I find myself reading once again Robert W. Jenson’s and Eric W. Gritsch’s excellent book Lutheranism: The Theological Movement and Its Confessional Writings. The book is written from both a theological and an historical perspective. The third chapter, however, strikes so very well at the heart of the insight of the Reformation.
Jenson, who writes this chapter, begins by explaining “the single great dogma of the Reformation was ‘justification by faith alone, without works of the law'” (p 36). He laments, however, that this singular doctrine, “one fears, [is] not so well-known” any longer. In fact,
most of Protestantism worries about [justification] not at all, having long since returned to various — bowdlerized — versions of medieval religion, supposing these to be the latest thing… [When Protestants do worry about justification], a usual concept is that the church has a list of discrete opinion-items to be accepted, that ‘justification by faith’ is one such item, and that Protestantism has for some reason decreed it the most important…
When ‘justification by faith’ is this taken for one item on an ideological list, the doctrine itself is interpreted correspondingly. The idea is that there is a list of things which God really wishes we would do — be kind to animals, be generous to the poor, be against way and injustice, that on this list is “believe in God”; and that, as a favor to Jesus, God has decided to let us off the rest of the list if we will do just this one (p 36)
And thus, “believe” or “have faith” is on this general list of things God wishes we would do.
But this is completely wrong, says Jenson: it is “the precise opposite of what the Reformation said. For the ‘believing’ that can be one of a list of desirable deeds or characteristics is just what the Reformers called a ‘work'” (p 36). And thus, the doctrine of justification by faith is turned into a work! “If you only believe”; “if you just raise your hand”; “if you just commit your life to God”. Jenson explains that this is the exact opposite of what justification by faith alone is meant to communicate. In fact, saying “‘God will be gracious…if only you believe’… proclaims a works-righteousness that makes medieval Catholicism seem a fount of grace” (37).
OK then: what is this Reformation doctrine of justification by faith all about? Jenson aptly explains: “‘faith’ did not specify a special condition of human fulfillment, it meant the possibility of a life freed from all conditionality of fulfillment” (37). The Reformers, in other words, understood justification by faith to mean: God has said “yes” to you in Christ. And this “yes” is given freely apart from any work you need to perform. “The Reformation insight and discovery [is that] the gospel is a wholly unconditional promise of human fulfillment…made by the narrative of Jesus’ death and resurrection” (42).
Jenson proposes that justification by faith, rather than being one important thing among other things, be a “meta-linguistic” communication; an “identifying characteristic of the [church’s] language-activity” (pp 42-43). He explains:
[Justification by faith] says: Whatever you talk about, do so in such a way that the justification your words open to your hearers is the justification that faith apprehends rather than the justification that works apprehend. Unpacking the words “justification” and “faith”, the proposed dogma says: Make the subject of your discourse those points in your and your hearers’ life where its value is challenged, and interpret the challenge by the story of Christ, remembering that when this is rightly done your words will be an unconditional promise of value (p 43)
Interpret all of your challenges by the narrative of Christ, Jenson says. To put it another way: justification by faith means that our lives are unconditionally “yes” in Christ. Every bit of our struggles are redeemed and renewed in Christ. We are unconditionally received in Christ, unconditionally made new in Christ, gifted with all of God’s life through this single narrative of Christ’s death and resurrection.
Jenson goes on to contextualize the doctrine of justification by faith by paying special attention to the situation of the medieval church:
The gospel in anyone’s version, is a promise that our life will be fulfilled by Christ. Whenever this promise is made, someone will rise and ask, But if he is to bring our meaning, what then is our role? What is the point of our works of culture and religion?
It was the great task of the patristic and medieval church to conquer and assimilate the cultural and religious heritage of the ancient world…However this might have been done, it was in fact done so: the availability of fulfillment was acknowledged as the sole work of Christ, temporally back there on the cross; our participation now in that fulfillment was made dependent on “cooperation” between God’s influence in our lives, “grace”, and our “natural” religious and ethical energies. (p 39)
The medieval church understood that Christ merited our salvation. However, that meriting was made “back there” in the past on the cross. Our present salvation — and more importantly, our future justification — now depends on our own cooperation; our own fulfilling certain conditions. It is by grace of course, but this grace depends on our present “yes” to God.
The problem is that no matter the wording, this is not good news: “all [the] practical difference [is] made by our present cooperating or not; and God [is] left without a role in actual life” (39). Yes yes, Christ did something “back there”, and yet the here and now is made dependent upon our work.
The medieval church recognized this issue, and in response, made a special qualification about this work we must do:
Medieval theology and pastoral practice sought to avoid [these problems] by what we may call the “anti-Pelagian codicil”: If, they said, our religious and ethical response to grace is in fact that we cooperate and so come to participate in the fruit of Christ’s work, this fact of our cooperation is itself a work of God’s goodwill and grace… [The] qualification [was], “of course, all this is by grace” (39)
Well, yes you must cooperate and work and do, but even that doing is God’s grace. His grace is all in the background. But of course this “anti-Pelagian codicil” made no difference on the practical level. Even if God is in the background the entire time, it is still a condition that I must meet. And thus, my justification is tantamount to my works. The result is, as Jenson says, that God himself becomes a threat; a fearful imposing Being who weighs my life. Will I cooperate with grace in the end? Will I justify my existence?
The Reformation insight is that any language about works, condition, cooperation, must be overthrown: the gospel means principally that we are unconditionally affirmed by Jesus’ death and resurrection. And this affirmation is not simply something that occurred in the past. As Jenson says: “the gospel is…present tense…: ‘The Crucified one lives for you'” (41). We are affirmed unconditionally right now, received unconditionally right now. And it is this affirmation made in and by Christ that makes us what we are: we are baptized into Christ, and thus our sins are drowned with him, and we are risen with him. All that is his is now ours freely and without condition.
Luther himself made a distinction between law and gospel. This distinction, for him, was what made a theologian a theologian. Jenson explains this distinction:
Law communication imposes an “if… then…” structure on life… [It] is the totality of all human communication, insofar as what we say to each other functions in our lives as demand, or, what is the same, poses the future conditionally…
[Whereas] a promise grants the pattern “because… therefore…”. “Because I love you”, I say to my daughter, “I will further your ambitions”. (44)
Because Christ has died and risen, therefore you are freed from sin, Satan, and death. Because Christ has risen, therefore we no longer are enslaved to the power of sin. Because Christ became sin, therefore I am no longer condemned. All of salvation is promise and gift, even our good works! This is the Reformation insight.