Justifying God

Luther preaching Christ and him crucifiedI’ve now taken delivery of Steven Paulson’s book Lutheran Theology (see previous post), and so far it’s proving as remarkable as I’d hoped. Quite mind-blowing at times, in fact.

One of Paulson’s themes (as we saw in my previous post) is the centrality of preaching. Paulson argues that Luther set out, not to reform the church, but to reform preaching. The gospel, for Luther, is a preached gospel, so that life can be divided into two periods: the period “before the preacher”, lived under the law, and the period “after the preacher”, when we have heard the promise of the gospel that frees us from the law.

This is vital to understanding “justification by faith”, as Paulson sets out in his second chapter. Luther’s understanding of justification hinged on Romans 1:17 (adapted here to mirror Paulson’s translation):

For in [the gospel] the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith; as it is written, ‘The one who by faith is righteous will live.’

Luther had hated the phrase “the righteousness of God,” because it had been presented to him as an abstract, philosophical standard towards which he was to strive. The turning point for Luther was his discovery that Paul used the phrase as a promise, a concrete promise in the declaration of which – the preaching of which – God gives his own self to sinners.

So we see that faith is not something introspective, not a turning within to ask what I “think” of the “idea” of Christ and the gospel. Rather, it is the result of hearing the external, concrete proclamation of Christ. Paulson emphasises this by turning to a second OT quotation in Romans, Paul’s quoting of Psalm 51:4 in Romans 3:4:

So that you may be justified in your words.

In other words, when the gospel promises are declared to us and we respond in faith, not only are we justified by God, but God is justified by us: indeed, for Paulson, our justifying of God, our acknowledging him as righteous and trustworthy, is precisely the faith that justifies us. As Paulson writes:

Trusting a promise from God is the justification God seeks for himself, and he intends upon getting this justification come hell or high water so that stories of God’s arrival to sinners make the great tales of Scripture (Abraham, David, Mary) and our lives like Augustine’s Confessions. (p.55)

Thus Luther found “a gracious God”:

…hiding in the word of promise delivered by a preacher in the real word of penance: Te absolvo! I forgive you. That word is not a sign pointing somewhere else for its truth, but is the power of the Holy Spirit to create out of nothing. Luther had discovered what he called promissio, by which God creates a new person in a new world with faith that hears the promise for me – and trusts it. In doing so the believer justifies God in his words and has a gracious God. (p.58)

The problem, as Paulson goes on to observe, is that subsequent Protestants (including many Lutherans) have forgotten the importance of the preached word, the word in which God is justified. Instead, they have turned faith into “an act of self-reflection”; a psychological experience; an inner, existential act; a seeking of “the Christ within”; and so on. None of these things can give us the joy of knowing God as righteous and gracious, because God is justified only in his words.

Paulson concludes:

…for Luther at least, faith does not trust in its own power to believe. It takes leave of itself by hearing the promise from the preacher and justifying God for saying it. […] In Christ’s story faith and word are properly fit. Faith alone justifies; faith comes by hearing the promise of Christ: “I forgive you.” (p.60)

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