Justification: What is it?

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Resurrection of Christ (source)

Justification, in the proper sense of the word, is a covenantal — or to put it in the Reformational sense, legal — declaration of divine acquittal. It is God’s declaration: “found not guilty”. It is God’s vindication of the one lost in sin and death.

This concept of divine acquittal is found all throughout the scriptures. It is most dramatically found in the imprecatory Psalms. The Psalmist, under the oppression of his enemies, cries out for vindication, for the divine acquittal.

For instance, David prays in Psalm 109:

But you, O God my Lord,
    deal on my behalf for your name’s sake;
    because your steadfast love is good, deliver me!

He also prays in Psalm 26:

Vindicate me, O Lord,
    for I have walked in my integrity,
    and I have trusted in the Lord without wavering.
Prove me, O Lord, and try me;
    test my heart and my mind.

The context of these Psalms is oppression and guilt. David is asking to be judged not guilty. He is asking to be vindicated, justified before the evil oppressor.

What is more, Augustine rightly noted that these Psalms are ultimately about the Messiah, of whom David was a picture. David, although a man after God’s own heart, was not ultimately worthy of vindication. Thus, David spoke in the person of Christ. Christ is the ultimate oppressed one, under the guilt and shame of the world, crying out for vindication.

Paul says in 1 Timothy 3:16 of Christ:

Great indeed, we confess, is the mystery of godliness: He was manifested in the flesh, vindicated by the Spirit, seen by angels, proclaimed among the nations, believed on in the world, taken up in glory.

What is this vindication in the Spirit? The word Paul uses dikiaou, justification. Christ himself was justified in the Spirit! Paul is saying that Christ himself was judged as righteous. But what does this mean?

It means that God saw him under the weight of condemnation, judged him as undeserving, and delivered him. Or, put another way, God acquitted him of the suffering he experienced on the cross, and “vindicated” him. What was this vindication? We get a hint from Romans 4 where Paul tells us that Christ died for our sins and raised for our justification. When Paul tells us that Christ was vindicated in the Spirit, he means that Christ was raised from the dead. Christ’s enemies judged him as guilty and killed him. God judged him as not guilty and raised him. He reversed the judgment of his enemies.

What this all means is that God’s vindication of Christ was not simply a bare acquittal, but a divine action. God’s judgment led to God’s deliverance. God’s judgement of “not guilty” led him to, as Peter says, “loose the pangs of death”, and free Christ from death. This means that God’s judgement and his action of resurrection is one divine action. God simultaneously judges and rescues.

This may seem irrelevant, but it is important to note the connection between God’s justification of Christ and his resurrection of Christ. The Reformation doctrine of justification has notoriously been labeled as a “legal fiction”. God acquits the guilty and leaves them as they are. Well, that’s not actually true! God’s judgement and impartation of new life are one and the same, one connected reality. And the reason for this is because God’s divine word is simultaneously his divine action.

Luther explains that God’s words are not bare declarations, but are “things very great and wonderful, which we see with our eyes and feel with our hands” (The Genius of Luther’s Theology, 42). The word is not intangible, but touchable, seeable, effective. And why? As Robert Kolb rightly says: God’s “word does what it says” (ibid, p43). Elsewhere Luther says that God’s Word “contains all the fullness of God” (Theology of Martin Luther, 353). When God communicates, he effects what he says. Robert Kolb cites Luther’s commentary on Genesis in which Luther rightly says that when God desires to create, he doesn’t do, but he speaks: “Whatever God wanted to create, he created when he spoke” (ibid, p 43). In other words, God’s Word is not like our words. Our words can merely describe reality, while God’s word creates reality!

This makes sense too when we think of the court room analogy. When a judge acquits someone of their crime, it doesn’t matter whether they are guilty or not: the person judged “not guilty” is thereby freed. The judge’s word is creative and effective. The prisoner is freed to go. Or, take for instance an umpire in a baseball game. If he says: “you’re out!”, it matters not whether you think he was correct or not, you’re out. His word creates reality.

Robert Kolb says this about justification:

Thus, there is no conflict between being declared righteous and being made righteous… The word [of God] does what it says. When God declares a person righteous, that person is actually righteous. The Word has brought about a new reality (ibid, p 43)

When God declares a sinner righteous “for the sake of Christ”, he is not speaking falsities: he is creating a new reality. As he created the world through his Word, he recreates the sinner through his Word.

Thus, God renders or judges us righteous and resurrects us, frees us from the domain of sin, makes us and constitutes us as new creatures. Properly, this divine judgement is a participation in Christ’s own vindication from the dead: God judges us in Christ and raises us above our oppressors and seats us in heavenly places with him.

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What is the meaning of the atonement? A proposal

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Harrowing of Hell by Duccio di Buoninsegna ca. 1255 – 1319 (source)

At basic, the atonement is the doctrine of what God did to unite man with himself. Assumed in this doctrine is of course a foundational doctrine of original sin: mankind is not one with God, and thus needs to be made one.

Among the differing opinions of just what God has done to reconcile with mankind are two options.

One option is what we might call the legal doctrine of atonement. This legal atonement is posited in one of two ways: the Anselmian type and the penal substitution type. Both of these versions posit that the principal thing that separates man from God is the legal offense of sin. And thus, the thing to be removed is this offense.

Anselm posited an atonement theory which essentially proposed that God is offended by our sin, and Christ offers himself up to the Father as a satisfaction for sin. It is his self-gift which “covers our offense” and thus God forgives us. A more modern theory is commonly called penal substitution: in order for God to unite with man, he in fact must punish sin. Christ is punished by the Father in our place, and thus our sins are removed.

Without wholesale rejecting truths in these construals, I have issues. The struggle I have with these theories is that the problem the atonement means to solve is found in God: God is offended, and that is the thing that keeps us from reconciliation. Of course, our sin is offensive. But I wonder: why would that offense demand the death of the Son? Why couldn’t something else be done to rid the offense of sin? Is God unable to forgive without some sort of satisfaction? To be sure, it is said in scripture that Christ is a sacrifice for sin. Like the sacrifices of the Old Testament, Christ becomes a holy offering, a gift given over to the Father. And yet, I have yet to find it stated as such that without it God could not forgive us. To be sure, as well, we are said to be received into fellowship “for the sake of Christ”, something that the Reformation rightly recognized: we are not the cause of our salvation. Christ himself is the cause. He is our advocate before the Father. But again, this does not follow that Christ had to bear God’s wrath for our forgiveness. God receives us rather for the sake of who Christ himself is: he is the righteous servant, the obedient Son.

Patrick Henry Reardon rightly mentions that in Jesus’ parables, there is an assumption that forgiveness is something that, if it is to be forgiveness (!!), must be given freely without payment. Reardon says this:

The image of man’s “debt” owed to God is, of course, perfectly biblical. Jesus spoke of God as “a certain creditor who had two debtors” (Luke 7: 41). He also described the judgment of God as the summoning of the master’s debtors (16: 1– 12). But with regard to this debitum of the Lord’s parables, we encounter an immense irony: It is the whole point in these parables that the debt is not paid; it is simply forgiven. As the Church Fathers understood these parables, they refer not specifically to the work of Christ, but to the mercy of God and to man’s obligation to imitate that mercy.  (Reclaiming the Atonement, Kindle 816-821)

By God’s mercy he releases us of our debt. Our justification is through Christ, “for the sake of Christ” yes, but that is not the same as saying that God forgives us because he punished Christ.

With all that said, I do accept some legal aspects of the cross. However I do not think that the primary purpose of the cross was to remove a legal barrier of God’s offense to our sin. He does hate our sin, to be sure. But in my estimation we must locate the reason for the cross elsewhere. The atonement makes us at one with God for yet another reason.

I would like to propose a second type of atonement which I would like to call participatory atonement:

Gerhard Forde once wrote that God is only “satisfied” when he recreates sinners who are no longer under wrath. “Christ’s work, therefore, ‘satisfies’ the wrath of God because it alone creates believers, new beings who are no longer ‘under’ wrath” (A More Radical Gospel, 97). In this sense God is doesn’t need payment so much as he desires to remove the barrier of sin from his people.

Of course, this still doesn’t help us understand the atonement, but it does help us to understand the real barrier: the problem isn’t God but rather us. We are the sinners who have been so corrupted and lost, that it will not suffice for God to simply forgive us. We must be radically recreated. But how does this recreation happen, and even more, how does this relate to the atonement? What I want to propose is that the atonement is nothing less than God’s radical solidarity with us in our sin, a traveling down into the depths of our fallenness in order to recreate us and raise us up.

Robert Jenson, in his Systematic Theology volume 2, says that the atonement is what it costs God to remain our loving Father; or, to remain in union with his people, to be in fellowship with humanity. What did it cost? How could he remain our Father even in the midst of our sin? Very simply, it cost him death. In order for him to remain what he wanted to be for us, he had to die.

But why death? Why the gruesome reality of the crucifixion?

Well, because that was our reality. We were in sin and death and corruption and fallenness. We were a broken mess. God could have in his sovereign legal power simply acquitted us of our wrongs, but that would not have been enough. It would not have changed our fundamentally fallen situation. And so, he had to do something about it. And what he did, was he stepped into our fallen situation. This is the fundamental point of the incarnation: God steps into our situation to redeem it.

Reardon explains it this way:

[T]he Incarnation was far more than a condition for our salvation. It served, rather, as the effective model and exemplar of salvation. The Church Fathers insisted that the “full humanity” of Jesus Christ was essential to man’s redemption, because “whatever was not assumed was not redeemed.” (Reclaiming the Atonement, kin loc, 93-94)…

[I]f the fact of the Incarnation means that the Word adopted the fullness of human experience— sin excepted, says the Epistle to the Hebrews— then nothing human can be excluded from the study of redemption. The Word, embracing our humanity, took possession of all of it in order to redeem all of it. (231-33)

Reardon goes on to say that Christology is soteriology. God became man. God took on the fullness of our experience; and why did he do that? To redeem it; to transform it; to renew it; to glorify it. The early fathers of the church were fond of reversing their Christology in order to explain salvation: God became man; why? So that man might become God. By that they meant that God came down to raise us up. Christology is soteriology.

David Fagerberg explains it this way: “Our deification (sanctification) is twinned to Christ’s Incarnation. Mankind enters into the life of God because of his hypostatic union” (Consecrating the World, p 60). Fagerberg quotes John Chrysostom who says this about the incarnation and resurrection: “Two things He has done, the greatest things. He has both Himself descended to the lowest depth of humiliation, and has raised up man to the height of exaltation.” (ibid, 61)

Thus God condescended into our midst, into the brokenness of our situation, to redeem and raise us up. We may call this a model of participation or solidarity. God becomes what we are — sinful, broken, fallen — in order to make us what he is.

Thus the incarnation, cross, resurrection, ascension, must be seen as a whole. The cross is very simply the deepest depth of our fallen condition. Christ travels into the realm of death and defeats that reality, what the Eastern fathers called the harrowing of hell (icon above). God the Father vindicates (justifies) Christ from the dead, and enthrones our human nature at his right hand.

Mark A. McIntosh says this of the cross:

What we see happening in Christ on the cross is the stretching out of God to us in our affliction and separation from hope. There, in Jesus’ cry of dereliction, we see the Word of God finding us, sharing our plight, crying out to the Father. Our lostness and distance from each other and from God has been embraced within the “distance” of God’s eternal life of love, embraced within the love of the Father for the Son and the love of the Son for the Father, that one love — the bond of supreme union… — whom we know as God the Holy Spirit… Our suffering is forever embraced and suffered within this eternal loving which is God’s life. (Mysteries of Faith, 38-39)

In love, in forgiveness, God comes into our death, enters into our darkness, and embraces us so as to transform us. Salvation then is the reception of this embrace. We are acquitted of our wrongs “for the sake of Christ” and raised up and seated with Christ on high, removed from our fallen situation.

Justified by Faith: What Does it Mean?

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Robert W. Jenson, in the third chapter of his small booklet Lutheran Slogans: Use and Abuse, talks about the misconception and confusion brought about by the slogan “faith alone”. Just how are we saved by faith alone? Or to put another way, what is it about faith that is so effective in saving man?

Jenson explains that faith, according to the classical Protestant accounts, justifies “because God credits the fruits of Jesus’ atoning work to those in whom he finds faith. Despite what God sees when he looks at us sinners, he for Christ’s sake judicially declares us righteous” (p 17). At the end of his chapter, Jenson ultimately finds this conception of justification lacking. In fact he calls it an “arbitrary” decree (p 21)!

In any case, he expounds on Luther’s own understanding of just how faith saves from his classic work The Freedom of the Christian. Jenson expounds two ways in which Luther understood that faith makes the sinner just, righteous, “saved”:

The first. Luther observes that believing in someone is the highest honor we can bring him. Therefore believing in God just is fulfillment of the first table of the commandments. And as ecumenical theology has always supposed, obeying the second table is the natural result of obeying the first, however slowly or with however many setbacks this may take place. If we trust God, we will seek to fulfill his stated will (p 18)

As Luther says in his Small Catechism, fulfilling the first commandment is very simply “trusting…God above all other things”. That, according to Luther, is the essence of faith: trusting God, placing your security in him, finding your ultimate source in him. In this way, to have faith in Christ is itself a righteous act, presumably brought about by the Spirit. And thus we are righteous by faith.

Second, Luther expounds upon an Aristotelian principle: “for Aristotle, seeing was the chief channel of openness to reality; therefore, so far as my subjectivity is concerned, I become what I see” (p 19). Luther took this concept, but applied it to the hearing of the gospel. Jenson explains:

[Luther] regarded hearing rather than seeing as the dominating way by which in this life we are opened to an other. According to Luther… I become what is addressed to me, what I must hearken to.

Therefore, if what we attend to is the word of God, we are merely thereby shaped by the Word’s content. Hearkening to the Word, we are constituted as persons by the good things the Word communicates, peace and love and righteousness and so on…[Thus], when Jones is grasped by the gospel, “Jones is righteous” is straightforwardly true… (p 19)

The adage “you become what you eat” might well be termed “you become what you hear” in Luther’s understanding. If we hear the word of the gospel, that gospel makes its way into us and thereby transforms us. Jenson takes one last step however. Because, according to John and other biblical writers, the ultimate word of God is the Word of God. Put another way, the fullest form of the gospel is the person of Christ himself. To grasp the gospel is to grasp Christ himself. Therefore, hearing and being grasped by the gospel is, for Luther, to be grasped by Christ himself, to be in vital union with his person. “Thus Luther made it a principle of his theology: ‘In such faith Christ is present’. Faith makes us personally and actually righteous because faith is a transforming and ruling presence in us of the righteous one himself” (p 20).

Just as an aside, this is why Luther was quite emphatic about the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist. The sacrament of the Supper is nothing else than a verbal word of promise, and where the promise of the gospel is, there also, is Christ. Thus, he is right there on every altar wherever the Eucharist is practiced; and he’s there whether we realize it or not.

In any case, Luther understood that by grasping the promise of the gospel in faith, one was grasping none other than Christ, and this personal union of Christ and the believer was thus real and transformative: it made the believer really and truly righteous.

Jenson closes this chapter, as I have already noted, by stating that justification by faith as a bare declaration is simply not enough to get to the heart of this doctrine:

The alternative theory of justification, as sheer decree by the divine Judge “in the forum of heaven”, for all the genius that has been devoted to its plausible defense, cannot finally be rescued from making God’s justifying seem arbitrary” (p 21)

While I’m not sure I would go that far, I do agree with him that Luther’s own understanding of faith as involving a transformative union with the person of Christ is central to his teaching. We are justified not simply by divine decree, but by grasping Christ himself. We find our righteousness in none other than the righteousness of Christ himself!

His will is in the Law of the Lord

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Byzantine Icon, Moses Law Giver

Luther is commonly accused of disparaging the Law. This comes from his famous distinction between Law and Gospel. This was, of course, borrowed from Augustine, who distinguished between what he called Law and grace.

In any case, the Law for both Luther and Augustine was not in itself negative. Rather, for the unspiritual man, it is, as Augustine says, “an obstacle in many ways unless grace assists. This shows, moreover, the function of the law: it makes people guilty of transgression and forces them to take refuge in grace in order to be liberated and helped to overcome evil desires. It commands…[but does not] liberate” (On the Grace of Christ). For the fleshly man, the law is a burden, a commander that cannot empower, and because of this, is condemns.

But what about the Law for the Spiritual man? Luther has a wonderful commentary on the first Psalm that illuminates his understanding of the Law. On the one hand, it is obvious that for Luther that the Law is, as he say, “wearisome”, for the ungodly man (LW, V 10, p 13). However, for the godly man, is a delight.

Commenting on verse 2 — “but his will is in the Law of the Lord” — Luther says this:

That is, not only does the hand do the law of the Lord, either compelled by necessity of fear of punishment or attracted by the hope of earthly gain, without any desire, but he does it with a cheerful and free will (p 13)

Luther distinguishes the the Spiritual man from the fleshly by maintaining that the this man does the law cheerfully. It is a delight to him. It is not something imposed, something fearful, in competition with his own will. Rather, he does it freely. He clarifies, “this does not apply to those who are under the Law in a spirit of bondage in fear, but to those who are in grace…thence Christians are called free, spontaneous and free” (13). Luther goes on to say that the Jews obeyed the Law “only with the hand”, that is, only externally. But it was wearisome for them. It was against their own willing, and thus God was in competition with them, imposing his will from the outside.

On the contrary, the spiritual man obeys willingly, spontaneously, and most importantly, from within. Luther says:

Therefore Thy law is not in the outer edges and skin of my heart, but in the inside, in the innermost and complete dedication. But with the Jews it scarcely grazed their heart gently because of fear (p 14)

The spiritual man delights in the law because it has made its own way inside. This is a picture of what happens in the New Covenant: the externalized law that imposed itself makes its way to the inside such that it is no longer an imposition but a desire, a delight. Luther finishes by saying this:

Christ does not want His rule to rest on force and violence, because then it would not stand firm, but he wants to be served willingly and with the heart and the affections… It is for this reason that he gave his Spirit… These are the ones whose delight is in the law of the Lord, since this is something that comes out of us apart from the Spirit of God (pp 14-15)

 

 

 

The Reformation Insight

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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.

Luther on Prayer

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In his book Martin Luther’s Theology: A Contemporary Interpretation, Oswald Bayers argues that prayer is “constitutive…for Luther’s theology” (p 346). Bayer lays out Luther’s theology of prayer from his sermon May 13, 1520, Rogate Sunday:

As nowhere else, this text documents in a pregnant way Luther’s reformational understanding of prayer; it shows very clearly not only how Luther explained the Trinity is such a way that its theological character of as promise was central, but also how his understanding of prayer itself had a trinitarian character. Whenever Luther preached in subsequent years on Rogate Sunday, he came back to the basic structure of what he articulated in this sermon (346)

Bayers quotes this sermon, which follows 5 steps that, as he says, are centered around God’s promise and his triunity. Luther says:

Every prayer consists of five [identifying characteristics]; otherwise the prayer is offered in vain.

The first is the promise of God, which is the foundation on which the entire prayer relies: if there were no promise, our prayer would be worthless; it would be unworthy of a favorable hearing, since it would rely on its own merit.

The second is that one states the specifics…so that the scattered thoughts can be focused on the godly promise, because I hope to acquire help; this is what one calls gathering one’s thoughts. Based on this, [self]-selected little prayers… are not priestly prayers, since they do not gather one’s thoughts, nor do they summarize the matter on the heart that seeks resolution

Third: faith is necessary, by means of which I believe in the God who makes promises, that I can expect that what I pray for is possible without having doubt. To be sure, God ensures that all things are guaranteed not because of you and your prayer, but because of his trustworthiness, by means of which he has promise that he will give it…

Fourth, [the prayer] is uttered with earnestness, not with a vacillating spirit and not as if one does not urgently desire the thing for which one prays… This would be a mockery to God, as if he were not willing to guarantee what he had promised… (347)

Before we move to the fifth mark, which transitions to the trinitarian structure: notice here that all of prayer is dependent not on the one who prays, but on the God who promises. God is the one who gives the riches of himself in his Son, and promises to hear and answer because of his benevolence, not because of our worthiness or lack thereof. This is why Luther says in step two not repeat selected little prayers. He has in mind not liturgical prayers (Jesus gave us a prayer to memorize!!), but rather mindless praying. Prayer must be thoughtful, filled with the content of God’s benevolence. Prayer this is not a passive enterprise; it is one that remembers and claims God’s covenant promises in Christ.  

Next, Luther ventures into the trinitarian structure of prayer in his fifth mark:

Fifth, such prayer takes place in the name of Jesus, by whose command and by whose authority we can come confidently before the Father of all things. Thus it cannot happen that the prayer goes without being heard: the Father has promised an answer through the Son, as through an instrument. And our sins hurt Christ; he prays concerning them in heaven, as if they were his own. Tell me now: what could cause a rejection here? The Son prays in heaven in my name; I pray on earth in his name. Thus the righteousness of Christ is my own, my sins are Christ’s: this is admittedly an unequal exchange. And both come to purity together: my sins vanish in Christ and his holiness washes me clean, so that I become worthy of eternal life (347-8)

Notice here that prayer is located in the Son before the Father. This is what Bayer means that Luther’s theology of prayer is trinitarian. In prayer, sinners are unequally yoked to Christ, and being in him, they come worthily before the Father. And thus it is because of that union with Christ that their prayers are heard. We may speak to the Father because Christ has latched himself to us and us to himself, and thus we are one mystical person in conversation with the Father.

Bayer expounds on this principle:

The final section [of Luther’s sermon, number 5,] answers the decisive question: How can I have any right to address the one who has power over all things, and furthermore, how can I be confident I will be heard?

Freedom from such uncertainty and from our sins comes to us only in connection with that event in which God himself comes to us and brings us to himself: in the way God comes as the triune one. For only in the differentiation and yet mutual connection between Father, Son and Spirit can we be certain concerning the speech in action of God, as those who believe and as those who pray… (348)

Bayer means to say that our prayer is heard because in salvation, we come to inhabit the “mutual connection between the Father, Son and Spirit”. We become one person with the Son in the power of the Spirit, and thus the Father hears us because we are in his Son. Put more simply, we come to the Father not in and of ourselves, but in the Son. We are, to put it sacramentally, in vital union with Christ through baptism: we die and rise with him, and ascend with and in him to the Father. We are seated with him in the heavenly places (Eph 2:6).

Just as an aside as we end, it is worthy noting here that Luther did not have a merely extrinsic understanding of salvation, as many accuse. Christ is not “out there” representing us to the Father. Christ is in us, we are in him, and thus we are taken up with him to the Father. Luther famously says that “in faith itself Christ is present”. By this he means that to have faith means principally to be vitally united to Christ.

What all of this means is that prayer is effective because God donates the very person of his Son to us, and we become one person with him. We come in Christ by the Spirit to the Father. And thus our prayer is heard!

 

The Scandal of the Incarnation

ol_crucifixion

Icon of the Crucifixion (source)

Tertullian once said that “the flesh is the hinge, the decisive criterion, of salvation”. What did he mean by this? What he meant was that the full assumption and renewal of the “flesh” by God the Son in the incarnation is of utmost importance for mankind’s redemption. If God the Son did not assume a fully human nature, if he did not renew it completely, then mankind is not fully saved.

Irenaeus, echoing Tertullian, says this about the incarnation:

There was no other way for us to receive incorruptibility and immortality than to be united to incorruptibility and immortality. But how could we be united to incorruptibility and immortality without incorruptibility and immortality first becoming what we are, the perishable putting on imperishability, the mortal putting on immortality (cf. 1 Cor. 15:54), ‘so that we might receive adoption as sons’ (Gal 4:5)? Advurses Haereses, III 19, 1

In other words, salvation is not possible unless God takes on human flesh. This is where the early church come up with the formula of the great exchange: God becomes what man is, so that man might become what God is. Irenaeus says it this way: “The Son of God became the Son of Man, so that through him we might receive adoption. This takes place when man receives and bears and embraces the Son of God” (Ibid, III 18, 7). God the Son takes what is ours — the fallen flesh — and bestows upon it a participation in his divine sonship. Irenaeus continues by saying:

The Word of God became man, assimilating Himself to man and man to Himself, so that, by His resemblance to the Son, man might become precious to the Father… When the Word of God was made flesh… He restored and made fast the likeness, making man like the invisible Father through the visible Word” (ibid, V 16, 2)

Crucial to the gospel is the flesh, the worldly. God has descended to earth not to get us out of the world, but to recreate and refashion the flesh according to the divine pattern of life. This is what the early fathers call theosis or divinization: it is to participate in God through the descension of God the Son into our fallen situation. The gospel is principally the glorification of the flesh through the humiliation of the Son. It is the ontological raising up of mortal humanity that lies in death, endowing man with God’s own eternal glory.

This of course sounds scandalous, and it is! The shock of the gospel is, as Balthasar says, that “God becomes nothing, so that nothings might become God” (The Scandal of the Incarnation, p 53). How can the ineffable God raise us up in this manner? Surely this is too good to be true! But it isn’t: God has united himself to man and has risen him up to such great heights in Christ.

One reason the doctrines of incarnation, theosis, divinization, are so scandalous, is because Gnosticism, though not explicit, is a common presumption within western Christianity. Gnosticism was the earliest of the church heresies. Gnosticism in its most elemental form was “the belief that the lower, material sphere, the ‘flesh’, the world of the ‘psychic’, was contemptible, something to be vanquished, while the higher, spiritual world was all that was excellent, the only thing worth cultivating” (ibid, 1). Therefore the goal of redemption was not for God to glorify the flesh, but for man to escape from the material world into the spiritual life of God.

There were numerous myths about how the material world came to be. In any case, the world was understood within Gnosticism to be a lower or fallen state of being. The fall within Gnostic myth was the imprisonment of the spiritual in the material. Even more, to think that God, the highest of all beings, would not only embrace the flesh, but become flesh, was unthinkable. Irenaeus explains:

[The gnostics] reject the commixture of the heavenly wine. They only want to be the water of this world and will not admit god into commixture with them. And so they remain in the Adam conquered and cast out of Paradise. They fail to see that, as at the beginning of our formation in Adam the breath of life which comes from God was united to what had been formed, animating man, and showed him to be a rational animal, so, at the end, the Word of the Father and the Spirit of God, united to the ancient substance of Adam’s formation, made man living and perfect, capable of knowing the perfect Father (Advurses Haereses, V 1, 3)

What results from this Gnostic mindset is a radical anti-materialism. The end goal of the spiritual life is not for the world to be fitted with God’s life, divinized, but rather for man to find the spiritual god outside of the world. For this reason, the Gnostics were anti-sacramental, anti-worldly, rather, in favor of a higher spiritual “knowing” which lifted them out of the world. Balthasar explains:

The Gnostic impulse secretly or openly animates all those modern world-views which see body and spirit, bios and ethos, nature and God, in antagonism or opposition… One of ancient Gnosticism’s favourite doctrines, vigorously satirized by Irenaeus, is the glorification of the ‘eternal quest’, the idea being that the supreme principle, the ‘Groundless One’, is unknowable. It is not difficult to see why this emotional attachment to seeking, which despises as bourgeois, should have revived in our own times. But the clearest proof of the continuing relevance of the second-century struggle against Gnosticism is the fashionable interest, within the Christian church, in Zen meditation. This is essentially anti-incarnational. All sensible images, all words and concepts must be removed, so that there is nothing left but the unfathomable void in which a supposedly superobjective insight (gnosis) can flourish. However mutually contradictory these currents of thought may at first sight appear to be, they are united in their ‘spiritualizing’ flight from matter and the ‘flesh’. Modern materialism seems to be an exception, and yet it too is opposed to the Christian principle of Incarnation. (The Scandal of the Incarnation, p 5-6)

Balthasar explains here the modern influence of Gnosticism: the quest to find God by emptying oneself, by ridding oneself of the objects and materials that “get in the way”. God is that unknowable spiritual principle to which we must escape. This, to Irenaeus, is anti-Christian, precisely because it is ant-Incarnational.

Balthasar concludes his thought:

In practice, [modern Gnostics] regard matter as something to be dominated, and in man himself as the way to power. Myth and Christianity are opposed on every point. Myth seeks the ascent of man to spirit; the Word of God seeks descent into flesh and blood. Myth wants power; revelation reveals the true power of God int he most extreme powerlessness (ibid, 6)

Gnosticism is ignorantly rampant in western Christianity. What we must return to is the scandalous gospel of God’s own descent into man’s fallen situation; his very gift of life to raise us up; his very desire to unite heaven and earth!