereby (by his trust in God, RAV) the believer is redeemed
from the curse of the law but not from the law itself.” Sin is redefined to mean:
all that is not out of faith (Rom. 14:23). (Friedrich, Rechtfertigung, p. 208)
moral demand and ordering of life for the new community in
which the social barriers between Jew and gentile are torn
down. Keck argues for the annihilation of any moral order, and
Yoder argues for a radical transformation in the moral order.
The justification that gives us this different way to view the
moral demand is not the abolishment of that demand, , but first
and foremost the changed social situation in which the Torah
functions as guide: the collective nature of the community’s
obedience, the inner preparation for it through celebration and
prayer, the institutions of social solidarity and sharing, and the
key commandment to endure under suffering and love for the
enemy. The differences and the continuity between Yoder’s
approach and that of his 16th-century forebears are obvious.
The rise of 20th-century Biblical scholarship has indeed shed a
different light on Paul’s teachings, far less influenced by the
polemics of the Reformation against medieval Roman Catholic
doctrine and practice.
Krister Stendahl.”110 is quoted by Yoder as one example of a
modern approach to Paul that liberates him from what he
considers the greatest prejudice of the 16th century: the
preoccupation with personal guilt and the axiom that such a
problem must find its solution in the “introspective conscience
of the west
According to Stendahl, Paul did not share this preoccupation,
and neither did the Anabaptists. The anguish of personal guilt
is conspicuously absent from his thought. Neither did Paul
share Luther’s conception of the Torah as law and the origin of
outward legalism. The law was intended to make life possible,
not to lead into condemnation. Law and gospel are not
diametrically opposed in the way that Luther had found and

Krister Stendahl, “The Apostle Paul and the Introspective Conscience of
the West”, Harvard Theological Review, 1963, pp. 199- 215. The main thrust
of his argument is that the polemics against Judaism was interpreted in an
age in which sin and conscience were the leading concepts. The secondary
status of that polemics in Paul was turned into the major thrust of his gospel
by the Reformers. Paul’s theological program is more that of salvation history
and is concerned with communities, not so much with individuals. Cf. also E.
Käsemann, Paulinische Perspektiven, Tübingen, 1972, pp. 108-139.
Käsemann defends the thesis that the doctrine of justification builds the core
essence of the NewTestament, though it should be understood as being
about God’s kingdom and not about personal guilt (ibid, p. 133). “Die
Rechtfertigung bleibt jedoch Mitte, Anfang und Ende der Heilsgeschichte.”
(ibid, p. 135)
experienced in his own life.
Furthermore, faith to Paul was not the triad of knowledge
(notitia), assent (assensus), and trust (fiducia) that Protestant
Scholastics made it out to be, but the affirmation and practical
acceptance of a specific content: that Jesus was the Messiah
sent by the God of Israel to open the covenant to gentiles.
This affirmation of Christ’s Lordship, as expressed so
concisely in Peter’s confession in Matthew16, provided the
basis of the subjective meaning of faith that was its
consequence. So faith was first of all a matter of obedience,
insofar as it meant accepting the One whom God had sent as
His final self-disclosure, which had as its first consequence the
emergence of a community of faith that transcended the
boundaries between Jew and gentile (Yoder, 1994, 216).
The main issue now in Paul’s rendition of the gospel was his
insight that with the coming of the Messiah the covenant with
Israel was expanded to include gentiles as well. The Church
was to be the social community that embraced both Jew and
gentile. Though their relationship to Israel’s Torah was to
remain different, the basis of their respective relationship to
God was to be the same: Christ’s person and work.
Redemption was a reality within the believing community, and
not an inward state of mind in the individual believer. This
believing community was not a universal sum of individual
believers, but a particular community that was determined by a
specific salvation history and historic mission. Its historic basis
was the reconciliation of Jew and gentile, the breaking down of
their social barriers and the institution of peace between them.
There was now only one humanity, created after the pattern of
Christ as the New Adam. Social distinctions such as those
between master and slave, man and woman, Jew and gentile,
and holy and profane had lost their ordering function. According
to Eph. 2:11-26, one might argue that this meaning of
reconciliation is interlocked with reconciliation to God. So also
can the “justification by faith” in Gal. 2:14f and the notion of the
“new creature” in 2 Cor. 5:17 be read as referring to a change
in the social structure of mankind as well as to a transformation
of individual men and women. Justification in Galatians, then,
means essentially the same as the “making of peace” in
Ephesians. The “new creature” of 2 Corinthians then refers
primarily to a renewed humanity, not a reborn individual.111

By reading 2 Cor. 5:17 as: If anyone be in Christ: a new creation. or: If
From such a redefinition of the social dimension of the
concept of justification we can more easily make the step
towards the problem of (social) ethics. Yoder stresses that Paul
means by that concept: the coming into being of a “new
community where the brokenness of humankind is set right.”
And this ”setting right” is the better understanding of the biblical
concept of justification. The result of it is “that persons who are
not born under the law obey it from the heart.” That means that
Jesus’ gospel is not preparatory, is not meant to radicalize the
demand of the law to such an extent that man is convinced he
is unable to obey it. On the contrary: Jesus’ ethics is precisely
the way of life of such a redeemed community that is able to
show through its works that “reconciliation is a real experience.”
Paul’s position and that of Christ are then perfectly in harmony,
and thus we avoid one of the first consequences of the
doctrine of justification, that we need to separate between
Jesus’ radicalized teachings on the law and Paul’s preaching of
Grace beyond the law.
If justification is in principle about God ”setting things right”,
primarily social, but also individual, then the center of the
gospel is the Church itself, as a community that realizes the
unity of mankind under the sovereignty of God. This “unity of
mankind” has an important ethical consequence, which Yoder
states as follows:
“But it is par excellence with reference to enmity between
peoples, the extension of neighbor-love to the enemy and the
renunciation of violence even in the most righteous cause, that
this promise takes on flesh in the most original, the most
authentic, the most frightening and scandalous, and therefore
in the most evangelical way.”112
The Church’s position and way of life with regard to this vital
element of social ethics, i.e., love for the enemy, then becomes
the visible consequence of the reality of justification by faith.
Here righteousness, acquired by faith, worked out in faith, lived
in faith, becomes a practical experience. What we have is
discipleship, Nachfolge, not a metaphysical drama felt in our

anyone is in Christ, new is creation. Instead of the older translation which add
the personal pronoun: if anyone be in Christ, [he is] a new creature. Yoder
gives as his basic argument that ktisis ordinarily does not mean creature, but
the whole of creation, e.g., in Mark. 16:15; Col. 1:15, 24; Rom. 8:19-22; Heb.
J.H. Yoder, Politics of Jesus, (1972), p. 231.
inner being. Paul’s theology, if read like this, actually becomes
a cornerstone of the ethics of Jesus, supporting it, instead of
relegating it to a preparatory stage. It is Jesus’ ethics, whether
it be applied to marriage, labour, or the prohibitions of
falsehood and slavery, that is seen at work in an unbroken and
undivided humanity, is part of the “promise of a new humanity
enabled and created by God.”
With regard to ethics, Yoder’s insistence on the
ecclesiological dimension of justification not only brings in an
emphasis on social virtues, but it also gives him a basis for
changing the shape of ethics itself. That can be seen from a
brief inventory of themes in one of Yoder’s major lectures:
“Why Ecclesiology is Social Ethics.”113 Jesus’ ethics is now not
received as part of secular ethics, involving a standard that can
only be met up to a certain level. The realism that permeates
Christian ethics in our times, in which we tend to negotiate
about the level of obedience which can still be considered
practical, now falls away. If it is the community that the demand
addresses, its radical nature can be maintained. The Church
must be the place that celebrates the victory of God over the
powers of sin and death, and in doing so it prepares its
members to act in conformity with the gospel of non-resistance
and love for the enemy.
If that is so, the Church’s praxis is a school for a changed
type of humanity. The absolute demands of the Sermon on the
Mount become a feasible option as soon as we discard the
severity that would confront a lonely individual trying to abide
by it. Only if the Church can be such a place of learning and
celebration of the new spirituality can it help individuals to
dispense with the utilitarianism and realism that most often
obstructs their practical obedience to the gospel. To accept
non-resistance without the help of a community, to practice
sharing of bread and money without the implicit solidarity of a
community that aids me when I am in financial distress,
weakens the practical possibilities of compliance. The
community of Christians that celebrates the victory of Christ not
only removes the social barriers between Jew and gentile,
friend and foe, but it reaches out toward humanity as the first
fruits of the kingdom of God. It is in itself the beginning of what
is to come, it is the redeemed community. Justification, as a

J.H. Yoder, Royal Priesthood, pp. 102- 127. The lecture was delivered in
1980 at Princeton University.
part of that, expresses the condition of this ecclesiological
reality, defining the basic situation in which Christian ethics is
strictly defined as Discipleship, in opposition both to the realist
and the utopian of this world.
Yoder makes it clear that he intended to correct the one-
sidedness with which justification was understood only as a
subjective experience based on Christ’s sacrificial death, and
not also as a social ethic based on the institution of a justified,
redeemed community. In other words, the model of atonement
that he favors is not that of Anselm’s satisfaction theory, nor
Abelard’s moral influence theory, but more that of the Christus
Victor motif in a new version. If Christ is already King, this world
will fade away, and acting in conformity with Christ’s life and
self-surrender and in obedience to his word is the expression of
that victory on the stage of world history. Christian ethics is the
social ethics of the Church as the one specific and separate
community amongst the families of humanity that already
shows the signs of the coming Kingdom.
Not only does Yoder confront the individualistic nature of the
classic interpretation of justification; he also denies the liberal
assertion that the doctrine is a religious way of stating that man
is good. In the eyes of Lutherans, Yoder’s view that it is
possible, though in a fragmented and imperfect manner, to do
the will of God, must seem Pelagianist. But Pelagius affirmed
the possibility of doing good as something innate in man,
untouched by the fall. Yoder is arguing that the experience of
the outpouring of the Spirit makes obedience possible. This
claim can be made based on the Christological statement that
the Spirit of Christ dwells in the Church (and not the inner self,
as we discussed above). And only on the basis of a faith that
breaks away with all trust in the humanly possible is Christian
ethics also an obedience to the Christ of scripture. In Yoder’s
“The ethical content, the concrete decisions which obedience
calls for, were different [between Anabaptists and the
magisterial Reformers – RAV]. The good works, which testify
spontaneously to the faith of the Lutherans, of the ethic of
gratitude of the Calvinist, found their content in the orders of
creation and preservation, with socially conservative implica-
tions, supporting the existing governments, economic institu-
tions, the patriarchal family, etc. While the faith to which Sattler
calls his readers finds its criteria in the example and the
instructions of Jesus, with effects that if not directly
revolutionary (because they are non-violent) had to be
nonconformist. He rejected the Sword, the Oath and the state
Church. What I propose to call “the nomic element” is therefore
epistemologically more important than in the other traditions,
since for them the need is only to motivate an ethic of social
conformity, whereas the Anabaptists’ ethic must both motivate
and inform a costly counter-cultural life style.”114
Sattler’s solution is not a form of legalism that makes
obedience the precondition of salvation, but it is a way of
thinking that finds ‘Biblical prescriptiveness’ to be in conformity
with the nature of redemption. No freedom that was merely
expressed in the form of a general commandment to love one’s
neighbour could suffice in finding the exact will of God to be
obeyed by the community of the faithful.
In various ways justification and sanctification have been con-
nected throughout the history of Protestant theology. There is a
sanctification that follows extrinsic justification according to the
Reformed pattern. There is a justification that enables man to
sanctify himself in the Catholic pattern of thought. In addition,
there is finally a Mennonite pattern: justification and
sanctification are both combined into one experience of faith
that is effective in the concrete obedience of a community to
the divine commandments.

J.H. Yoder, unpublished paper, presented to a seminar of Jewish and
Christian theologians, in Buenos Aires, Nov. 18, 1970 under the title: “The
Forms of a Possible Obedience.”
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