Reckoning and not reckoning

Icons of Abraham and DavidIt’s worth labouring the point that we saw Steven Paulson making in my previous post: that the cross of Christ saves us through a “communication of attributes” in which Christ takes upon himself the attributes of sinful human beings (sin and death) and communicates to us his attributes of righteousness and eternal life.

Paulson argues that this makes Luther’s doctrine of justification distinct from all others. In particular, for Luther, justification is neither “inherent” or “imparted” nor, more surprisingly, “forensic”:

To people operating in the scheme of the law it always seems that two options are possible when it comes to how God reckons or imputes righteousness to faith. One is to say that sinners must become righteous in themselves – as judged by the law – before God can rightly declare them just. This could either be done straight-way by works, or by a mystical participation in that which is “above” the sinner; that is, in God’s own being. The other is to say that sinners can be declared righteous, forensically as in a court of law – though they are not actually righteous in themselves. A debtor deserves punishment, but if a generous patron paid the debt it may be right for a judge to let a criminal go free. In either case, the key is that the law remains the form of righteousness.

Perhaps Luther, and a handful of others, are the only theologians ever to reject both of these options. (Lutheran Theology, p.124)

For Luther, it’s not simply that Christ has met the standard for righteousness before the law, and that we can then benefit from this “legal” righteousness of Christ according to some abstract scheme:

For the Lutherans, Christ is the only righteousness, and his righteousness is preached by a word of promise that says, “Your sins are forgiven.” How? “On my account (propter Christum).” Hearing this word makes faith, and this faith is reckoned or imputed as righteous, though there is no righteousness there by any measure of law – including the presence of love as caritas. (p.129)

Christ’s declaration that I am forgiven and righteous on his account – despite all appearances to the contrary – is no mere “fiction”, any more than is Christ’s declaration, of a piece of bread, that “this is my body”; again, despite all appearances to the contrary. For Lutherans, St Thomas Aquinas’ words (as translated by Hopkins) not only express perfectly our doctrine of the Lord’s Supper, but our doctrine of justification:

Seeing, touching, tasting are in thee deceived:
How says trusty hearing? that shall be believed;
What God’s Son has told me, take for truth I do;
Truth Himself speaks truly or there’s nothing true.

This “reckoning” of righteousness has two parts, which St Paul describes in Romans 4:1-8. First is the reckoning that Abraham experienced: the reckoning of righteousness (Genesis 15:6, Romans 4:3). Second is the reckoning that David experienced: the not reckoning of sin (Psalm 32:1-2, Romans 4:7-8):

This reckoning and not reckoning is precisely the application of the communicatio idiomatum of Christ’s two natures, in which Christ takes your sin upon himself, and in its place puts his forgiveness – which is life now and eternal life to come. When Christ takes sin he no longer “imputes” it; indeed, he takes it out of you (exputes it). Then he reckons, or creates faith as righteousness since that faith trusts his promise of forgiveness just as Abraham trusted God’s promise to him of the Seed – and this trust in the promise is reckoned as righteousness by God, period. (p.131)

One small way in which this can be brought down to earth for us in concrete terms. The other day, the appointed psalm for the evening was Psalm 18, which includes the following verses

The Lord rewarded me according to my righteousness;
according to the cleanness of my hands he recompensed me.
For I have kept the ways of the Lord,
and have not wickedly departed from my God.
For all his ordinances were before me,
and his statutes I did not put away from me.
I was blameless before him,
and I kept myself from guilt.
Therefore the Lord has recompensed me according to my righteousness,
according to the cleanness of my hands in his sight.

Singing such things can be a challenge for us: “What ‘righteousness’?” we may feel; “What ‘cleanness of my hands’?” But this is to look at things in “the scheme of the law”. Shocking though it may feel to us, the “communication of attributes” between us and Christ means we can make those words our own, just as much as Christ as made our sins his own on the cross.

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