THE CHRISTIAN PILGRIM: Confident Journeyman or Uncertain Wanderer?

The pilgrim is a traveler, a journeyman without as yet a fixed abode. He is a foreigner in search of a homeland; an exile in “a hostile country whose [sole] hope is to find rest”.1 imageWhether the picture is of “the Israelites wandering in the wilderness or the Puritans [pursuing] an untouched land where their faith might flourish”, the pilgrim is a sojourner, a “wanderer seeking a [habitation]”.2 The Apostle Peter, in the second chapter of his first epistle, applies this pilgrim imagery to the Christians “scattered about” Asia Minor,3 addressing them as “sojourners and pilgrims” (ASV) or “aliens and strangers” (NASB).4 However, as Peter makes clear, the biblical pilgrimage is not one characterized by uncertainty.5 Rather, it is marked by a “living” hope of confident expectation and rapt anticipation of one’s eternal inheritance.6

After a brief salutation, Peter begins his letter to these “scattered exiles”7 with a glorious doxology to the triune God.8 The apostle’s hymn of praise blesses God the Father, God the Son and God the Spirit for their combined effort in the resplendent achievement of redemption. In so doing, Peter reminds Christians of the foundation upon which our living hope rests. It is a confidence rooted, the apostle boasts, in the resurrection of our redeemer, revealed through his righteous Spirit, and reserved by our royal Father.9 Therefore, we are able to blissfully anticipate and even confidently expect the realization of this hope – which is the goal of our faith – the salvation of our souls.10 The Christian pilgrim, then, is not an “uncertain wanderer who is in doubt of his destiny”, or a fretful traveler fearful of his final destination. He is secure in his salvation; certain of his destiny; and therefore rightly rejoices in it. In fact, such certainty is the only thing which enables him to “plod through” the uncertainty of this world.11


Given the precision with which Peter paints this portrait, one might be surprised to learn that the last two millennia have witnessed a “significant” marring of its image. Alterations which have actually reversed the biblical representation. A powerful example of this is the trial and execution of Joan of Arc. In 1431, the magistrates condemned her with the following dictum:12

This woman sins when she says she is as certain of being received into Paradise as if she were already a partaker of…glory, seeing that on this earthly journey no pilgrim knows if he is worthy of glory or of punishment, which the sovereign judge alone can tell.13

Medieval theology saw pilgrims as ever “unworthy and uncertain of their fatherland.”14 Such “wishful-thinking” or “groping in the twilight” characterized, in particular, Roman Catholic doctrine. imageNot even the Pope himself could predict his future prosperity and anyone who asserted such assurance was anathematized. Thus, the medieval pilgrim was “lost in a sea of uncertainty,” his hope nothing more than a blend of fear and doubt.15 How strikingly differently this is from Peter’s picture of hope as blissful anticipation: the biblical pilgrim knowing he has eternal life and that he presently partakes of divine glory.16

Yet, why did this radical change in metaphor occur? Why the degeneration from a certain hope to an uncertain one? The answer to such a question is the fruit of a deeper inquiry into the fertile doctrines of grace and law (faith and works). One place to begin such tilling is the sixteenth century, which was – according to scholar John Mark Hicks – a time of “widespread rebellion against the anxiety and uncertainty that late medieval piety created.” The “explosion of religious activity” we call the Protestant Reformation found its roots in “the release that people experienced from the burden of religion.”17 Roman Catholicism’s theology of works, with its “demanding” system of penance and absolution, had become “oppressive”, producing petrified fruit. And this fear and doubt could never be completely removed by a scheme which prohibited full assurance of salvation.18

In order to better comprehend the nature and significance of the Protestant rebellion, and to see how it serves as an antecedent for our current discussion on faith, works, and assurance, we will contrast the soteriology19 of two leading theologians of the day: Gabriel Biel and Martin Luther.

Justification According to Gabriel Biel

Gabriel Biel was a fifteenth century German scholastic whose writings were very influential during Luther’s time at the University of Erfurt.20 The central feature of Biel’s salvation doctrine was God’s covenant with man to redefine righteousness.21 At the core of this covenant was what Biel called meritum de congruo, which meant to be congruous with, or in conformity to man’s best efforts.22 imageAccording to this tenet, God graciously accepts man’s best efforts as meritorious, even though they, in and of themselves, are meritless. While strict justice precluded man from earning salvation due to his deficient legal record, Biel argued that God, through the blood of Christ, abated these severe legal demands, bridging the gap between man’s maximum effort and meritorious obedience.23

This blood gap justification, however, placed a premium on human effort. While the qualifications were lower, man was still required to meet them. Under Biel’s law, man must love God and seek His forgiveness to the best of his ability.24 Certainty of one’s ultimate salvation then rested not on the cross of Christ alone, but in knowing that God will not deny grace to anyone who does their best. The obvious shortcoming of such a surety is that man can never know for certain that he has done his best.25 In addition, as James Harding astutely observed, this God of the gaps soteriology is impotent because doing one’s best requires “[keeping] the perfect law perfectly”, thus negating the need for Christ in the first place.26

Gabriel Biel’s doctrine of assurance created “deep anxiety…and fear” in medieval believers, plaguing them with doubts such as, “Have I measured up? Do I feel sorry enough? Do I love God deeply enough?” It was this feeble faith that Luther found “fundamentally unbiblical and unsatisfying”.27

Luther’s Response

In 1505 Martin Luther joined the Augustinian Order in the wake of a terrifying near death experience. However, he quickly found monastic life to be even more traumatizing.28 Even though Luther excelled at being a monk, his transgressions were ever before him and the “rigor, self-flagellation and [aestheticism]” of the Order did little to purge his contrite conscience.29

Though I lived as a monk without reproach, I felt that I was a sinner before God with an extremely disturbed conscience. I could not believe that he was placated by my satisfaction.30

The only solace Luther did have was in the sacraments, particularly confession. But even after six hours of detailed disclosure he felt only despair. imageHaving discovered Biel’s theory of justification to be a practical impossibility, Luther described the subsequent spiritual crisis he faced using the German word anfechtungen (an existential despair of soul and helplessness).

Luther’s “affliction of the soul” arose out of a faulty understanding of justification. Biel taught that man’s guilt was expiated through a co-operative effort between God and man, working synergistically to accomplish justification. Man’s contribution was to meet a minimum standard of righteousness, while God, through Christ, filled in the gaps.31 Consequently, “assurance rested on one’s assessment of his own righteousness”, on whether he had reached the minimum standard, on whether he had been “good enough”. Luther freed himself from the anfechtungen such a view causes by coming to a fresh conception of Paul’s phrase “the righteousness of God”.32

Luther initially interpreted this righteousness as referring to God’s justice through which He necessarily punishes lawbreakers. However, he was perplexed as to why the apostle identified such news as good.33 For Luther it was dreadful news that God’s nature required punishing all transgressors without mercy. To refer then to such a grim report as good made God seem diabolical.

I did not love, yes, I hated the righteous God who punishes sinners, and secretly, if not blasphemously, certainly murmuring greatly, I was angry with God, and said, “As if, indeed, it is not enough, that miserable sinners, eternally lost through original sin, are crushed by every kind of calamity by the law of the decalogue, without having God add pain to pain by the gospel and also by the gospel threatening us with his righteousness and wrath!” Thus I raged with a fierce and troubled conscience. Nevertheless, I beat importunately upon Paul at that place, most ardently desiring to know what St. Paul wanted.34

The break through came some time between 1508 and 1518.

At last, by the mercy of God, meditating day and night, I gave heed to the context of the words, namely, “In it the righteousness of God is revealed, as it is written, ‘He who through faith is righteous shall live.’” There I began to understand that the righteousness of God is that by which the righteous lives by a gift of God, namely by faith. And this is the meaning: the righteousness of God is revealed by the gospel, namely, the passive righteousness with which merciful God justifies us by faith, as it is written, “He who through faith is righteous shall live.” Here I felt that I was altogether born again and had entered paradise itself through open gates.35

Luther now understood that righteousness, in terms of justification, is not the wages man earns by giving his maximal effort, but rather it is the gift God bestows freely upon the believer.36 At the heart of this new found conviction was the doctrine of imputation.

He has made His righteousness my righteousness, and my sin His sin. If He has made my sin to be His sin, then I do not have it and I am free. [If] He has made His righteousness my righteousness, then I am righteous now with the same righteousness as He. My sin cannot devour Him, but it is engulfed in the unfathomable depths of His righteousness for He himself is God, who is blessed forever.37

Forgiveness depended not on Luther fulfilling the law (active righteousness), but on him believing the promise that God had already done so in his place (passive righteousness).38 imageWhat glorious news to learn that ones right standing before God did not rest on a record of right actions, but rather on the Messiah’s single act of righteousness;39 that God’s righteousness was not something to be feared, but to be rejoiced in.40

Luther’s epiphany wrought sweeping spiritual transformation. Gone were his struggles with doubt and fear concerning salvation and judgement, having been replaced by blessed assurance secured through Christ’s finished work. No longer consumed with worry over whether he had adequately prayed, fasted, or confessed, Luther was now convinced that, in Christ, God considered him righteous despite his shortcomings.41 Luther had become the biblical pilgrim.


The Biel/Luther narrative does more than just provide a powerful illustration of the biblical link between justification by grace though faith and assurance. It serves as a blueprint for the spiritual crisis experienced within the Churches of Christ over the last 150 years.43 During much of that time the church has been divided over the doctrine of justification. While some viewed forgiveness as being grounded solely in the atonement of Christ with His righteousness being credited to the penitent sinner through faith,44 others rejected such imputation and adopted Biel’s blood gap theology45 (or slight variations of it).46 In a Gospel Advocate article on March 7, 1946, G.C. Brewer recounts his early days as a preacher (at the start of the 20th century) and the encounters he had with ministers who denied the concept of imputed righteousness. He paraphrases their teaching thusly:

You hear people talk about God’s righteousness or Christ’s righteousness being imputed to a man–of the righteousness of Christ covering a man like a garment, etc. This is all false doctrine. The Bible says, ‘He that doeth righteousness is righteous, even as he is righteous’ (1 John 3:7); and David says, ‘All thy commandments are righteousness.’ So you see that a man who does the commandments of God is righteous–no one else is. You can have no righteousness except the righteousness that you do.

This dismissal of an imputed righteousness and its replacement with a subjective one led necessarily to “diligence”47 (in law keeping) becoming a condition of salvation.48 Occasionally this compatibilistic approach49 was then undergirded by Biel’s gap-bridging atonement. Marshall E. Patton (1916-?), in his widely read column Answers for Our Hope, integrated meritum de congruo with a concept of subjective righteousness.

There is still another area in which God’s grace is urgently needed and in which it has been lovingly provided. This area involves that margin of difference between man’s ability and perfection. While God in His grace does not require of man that which is above his ability, His law, nevertheless, remains perfect. After man has done all that he can do, he is yet a transgressor of God’s perfect law, hence, a sinner (1 Jno. 3:4). God does not bend His perfect law down to the level of man’s ability, but rather spans the distance between the two (man’s ability and perfection) with His grace . . .50

imageMeanwhile, James Harding (1848-1922) responded to such redefining of righteousness with Lutheran zeal:

First, then, let me remark that we are not justified by law, nor by deeds of law, either in whole or in part, but by grace. To be justified by law, it would be necessary for a man to keep a perfect law perfectly all the days of his life. [Jesus] fulfilled the law (which had to be fulfilled that man might be saved), and thus became ‘the end of the law for righteousness to every one that believeth’.51

Harding strongly objected to “doing the best you can” being a means of justification.

I have yet to meet the man who does the best he knows. If Brother Clark’s definition is correct, there are no Christians; for, of all men, Christ is the only one who did the best he knew how. What we need is a Savior to save people who have not done the best they knew, to save sinners; and Christ came to do that.52

As was the case with Luther, the adoption of meritum de congruo within the Churches of Christ undermined assurance. Anxiety, fear and doubt reigned, even among the theologians. imageRobert Turner, in his book Sermons On Grace speaks of a forgiveness which is only received when we “strive to the very best of our ability to do exactly what God has told us to do”. Such Bielian theology, once understood and accepted, produces fear, not just in brother Turner, but in everyone.

There is not a day in your life that you do not need to ask God for forgiveness and mercy, and to strengthen you that you might do better. As my mother used to say, ‘I’m not so fearful that I have done so many bad things, but it does bother me to think of the things that I have left undone.’ You will feel the same if you stop and think about it.

Unfortunately, this perverse portrait of the biblical pilgrim still hangs in many churches, serving as a morose monument to a mortified hope. Such hope, however, can be resurrected by placing our complete confidence in the risen Lord. An assurance grounded solely in God’s grace which we receive through faith apart from works of law.53

1 John Mark Hicks, “Grace, Works, and Assurance: A Theological Framework,” in Grace, Faith, Works: How Do They Relate, ed. by C. Philip Slate (Huntsville, AL: Publishing Designs, Inc., 1992), 5-28.

2 Ibid.

3 διασπορα – to scatter abroad (1 Peter 1:1).

4 1 Peter 2:11

5 John Mark Hicks, “Grace”.

6 Ibid.

7 παρεπιδημοισ διασπορασ (1 Peter 1:1).

8 1 Peter 1:3-12

9 1 Peter 1:3-5, 10-12

10 1 Peter 1:6-8, 13

11 John Mark Hicks, “Grace”.

12 Ibid.

13 W.P. Barrett, The Trial of Joan of Arc Chapter 26:6, as cited in John Mark Hicks, “Grace”.

14 Steven E. Ozment, The Age of Reform (1250-1550): An Intellectual and Religious History of Late Medieval and Reformation Europe, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1980), 31 as cited in John Mark Hicks, “Grace”.

15 John Mark Hicks, “Grace”.

16 1 John 5:13; 1 Peter 1:8; 2 Peter 1:4

17 Steven E. Ozment, The Age of Reform, 216, as cited in John Mark Hicks, “Grace”.

18 Ibid.

19 i.e. doctrine of salvation.

20 That young Luther was greatly influenced by Biel is seen in the reformer’s early writings. In his commentary on the Psalms (1513-1515), for example, Luther states this concerning Psalm 114:1: “The doctors rightly say that, when people do their best, God infallibly gives them grace. This cannot be understood as meaning that this preparation for grace is de condigno [meritorious], as they are incomparable, but it can be regarded as de congruo on account of this promise of God and the covenant of mercy.”, Martin Luther, Dictata super Psalterium, Luther’s Works, 4.262, 4-7, as cited in Alister E. McGrath, Iustitia Dei: A History of the Christian Doctrine of Justification (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 116.

21 Alister E. McGrath, Reformation Thought: An Introduction, 2nd ed. (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, Ltd., 1993), 67-8.

22 Johann Heinz, Justification and Merit: Luther vs. Catholicism (Berrien Springs, MI: Andrews University Press, 1981), 141-2. Meritum de congruo refers to a “human moral act which is performed outside a state of grace which, although not meritorious in the strict sense of the term, is nevertheless deemed appropriate or congruous by God in relation to the bestowal of the first (i.e., justifying) grace. In the context of the via moderna theology, when a person does his best (facienti quod in se est), God accepts it as meritorious de congruo, under the terms of the pactum [covenant].” See McGrath, Reformation Thought, 67-9.

23 John Mark Hicks, “Grace”.

24 Facienti quod in se est Deus non denegat gratiam (“God will not deny grace to those who do their best”).

25 John Mark Hicks, “Grace”.

26 J.B. Moody and J.A. Harding, Debate on Baptism and the Work of the Holy Spirit (Nashville: Gospel Advocate, 1955 reprint), 220, as cited in John Mark Hicks, “The Gracious Separatist: Moral and Positive Law in the Theology of James A. Harding”, [http://], accessed 03/26/15; James Harding, “From Exchanges,” The Way 2, (April 1900), 50.

27 John Mark Hicks, “Grace”.

28 Ibid.

29 Ibid.

30 Martin Luther, Luther’s Works (ed. Hilton C. Oswald; Saint Louis: Concordia, 1972) 34, 336.

31 Recent Bielians have appealed to Paul’s phrase, “his faith is counted as righteousness” (Romans 4:3,5), for scriptural support arguing that God counts man’s faith (faith being used here as a synecdoche for obedience to God’s new lowered standard of righteousness) as righteousness (i.e as satisfying strict justice by Christ filling the gap).

32 John Mark Hicks, “Grace”.

33 Romans 1:16-17: For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, “The righteous shall live by faith.”

34 Luther’s Works 34, 336-337. 35 Ibid.

36 Galatians 2:21: I do not nullify the grace of God; for if righteousness comes through the Law, then Christ died needlessly.

37 Luther’s Works 25, 188.

38 Matthew 5:17; cf, 2 Corinthians 5:21: For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.

39 Romans 5:18: Therefore, as one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men, cf, Hebrews 10:11-14: And every priest stands daily at his service, offering repeatedly the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God, waiting from that time until his enemies should be made a footstool for his feet. For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified.

40 Isaiah 61:10: I will greatly rejoice in the LORD; my soul shall exult in my God, for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation; he has covered me with the robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decks himself like a priest with a beautiful headdress, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.

41 Luther’s phrase for this was simul justus et peccator (“simultaneously righteous and a sinner”).

42 This history is told primarily from the perspective of non-institutional Churches of Christ where applicable.

43 The length of the crisis may be extended but the writer is unaware of sufficient historical evidence which would warrant such a claim.

44 Men like David Libscomb, James Harding, G.C. Brewer, K.C. Moser, et al.

45 M. E. Patton, likely Robert Turner, et al.

46 R.L. Whiteside, C.R. Nicol, Guy N. Woods, et al.

47 Marshall E. Patton, Answers for Our Hope (Fairmount, Indiana: Guardian of Truth Foundation, 1982), 324.

48 Everyone acknowledged that man could not keep God’s law perfectly and was therefore dependent upon grace for salvation. Consequently, many made diligence (not perfection) the sine qua non of justification. According to Patton, such diligence is determined by one’s “time, opportunity and ability” to perform God’s moral commands.

49 Grace salvation being compatible with God requiring law works as the means for receiving it.

50 Marshall E. Patton, Answers for Our Hope, 324-335.

51 J.B. Moody and J.A. Harding, Debate on Baptism and the Work of the Holy Spirit (Nashville: Gospel Advocate, 1955 reprint), 220, as cited in John Mark Hicks, “The Gracious Separatist: Moral and Positive Law in the Theology of James A. Harding”, [http://], accessed 03/26/15.

52 Harding, “From Exchanges,” The Way 2 (April 1900), 50. 53 Romans 3:28

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s