The Osaindrian Controversy

From the May / June 1996 issue of The Concordia Lutheran



“Now that the lion is dead, I shall easily dispose of the foxes and hares.” This arrogant boast is reported to have been made by Andreas Osiander (1498-1552) shortly after the death of Luther in 1546. His reference to “the lion” evidently pictures Luther, the king of beasts, zealously guarding the “kill” from those who would resurrect Rome by reintroducing the Pope’s soul-destroying doctrines. The “foxes and hares” are the other Lutheran theologians, predators of lesser and varying strengths and appetites for the carrion of the Papacy, who, without Luther’s spiritual vigilance and God-given theological prowess, might be more easily deceived and vanquished by a cunning interloper.

Particularly concerning the doctrine of justification, Luther had a gnawing feeling that, after his death, efforts would be made to water it down, to dilute it, and to pervert it, and thus to undo the monumental work which the Lord had achieved through him and others to return the church to this central teaching of the Christian faith, the doctrine upon which the believer’s confidence must rest for forgiveness of sins, life and salvation. Luther’s fear was not unlike our own concerning this and the other pure doctrines of God’s Word, not indeed an unrealistic one, but a concern that should make every one of us zealous for the quality training of faithful pastors for the future, who, with Luther’s vigilance and the ability that God Himself gives through His Word, will guard our confessional position against any and all intrusions of error.

Osiander’s boast finally betrayed and brought to the light of day his long-held views on justification which had apparently simmered like a lake of sub-surface molten lava ever since 1522 when, as a priest in the city of Nürnberg, he outwardly at least, joined the ranks of the reformers and championed their cause. Nevertheless, it became evident after Luther’s death that this proud, overbearing and domineering theologian, who had been given a political appointment as professor at the University of Königsberg in 1548, would father a violent controversy by his Romish view of justification. As Dr. Bente evaluates Osiander in his Historical Introduction to the Book of Concord, either he “relapsed” into Romanism OR he never really had understood and embraced the true doctrine of justification as taught in Holy Scripture.

Briefly stated, Osiander forsook the doctrine of God’s forensic justification of poor sinners for Christ’s sake, His unilateral declaration that they are righteous in His sight because of the imputation of Christ’s perfect merits to the ungodly, and substituted for it a kind of medical justification in which the sinner is made righteous by the indwelling of Christ in his heart, so that the essential righteousness of Christ’s divine nature is “infused” into him to “dilute” his sins and thus to make him acceptable to God. To Osiander’s way of thinking, therefore, justification is not acquittal from sin (as would be declared by a judge upon a defendant already indicted, convicted and sentenced to die for crimes committed), but it is an internal healing, a physical cleansing from sin (as might be accomplished by a physician in a surgical procedure or in the injection of antibodies). Thus Osiander thought of justification as a gradual process within man, rather than an accomplished act outside of man. It is the Christ in us, not the Christ for us. It is Christ’s essential righteousness which He had from all eternity as the Son of God, rather than His merited righteousness which He earned for us by His perfect active and passive obedience.

Thus, when Osiander spoke of “justification by faith,” he meant that man by faith receives the divine nature of Christ into his very being, which then creates an essential change in man, a righteous quality, a basic holiness, according to which man becomes inherently just and enabled to do what is right (as Adam and Eve were righteous and holy according to God’s indwelling image before the Fall). This “justification” was viewed by Osiander as a gradual process rather than a completed act, and that necessarily leaves the sinner unsure of his salvation as he examines his life and finds it still full of imperfections and the “filth of the flesh” (Romans 7:18; I Peter 3:21), not ever quite “perfect” (Philippians 3:12) in his sanctification. Note how pitifully defective is that “confidence” compared to the sure comfort of one who places his trust solely in the merits of Christ, in His perfect obedience, and in the complete forgiveness which God pronounces upon the ungodly for His sake!

Osiander’s concept of justification is not based upon Christ’s vicarious atonement, upon His perfect substitutionary satisfaction of God’s justice, both actively and passively, in the sinner’s place, because of which God justifies the ungodly (Romans 4:5). In fact, Osiander’s “justification” does not require the atonement at all. Jesus’ suffering and death, said Osiander, merely made it possible for God to dwell within us and to become the fountainhead of our righteousness, so that our sinfulness is “diluted” to the extent that God does not notice our sins anymore. Our sinfulness is then as injurious to salvation as a single drop of poison in an ocean of pure water.

For the Lutherans, the Osiandrian Controversy was finally settled by the unmistakable wording of Article III of the Formula of Concord (Triglot, p. 917 ff.), which the reader is encouraged to read over in full. The article states in part:

“Christ is our righteousness, not according to His divine nature alone, nor according to His human nature alone, but according to both natures; for He has redeemed, justified, and saved us from our sins as God and man, through His complete obedience; that therefore the righteousness of faith is the forgiveness of sins, reconciliation with God, and our adoption as God’s children only on account of the obedience of Christ, which through faith alone, out of pure grace, is imputed for righteousness to all true believers, and on account of it they are absolved from all their unrighteousness. …Faith justifies, not for this cause and reason that it is so good a work and so fair a virtue, but because it lays hold of and accepts the merit of Christ in the promise of the holy Gospel; for this must be applied and appropriated to us by faith, if we are to be justified thereby. …[On the other hand], since renewal in us is incomplete and impure in this life because of the flesh, the person cannot stand with and by it before God’s tribunal; but before God’s tribunal only the righteousness of the obedience, suffering, and death of Christ, which is imputed to faith, can stand, so that only for the sake of this obedience is the person…pleasing and acceptable to God.” (Highlighting added by the author for emphasis.)

Osiander’s concept of infused righteousness was, of course, completely acceptable to the Romanists inasmuch as it was then and still is at the heart of the semi-pelagian doctrine of justification taught by the Papacy: Infused grace imparts infused righteousness, which in turn produces meritorious works from the free will of man (including the “obedience of faith”), whereby the sinner propitiates God and earns His favor. But Osiander’s error is also evident in many of the sects. Wherever the vicarious atonement of Christ is denied or minimized as the cause of man’s justification; wherever God’s forensic act of Objective Justification is rejected; wherever the “Christ in us” is substituted for (or stressed above) the “Christ FOR us;” wherever Christians are taught to place their confidence and look for the assurance of forgiveness in their “personal experience with Jesus Christ” and their mystical relationship with the indwelling Savior; and wherever poor sinners are directed to their own works of sanctification for favor with God, as if they in any way merit His goodness –there the error of Osiander still lurks in the bushes. There the Pharisee in the Temple still speaks, seemingly crediting God for his righteousness: “God, I thank Thee that I am not as other men are!” We see it rampant in Methodism, in the “holiness” bodies, in the “Salvation Army”, in Alcoholics Anonymous, in the 7th Day Adventists, in Calvinism, yea, in all sects where justification is confused with or in any way mingled with sanctification. Sadly, it even pervades much of Lutheranism today, where the Christian’s “track-record” of faithfulness is emphasized over the obedience of Christ imputed as righteousness to every true believer, and is made a cause of God’s good will toward sinful men. May God graciously preserve us from being drawn back into this vicious error, which, while it strokes the “ego” with good words and fair speeches, it robs the soul of the assurance of salvation!

Defend Thy truth, O God, and stay
this evil generation;
and from the evil of its way
keep Thine own congregation.
The wicked everywhere abound
and would Thy little flock confound;
but Thou art our salvation!
(T.L.H. 260,6)