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The Doctrine of Justification and
Contemporary "Born Again" Theology
by Dr. John Johnson
Esteemed delegates to the tenth convention of this Missouri District and friends.
I should first like to express my deep appreciation for the gracious invitation extended me by President Spitz to serve as your essayist. While I have engaged in no historical investigation of the matter, I suspect that only a few people have been afforded the privilege to present an essay to the District of which they themselves are members. I am honored.
I must, however, confess to some initial bewilderment at the topic your President included in that invitation. The juxtaposition of the rather formidable subject, "The Doctrine of Justification and Contemporary 'Born Again' Theology" with the theme adopted for the convention, "Light for Our World," was not, it seemed to me, a particularly relevant one. But upon further reflection, I realized my confidence in presidential wisdom should have been greater. There could hardly be two more compatible foci. What more truly constitutes the light for our world than the Gospel - the "good news" of our justified status before God. This concept lay at the very heart of the Church's ministry and mission. As Martin Luther writes in his Smalcald Confession: "The first and chief article of the faith is this, that Jesus Christ, our God and Lord, was put to death for our trespasses and raised again for our justification.'" This life-giving and life-renewing message remains at the center of our proclamation to a darkened, dreary world.
It is somewhat ironical, then, that this article on which the church stands or falls is so complex and multi-faceted. One is reminded of Dr. C. F. W. Walther's remark that "it is not an easy matter correctly to present the doctrine of justification."2 To be sure, that does not mean that there are problems with the teaching itself. On the contrary, the doctrine of justification brings light to bear on all of the major questions of sinful people (Does God exist? What is He like? Does He love me? What must I do to be saved?). These questions are answered truly and clearly in the teaching of justification by grace for Christ's sake through faith. Yet, It is the case that there are some problems we have made for ourselves regarding this doctrine. The assignment communicated to me asks that I address one of the most influential developments on the current American religious scene contributing to such problems with justification. That development is the so-called "New Evangelical" movement or, as it is called by one Lutheran church historian, the rise of "born-againism."3
Literature representing this theological perspective has flooded the Church. It is read. It is quoted. It is influential. It is also troubling. To be sure, there is a sense in which talk of a distinctively Lutheran identity is self-centered and even arrogant. But there is also a sense in which talk of a distinctively Lutheran identity is appropriate. The distinctive contribution we Lutherans can make to the wider Christian family today is our radical understanding of justification. The problem is that the radicality of that message is often dulled by the impact of contemporary "born again" theology.
In the light of this concern, I am ordering my convention essay along three main lines: first, a word about the genesis of contemporary born again theology and its perception of justification by grace through faith; second, a - reminder of how this doctrine is articulated in our own tradition; and third, a suggestion of the main difficulties which emerge when the two models are joined. Hopefully, we can come to understand even more clearly this crucial biblical doctrine.
George Gallup, Jr. and his polling organization asked people in America this question: "Would you say that you have been born again or have had a born again experience - that is, a turning point in your life when you committed yourself to Christ?" More than a third of those questioned replied in the affirmative with nearly half of the Protestants responding "yes."4
The "born again" experience, the New Evangelicalism - these are phrases that have come to dominate much of what has been said and written about American Christianity in the last decade. The fact that evangelical theology is growing in terms of impact is not difficult to recognize. While classical American fundamentalism waned in the 1930s, since the late '70s the media has capitalized on the so-called "renaissance" of born again theology. It has been observed, for instance, that evangelical churches are gaining in membership by a rate of 3% per year.5
But if evidence for the growing influence of born again - theology is inescapable, exactly what is meant by the phrase is much less identifiable. As with most theological terms, "born-againism" is a term which possesses some degree of ambiguity. What does it mean to be "born again"? A confusing variety of answers are given. Some would say you are born again when you are baptized-as an Infant or as a believing adult, or without water and solely by the Holy Spirit. Others would contend that you are born again when you undergo a traumatic conversion experience. Still others insist you be born again when you believe that the Bible contains inspired and inerrant divine truth; or you are born again when you become a member of a moral majority defending the free enterprise system and prayer in the schools.
Regardless of how the new evangelical theology is defined, at least one point is always mentioned. In the words of evangelical theologian Donald Bloesch, "the doctrine of salvation by grace is the heart and soul of born-again theology."6 But is it? Is the new evangelical understanding of salvation synonymous with the historic Lutheran understanding? Does contemporary born again theology consistently uphold a belief in justification by grace through faith alone?
In order even to begin a modest consideration of these questions we need to understand the theme of personal salvation in born again theology and how the experience of salvation is conceptualized.
Contemporary born again theology connects - and inextricably so - justification with the drama of a personal, experiential conversion. Historically, conversion as a religious phenomenon has appeared in many forms. In other words, it has had a checkered career throughout Christian history; I say this to remind you that the personal salvation theme which is central to born again theology did not begin with the spiritual odysseys of Watergate criminals or Georgia presidents! Nor is it reserved for the last few years of popular evangelism in America. While the media seems to have only recently discovered the 'vitality of the born again movement, one can make the case that it has its roots in Puritanism and the Great Awakening. Puritan theology was rooted in religious experience and the absolute insistence on a conversion experience for every believer. That Is, Puritanism promoted a profound, overwhelming, totally transforming experience in which a person underwent "death and rebirth."
This fundamental Puritan notion of salvation was carried over to the Great Awakening of the 1730s, America's first revival. There appears to be little, if any, difference between Puritan conversion experience and the revivalism conversion experience. Moreover, the literature and testimonials emanating from some of the most widely publicized figures in the born again movement of today do not differ essentially from those accounts of conversion In the period of classical revivalism. This historical continuity is not insignificant for understanding the evangelical's claim to belief in justification through faith.
What are some of the more dominant theological elements in born again theology that account for its influence on the current ecclesiological scene?
There exists no official, absolute, dogmatic systematic theology of the born again movement. Books on born again theology proliferate the market-place and they are written from different perspectives. Consequently, it is impossible-and to some extent, unfair-to offer an arbitrary profile of this theology. However, there
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