Category Archives: Regin Prenter

Total Man, Total Christ, Total Death, Total Life

If we are not led by the Spirit into the kingdom of Christ then we are eo ipso in the kingdom of Satan, and then one’s whole empirical piety is nothing other than condemned works of the law. Man is flesh, and in the flesh there is nothing which is not judged. The righteousness which counts before God is not man’s real piety but Christ’s alien righteousness. The new man which is born anew by water and the Spirit is that man who in faith takes refuge in Christ. It is not the converted man in his empirical piety.

But simultaneously the older Luther also speaks just as strongly as the younger Luther about a progress in sanctification, a constant struggle against sin, as an increasing cleansing and expulsion of sin. The growth of this sanctification is the Spirit’s work. The man who by faith in Christ is Spirit, is simultaneously flesh by virtue of his self. And that is as totus homo. The old man, the flesh, is not merely the “lower” part of man (the real self minus the empirical piety); but it is man in his totality. The struggle in man is therefore not a struggle between a higher and lower part of man’s nature, but between man’s real self and the Spirit of God. Therefore, that which the struggle is against is our total real self, and that which fights it is the Spirit. Thus the two apparent contradictory sentences from 1 John are both true: “No one born of God makes a practice of sinning, for God’s seed abides in him, and he cannot keep on sinning because he has been born of God” (1 John 3:9). “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us” (1 John 1:8). There will always be a real self for the Spirit to fight no matter how pious it might otherwise be. Christ’s alien righteousness, to which faith clings, may of course cover all the remaining sin, so that it is no longer attributed to one. But it does not destroy the remaining sin as a reality. The sin as a reality is remaining. Justification therefore means that war is declared upon the remaining sin. The beginning of its expulsion starts in justification. But this expulsion of sin is only in its beginning in this life. Only in the resurrection will it be completely finished.

It is the Spirit which expels sin by the Word about the forgiveness of sin, not man’s increasing empirical piety. Expulsion of sin is therefore not as a matter of course identical with a psychologically noticeable and therefore unmistakable increase of empirical piety. On the contrary, the sin which is to be expelled comprises the total man. It presupposes a real sinner when we speak of sanctification, that is a total sinner, not one who by virtue of a visibly increasing empirical piety is just partly a sinner. The expulsion of sin is that destruction of the power of sin which is a result of the fact that we as total sinners are brought into Christ’s kingdom. As it is clearly stated in the explanation to Luther’s Small Catechism, the expulsion of sin is this, that the Spirit daily works penitence through the law and faith through the gospel. This is a daily repetition of penitence wrought by the law and of faith wrought by the gospel. The Spirit mediates a daily repetition of Christ’s death and resurrection in us, not an evolution of our indwelling religious and moral strength by which the meaner tendencies in us are being checked. Luther therefore says that the Spirit, as long as sin is not completely expelled (and this does not take place before the last day), has not been given us in a full measure but only as first fruits. That the Spirit is an eschatological category or concept, which was clearly evident in the young Luther, is now even more clear. The powers of the world to come are by the Spirit active in the midst of the world of sin and death. But inasmuch as sin and death are constant realities, the Spirit is only given us as first fruits.

Regin Prenter, “Spiritus Creator”, pages 224-226

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Luther’s Break with Augustine on Justification and Sanctification

The Augustinian and scholastic teaching of justification which Luther opposes in the writing against Latomus [LW 32] permits grace to be a new nature in man, so that man is gradually changed to a new man or lifted up from the natural level to the supernatural. Righteousness in this manner becomes a “formal justice.” Perhaps it can be stated crudely that in the scholastic teaching grace results in a gradual improvement of the old man until he insensibly has become a new man. Luther’s teaching of justification is characterized by a radical self-condemnation that brutally destroys all thoughts about a gradual transition from the natural up into the supernatural level or a slow process of becoming perfect. but this is a foreign thought to scholasticism. This does not mean that there is no room for a consciousness of sin in the scholastic system. The while system of the sacraments, for example, is orientated on the basis of the problem of sin. But since for the scholastic the difference between the sinner and God actually is identified with the metaphysical difference between nature and supernature, the consciousness of sin is not, as for Luther, a radical self-condemnation. therefore it is possible to understand victory over sin and sanctification as elements in the same smoothly transitory process which gradually lifts man from the level of the natural to the level of the supernatural. Man thus gradually becomes more and more righteous. Grace gradually substitutes the new nature more and more for the old sinful self. It is impossible in this sense to talk about something like simul justus et peccator.

The Augustinian and scholastic teaching about grace presupposes a Neoplatonizing understanding of sin, according to which sin comes from the lower sensual nature which is gradually pushed aside by the higher, supernatural, and purely spiritual nature infused by grace. This idea of sin in connection with the corresponding idea of grace permits, even demands, a quantitative understanding of the struggle of sin and grace during a progressive process of justification. On the other hand, Luther’s concept of sin places the nature of sin in the self-will, which very often is most deeply embedded right in this “higher” and spiritual nature. With such a concept of sin it was impossible to retain the physical* concept of grace. In the monastery Luther time and again experienced that grace did not mingle with his own nature, that although the sensual desire could be subdued, his self-will so much the more stubbornly encased itself in a pious suppression of the “lower” nature. The problem peccatum manens [abiding sin] (in the sense of the ineradicable self-will that dwells especially in one’s own piety) was constantly the stumbling block for him in his relation to the scholastic doctrine of grace. He was not helped until he learned to understand the righteousness of God as Christ himself, given us by God as a gift. This means that our righteousness is Christ, given us by God as a gift, in other words, something entirely outside ourselves, not only at first, but always. By this the judgment is pronounced upon our whole real self. Only that which is entirely outside of us, that is, in Christ, is righteous. Everything in ourselves, the highest as well as the lowest, is judged to the same extent. Simul justus et peccator.

Peccatum manens therefore was not a sign that grace was lost, but quite the opposite. The fact that the remaining sin is recognized as sin shows that righteousness is in us and has declared war upon our selfishness. For sin can be acknowledged as such only on the basis of faith; only where Christ is our only and alien righteousness does our total selfishness become visible. The acknowledgment of sin, penitence, is the first reaction of righteousness by faith.

But this faith which clings to the alien righteousness of Christ is in man. It is there, not passively, but manifested in penitence. And just as we know it from the writing about good works, faith is constantly active in good works toward the neighbor. Faith is a completely new life, not just in theory, but a real, concrete new life with praise and prayer and the work in our calling here on earth.

*The word “physical” does not mean a “materialistic” or “magic” concept of grace, though the Catholic doctrine of grace is sometimes so presented by Protestants. The word is used in its scholastic sense, and it has nothing to do with physics or materialism. The “nature” which is infused is, according tot he Roman Catholic view, really a spiritual nature. The whole point in the scholastic physical doctrine of grace is based on the teaching that the supernatural grace which is infused is of a higher kind than the lower and sensual nature. It is therefore not only a bad distortion, but a complete lack of understanding of the inner intent of the scholastic doctrine of grace, when it is presented as an impersonal and magic form of religion compared to the personal religion of Protestantism. The infused grace has nothing to do with the dynamic substance which often is described in Protestant expositions of the history of dogma. It is truly very spiritual, for it is supernatural. But it is physical because it is viewed as a higher nature than that of man, a supernatural nature, which nevertheless by the infusion of grace makes a connection with man’s natural nature and lifts it up into the level of the supernatural.

Regin Prenter, “Spiritus Creator”, translated by John M. Jensen, pages 39-41

True Progress

It is this understanding of the contrast between the old and the new man which constitutes the difference between Luther and all pietism. In the pietistic preaching of conversion and sanctification the new man is identified with the converted man. The new man is himself the real, psychologically changed, new individual which the conversion has produced in man and which sanctification has continued to establish. According to this view, the new in the converted man is a psychological reality, a legal righteousness. According to Luther the “new” in the new man is the living Christ himself who as alien righteousness classifies the whole old man, including both his conversion and sanctification, as flesh and old man, if it is not covered by the alien righteousness of Christ. In the pietistic preaching of conversion, the struggle between the old and the new man is a struggle between to different strata in man, the lower strata which comes from the life before conversion and the higher strata which comes by the life created by conversion. The struggle between the old and the new man is in Luther a struggle between Christ truly present in faith and our whole real self, including both the lower and the higher strata, both the converted and the unconverted parts of man. For the pietist neither the old man nor the new man is the whole man, but each is a part of man. According to Luther, one cannot understand what the new and the old man are until it is understood that each one of them in the strictest sense is the whole man.

However, this does not mean that Luther denies the presence of real works of grace in the soul. Luther sufficiently emphasizes that faith and the new man live and move in praise, prayer, and the works of the vocation to which man is called. But empirical piety is not in itself the new man (as pietism holds) nor is it our righteousness before God; it is only a fruit of the Spirit, an expression of the new man. Therefore it presupposes faith and the new man. In the very moment man as a whole man is flesh and not Spirit, in the very moment that man seeks his own, empirical piety is changed into self-righteousness, to a merit by which the sinner tries to justify himself before God, that is, to the fundamental sin which is pride. No quality of the soul whatever, no religious experience at all, no pietistic conversion, for example, possesses in itself a definite value before God. Its value in every moment depends (as do all other human qualities) upon man’s actual attitude to god as a person and as a while man. If a man is sinful, then his other qualities are all sinful. If a man as a person is righteous, is Spirit, that is, if he in that very moment is leaving all his own in favor of Christ’s alien righteousness, all his good qualities are the fruits of the Spirit, and his sins are forgiven and removed, because Christ’s alien righteousness covers man. If man as a person is flesh, that is, if he at that very moment is seeking his own, then all his qualities, including the good ones, are the fruits of the flesh. His sins are then without the forgiveness of Christ because the egocentric man in his flesh pushes Christ away and wants to be just in himself. In this case his ethical and religious qualities become merits by which he seeks to cover his own sins and be just before God; that is, they become the sophisticated sins of pride. This self-same empirical quality, for instance a pietistically understood conversion or sanctification, may in the same man in one moment be the fruit of the Spirit, as when in faith he leaves all his own (including this state of conversion or sanctification) in favor of the alien righteousness of Christ, when he lives trusting solely in the pure mercy of God and therefore views all his own religious and ethical qualities, if he is able to find any such at all, as the undeserved gifts of God. But in the next moment the same empirical quality, the same state of conversion and sanctification, may be the fruit of the flesh, as when he seeks his own and thereby changes this real quality from being the undeserved gift of God to being his own appropriation, by which he justifies himself before God and man….

How far removed this presentation [of Karl Holl and R. Seeberg] is from Luther thinking is revealed by the fact that for these scholars the progress of sanctification is identified with a real progressive process of justification. Luther speaks both of empirical piety (faith, which is man’s righteousness before God, and in which man lives and moves in real praise, prayer, and work) and of progress in sanctification (the Spirit becomes more and more master over the flesh). But in Luther these two lines of thought are not so blended that the progress of sanctification can be forthwith identified with the increase in empirical piety as is done in Holl’s and Seeberg’s interpretation of Luther. In Luther empirical piety is always ambiguous, It may in every moment be either an expression of the Spirit or of the flesh, according to whether the man in that particular moment is either Spirit or flesh. Therefore it is impossible to speak of an unambiguous growth in the plan or real justification. When Luther speaks about the progress of sanctification, he thinks of something entirely different. He thinks of the fact that man on the way between baptism and resurrection constantly and anew takes leave of himself to take refuge in Christ’s alien righteousness. In this refuge of faith in Christ, man is Spirit, new man, and all his past life up to this moment is at once considered as flesh, as old man. In this manner the Spirit, who knows only Christ’s alien righteousness, is constantly struggling against the flesh, which wants to hold on to its own past life as an appropriation, its own righteousness. In the resurrection man shall be completely Spirit. Then the Spirit shall no longer struggle against the flesh. But on the way between baptism and resurrection man is Spirit and flesh. But the closer man gets to resurrection, the more the old man is destroyed and annihilated, and the new man, which has only Christ’s alien righteousness, is the only possibility left. Therefore sanctification is a constant progress, a growing mastery of the Spirit over the flesh. But this progress is not the same as the increase of empirical piety. For empirical piety is ambiguous. It may constantly be qualified in two ways, and therefore so may its growth. The progress of sanctification is not, as is the increase of empirical piety, an object of psychological observation, but an object of faith and hope. It is not evident to oneself and others, but it is hid with Christ in God.

Regin Prenter, Spiritus Creator, translated by John M. Jensen, pages 67-70