White Horse Inn Modern Reformation

Should We Care About Justification?

Published Monday, November 12, 2018 By Michael S. Horton

In response to the Black Death of 1348-50, the Church of England called for weeks of special prayers and fasting.  However, in the 1980s, the church called for more government funding for medical research.  Drawing on this example, sociologist Steve Bruce explains, “individualism, egalitarianism, liberal democracy, and science and technology all contribute to a general sense of self-importance, of freedom from fate.”  Consequently, “In the world of the mainstream churches and in the cultic milieu of alternative spirituality people are now generally unwilling to subordinate themselves to an external authority.”

It is an exaggeration to call the Middle Ages an age of faith, particularly when the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215 felt obliged to require all Christians to attend church once a year.  Yet to whatever extent it was filled with hypocrites and hucksters, in terms of a public horizon of meaning, there was a sense of belonging to a history that will be brought to its denoument by the return of Christ to raise the dead, judge the world, and deliver his elect.  Even the maps were drawn to make one look up, with the earth’s landmasses and oceans congealing around the majestic God enthroned in Jerusalem at the center.   For them, living in this present age is but a preparation for everlasting life or death.  In that world, the question “How can a sinner be accepted by a holy God?” at least made sense on all sides.

But we occupy an age in which the shared horizon of meaning stops at the ceiling.  We do not look up as if living in this world is but an intimation of something greater.  Following Feuerbach, Friedrich Nietzsche announced that the upper world, with its hierarchy descending from God to the angels and the intelligent souls, had been wiped from the horizon of the modern consciousness.

Transcendence moved indoors.  No longer inhabiting the highest place in the cosmos, the enchanted world came to occupy the deepest places of the self.  There may be ‘transcendence’ within this world.  A baseball game or a ballet performance may bristle with intimations of the sacred.  Cresting the summit of a glistening granite peak may fill one with an overwhelming sense of the sublime.  Joining a march may exhilarate one’s soul by participating in something larger than oneself.  But these quasi-mystical moments occur within time, nature, history, and the self, rather than from eternity breaking into time.  Is there a desire that cannot be satisfied with a smartphone?

Whatever important differences among themselves, the Protestant Reformers and their critics inhabited a world in which ferocious debates over guilt and grace made sense.  They were quite literally life and death matters.  Unlike the subconscious terrors of the Dadaists, the frightful visions of Hieronymus Bosch depicted real places of torment.  The reliefs of The Last Judgment, with the sword protruding from Christ’s mouth, reminded worshipers as they entered that they stood on precarious ground, ready to be consumed by God’s wrath apart from the ministrations of the ecclesiastical hierarchy.

Surely in an age like ours, many imagine that our best hope in reaching secular neighbors is to persuade them that God somehow still fits somewhere in the immanent frame.  There may be no heaven above us or hell below us, but God can help us have our best life now.  The once-familiar warning that “it is appointed for to die once, and after that comes judgment” (Heb. 9:27) may no longer have much purchase, but we may still be able to find divine empowerment for our life projects.  Wherever God is and whatever God does, it is inside of us: inner peace, happiness, satisfaction and comfort.  And it is never threatening.  How can the struggle to find a gracious God be relevant in an age when people are not gripped by a sense of God’s reality and presence, his holiness and majesty, which provoke the question in the first place?

I have no idea how many times I have heard or read contemporary theologians and pastors assert with solemn finality that Luther’s question “How can I find a gracious God?” is just not our question today.  In addition, many New Testament scholars today argue that it was not the apostle Paul’s question either.  Indeed, they argue, the broad swath of New Testament (especially Pauline) interpretation since the patristic era has failed to recognize that the principle question is not how individuals are ‘saved’ but how to tell who belongs to the covenant community.  In other words, it is more about ecclesiology than soteriology.  The gospel is more about liberation from the powers of darkness (especially oppressive political and economic systems) rather than personal salvation.  This is a way of moving God outdoors, as it were, but as the justifier of those on the right side of justice.  Is there any justification for the ungodly?  For a host of reasons, we have found the question itself quite beside the point.

Consequently, we can move on as if the question of justification, much less the arcane debates surrounding it, matters little to the average person today.  Or can we?  Is the move toward pure immanence actually motivated by a secret terror?  Are we trying to secure ourselves against the indictments of our conscience, the nagging feeling that we cannot quite put our finger on?  In other words, is not the effort to “suppress the truth in unrighteousness”—even to the point of idolatry or atheism—at bottom an effort to evade an objective and therefore condemning evaluation of our life?

But the pride of this evasion is steep, even if only in existential terms.  “Man is nothing else but that which he makes of himself,” Sartre asserted, and bears “the entire responsibility for his existence squarely upon his own shoulders.”  That is an astonishing doctrine.  Is it any wonder that we would rather accountable for this burden to ourselves rather than to an external authority to has the power—and the right—to judge us?

Robert Jay Lifton, a psychiatrist and pioneer in brain research, observes that the source of many neuroses in society today is a nagging sense of guilt without knowing its source.  The anxiety is “a vague but persistent kind of self-condemnation related to the symbolic disharmonies I have described, a sense of having no outlet for his loyalties and no symbolic structure for his achievements.”  I interpret this theologically as suggesting that there is no external law to measure oneself by or external gospel through which one becomes re-scripted ‘in Christ’.  “Rather than being a feeling of evil or sinfulness,” he says, “it takes the form of a nagging sense of unworthiness all the more troublesome for its lack of clear origin.”

But when has the question, “How can I be saved?” ever been a common question of the average person?  Regardless of whether this was an urgent question of the Jews of the Second Temple period (and it was, as I demonstrate in the second volume), evidently the preaching of Jesus and the apostles provoked the question as they exposed human guilt, corruption, and death and pointed to Golgotha and the empty tomb as its solution.  Jesus upbraided the religious specialists for refusing him because they “trusted in themselves that they were righteous” and, consequently, missed the main point of their Scripture.  Evidently, the apostle Paul did not find a ready audience for his message either, reporting that most Jews found it “a stumbling block” and most Greeks found it simply “foolishness.”  Many of Pelagius’ auditors found it more relevant to discuss self-improvement rather than obsess with Augustine over salvation.  In a letter to Cardinal Sadoleto, John Calvin offered a rebuke that nevertheless exuded genuine sympathy, even friendship.  Those like Sadoleto, who cannot understand why so many people wrestle with the question of justification, are basically inexperienced in life, Calvin surmises.  They have never had a serious crisis of conscience.  Their spiritual development seems frozen on the verge of adolescence.  In short, the burden has always been on the gospel to make itself relevant as people passed by shaking their heads or just ignoring it.

So I remain unmoved by dismissals of the Reformation’s formation of justification and its broader quest as little more than the product of an early modern obsession with the self.  “Tortured subjectivity” is what you get when “God is dead,” while you nevertheless feel a sense of guilt and despair that vaguely comes from somewhere other than your inner self or the people around you.  Say whatever you like about the Protestant Reformers, but they were not obsessed with introspection.  On the contrary, they were gripped by the experience of meeting a stranger, an other, to whom they were accountable.  Luther didn’t fear an inner judgment, but a real one on the great stage of history, with banners flying and a fight to the death.   Whoever this God was, he was not manipulable by the subjective wants or wish-projections of mortals.  One would never invent this sort of religion as therapy for self-improvement, self-empowerment, and tranquility of mind.  And regardless, Luther would not have recognized such a religion, much less sympathize with it.  If there are lingering doubts about that, I hope this book lays them to rest.

Michael Horton is the editor-in-chief of Modern Reformation magazine and the J. Gresham Machen Professor of Systematic Theology and Apologetics at Westminster Seminary California.  The above excerpt was taken from Justification, Volume 1 by Michael Horton. Copyright © 2018 by Michael Horton. Used by permission of Zondervan. www.zondervan.com

  • Michael S. Horton