Justice and Mercy Only God could resolve the insoluble paradox
Mt McDonald, near Cowra, was once a thriving mining town. Now it is only a few pieces of ruined foundations, and innumerable mine shafts. Over the years it has become less than a ghost town.
It sometimes seems the doctrine of justification by faith has suffered the same fate. For Martin Luther, it was the wonderful, gleaming treasure of the gospel, the grand announcement of God. His account of the moment he understood justification by faith is justly famous. He tells how he had struggled with Romans 1:17, in which the revelation of God’s righteousness had seemed to spell his condemnation. For he could never reach God’s righteousness.
Then, he tells us, “I began to understand that the righteousness of God is that by which the righteous lives by a gift of God, namely by faith ... the righteousness of God is revealed by the gospel, namely the passive righteousness with which God justifies us by faith.”
With that he saw that he was not a condemned sinner, desperately trying to satisfy the impossible demands of God’s righteousness; rather, by faith, he was a justified sinner. He says: “Here I felt that I was altogether born again and had entered paradise itself through open gates.”
But what so excited Luther seems a poor, deserted truth today. So often people sit in my lounge room, and I explain to them this overwhelming truth, and they shrug their shoulders. To most Australians, God’s forgiveness seems normal, routine and unexceptional. It is as if we say “what else do you expect — forgiving is God’s job”.
Even in churches today justification is a rather tarnished, unimpressive piece, tucked at the back of the theological trophy cabinet. We get far more excited about so many other things.
What has happened to justification by faith? I want to explore some of the ways we misunderstand justification by faith, hoping that if we rediscover its real truth, we will once again experience its wonder.
Faith in what? “Only believe” says the preacher “simply have faith, and you will know God’s forgiveness”. Have you heard words like that? Often the speaker has not told us in what we are to trust, nor in whom. Justification by faith does not mean that we simply must “have faith” in anyone and anything. No, our faith is to be in the Lord Jesus, who died and rose again. For it is not faith itself which has any power to make us right with God, but the crucified and risen Lord who justifies us. Faith means faith in him.
Yet so often Christians speak as if it is “faith” which has the power. People tell me that they have great faith. They mean that in a difficult situation they are sure things will turn out well. Indeed, they are convinced that it is their faith that will ensure a happy ending. This is ill-founded faith, for it claims from God things he has never promised, and it has no reference to the Lord Jesus. It is, in the end, faith in faith. This “faith” does not bring justification.
Another misunderstanding of justification by faith, is to reduce faith to agreeing that something is true — in this case something about Jesus. So people hear the gospel explained, it seems true to them, and they agree that they believe that. They don’t understand that “faith” means “trust” or “reliance”. It means throwing yourself on Jesus’ mercy, and abandoning any other hope. Paul’s powerful words in Philippians 3:7-9 express the reality of faith: “But whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord ... I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ.”
That is why “religiosity” is not the same as genuine faith, and in fact is often a counterfeit. Religious people may trust all sorts of “religious” things and hope these will make them acceptable to God. So while they may accept the Apostles’ Creed, and accept what the Bible says about Jesus: they may not genuinely trust Jesus.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer coined the phrase “cheap grace”. This is how he described it:
Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ.
This is a poor substitute which replaces genuine faith with a weak acceptance which makes no demands on the believer.
Real faith is relying on Jesus, and Jesus is the risen and ruling Lord. If you trust Jesus then you must obey him as Lord. This doesn’t mean that you are forgiven because you repent, or that in some way you earn your salvation. Justification is based on Jesus’ death on our behalf; it is all from God’s grace. But when you take God’s grace seriously, and trust yourself to the true Jesus — there is nothing cheap about this grace. John Calvin summarised the relationship between faith and obedience in this way:
Christ justifies no one whom he does not at the same time sanctify. These benefits are joined by an everlasting and indissoluble bond ... Do you wish, then, to attain righteousness in Christ? You must first possess Christ; but you cannot possess him without being made a partaker in his sanctification ... it is clear how true it is that we are justified not without works yet not through works ...
It is perilously easy to turn the gospel into cheap grace. When we talk to people about “faith”, and don’t focus them on Jesus and who he is and what he offers and calls for; then we can easily give the impression that faith (and justification) can be separated from a life of discipleship.
The distortion of cheap grace explains why some people claim the message of justification by faith is dangerous. To tell people that there is nothing we can do, that we can add nothing to salvation by our efforts and that all we can rely on is God’s grace in the Lord Jesus: that sounds to them like a recipe for Christian slackness. “Surely,” they protest, “if we tell people this, then they won’t try anymore, they will indulge in sin.”
This concern may come from having heard justification by faith taught as cheap grace. Often, however, the suspicion comes from not understanding the reality of Christian living. The Bible does mention the thought that God’s grace could be an excuse for sin (Romans 3:7-8, 6:1), but that thought is immediately dismissed. Instead, God’s grace is the great motivation for authentic discipleship. Romans 12:1 urges us, in view of God’s mercy, to live our lives as sacrifices to God. When we realise that God has freely forgiven us, and freed us from the guilt and power of sin, then our response should be lives devoted to Jesus.
When I was growing up someone told me this story to explain justification. “A boy at school misbehaves, the teacher knows someone has done the wrong thing and is trying to discover the culprit. Before the investigation is complete, a friend of the boy confesses to the misdeed, and receives the punishment instead.”
This, it seemed, was how God worked. I deserved to be punished, but Jesus was punished instead of me; and I could be treated as if innocent (that is, I was justified). The problem is the massive injustice in the story. Why should an innocent party be punished, and how would that help the guilty? (Especially since God is not as easily tricked as the teacher!) If this is how we are justified, is it profoundly unjust?
The answer is in seeing the relationships Jesus has. On the one hand, he is God: one with the Father. So he is not another, innocent party (simply a friend), but the God who has been offended and is justly angry at sin. God the Son takes on himself divine anger. Moreover, in giving his Son, God the Father pays the price of atonement. As Karl Barth expressed it, “the judge judged in our place”.
That still leaves the question of how we can benefit from Jesus’ death. Is it a “legal fiction”, a judicial con for God to treat us as absolved for Jesus sake? Has God simply indulged in some creative accounting, moving things between our account and Jesus’? That is certainly the way justification sometimes sounds, and so people are critical of it.
Again the answer lies in Jesus’ relationship. He, God the Son, became one of us, and one with us, by sharing our human nature. When we come to faith in him, we are bound to him and united with him; so that what he has now becomes ours. Paul says to the Corinthians, “you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God — that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption” (1 Cor. 1:30). We have a new relationship with Christ, an intimate connection and sharing. We are in Christ, united with him. Because of that, what he has — wisdom, righteousness, holiness and redemption — becomes ours.
There is one misunderstanding that seems to be the root of many others. When we do not take God’s holiness seriously, we then won’t see how serious our own sin is. If we fail to grasp the sinfulness of sin, then God’s anger at sin will make no sense. If we no longer believe that God is justly angry and do not fear his wrath, then we will never understand what happened when Jesus died. If you do not understand holiness, sin, judgement and the cross: then justification by faith will seem like such an absurdity. If there is no fear of the judge, and no sense of guilt, what joy will there be to hear of our acquittal?
That is the difference between us and Martin Luther. If he knew nothing else, Luther knew that God would call him to account, and that God’s righteousness would demand more than he could ever meet. What a wonder, then, to discover that God’s righteousness was not, in fact, a demand. But that it was a gift, by which he made righteous those who entrusted themselves to him.
Australians, both Christian and non Christian, have so little sense of God’s holiness and our sinfulness, consequently we have no sense of the wonder of God’s mercy. If God will bring us back to those realities, we may, with Luther, seem to enter into paradise through open gates.