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The Rev. Dr. John R. Stephenson on The Last Judgment; a.k.a., “It’s a-boot time someone wrote clearly about this!”

Rev. Dr. John R. Stephenson, the coolest Canadian Lutheran ever.

From Vol. XIII of Confessional Lutheran Dogmatics, Robert Preus, ed., Eschatology, p.108-109:

“The appropriateness of the Incarnate Lord’s exercising the office of judge, in which the Father and the Holy Spirit are most intimately united with Him, is discerned when we bear in mind that the criterion determining the destiny of each man is his acceptance or rejection of the person and work of Jesus Christ. While judgment is based on man’s response to the Word of God as such — ‘Blessed…are those who hear the word of God and keep it’ (Lk 11:28) — its outcome depends entirely on whether this response takes place according to Law or Gospel.

“Those incorporated into Christ escape judgment according to the Law, since they have been delivered from the Law’s universal condemnation through their faith in the vicarious atonement wrought in Jesus’ blood (Jn 5:24; Rom 8:1, 31-34). The confessed and absolved evil deeds of believers do not figure into their judgment, for they have long since dropped into the chasm of divine forgetfulness (Ps 103:12). Salvation is not determined by the degree of inherent righteousness which the believer has attained in the course of his struggle to live a sanctified life, but by his clinging to the external righteousness of Christ, apprehended by faith. This is not to say that the faith which lays hold of Christ can exist for a moment without its being the fount of all manner of good works (Mt 25:35f.; Jas 2:18-26), even if these good works, as in the case of the penitent thief, consist of nothing more than patient acceptance of merited punishment. The Christian as Christian does not fear the particular judgment that he will undergo at death and which will be made public on the Last Day. While the volume of good works performed in the state of grace will determine the degree of glory conferred on each member of the mystical body, the person of the Christian faces no danger at judgment, since, through the means of grace, the absolution pronounced on the world by the Father at the resurrection of Jesus has become effectually his.

“Those who are not incorporated into Christ face judgment according to the Law, whose works will justify no man (Ps 143:2; Rom 3:20). The reason unbelievers will be dealt with according to the Law is that their unbelief renders the Gospel inoperative in their case. The proclamation that excuses believers accuses those who consciously reject it (Jn 12:48). Christ’s bringing to light the hidden truth concerning each man (1 Cor 4:5) will disclose the tragedy that the unbeliever is under condemnation (Jn 3:18), so that ‘the wrath of God rests upon him’ (Jn 3:36). Our Lord’s clear words permit no doubt with respect to the fate of those persons who hear the Gospel in this life and reject its offer of God’s mercy in Him: ‘Whoever denies me before men, I also will deny before my Father who is in heaven’ (Mt 10:33; see also Mk 8:38; Lk 9:26; 2 Tm 2:12).”

 

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5 Responses to The Rev. Dr. John R. Stephenson on The Last Judgment; a.k.a., “It’s a-boot time someone wrote clearly about this!”

  1. This is an abundantly clear application of law and gospel; it leaves no honest question unanswered, and gives grace to the “hearer.”

  2. Thank you for posting this, Trent. It is certainly true that the Law wags the finger of condemnation universally, even at the saints. Yet the saints will receive mercy at judgement “through their faith in the vicarious atonement wrought in Jesus’ blood.”

    Some clarification on small points, however, would be good. I expect my confusion concerning the effectiveness of Christ’s death on the cross comes from Calvinistic influences in my past, influences which I am beginning to see more and more clearly as I study.

    Reverend Stephenson says in this passage, “the person of the Christian faces no danger at judgment, since, through the means of grace, the absolution pronounced on the world by the Father at the resurrection of Jesus has become effectually his.” To me, this is an unfamiliar perspective of what actually happened at the resurrection, that absolution was pronounced on the world. True absolution is available only through faith in Christ. Or I have misunderstood the theological nuance of ‘absolution’ all these years? Is not absolution the cleaning of the slate, so to speak, through which Christ’s righteousness is added to the sinner’s account, and the sinner’s sins are no remembered no more? (Am I niggling?) I understand atonement to be only applied to believers, once they have received the gift of faith. (Not yet sure how the redemption of creation fits into this discussion, but let us not muddy the waters with that yet.)

    Another statement arrested me, perhaps because of the same misunderstanding: “The reason unbelievers will be dealt with according to the Law is that their unbelief renders the Gospel inoperative in their case.” This seems to suggest that the Gospel is universally applied, just like the condemnation of the Law, and that unbelief nullifies the application of the Gospel to the sinner, much in the same way that faith nullifies the condemnation of the Law. Again, the universal application of the Gospel in this way is foreign to me. Now, I know Lutherans like their paradox. Case in point? Is this what Lutherans mean by that oft-heard phrase “Law and Gospel”?

    So, the question at hand is this: do Lutherans believe that the Gospel / atonement is applied universally? Being raised Baptist (essentially), I was not expecting the Calvinistic doctrine of Limited Atonement to jump out of the woodwork like that, but it just sort of happened…

    • Hello Alex,

      I’m glad that you found Emperor Palpatine’s ratiocinations thought-provoking ;)

      I am but a layman, but I will do my best to explain what the good Rev. Dr. is saying in the instances you mention.

      Reverend Stephenson says in this passage, “the person of the Christian faces no danger at judgment, since, through the means of grace, the absolution pronounced on the world by the Father at the resurrection of Jesus has become effectually his.” To me, this is an unfamiliar perspective of what actually happened at the resurrection, that absolution was pronounced on the world.

      This is getting at what Lutherans would call “Objective Justification”; or, rather, this illuminates what Lutherans (though not exclusively Lutherans) would contend is the objective aspect of justification. Whose sins did Christ atone for, expiate, do away with, etc., when He was crucified and resurrected? The sins of the whole world. Your sins were atoned for even if you never believe it. This is why you can affirmatively tell someone, without knowing whether they are a Christian, “Christ died for you/Christ atoned for your sins with his death and resurrection,” etc. It’s not, “Christ will have died for you if you believe that he did/if you repent.” Nooooo. The Law bids us repent; the Gospel is unmitigated good news. What’s the good news? Your warfare is ended. Your sins are done away with. Heaven is open to you. Believe it, because it’s true. It’s true whether or not you believe it.

      True absolution is available only through faith in Christ. Or I have misunderstood the theological nuance of ‘absolution’ all these years? Is not absolution the cleaning of the slate, so to speak, through which Christ’s righteousness is added to the sinner’s account, and the sinner’s sins are remembered no more? (Am I niggling?) I understand atonement to be only applied to believers, once they have received the gift of faith. (Not yet sure how the redemption of creation fits into this discussion, but let us not muddy the waters with that yet.

      Here you quite correctly note that if the fact of the atonement (and it is a fact in the true sense of the word — something done or made, factum est) is not applied to the individual, it’s useless. So, yes, we would say that justification has a subjective component as well, i.e., it must be applied to you personally and individually. And how is it applied? Through faith, which is to say, through the trust which takes God at His Word and believes what He has promised. God says to you, “Your sins have been forgiven.” You, by faith, say, “Amen.” If you cannot say “Amen” to what God says, then what can you affirm? Nothing. And if you can’t, is God then a liar? No. Your sins are forgiven; you just don’t believe it. This is a problem because to die in unbelief is to blaspheme the Holy Spirit — and you will recognize that blasphemy of the Holy Spirit is the only unforgivable sin. Why? Because it’s the rejection of the forgiveness of sins…and its commission is only made final in death. So, how do you forgive that? Well, God…can’t.

      So, yes, there’s a generous bit of paradoxy there. But I do believe it’s true. With that said, a better and more authoritative explanation of “Objective Justification” by the Rev. Rolf Preus can be found here. I highly recommend it.

      Would love to talk more about it. Let me know what you think.

    • Here’s a great little essay by Dr. Norman Nagel that you might also enjoy.

  3. Thank you for the explanation. Your comments, combined with Rev. Preus’s article, have made more sense of the matter.

    I suppose I never thought of atonement in that way, but it makes good sense. It’s always funny to me, the little theological and intellectual connections that we miss for years until some conversation or event brings it to light. I am not sold on Limited Atonement, and for a moment I thought I was unintentionally being drawn into it. But Christ died for all, and (the piece I missed) that death is the world’s atonement. He atoned for the sins of the world, and dividing atonement into the categories of universal and individual, or objective and subjective, explains how he could die for the sins of the world, yet not actually cover the sins of the ungodly. If Christ died for the sins of the world, then he bore the sins of the world, and therefore made atonement for the sins of the world. He is the “Lamb of God that taketh away the sins of the world.”

    So then the second part of my comment is true, that there is simultaneously a universal condemnation by the Law and a universal justification by Christ’s resurrection. I have never considered man’s state that way before, but it is the logical conclusion of what I was raised to believe. Atonement was made for all men, and that fact of atonement can be true apart from the fact of belief. How beautiful.

    So then, what of reconciliation? In light of this discussion, I would like to say: He did not merely make reconciliation between God and man possible; he in fact reconciled man to God. But that is not altogether true for the unbelieving man who finds himself before the judgement seat. Can we apply the same differentiating tool to reconciliation as to justification? So: Christ reconciled all men to himself; yet not all men are subjectively reconciled, for which purpose Christ gave us the ministry of reconciliation. II Corinthians 5:18-20 seems to be saying so.

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