Adverbial vs. Prepositional Theology: What's the Difference?

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Weak faith in a strong Christ is still saving faith.

When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, ‘Repent’, he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance” (Martin Luther, The 95 Theses, Thesis 1).

It has been over five hundred years since these words were posted in Wittenberg and the Reformation caught fire; five centuries of flinging ourselves by faith onto Christ alone as he is freely offered to us in the gospel, crying out in our sin and misery for God’s mercy to be given to us apart from works of the law. We stand on the shoulders of great Reformation era giants, these theological heavy weights who very literally put their necks on the line because their conscience was so bound to God’s word that they could do nothing else. But while we celebrate five hundred years of thumbing our noses at the pope in Rome, we so often find ourselves under the burden of the pope in our heart. 

I once saw a pastor in my area asking “How do you know that your faith is genuine?” The responses to the question were a mixture of heartbreaking and infuriating. “Are you truly repenting? Are you active in making disciples? Are you diligent in reading the Bible? Are you faithfully attending worship?” This is what can be called adverb theology. The question isn’t just did you repent, but did you fully repent. Did you believe or did you truly believe? Are you resting in Christ or are you completely resting? In this very subtle way we take what we hear in the gospel and turn it back into law so that at the end of the day, salvation is about if I’m believing hard enough. If we do this, we will find ourselves distorting faith back into a work, grace back into merit, and freedom back into slavery. It is merely legalism painted over with a veneer of piety, and just like every other time we seek to find our true justification by the law, it crushes us.

I have no fear of an old man in a pointy hat in Rome trying to bind my conscience and telling me that I must do xyz. But I do fear the fictional, internal pope that desires so desperately to sit back on the throne of my heart and ask me about how hard I believed. I’m terrified of that legalist in the mirror who nitpicks my sins and asks not if I am resting in Christ, but how well I am resting. He mocks me and tells me that my weak faith isn’t enough. Because the questions adverbial theology raises don’t give rest. They can’t give peace or assurance. “Did you repent enough? Are you diligently reading God’s word? Are you believing hard enough?”

Probably not. 

But Christ died for me anyway. 

The great danger of adverb theology is that it calls us to move the goalposts and make the measure of our standing before God the strength of our faith, rather than the object of it. It calls us to find our assurance in if our faith is strong enough. But weak faith in a strong Christ is still saving faith. 

Rather than adverbial theology, we must cling to what a Facebook friend of mine, Pastor Dan Warne, has called prepositional theology. We are to Christ who died for you. You are in him by faith and so will be raised with him on the last day. Crying out to God, your sins are put on Christ, and your sins are forgiven today. Not a better you, not a more sanctified you, not a you who isn’t and never will be enough. You are free and there is nobody – not Satan, sin, death, or even the adverbial pope in your heart – who can condemn or speak a better word of you. So then do not submit yourself back to an adverbial law for your hope, security, or identity. But rejoice! And rejoicing, ground yourself in the promises of Christ who is enough.

Yes, Luther was right. The entire life of believers is one of repentance. But repentance is not another indulgence. The mercy we have in Christ does not come to us because we have repented hard enough or long enough. Christ does not measure your forgiveness based on the strength of the adverbs that you bring to the table. Rather, because he has died for you, because he is enough, go in the peace and freedom that you have in him.