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 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.

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)

Put simply, Christ merited our salvation in principle “back there” in the past, but the fulfillment of that salvation depended on our fulfilling certain conditions of cooperation with the graces of the church now. The problem is that no matter the wording, “all practical difference [is] made by our present cooperating or not; and God [is] left without a role in actual life” (39).

Jenson explains that the medieval church saw all of this “cooperating” as electing grace:

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)

But of course this “anti-Pelagian codicil” made no difference on the lay-level. It makes no difference if it’s all by grace; 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: we are unconditionally affirmed by Jesus’ death and resurrection. And this affirmation is not simply something that occurred in the past. As Jenson says: “if the gospel is allowed in the present tense, if it is allowed to invade the previous reserve of “coorperation”, it says: ‘The Crucified one lives for you'” (41). We are affirmed unconditionally right now, received unconditionally right now. And all our growth or goodness comes from Christ’s living for and in me right now. It is all promise, not law.

Luther himself made a distinction between law and gospel. This distinction, for him, was what made a theologian essentially Christian. 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, you are freed from sin, Satan, and death. Because Christ has risen, we no longer are enslaved to the powers of the age. Because Christ became sin, I am no longer condemned. Because Christ is raised, I will therefore be raised. This is the promise of the gospel. It is the Reformational insight.

Justification and Resurrection

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I recently wrote a post on justification, in which I said, in essence, that justification itself has transformative elements to it. It is a word of pardon which at once delivers from bondage to sin and death.

This comes from Paul’s gospel preaching in Acts 13:38-39, in which he says that by faith, one is “justified” from all the things from which the Mosaic law could not free. I noticed that most biblical translations usually translate the word justified as “freed”: “one is freed from all the things from which Moses could not free” (cf ESV). My conclusion was that the impulse was correct: God frees us from bondage through his creative word in justification. Or, his pronouncement effects what it says.

After reading the post again, I’m not quite convinced I went far enough into the forensic or courtroom imagery, and that I didn’t do justice to what I was meaning to say (go figure!).

So, I want to add another element here that I hope can be formatted or integrated with my previous post. I still hold to the former post, that salvation is a declarative-rescue from the effects of sin and death, but it is also true in scripture that what Christ accomplished in his death and resurrection is judicial in nature, or rather relates to man’s guilt before God. So I want to expand a bit here, borrowing from the Catholic, Anglican and Lutheran tradition.

I want to concentrate on one peculiar verse from Romans 4: Paul says in Romans 4:25 that Christ was “delivered over to death for our sins and was raised to life for our justification”.

I want to notice a couple things here:

First, Christ was delivered over for our sins. Paul connects Christ’s death with our sin. But what does he mean to say by this connection? Very simply, the death of Christ was the mechanism which released mankind from its debt or offense of sin. This is why the Bible commonly calls the cross a sacrifice, an oblation, a holy offering to the Father, which operates as man’s way to forgiveness; or as Paul says in Ephesians 5:2, it was a “fragrant offering and sacrifice to God”, meant to compensate for the original sin and actual sins.

The Catechism of the Catholic church explains the death of Christ by saying this:

[Christ’s sacrifice is first] a gift from God the Father himself, for the Father handed his Son over to sinners in order to reconcile us with himself. At the same time it is an offering of the Son of God made man, who is freedom and love offered his life to his Father through the Holy Spirit in reparation for our disobedience. (paragraph 614)

His suffering was a self-gift, as self-offering, which, as the Catechism rightly states, “completes and surpasses all other sacrifices” found in the OT. It is offered to God the Father as a holy oblation of love.

The 39 Articles of the Anglican church explains his death this way: “[Christ came to] be a sacrifice, not only for original guilt, but also for all actual sins of men” (Article II); and also: “[Christ] came to be the Lamb without spot, who, by sacrifice of himself once made, should take away the sins of the world” (Article XV).

The whole point here is that Christ offered himself as a holy sacrifice to God in order to take away the offense of sin. This is properly the negative side of salvation: Christ’s death and suffering made reparation between God and man. (And, just by way of aside, it is this same sacrifice which God the Father looks to in order that he may continue forgiving us. We sin every day, and why does he continue to forgive? The cross! It is eternal in its effects.)

OK, but what I want to notice here (finally we come to the whole point of this post!!) is that while Paul attributes forgiveness of sin to the cross, he attributes justification to the resurrection. Did you notice? Paul tells us: Christ “was raised to life for our justification” (Rom 4:25). It is important to note this; usually when Protestant scholars search for a biblical-theological import or corollary for justification, it is the cross. However, Paul says justification is related to the resurrection!

What all of this means is that justification, at least from this verse, involves a a union with the resurrected Christ that communicates spiritual life. I would also argue that justification, at least from the fullness of Paul’s corpus, involves the negative aspect of the release of sin-debt. Justification, then, it may be argued, is simultaneously a pronouncement by God of “not guilty” (or “forgiven” or “not condemned”) and a gift of divine life through union with Christ. Or, put another way, justification is a pronouncement of “not guilty” which actualizes inner renewal through union with Christ.

Hence, we come to Peter Leithart’s definition of deliverdict: Justification is a pronouncement of forgiveness and a gift of new resurrection life. Or, it is a forensic pronouncement which effects a deliverance from death and condemnation. The Council of Trent says this of justification: “justification is not only a remission of sins, but also the sanctification and renewal of the interior man”. John Henry Newman defined justification in terms of a declarative word which was transformative: “[God] declares a fact, and makes it a fact by declaring it. He imputes, not a name but a substantial Word, which, being ‘ingrafted in our own hearts, is able to save our souls” (Lectures on Justification, Lecture 3, Par 8). God’s pronouncement of forgiveness effects ontic renewal.

And actually, this makes sense when one considers the mechanism of Christ’s own resurrection. Christ’s resurrection is properly effected by God’s declaration of Jesus’ own innocence and righteousness. Christ was put to death as a sinner and wretch by the authorities, but God vindicated Christ by raising him from the dead over all authorities and kings. Thus, God’s own judgment of Christ’s innocence effected his resurrection from the dead. They are one and the same action from God.

Newman himself calls Jesus’ resurrection his justification. Newman explains this way:

Our Lord’s justification, as St. Paul terms it,…took place upon His resurrection… Christ differs from us in this, that He was the true and eternal Son, we sons only by adoption; He holy by nature, we made holy beyond nature; but He does not differ in His justification, which, simply considered, was what I have been showing ours to be, an open acknowledgment of Him by the Father as righteous and well beloved, yet not nominally such (God forbid) but really. St. Paul, who in one place says that Christ was “justified by the Spirit,” (see 1 Tim 3:16) explains himself elsewhere by saying that he was “declared to be the Son of God, with power, according to the Spirit of Holiness, by the resurrection from the dead.” (see Rom 1:4) (Lectures on Justification, lecture 3, par 7)

God’s word about Christ’s own righteousness effected his deliverance from death. Newman argues that it is the same as us: God’s pronouncement of forgiveness effects our union with Christ in his resurrection.

As we end, I want to look at one Lutheran scholar who has good insight on this issue. Jordan Cooper argues that Luther himself understood justification as both a forensic or declarative reality and as a ontological reality. Cooper says this:

Luther’s definition of justification contains two aspects: the legal and the effective. On the one hand, Luther confesses that we are imputed as entirely righteous through the alien righteousness of Jesus Christ, and on the other, he confesses that through the means of faith, we receive a new heart. (The Great Divide: A Lutheran Evaluation of Reformed Theology. Kindle Locations 3808-3810)

Jordan continues by saying that within the Lutheran tradition (at least for Luther), “imputation is the cause of sanctification and a renewed life” (Kindle loc 3813-14); and, “justification properly speaking is thus a legal declaration, but it is an effective declaration.” (Kindle loc 3827).

Cooper goes on to explain this principle in terms of God’s creative word:

To gain an understanding of the relationship between imputation and renewal, one need not go directly to Paul, but to the beginning of the Bible: “And God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light” (Gen 1: 3). God is a God who speaks. Not only does he speak, but he speaks with power. He does not speak descriptively, but as a divine potentate giving a command which is then brought into reality. Whereas human speech either describes, questions, or gives commands, God’s pronouncements enact what they proclaim. God says that it is so, and it is so. When God justifies the sinner, he is declared righteous and consequently is righteous. God’s word is a life-giving word and a creative word. As God declares the sinner to be justified, life is brought from death… (Kindle loc 3828-3834)

So then, justification is God’s word of forgiveness and acquittal which effects union with Christ in his resurrection.

Why Christians Need the Scriptures

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In his insightful, Freedom of the Christian, Martin Luther writes:

Let us then consider it certain and firmly established that the soul can do without anything except the Word of God and that where the Word of God is missing there is no help at all for the soul. If it has the Word of God it is rich and lacks nothing since it is the Word of life, truth, light, peace, righteousness, salvation, joy, liberty, wisdom, power, grace, glory, and ever incalculable blessing. This is why the prophet in the entire Psalm 119 and in many other place yearns and sighs for the Word of God and uses so many names to describe it…

Luther goes on to describe the Bible as one of the main pillars in the Christian faith. It is a necessary source of nourishment for the Christian. Even the Bible itself attests to this fact. Paul tells us that the scriptures give us encouragement and hope (Rom 15:4). The Psalmists tell us that God’s Word heals (Ps 107:20), and is a constant source of growth and life (Ps 1). Christ himself tells us that we are to live on the very words of God (Mt 4:11). Peter tells us to long and yearn for the scriptures as infants need milk (1 Pet 2:2). Jeremiah says of the scriptures, “Your words were found, and I ate them, and Your words because to me a joy and the delight of my heart. Overwhelmingly, we need the Bible, because it is God’s tool to nourish, sustain, and grow us. It is one of God’s main means to growing his people into the fullness of Christ (Eph 4:13).

But how does the Bible produce this sort of spiritual fruit within us? How does it help us and sustain us in this way?

Luther explains that the Bible does this by revealing to us the saving promises of God in the gospel, and producing faith within us. Luther even goes so far to say that “the Word [itself] is the gospel of God concerning his Son, who was made flesh, suffered, rose from the dead, and was glorified through the Spirit who sanctifies. [The Bible is meant to] feed the soul, make it righteous, set it free, and save it, provided it believes…Faith alone is the saving and efficacious use of the Word of God”.

Luther makes a remarkable point here, that the scriptures are centered around and concerned entirely with the gospel of Christ. I think he’s right; any cursory reading of the Bible will reveal that it doesn’t actually cover everything we need to know. The Bible is concerned with one thing: salvation. And so, the scriptures primarily revolve around the gospel. They center around God’s gracious plan to save sinners, atone for their sins, clothe them in righteousness, adopt them, and make them forever his. Paul tells us this is 2 Corinthians 1:20, that all of God’s saving promises and actions find their fulfillment in Jesus suffering for sinners. In fact, the overwhelming theme of the Old and New Testament is this: “And you shall be my people, and I will be your God” (Jer 30:22). This what the scriptures anticipate, long for, and find their fulfillment in. That God will have a redeemed people for himself in Jesus. And this is why Luther can say that the Bible is, in a very real way, the telling of the gospel itself.

But also, this is why the Bible is a delight, encouragement, nourishment, and a necessary source of growth: because the gospel is the only thing that justifies, sanctifies, and glorifies a sinner (1 Cor 1:30, Rom 16:25). As Luther says, “therefore it is clear that, as the soul needs only the Word of God for its life and righteousness, so it is justified by faith alone and not any works; for if it could be justified by anything else, it would not need the Word, and consequently it would not need faith“. The gospel and the Bible are inextricably bound together. Because as Luther says, the only reason we need the scriptures is because we need the gospel. And because we need the gospel, God gave us the scriptures. Anyone who enjoys the grace of God found in the gospel, will treasure, grow in, be founded upon, and desire fully to read and know the Bible.

God gave us a book to read over and over again, that we might remember again and again who God is, what he does for sinners, and how we are saved through Jesus. It is a book “concerning all things necessary for…man’s salvation, faith and life” (WCF).