The Brewing Controversy in WELS and How to Avoid It

A distant acquaintance of mine, Rev. Paul Rydecki, has been suspended from the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod for teaching false doctrine. This has come to me even through some of my own members, who are concerned and a bit confused. The accusation is that Pastor Rydecki denies the doctrine known as Objective Justification (OJ for short), also called by some Universal Justification, or for those who like many words, Universal Objective Justification, which I find a bit tedious. OJ is a biblical teaching emphasized by various people in our Lutheran heritage, notably C.F.W. Walther, who has been nicknamed “The American Luther.” Luther himself emphasized it in several places, as do the Lutheran Confessions. It’s an abstract proposition closely connected with the doctrine that the suffering and death of Christ has made full atonement for every sin ever committed by a human being. On the basis of that atonement being paid in full, Christ rose from the dead in proof that God has accepted this as propitiation for all of those sins. Objectively speaking, Christ’s work has justified every sinner. This is an important doctrine, because it allows us to speak the Gospel of God’s forgiveness to every person we meet, at any time they ought to hear it. Because justification is objectively accomplished, there can be no doubt that this proclamation of forgiveness is true, whether we are speaking it to our neighbors, or we are hearing it applied to our own sins.

Over the last century or more, our appreciation for OJ has increased dramatically. That’s a good thing. Unfortunately, our appreciation for OJ’s sister doctrine, which is equally true, may have diminished: Subjective Justification (SJ for short). This is also emphasized in the writings and confessions of the Lutheran heritage. It’s complementary to OJ. In fact, they are equally necessary for our salvation. SJ is possible because of OJ. Somewhere, I think Luther uses the illustration of a poor beggar who is discovered to be the heir of a prince. His newly-discovered identity gives him not only a new family and title, but eventually even lands, castles, etc. All of these things are objectively his, but it doesn’t benefit him at all unless he believes that this is true. If he rejects the royal messenger and goes on begging for the rest of his life, it doesn’t change who he is and what he possesses. However, none of those possessions would help him in the least. Likewise, OJ is received and becomes a benefit to the sinner only when God creates faith in his heart to believe the message of forgiveness through Jesus Christ. That’s SJ. Every time the Lutheran Confessions mention justification “by faith alone,” they are speaking of SJ, often in opposition to the notion that it involves human works or merit.

It’s part of human nature to make mistakes. Yes, even WELS (or ELS) pastors have this nature. Yes, even ELS (or WELS) officials and administrators have this nature. Shocking, to be sure, but true nonetheless. But since we have a Savior, these mistakes need not trouble us. Instead, we should be troubled when we fail to recognize, repent, and correct any of our mistakes. Thankfully, we are often quite vigilant in helping to correct the mistakes of our Christian brothers. It comes naturally, because we so easily see the specks in their eyes, while the planks in our own remain invisible to us. This process of correction requires and encourages humility.

It doesn’t appear to me that Pastor Rydecki made any serious doctrinal mistakes that should threaten the integrity of the body of Christ. I could be critical of some things, but they would probably fall under the category of nit-picking. He has, however, done a great service to the Lutheran Church by restoring a measure of focus upon SJ and its necessity. He has called attention to some places where individuals in the WELS have perhaps been a bit careless in their vocabulary, or even emphasized OJ to the point of denying the need for SJ. As an example of sloppy vocabulary, consider one of the litmus-test questions asked him by his ministerial supervisor, “Did God forgive the sins of the world when Jesus died on the cross?” My response might be, “How precise an answer do you want?” If a precise answer is required, I would then ask, “Do you mean ‘forgive’ in the sense that the world appropriated this forgiveness and was thereby saved? Because that’s how I usually use this word. Or do you mean that God accepted Christ’s atonement as the all-sufficient basis for providing forgiveness to every sinner, who must then receive that forgiveness individually through faith in the Gospel?” You may not see a difference, but there is an important one, flowing from the distinction between OJ and SJ. If you don’t get it, then read the question again, carefully this time.

Without careful attention to the way we communicate the truths of holy scripture, there could well be a raging controversy about the article of faith by which the Church stands or falls, the very doctrine restored to its position of importance by the Lutheran reformation. How ironic that would be.

How about the supervisor’s second litmus-test question, “Has God justified all sinners for the sake of Christ?” If precision is required, we must reply with a second question, “Do you mean OJ or SJ?” Pastor Rydecki seems to have had SJ primarily on his mind, due to the recent unfortunate trend that has been letting it slide. It seems likely that his supervisor had OJ primarily in mind. The distinction between the two was not fully articulated during the time of the Reformation, as it has been in more recent centuries, but it is nevertheless an important one, as evidenced by the brewing controversy.

See Pastor Rydecki’s explanation for more on this subject. I’m sure that more will be written about it. Please keep Pastor Rydecki, his family, his congregation, and the WELS in your prayers. Kyrie eleison.

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