Tuesday, August 08, 2006
"So Shark, How do you understand Justification and the legal motifs apart from a penal-substitution model?"
I was planning on going into this with Luther, so I thought I would answer this comment in a post. I've been reading Alister McGrath's "Luther's Theology of the Cross" which I highly recommend. In it he talks about Luther's struggle with the law. Penal Substitution has its foundation in a judicial understanding of justice based on a punishment and reward system. As Luther says
"I had hated that phrase 'the righteousness of God' which according to the use and custom of the doctors I had been taught to understand philosophically... by which God is righteous and punished unrighteous sinners" (Luthers Werke Wiemar Ed. 54.185.12)
Luther goes on to say that
"I did not love, and in fact I hated that righteous God who punished sinners...I was angry with God...I drove myself mad with a desperate disturbed conscience". (Ibid)
Because his understanding of justice, which he had inherited from the 500 years since Anselm was one based on a criminal law understanding of justice. Luther describes this kind of justice as a "tyrant". In his commentary on Galatians Luther writes
"Did the Law ever love me? Did the Law ever sacrifice itself for me? Did the Law ever die for me? On the contrary, it accuses me, it frightens me, it drives me crazy”
Luther's breakthrough of finding grace was in discovering that the justice that Paul speaks of was not in the legal sense of punishement but in the Hebrew sense of "making things right". Hence Paul speaks of "justification" which means "setting something right". A justice based on our own performance (works) is a death trap. But a justice that originates from God's goodness through faith means that God sets things right in our lives when we open our lives to him. The first is legal and in conflict with mercy. It sees justice as punishing (active) and mercy as leniency (inaction). That later biblical justice is in contrast about "making things right" and comes through acts of mercy as seen in the ministry of Jesus who came to establish justice in us though acts of healing and restoration. In this there is no conflict between justice and mercy becasue restorative justice comes through acts of mercy. Luther again:
"I began to understand that 'righteousness of God' ...to refer to a passive righteousness by which the merciful God justifies us by faith...this immediately made me feel feel as if I was born again, a though I had entered through open gates into paradise itself. From that moment the whole face of Scripture appeared to me in a different light...and now where I had once hated that phrase the phrase 'the righteousness of God' so much I began to love and extol it as the sweetest of words" (Luthers Werke, Op Sit)
So rather than reading the idea of justice in the legal sense of punishing, we need to read with Luther the idea of justification and justice in relational terms as God setting things right, as him through mercy breaking us out of the shackles of performance and law. God did not do this by "satisfying the demands of law" as Penal Substitution would say, but by "nailing the law to the cross" (Col 2:14) by overcoming it along with sin, condemnation, wrath, and the devil and putting all of these tyrants under Christ so that they would no longer oppress us and keep us from life, but serve us and point to the God of grace. In a nutshell we could say that biblical justice is about restorative justice not punitive justice. Punitive justice is the consequence of sin, but God's righteousness and justice is revealed in mercy which sets us right God breaks us out of that death trap putting it to death.