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Justification: Going Beyond the Protestant Gospel (to something more ancient)

October 15, 2017

 (Text: Romans 5)

This morning (as part of our series marking the 500th anniversary of the Reformation) it falls to me to say something about the word ‘justification.’

To begin with, I want to ask you to turn to your neighbor and share quickly what first springs to mind when you hear or see that word. What does it mean to you? There are no right answers.


The word ‘justification’ is a ‘slogan word’ for Martin Luther. It’s the heart of the gospel. It’s kind of a big deal. It’s Luther’s good news – the thing to pass on to your neighbor. Those who are a bit older might remember when Christians used to ask ‘are you saved?’ That curious turn of phrase really comes from ‘justification’ and the story of Martin Luther.

So I want to look at this protestant Gospel. Partly, because some people don’t think there is any other gospel.

A few weeks ago I was at a Sally Army conference about ‘just action’. And I was struck by two very different presentations of the gospel. The first one was by a Salvation Army officer. He took a long rope… maybe 20 metres long and passed it out into the audience. At one end of the rope was a small section of painted rope. And then he said that the painted bit represented this life now, before you die. And the long bit represented eternity. It’s a powerful metaphor. The speaker protested that justice in this short life mattered… (the conference was all about justice) but there was a much more important, greater justice to do with the afterlife – BUT it was an afterlife with two possible options, one good and one … not so good. There was an ominous subtext.

The other presentation was by a well-known Baptist minister and now CEO of World Vision in Australia. And he started off by defining the gospel as ‘a new humanity.’ And the good news is: “God is creating a new humanity.” A humanity in which people love their neighbours and their enemies and share the resources of this world with those neighbours.

I was struck by how different those two gospels were.

The long rope, in particular, reminded me of the story of Martin Luther . . . in a way the rope was like a noose around Luther’s neck. But first some context.

Christianity had changed enormously between the time of the NT and the time of Luther. The very first Christianity was a way, a new way of living. The first followers of Jesus were disciples learning “the way,” people of ‘the Way’ – a way of living together, Paul talked of it as a ‘body’, a community. It was a new kind of community existence.

And it was different. The two most obvious differences for the first three hundred years were that, (1) like Jesus, they refused the sword and so refused to join the military and also (2), like Jesus, they cared for the poor and the most vulnerable… something that was a mystery, but an attractive mystery to the onlooking Greco-Roman world. About 300 years after Christ’s death a Roman emperor became a Christian and the situation changed dramatically. Before that, you risked your life to be a Christian now you risked your life not being one. The church became much more centralized and formed a close relationship with the powers of the state and empire. Christians became soldiers. So by the time Luther came along, the Roman Empire had fallen but the church in Rome was a kind of state itself. The Pope had his own army and fought wars and administered the gates of heaven, selling off quick passes to heaven (indulgences). The institution that called itself the church was quite unlike the church of the New Testament.

And Luther saw that. Luther was horrified by Rome and by the way it treated the poor in his own country. There was also a lot going on personally for Luther. His Gospel, his protestant Gospel, was the combination of these two things: his personal battle with God (the rope around his neck – fears about the afterlife) and his anger about the state of the church.

Luther was a young son of the rising middle classes, at the end of the Middle Ages. His Dad wanted him to be a lawyer. He had a very demanding and critical Father who sent him off to Erfurt to train as a lawyer. Erfurt was both a very religious town and a great drinking town for young men. At the time a large percentage of the population of Europe died of the plague (black death) including three of Luther’s close friends. Life was precarious. Luther was an able student, a lover of wine, women, and song, but he was also a very serious young man. One day out riding a tree nearby was struck by lightning and he had a fearful religious experience. He was desperately afraid of God and of hell, so he made a kind of bargain with God and went into the monastery, a very strict monastery which sought to separate itself from the world and live a rigorously disciplined life of prayer and fasting. He quickly found that his heavenly Father even more impossible to satisfy than his birth-Father. Luther gave it 110% and those around him worried for his mental well-being. It nearly killed him. He ended up hating God and raging against himself.

As he looked back on this struggle he interpreted it as a desperate search to find a merciful God.

Everything changed when he was sent to Heidelberg to study the New Testament. In particular, he was blown away by the notion of gift (or grace) in Paul. So much so that he did a kind of about-turn. Where once he thought to be righteous and go to heaven you needed to do righteous things. Now he thought nothing you could do would make you righteous in God’s eyes. It was no longer about ‘active righteousness’, but instead about (what he called) ‘passive righteousness.’ To receive the gift of grace you had to be totally passive for the gift to be a true gift. The gift was like a legal declaration. God declared you righteous even if you weren’t… provided . . . you had ‘faith’ (passive, receptive faith). To be ‘saved’ (that word) was to be declared righteous . . . ‘simul justus et peccator’ (both righteous and a sinner at the same time). Justification. You hadn’t been saved from sin, from what was wrong with your life. You were still a sinner. But you were saved from God (God’s judgment). For Luther dealing with sin was completely another matter. He insisted on separating the two. That long rope was too heavy a weight. You needed to be saved from God before you could be saved from sin.

To be fair Luther thought that being declared ‘righteous’ (even when you weren’t) would actually make you a new person. It would open you up, from a fearful concern for yourself (turned in upon yourself, incurvatus in se) to a life turned outwards in love. But this opening up to a new way of life was a different matter from your salvation. He made a very clear distinction between the passivity of being ‘saved’ by faith from the activity of the church (the church that so disturbed him in his time). Being saved was fundamentally a private matter – sharply distinct from any church life, political life or action in the world. Protestant religion is born.

So suddenly Luther is going to heaven, church or no church, you might say. The rope around his neck falls off. Perhaps!…

You see, my problem is, I’m not so sure. I can imagine the relief of being saved from God’s punishment. But had he really discovered a God he could love? Was it a God of love, this God who saved him from God?

The reason I am not convinced is because of my own story. As a kid, I grew up in Twizel and we had visiting missionaries in our house. And these missionaries used to bring their charts of world history. As a kid, I thought it was history. The history of the future. They told of the Rapture when all the true Christians would disappear and of a time of great trouble on the earth and it all ended with little stick figures being thrown into a burning fire forever and some people happy in heaven. For a seven or eight-year-old it was terrifying. I vividly remember an elderly couple with friendly smiles on their faces sitting me down by our fireplace and asking me if I knew what would happen if Christ returned and my parents disappeared. Would I go with them or would I be left to fend for myself in wars and trouble? I got saved many a night. Just to make sure that I truly had faith. That I had sincerely given my life to Jesus or done one of the various things that counted towards getting on the good side of that long bit of rope. You see the practical problem… sincerely trusting is never entirely passive… you can never be sure…  the rope is too long. But there’s a deeper reason. It’s hard to really love a God you are afraid of. I never really loved Jesus back then. I needed Jesus to protect me from God. It was good cop, bad cop. And I was in prison. Whether it was Luther’s theology or Calvin’s in the background, I’m still not entirely sure. But it didn’t help.

John Calvin developed Luther’s ideas into more of a legal system. As Calvin saw it God must punish sin if God was to be just. The way you make God both just and loving is you say that God declares us righteous because he punishes an innocent man instead. The punishment gets transferred to Jesus the God-man. So the flip side of declaring us righteous God declares Jesus un-righteous. He punishes Jesus (who represents us) so he doesn’t have to punish us. If you are struggling to see how this is just, you won’t be the first. But it’s how the Protestant theory is supposed to work.

I have come to question two ideas behind this theory

  1. God’s justice sets the parameters in which God’s love must work.
  2. God’s justice is retributive. To be just God must pay back in kind. Punishment is essential to justice. Forgiveness, a way forward without punishing, is in fact unjust.

My real conversion didn’t happen when I was a kid. Similar to Luther, it happened when I studied the New Testament and had to preach from it. Let me just point to a key piece in the puzzle. It’s this: God’s justice is NOT retributive in the Bible. God doesn’t have to punish. God can heal the world without punishing! That may seem obvious to you. But it wasn’t obvious to the Reformers. But the person who saw this most clearly was, surprise, surprise… Jesus himself

“You have heard that it was said, ‘an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth’ (retribution). Whereas I tell you not to oppose the wicked man by force… You have heard that it was said ‘You shall love your neighbor and shall hate your enemy.’ Whereas I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you; in doing this you may become sons of your Father in the heavens, for he makes his sun to rise on the wicked and the good, and sends rain on the just and the unjust…”


Did you hear Jesus theory of justice . . . not punishing, is how you learn to act like your Father in Heaven…

When Jesus hung on the cross and cried out “Father forgive them.” He was not trying to persuade his Father to act out of character. He was praying according to the character of his Father. He was asking his father to give his enemies the kind of love that they did not deserve. . .

My own conversion happened over a long period of time. Because once you have learned to read the New Testament through lenses from Martin Luther and John Calvin it takes a long time to see it differently. I have had to unlearn this kind of Protestantism. But it’s not all wrong.

Luther is right… the good news is all about a gift. But it’s not necessarily the kind of gift that Luther imagined. It’s not the gift that saves us from God. It’s more the gift that saves us from ourselves and from the fears that bind us, from the violent trap the world is caught in. As Luther knew we can be turned outwards towards others… not because Jesus hides us or protects us from God’s justice, but because God is like Jesus. Not the good cop hiding the bad cop. No, God. Is. Like. Jesus! (the image of the invisible God) That’s the gospel. And the result is that we too can be like Jesus and like God. Not just declared to be like God. Justification in Paul’s writings is not about God declaring us just (when we actually aren’t). It’s about God making us just (conforming us to Christ’s life… his death and resurrection). The good news is that God has promised that we will be set free to be part of a new humanity (Rom 5). The good news is that, by God’s Spirit, it is happening even now. We don’t need to be saved from God. We desperately need to be saved from ourselves… from the old humanity so trapped in violence and greed and fear.

So the good news, the thing we get up in the morning for, is two-fold. (1) God is like Jesus, and (2) This same God is creating a new humanity.

So if we are going to move beyond the Protestant gospel (to something more ancient) where does this leave the church? Luther’s other problem. The church is not the sum total of people going to heaven rather than hell. It’s not even the same as the institutions that call themselves ‘church’ (whether Roman Catholic Church or Island Bay Presbyterian). The church that matters, I contend has got something to do with this new humanity. Humanity reshaped in the image of Jesus of Nazareth. The church (ekklesia, gathering) is the space and place where this new humanity is glimpsed, where people are learning to love their neighbors and their enemies . . . refusing violence and warfare (like standing up against the weapons conference this week), where people are living with the most vulnerable (the poor), sharing our lives with those who for all sorts of reasons haven’t done so well in our competitive economy and world.  It’s a sign of what is to come. When we see those signs we can begin to believe the gospel. Without those signs, we really struggle to believe the gospel.

Going beyond the Protestant gospel . . . The rope can be cut loose because don’t need to be afraid of God. We need to let Jesus define God for us, so we can truly love God and be changed.

Thanks be to God.



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