Contrasting Unconditional and Conditional Salvation in Luther and Romans 7

Is Christ meeting the condition of the law or creating new conditions? Is human knowledge and insight the condition through which God is apprehended, or does Christ exceed and challenge the condition of human knowing, serving as an alternative ground of knowing? How we answer these two key questions is determinate of our understanding of Christianity and the world, providing two alternative foundations and two opposed forms of the faith (conditionalim or unconditionalism). In the former, the law (either the Jewish law or natural law) is the precursor to understanding Christ and in the latter, Christ is the means of understanding the law. In both instances, the law is inclusive of Judaism, the Old Testament and natural law (inclusive of human understanding and knowing). So, in reality, the two questions boil down to one question, concerning the foundation for reading scripture and understanding the human condition, the world and God. The conditional form of justification by faith (hereafter, also called justification theory) presumes that faith is the condition that meets the requirements of the law and satisfies human recognition (knowledge) of failure to meet these requirements (thus preparing for justification), while the unconditional form of justification by faith presumes that faith, justification and Christ are not conditioned by anything, but are themselves the beginning and end, the condition and goal. Conditionalism and unconditionalism are opposites, and yet they often are melded together in both theology and biblical exegesis, as if one can hold both positions at once. As a result the unconditional good news has been obscured, as its implications for every area of theology have often not been acknowledged.

The problem in sorting out systems or individuals who may teach conditionalism or unconditionalism, is that the two systems most often exist together in much of Christian understanding. For example, Martin Luther attempts to set theology on new ground through his justification by faith, in which faith is not a work of the law. Faith replaces what he perceived as the law-driven, works-righteousness, of Roman Catholicism and Judaism, but the problem is he does not clearly delineate a system in which faith surpasses the conditionalism of the law. While we might credit both Luther and Calvin with attempting to articulate an unconditional salvation, Luther’s justification theory is responsible for releasing justification theory into the interpretive tradition and thus making faith itself the condition. In the modern period, justification theory (conditional salvation, with all this entails) will become the predominant form of the Protestant faith if not the shaping force in modern culture, philosophy and society (to say nothing of biblical interpretation). While it may have been Luther’s intent to describe an unconditional gospel, what results is confusion and contradiction in which this intent is obscured.

For example, in his commentary on Romans (hereafter, LLR) Luther maintains, “faith must be there to ratify the promise, and the promise needs the faith on the part of him to whom it is given.”[1] God gives the gift of righteousness, but it must be grasped by faith. Luther provides the example of a patient who can only be healed by a doctor if the patient acknowledges his sickness (LLR, 69). In other words, as in justification theory, the patient or the sinner recognizes his sin before an omnipotent and righteous God, and recognizes he has broken the law, and therefore is prepared to receive the treatment of coming to faith. As he states it in The Proceedings at Augsburg: “it is clearly necessary that a man must believe with firm faith that he is justified and in no way doubt that he will obtain grace. For if he doubts and is uncertain, he is not justified but rejects grace.… [T]he justification and life of the righteous person are dependent upon his faith.”[2] Not just any faith, or partial faith will do, but an intense faith free of doubt is necessary. Any hint of doubt means he is not justified, and more than this, it means he has rejected grace. Uncertain faith sounds a lot like a condition, which like the law, may leave a person not only uncertain of his status but despairing of his ability to attain it. In this understanding, faith is intangible, and dependent upon the individual to conjure up and to block out all questions giving rise to uncertainty.

This condition might drive one to despair. At least the law provides a tangible, objective criterion, but this faith condition occurs completely within the individual. Luther acknowledges that one must despair of their ability to keep the law, but the question arises if the condition of faith now calls upon the individual to exercise the very power he proved incapable of under the law. In justification theory, the sinner has the requisite knowledge of God, sin and the law, to be driven to faith so as to relieve the pressure of the law, but faith seems to exercise its own sort of pressure. Faith is not itself the righteousness or ability but the condition that precedes and enables it.

Douglas Campbell provides extensive examples of Luther’s picture of faith as the condition for salvation, but then provides examples from Luther of the opposite – unconditional faith. Again, in his commentary on Romans, Luther pictures faith more as a gift than an accomplishment: “We must understand that this doing or not doing must be freely accomplished by the love of God with all one’s heart and not from a slavish fear of punishment or from a childish desire for advantage, and that this is impossible without the love that is shed abroad by the Holy Spirit.”[3] Luther concludes, “it follows irrefutably: one does not become a son of God and an heir of the promise by descent but by the gracious election of God”[4]; and further states that “[a] man owes his ability to will and to run, not to his own power, but to the mercy of God who gave him this power to will and to run. Without it, man could neither will nor run.”[5] Campbell notes that some Finnish Lutherans picture Luther as affirming apocatastasis or deification (participation). “The Finns argue vigorously that Luther’s justification language and argumentation presuppose this more fundamental, intimate, participatory, and even deificatory stratum.”[6] Campbell concedes that this language is present in Luther, but concludes that this is because Luther is ultimately contradictory.

He then demonstrates the same contradiction in Calvin and Augustine. Luther’s justification by faith has injected this contradiction into much of the Christian world, but Campbell’s point is that this confusion has a long lineage, and to arrive at a consistent understanding will require an examination of the implied anthropology, epistemology, and theology, of conditionalism and unconditionalism, demonstrating they are opposites and cannot be melded. Where they are melded, the implications of the unconditional gospel are lost. Exegesis alone will not accomplish the task, as either one will unwittingly hold to both positions or bend passages toward justification theory. A comparison of the two systems and demonstrating the difference will show the inconsistency of trying to do both, and will recover the full implications of the unconditional gospel. On the other hand, each of the two systems tend to rely on particular passages which seem to teach justification or those passages which teach the opposite. We might, for example, take Romans as our primary text and read according to conditionalism or unconditionalism.

Portions of Romans might seem to be teaching conditionalism (maybe chapters 1-4) and unconditionalism (5, 6, and 8), while chapter 7 would be the place these two systems collide and the contention is brought out, with the conditionalists reading 7:7-25 as the typical struggle with sin in all people leading to conversion (or describing the continued Christian struggle with sin), and the unconditionalists reading it as a depiction of the deception regarding the law binding all people in a futile bondage. In the former, 7-25 is describing what one is delivered to (either as a Christian or a Christian in process) and the latter reads the struggle and deception of Romans 7 as what one is delivered from. The contrasting epistemology, anthropology, doctrine of revelation, theology (doctrine of God), Christology and atonement, drawn from this chapter, bring out the differences and demonstrates the impossibility of doing both.

Epistemology

In terms of epistemology, justification theory reads Romans 7 as evidencing full awareness of God and the law and one’s incapacity to keep the law. The passage (from 7-25) depicts a dawning awareness, concluding with the desperate cry of faith in verses 24-25. Justification theory requires a correct understanding of God, the law, and the self in light of the law, and this serves as the launching pad for faith, thus the passage is read to demonstrate this case.

The unconditionalist notices that the movement of 7-25 is not one of freedom of thought (dawning realization) but depiction of a growing incapacity and enslavement, giving rise to death. Whatever death Paul might have in mind here, it is probably not appropriate to equate death and freedom (the passage is inclusive of both thought and will). The infection of death has taken up residence in every part of this person: “For I do not understand my own actions” (v. 15). Only retrospectively, in light of Christ, does understanding occur. This understanding does not allow for the optimism surrounding human knowing found in justification theory.

Anthropology

The inherent anthropology connected with justification theory pictures the person as sufficient ground, in that rational human capacity and ethical insight are required as the first stage in conditionalism. Sin may darken the mind, but this occurs primarily in regard to the final stage. Prior to that, everyone is thought to reason their way to desperation and depression regarding God, the law, and their interior state. For the conditionalist, 7-25 seems to be a perfect example of the introspective conscience of all human beings. They have correct information about God, the world and the law, and for this reason they know the good, yet the are unable to carry through and do it: “For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate” (7:15, ESV).[7] Here is the self-loathing and depression sufficient to deliver to faith and salvation. The trajectory is forward looking, presuming that these are the valid premises, the right sort of knowledge, the correct understanding of the law, to reach the correct conclusion.

The unconditionalist presumes 7-25 is a retrospective view from a Christian point of view, not of the correct premises and conclusion reached prior to meeting Christ, but of the one who is deceived and in bondage. The passage details what its like to be controlled by “the flesh” (vv. 5,14) and, as in Adam, what it is like to be subject to death and desire (vv. 7-8). This corrupted and deceived person is unaware of what has gripped him. Only one who is a Christian can look back on his former manner of life and understand the inherent deception and bondage of his former condition. He could not have known this consciously or introspectively, as this individual is spiritually dead: “For sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment, deceived me and through it killed me” (7:11). Paul states it even more sharply in chapter 8: “For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot” (8:7).

Where justification theory may read this as Paul’s pre-Christian consciousness and experience or even his continued Christian experience (a true account of his psychology), unconditionalism regards this as an account of his actual existence, but due to deception it is an account he was not conscious of at the time. Philippians 3:6 may be a more accurate representation of Paul’s pre-Christian consciousness, where he imagines, as a Pharisee, he is sin free and perfect in regard to the law. Romans 7 may be his true report on Philippians 3, as Paul will acknowledge he was the chief of sinners and did not know it at the time. Only retrospectively, from the viewpoint of salvation, can he write Romans 7, as he did not know what sin was or the nature of his bondage apart from salvation. Only in light of salvation is the deceptive work of the flesh revealed. In this understanding Christ rescues and redeems humankind from a lie that is not exposed apart from the truth of who he is.

Revelation

This entails two very different accounts of revelation, with conditionalism presuming Christian revelation primarily informs about the final stage of the human condition and does not function in regard to the law (in the initial stage). The law (either natural law or Jewish law) is a primary source of information in recognizing Christ, providing the conditions he would fulfill and the means of understanding his work. The law tells of the problem, which Christ answers. Israel, the Temple, and the Jewish system, form a coherent system, which apart from Israel’s failure, was inherently adequate. If the Jews had kept the law of their scriptures and Gentiles had kept the law written on their heart, the incarnation would not have been necessary.

Unconditionalism equates revelation in Christ with salvation, in that the previous bondage did not allow for right thinking in regard to the law. Where conditionalism presumes to read the Bible and history in an unfolding chronology, with revelation culminating in Christ, unconditionalism presumes that it is only from a retrospective view provided through the truth of Christ that creation, the law, the Old Testament, and Israel can be rightly understood. Now we understand, as portrayed in Romans 8 (a singular example of a New Testament theme), that Jesus Christ reveals, sums up, and concludes creations purposes.

In brief, in conditionalism, the law is the condition which Christ adheres to, affirms, and satisfies. The particulars of this condition (a particular understanding of Israel, the law, and the human condition) are required. Unconditionalism does not predict the necessary singular condition of Israel (Judaism may in fact be any number of things, as we know from the New Testament, it is) and the law (which may be any number of things which serve in place of God). Jesus is the determining factor in understanding the human condition, Israel, and the law.

Theology

Though God makes no appearance in verses 7-24, the conditionalist is not bothered by the impersonalism and focus on the law, as this is assumed to function like God. Where the unconditionalist might suspect it is sin that is oppressing and punishing, the conditionalist attributes this directly to God and his retributive nature. In justification theory, God functions like (or in and through) a retributive legal system, oppressing and punishing, and thus moving people along to faith (or not). The motive is both fear and oppression, and these are not incorrect but accurate perceptions of God. God’s impugned honor or anger is the central fact about God, at least in stage one of justification theory. Thus 7-24, though it is missing God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit (which will be the focus in chapter 8), these verses are thought to provide a right depiction of God. The oppression, which Paul describes as being delivered from in chapter 8, is the oppression of God, with God equated with the law.

The unconditionalist notes that this oppression and punishment do not flow from God, but from sin, the misorientation to the law, and the inherent weight of deception. God, prayer, hope, Christ, and the Holy Spirit make no appearance because this person only knows of law and chronic suffering and oppression, due to the deception of sin. This is the deception and bondage Christ exposes and delivers from, and thus we learn of God’s unstoppable love (8:35 ff). God is love and cannot be equated with death (or the law of sin and death), but the fear of death may be mistaken for a fear of God due to sin. Christ does not confirm this picture of the law or this understanding of God, but delivers from this inherently punishing conception and situation: “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death” (Ro 8:1–2). The condemnation has just been described in 7-25 as flowing from sin, deception and death – or as Paul calls it, “the law of sin and death.” God cannot be equated with this law, and where he is, it must be due to the lie of sin.  

Christ and the Atonement

Conditionalists read 7-25 as the anteroom to understanding the work of Christ. Since this is taken as an accurate depiction of God, Christ takes the oppression of sin upon himself. He might be said to be the sinner, and feel the same burdensome weight as described in these verses.

The unconditionalist argues that Christ does not suffer with an introspective conscience nor does he become subject to the particular suffering detailed in 7-25. This is the suffering of the first Adam (with continual allusions to Genesis 3), but Paul has pictured Christ as the 2nd Adam who has defeated these evil forces plaguing humanity (chapter 5). There is a different form of suffering detailed in chapter 8, which depicts the suffering of Christ and the suffering of the Christian, but as in the death of Christ this is not God torturing Jesus, but sinful humanity meting out their vengeful, retributive justice (8:35-36). Christ does not fulfill and confirm this retributive justice, but delivers from it. The retributive system, and not the Father, kill him but this is the retribution of sinful men. Christ defeats retribution, revenge and violence by not responding with force, violence, or retribution, but by submitting to these forces and humbly dying on a cross. Through Christ’s resurrection life the reign of death, violence and retribution have been defeated and displaced. So, Jesus did not die to bear retributive punishment, but through his death he defeats the sinful need for retribution and thus displaces this system entirely.

Retribution is not the condition Christ completes, but that which he overthrew. The law does not enlighten, as it only bears fruit for death (7:5). “But now we are released from the law, having died to that which held us captive, so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit and not in the old way of the written code” (7:6). The written code was not God’s means of reign or rule, but describes the means through which sin and death reign. Christ has displaced this rule, and has not confirmed and extended it. “Therefore, as one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men. For as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous” (Rom. 5:18–19). The universality of fall and redemption is not dependent upon individual conscience, human knowing, or natural understanding of God and law. The entire movement is framed around Christ and his rescue from enslavement to sin and death. One does not get to Romans 8 by means of 7-25 but by defeat of this condition. This is the meaning of the atonement.

Conclusion

The two accounts focus on very different aspects of the problem, with conditionalists noting that it is the law that gives rise to Paul’s problem, and unconditionalists conceding that the law is part of the focus, but in particular it is deception and sin in regard to the law. The reality of the human problem may be perceived to revolve around the law, but this perception itself, in Paul’s description may miss how it is that sin has deceived in regard to the law. This deception is not a general incapacity but a specific failure, which holds all of humanity and creation in a bondage Paul describes as futility. If Paul is thinking of Genesis, it is not that the law is particularly problematic, but the presumption that the law itself (through transgression or the knowledge of good and evil) is the means of access to God. It is made determinate – the gateway to life – which is what justification pictures but which Paul connects to a lie. “Did that which is good, then, bring death to me? By no means! It was sin, producing death in me through what is good” (Rom. 7:13). Both systems agree sin is the problem, but conditionalists focus on the law and picture the knowledge surrounding the law as trustworthy (with Christ confirming this), and unconditionalists focus on deception in regard to the law and Christ’s defeat of the power of sin and death. Conditionalism relegates the work of Christ to a clean-up operation involved in the final stage of salvation, with human knowledge serving as an initial adequate ground, and Christ serving to satisfy God’s retributive justice. Unconditionalism displaces the lie surrounding God (his supposed angry retribution exposed as a lie displaced by love). The unconditional gospel also exposes the lie surrounding human knowing and anthropology, as man cannot serve as his own foundation for knowing and being. Conditionalism is individualistic and tends to picture salvation as a legal fiction, which may leave one in the same reality before and after salvation (with Romans 71-25 seen as possibly describing the typical Christian). The key import of the work of Christ in this understanding, is to avoid God’s anger, primarily in regard to hell and to go to heaven. The focus is not universal and cosmic but individual, legal, and pertaining primarily to the future. Unconditionalism pictures a universal or cosmic salvation, with Christ as the center of revelation and salvation (unfolding both backward and forward). Jesus Christ is the completion of creation’s purpose, and the ground of human knowing.

In this short space the ramifications for ethics, church, and real world salvation have not been filled out, but the implications may be evident: there are two forms of the faith that need to be clearly delineated so that the fulness of the unconditional good news of the gospel is not diluted with that which is no gospel at all.

(Sign up for our next class, Romans: Salvation through the Body of Christ A theological study of the faithfulness of God revealed in Christ Jesus as articulated in Paul’s letter to the Romans. Focusing on Paul’s exposition of God making the world right through Christ. Starting September 4th https://pbi.forgingploughshares.org/offerings


[1] All references in what follows are to Wilhelm Pauck, ed., Luther: Lectures on Romans, LCC 15 (London: SCM, 1961), lxvi. Cited in Douglas Campbell, The Deliverance of God: An Apocalyptic Rereading of Justification in Paul (p. 251). Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.. Kindle Edition.

[2] See Luther’s Works, 55 vols. (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, & Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1957–), 31:25–26—hereafter LW. The Proceedings at Augsburg (31:259–92). Cited in Campbell, 253.

[3] LLR, 197, Campbell, 266.

[4] LLR, 266, commenting on 9:6. Campbell, 267.

[5] LLR, 269, commenting on 9:16 and citing immediately Phil. 2:13 in support. Campbell, 267.

[6] Campbell, 265.

[7] Quotations will be from the English Standard Version unless otherwise indicated.


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Author: Paul Axton

Paul V. Axton spent 30 years in higher education teaching theology, philosophy, and Bible. Paul’s Ph.D. work and book bring together biblical and psychoanalytic understandings of peace and the blog, podcast, and PBI are shaped by this emphasis.

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