What a Panel of Professors Taught Me about Justification

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How the Legal Relates to the Relational

If you're like me, wondering what it means for God to declare His children legally justified simul peccator, think about marriage. The moment a couple says "I do," they are legally entitled to property, name, and joint tax forms. Even though Gomer was an adulteress who certainly never acted married to her husband Hosea, the law saw her as his wife and granted her whatever legal access Jewish women had. Her unfaithfulness did not nullify her legal rights, her marriage. Same with us, the Church, the Bride of Christ.

Not that there isn't an emotional, relational part too. If a random guy puts a ring on your finger and says, "I do," you're not married. (At least I hope not. That would be awkward.) The loving intention needs to be there to make this marriage thing a thing. This probably happens in Baptist megachurches in the South every Sunday -- people walk the aisle and throw their sinner's prayer "I dos" at Jesus for any reason but a real intention to love Him, and then walk away from all intimacy with Christ. No. If you're married, you're living together, loving each other, sharing the bed, sharing the house, sharing the work. When you say "I do" to Christ, intimacy needs to follow.

Further Evidence That the Sinner's Prayer Misses the Point

What belief of Abraham did God count as righteousness? Fun Fact: not just one. Abraham believed that Sarah would conceive, that he ought to move, that he should offer Isaac up as a sacrifice. His life is defined by big moments of belief. He didn't believe one thing once and then go his merry way.

Many of us want to pinpoint a date of our conversion, the first time we believed, our birth certificate into the kingdom of heaven. I never could. As Prof. Westblade says, if you want to prove you're alive, don't point to your birth certificate -- produce some vital signs. Are you living the life of faith now?

Why I Could Never Be Catholic and Why It's Hard to Be Protestant

I believe the real issue about the justification debate is about original sin. Catholics believe that baptism cleanses them of original sin. They merely need to do penance for the things they do. Protestants hold to a more complicated theology: simultaneously just and sinful. Even though God counts Christ's righteousness to us, we're still sinners. I'm just a sinner saved by grace. 

Dr. Burke calls Catholic guilt "joyous guilt" -- guilt about what you did. Protestant guilt is deeper -- guilt about who you are. "That explains everything about you" -- Erich's first thought after the lecture. As a former Catholic, he enjoys grace far more than I do, spends far less time seeking the kind of forgiveness and assurance of salvation that I crave, feels totally enabled to do good and to love God because of Christ's grace. I cry a lot, wrestle a lot, angst a lot, because even when I'm doing good, I never really feel good. No matter how much Christ justified me -- and thank you, thank you, thank you for that! -- I am still stuck in this sinfulness that I desperately want freedom from, this self-conception of myself that's shaped far more by my sin than my Savior.

Is there a middle ground?

*Dr. Matthew Gaetano, Prof. Don Westblade, and Dr. Thomas Burke of Hillsdale College prompted these comments.

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4 impressions

  1. This is incredibly late, but this post popped into my head today as I was reading an article by a Catholic author on grace. I'm intrigued by the heading "Why I Could Never Be Catholic and Why It's Hard to Be Protestant". That section, at least the way I'm reading it, seems to explain only the "why it's hard to be Protestant" part... could you explain a little more "why you could never be Catholic"?

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    1. I couldn't be a Catholic for the same reason Luther never fully reconciled with the Catholic church. His Anfechtung -- his deep anxiety over his sin -- required an even stronger confidence in justification than the Catholic church's theology offered. Luther needed to know FOR SURE that HE HIMSELF would be saved even though he still felt sinful. Catholic theologians would readily agree that the Catholic doctrine on salvation does not offer that kind of assurance and certitude. Protestantism does, or at least attempts to.

      When I said I couldn't be Catholic, I meant that I share Luther's need for that sort of assurance and certitude. Does that make sense?

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    2. That makes sense... I guess the touchy-feeliness of that response just rubs me the wrong way (for lack of a better way to express it). Why should I radically change my beliefs on justification just because I don't *feel* certain about my salvation? My emotions don't determine my state before God. Or likewise, does that mean that if I don't experience that same deep anxiety over my sin (at least not to the same extent as Luther) and am more "comfortable" with salvation, does that mean I "could be Catholic"?

      I'm just thinking out loud here... hope it doesn't come across as rude or pushy.

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    3. No, these are great questions! I think in this particular issue that the Catholic Church didn't understand Luther's particular angst and thus responded in a way that made things even harder for him to accept their doctrine. In reality, everyone was saying really similar things but misunderstanding the root issues.

      I didn't mean to imply that feelings determine theology. I mean that certain fundamental spiritual beliefs (like how one views one's sin and how it affects your spiritual life) determine how you view salvation.

      And I do think that a Calvinist or a Lutheran would have a lot harder time considering Catholicism's beliefs of salvation than an Arminian, actually.

      I also believe that one's spiritual life, psychology, and life experiences does influence your openness toward certain denominations. You'll find different answers depending on the questions you ask, and not all of us are asking the same questions. That's the only way I can figure out the myriad of different but orthodox denominations.

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