Beyond Justification

When someone says that we must move “beyond justification,” there is an expectation of hearing Homer Simpson’s signature moan when something interferes with his moment of blissful laziness or passive comfort.  “Beyond justification” is understood as a code language for now-we-must-talk-about-what-makes-you-a-better-Christian, which most by the book Lutherans cringe at because they think it deals in the realm of subjectivity, leading to legalism and setting our hope on something other than the objective redemption and justification in, through, and by the death and resurrection of Jesus.    But it doesn’t and it shouldn’t.

Most of us are familiar with Luther’s description of doctrine as a gold ring, that if any part of the doctrine revealed in Scripture is missing or maligned the ring looses it’s shape and worth.  To use this analogy of doctrine as a ring: if you leave one point and move along the curved path, you really haven’t left the point at all and will certainly come back around to it.  And since we know that “justification by faith alone” is not the only teaching (doctrine) of the Scriptures, then we know that the whole ring is more than justification.  So for a moment, knowing that we never really leave justification and that if we continue on curve of the ring we will come back to it, let’s move beyond justification.

But why? comes the question.  Why move beyond justification?  First, because we never really move beyond justification; and second, because the Bible does (and third, to prick ears).  There’s far more in the apostolic writings than justification. Instead of thinking linearly, moving from one point to the next, in which case leaving justification would be like leaving your city and going to another, we should think cyclical.  Time does not march on and what goes around, comes around.

So it can be said that while there is far more in the apostolic writings than justification, it is equally true that nothing in the apostolic letters is without (forensic)  justification.  Let’s take an analogy.  If I’m a Major League ball player, I was drafted.  I might have prepared and postured, but in the end someone else made the decision. Let’s call that justification, I don’t get in by my choice (it’s an analogy, people).  Yet there is more to being a Major League player than being drafted.  I also must practice and play.  So once I am in the Major Leagues, no one says to me, “sit on the bench lest you think that you got here because you hit the ball or play second!”  So the apostles.   St. John says, “You know that he appeared to take away sins, and in him there is no sin. No one who abides in him keeps on sinning; no one who keeps on sinning has either seen him or known him.” (1 Jn. 2:5-6)

But here’s where we get what we commonly call “sanctification” all wrong. To use our above analogy of the ball player, we call playing the game sanctification. Hitting, running, catching, etc.  Sanctification is usually pandered as doing holy or godly things or thinking holy or godly thoughts.  It is usually preached or at least heard as “behavior you engage in once you understand that you’ve been forgiven.”  Sanctification is narrowed down to behavior.  This is a sad shadow of what sanctification really is.

So what is sanctification?  It’s not behavior.  It’s conscience.  We were washed, sanctified, justified in Christ Jesus (1 Cor. 6:11).  Baptism now saves you. Not as removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ (1 Pt. 3:21).  One man thinks nothing of eating meat sacrificed to idols, knowing that all things come from God, while another – the weaker, by the way – abstains from such meat.  Neither sin because of conscience.  Only, don’t let your freedom be the stumbling block for another.  To again use the analogy of the ball player: all the players play, whether at the bases or in the outfield. And all the players play by the rules. They have clean consciences.  If they break a rule, they are confronted by the rule, repent, and go back to playing the game by the rules.  If they break a rule and are confronted but believe the rule to be wrong, they are no longer allowed to play, their “conscience” has been defiled and so they are thrown out.  So the apostle writes that we will each be judged according to our works and our Lord says that by our words we will be condemned and by them we will be justified (Matt. 12:37).  How?  Because of conscience which issues from a pure faith (1 Tim. 1:5).  This does not contradict justification by grace alone, it compliments it.

Now the question: So, as long as our conscience is clear we can do whatever we’d like?  I suppose, but this question proves that the point has been missed.  The point is not to judge behavior and action, which are gray and blurry and often misunderstood, but to judge conscience based on the Word of God.  For if we judged ourselves we would not be judged.  Sanctification isn’t about actions or works or behavior.  It’s about conscience. Many will say to Him, “Lord, Lord,” but will not enter His kingdom. Why?  Because they believed in justification by grace (calling Him “Lord”) but nothing they did was born of faith.  So they healed and cast out demons, yet their conscience condemns them and so they stand condemned.  This is not about feeling good or bad about what we do, which is not conscience, it is about submitting ourselves to the reign of Christ.

So what does this mean?  It means that we need to start thinking cyclically.  Instead of treating everyone as sinners in need of justification, we should think of everyone as justified (universal atonement).  This doesn’t mean that everyone gets to heaven, but it does mean that God has consigned all to disobedience that He might have mercy on all.  And it means that if I am justified then I will walk in justification, working out my salvation with fear and trembling as I struggle with keeping my conscience clean before the God that justifies me, lest I run the race in vain and in preaching to others I myself become disqualified.

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One Response

  1. In so much and as far as I think I understand what you are saying I must say I agree with you and I like what you wrote in this regard. Wouln’t mind talking about this aat some point … maybe neaxt month. Reading the bolg I am thinking that our recent little conversation re private confession would relate. Christ hears my confesseion. Christ forgives my sin. I therefore have a clean cnscience. I am holy. I am sanctified. Your thoughts?

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