Alrighty kids, time for another dynamite portion of Gerhard Forde’s dynamite essay in Christian Spirituality: Five Views of Sanctification. I assure you that the 35th anniversary of Rumours this week is purely coincidental:
Justification by faith alone, without the deeds of the law, is a mighty breakup of the ordinary schemes of morality and religions; a mighty attack, we should say, on the theology of the old being. The fact that we are justified before God–the eternal Judge, Creator and Preserver of all life–unconditionally for Jesus’ sake and by faith alone, simply shatters the old being’s entire system of values and calculations.
As old beings we don’t know what to do with an unconditional gift or promise. Virtually our entire existence in this world is shaped, determined and controlled by conditional promises and and calculations. We are brought up on conditional promises. We live by them. Our future is determined by them. Conditional promises always have an “if-then” form… If you are a good girl, then you can go to the movies. If you do your schoolwork, then you will pass the course. If you do your job, then you will get your pay. If you prove yourself, then you will get a promotion. And so on and so on, endlessly until at last we die of it, wondering if we had only done this differently, perhaps then… Though such conditional promises are often burdensome and even oppressive, they are nevertheless enticing and even comforting in their own way because they give life its structure and seem to grant us a measure of control. If we fulfill the conditions, then we have a claim on what is promised. We have what we call “rights,” and we can control our future, at least to a certain extent.
So, as old beings, we hang rather tenaciously onto these conditional promises. As a matter of fact, that is what largely characterizes our being in this world as old. We hang desperately onto the conditional promises, hoping to control our own destiny. We live “under the law” and cannot get out–because we really don’t want to. We prefer to go our own way even up to the last barrier: death. And there we must either hope that the conditionality ends and all account books simply close, or perhaps we make the fatal mistake of thinking that we can extend our control under the conditional promise even into the beyond. We think we have a claim on heaven itself if the proper conditions are met. Religion is most often just the attempt to extend this conditionality into eternity and to gain a certain measure of control even over the eternal itself.
But the saving act of God in Jesus Christ–comprehended in justification by faith alone–is an unconditional promise. Unconditional promises have a “because-therefore” form. Because Jesus has overcome the world and all enemies by his death and resurrection, therefore… you shall be saved. Because Jesus died and rose, therefore God here and now declares you just for Jesus’ sake… Because Jesus has borne the sin of the whole world in his body unto death and yet conquered, therefore God declares the forgiveness of sins.
Now, of course, as old beings we have a desperately difficult time with such an unconditional promise. It knocks everything out of kilter. We simply don’t know how to cope with it, so we are thrown into confusion. Is it really true? Can one announce it just like that? No strings attached? Don’t we have to be more careful about to whom we say such things? It appears wild and dangerous and reckless to us, just as it did to Jesus’ contemporaries. The best we can do is to try to draw it back into our conditional understanding–so all the questions and protests come pouring out. But surely we have to do something, don’t we? Don’t we at least have to make our decision to accept? Isn’t faith, after all, a condition? Or repentance? Isn’t the idea of an unconditional promise terribly dangerous? Who will be good? Won’t it lead perhaps to universalism, libertinism, license and sundry disasters? Don’t we need to insist on sanctification to prevent the whole from collapsing into cheap grace? Doesn’t the Bible follow the declaration of grace with certain exhortations and imperatives? So the protestations go, for the most part designed to reimpose at least a minimal conditionality on the promise.
It is true, you see, that as old beings we simply cannot understand or cope with the unconditional promise of justification pronounced in the name of Jesus. What we don’t see is that what the unconditional promise is calling forth is a new being. The justification of God promised in Jesus is not an “offer” made to us as old beings; it is our end, our death. We are, quite literally, through as old beings.