Justification By Faith: Unconditional Good News or the “Accursed Gospel”

The gift of the Reformation and of Martin Luther to the world is recovery or rearticulation of the unconditional, free grace of the gospel which can be summed up as “justification by faith.” The problem is, this same phrase can be used to describe the opposite; namely conditional salvation defined and bound up with the base line condition of the law. The unconditional good news is easy to understand, but the goodness and joy of the good news can and has been twisted so that this simple gospel truth, justification by faith, has (most?) often been made to fit Paul’s description of “the accursed gospel” (Gal. 1:6-8) which is no gospel at all but the human problem repackaged as the solution. It may be easiest to start with the good news, as this is uncomplicated, unconditional, singular, and straight forward but we (certainly I) may have missed it due to all the obstacles thrown in the way. So, the implications of this good news and the ways in which it may be twisted into bad news needs to be spelled out so as to secure the love, peace, and profound joy that comes with the unconditional gospel of Jesus Christ.

Alvin Kimel has done us the favor of gathering up and gleaning through a variety of sources, and through 40 years of effort as he describes it, “the unconditionality of God’s love for humanity.”[1] Kimel describes his discovery of the work of the Torrance brothers, James and Thomas (which first came to my attention through the work of Douglas Campbell), Robert Jenson, and Gerhard Forde – two Reformed and two Lutheran theologians, respectively. He describes his moment of awakening in encountering James Torrance’s description of the significance of the Reformation (worthy of extended quotation):

The important thing is that in the Bible, God’s dealings with men in creation and in redemption—in grace—are those of a covenant and not of a contract. This was the heart of the Pauline theology of grace, expounded in Romans and Galatians, and this was the central affirmation of the Reformation. The God of the Bible is a covenant-God and not a contract-God. God’s covenant dealings with men have their source in the loving heart of God, and the form of the covenant is the indicative statement, ‘I will be your God and you shall be my people’. The God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ is the God who has made a covenant for us in Christ, binding himself to man and man to himself in Christ, and who summons us to respond in faith and love to what he has done so freely for us in Christ. Through the Holy Spirit, we are awakened to that love and lifted up out of ourselves to participate in the (incarnate) Son’s communion with the Father.

Two things are therefore together in a biblical understanding of grace, the covenant of love made for man in Christ, between the Father and the incarnate Son. (a) On the one hand, it is unconditioned by any considerations of worth or merit or prior claim. God’s grace is ‘free grace’. (b) On the other hand, it is unconditional in the costly claims it makes upon us. God’s grace is ‘costly grace’. It summons us unconditionally to a life of holy love—of love for God and love for all men. The one mistake is so to stress free grace that we turn it into ‘cheap grace’ by taking grace for granted—the danger of the ‘antinomianism’ against which Wesley protested. The other mistake is so to stress the costly claims of grace that we turn grace into conditional grace, in a legalism which loses the meaning of grace.

The fallacy of legalism in all ages—perhaps this is the tendency of the human heart in all ages—is to turn God’s covenant of grace into a contract—to say God will only love you and forgive you or give you the gift of the Holy Spirit IF . . . you fulfill prior conditions. But this is to invert ‘the comely order of grace’ as the old Scottish divines put it. In the Bible, the form of the covenant is such that the indicatives of grace are prior to the obligations of law and human obedience. ‘I am the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, I have loved you and redeemed you and brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage, therefore keep my commandments.’ But legalism puts it the other way round. ‘If you keep the law, God will love you!’ The imperatives are made prior to the indicatives. The covenant has been turned into a contract, and God’s grace—or the gift of the Spirit—made conditional on man’s obedience.[2]

The foundational shift Torrance describes is from contract to covenant. A contract describes a condition, such as payment or an “if” statement (if you do this, I will do that), where a covenant is an unconditional promise without prior obligation or requirement. God has acted in Christ to redeem the world and to deliver all people from bondage. This apocalyptic, cosmic deliverance is nothing short of recreation, new birth, or death and resurrection. Torrance carefully describes, this is neither antinomianism nor legalism but is “unconditional in the costly claims it makes upon us.” This gift requires our life but of course it is not an exchange of life for life, but the relinquishing of the grip death has upon us in order to live. Costly grace costs everything, but this everything amounts to nothing as we have invested ultimate value in a lie.

Part of the problem in receiving and fully comprehending this good news is the confounded (deceived) nature of the bondage. “The house of bondage” from which God delivers is a full-blown “reality,” inclusive of a world economy and psychic reality. That is, the full extent of the unconditional, apocalyptic and universal nature of the deliverance may not be appreciated apart from an accurate description of the bondage. Legalism, in Torrance’s description, captures a prime manifestation of this reality but the all-inclusive nature of the bondage (constituting its own world) undergirds legalism.  But before turning to describing how covenant may fall back into contract, the absolute unconditional, free grace needs to be clearly staked out.

Kimel turns next to Gerhard Forde, who expresses the absoluteness of unconditional grace, asking, “What must we do to be saved?” His answer:

absolutely nothing! We are justified freely, for Christ’s sake, by faith, without the exertion of our own strength, gaining of merit, or doing of works. To the age old question, “What shall I do to be saved?” the confessional answer is shocking: “Nothing! Just be still; shut up and listen for once in your life to what God the Almighty, creator and redeemer, is saying to his world and to you in the death and resurrection of his Son! Listen and believe!” When one sees that it is a matter of death and life one has to talk this way. The “nothing” must sound, risky and shocking as it is. For it is, as we shall see, precisely the death knell of the old being. The faith by which one is justified is not an active verb of which the Old Adam or Eve is the subject, it is a state-of-being verb. Faith is the state of being grasped by the unconditional claim and promise of the God who calls into being that which is from that which is not. Faith means now having to deal with life in those terms. It is a death and resurrection.”[3]

Forde seems to recognize that his “nothing” may raise questions, but the point is to firmly drive home the unconditional nature of grace. He says, the “‘nothing’ must sound, risky and shocking as it is.” We have entered into new territory, a new way of thinking and conceiving the world, thus the silence that should follow the “nothing.” Once one is grasped by faith, this becomes the lens through which everything is perceived. No longer does retribution, punishment and fear determine reality, and no longer can anyone claim advantage over another, as all have fallen short, all have walked according the ways of the prince of this world, all were in bondage, and the same “all” are those who are delivered. When asked why this makes people so angry, Forde gives the following response:  

Why indeed? Because it is a radical doctrine. It strikes at the root, the radix, of what we believe to be our very reason for being. The “nothing,” the sola fide, dislodges everyone from the saddle, Jew and Greek, publican and pharisee, harlot and homemaker, sinner and righteous, liberal and orthodox, religious and non-religious, minimalist and maximalist, and shakes the whole human enterprise to the roots. It strikes at the very understanding of life which has become ingrained in us, the understanding in terms of the legal metaphor, the law, merit and moral progress. Justification, the reformers said, is by imputation, freely given. It is an absolutely unconditional decree, a divine decision, indeed an election, a sentence handed down by the judge with whom all power resides. It is as the later “orthodox” teachers like to say, a “forensic” decree: a flat-out pronouncement of acquittal for Jesus’ sake, who died and rose for us…

The gospel of justification by faith is such a shocker, such an explosion, because it is an absolutely unconditional promise. It is not an “if-then” kind of statement, but a “because-therefore” pronouncement: Because Jesus died and rose, your sins are forgiven and you are righteous in the sight of God! It bursts in upon our little world all shut up and barricaded behind our accustomed conditional thinking as some strange comet from goodness knows where, something we can’t really seem to wrap our minds around, the logic of which appears closed to us. How can it be entirely unconditional? Isn’t it terribly dangerous? How can anyone say flat-out “You are righteous for Jesus’ sake”? Is there not some price to be paid, some-thing (however minuscule) to be done? After all, there can’t be such a thing as a free lunch, can there?

You see, we really are sealed up in the prison of our conditional thinking. It is terribly difficult for us to get out, and even if someone batters down the door and shatters the bars, chances are we will stay in the prison anyway! We seem always to want to hold out for something somehow, that little bit of something, and we do it with a passion and an anxiety that betrays its true source—the Old Adam that just does not want to lose control.”[4]

One’s very being or ontology is changed by the breaking in of love and grace. This is a different way of conceiving God, the world, and humans. Prior to the work of Christ death was the controlling factor in life, and this was the condition put upon everything. The law seemed to provide a measurement or condition to deal with death, just as idolatry attempted similar negotiations. Psychology drives home the point, revealed in the Bible, that the fear of death (sometimes called God) which may be conscious or unconscious, is determinative of the psychic struggle. No one but God has the power to deliver from death and this has occurred in the death and resurrection of Christ. Reality is on a different ground, producing a new world order and a recreation of the human psyche.

The relinquishing of the old order may be disturbing, as some like Paul, may have exceeded their peers in religiosity, moral progress, and attaining heaven, but now all of this is counted as garbage. The human salvation system, which promised life, only produces death and this may be anger provoking news for those who invested everything in saving their own life. The reality may be slow in sinking in as the enslaved have found security in their enslavement. For Adam, the reality of death is determinate and this reality seemingly must be negotiated. A contract must be drawn up, consciously or unconsciously, and the terms of exchange enacted. This fear of death reigns, and only in Christ can we defeat this enslaving fearful orientation. To simply break open the tomb (the tomb which makes life conditional), and give life where death was the bottom line, means the conditions we have negotiated no longer apply.

As Kimel concludes in regard to his approach to ministry, “This liberation requires nothing less than our death and resurrection. The preacher is so much more than an encourager to live well and do good works. He is a prophet of the Kingdom, speaking the Word of God that accomplishes what it proclaims (Isa 55:11); he is a priest of the eschaton, giving to communicants the Body and Blood of the glorified Lord.”[5] This is the good news that the preacher, evangelist, and prophet proclaims. Everything must give way in support of this gospel message, which will mean a redefinition of what it means to be human, a reworking of epistemology, and a relinquishing of every form of conditionalism, with its focus on death, punishment, and retributive justice.

The problem in apprehending free grace lies in the failure to reorder and apprehend everything in light of its unconditional nature. In short, this unconditional gospel is universal, apocalyptic (or a breaking in to a world and system of a different order.) It is not retributive, imagining that suffering is required for penalty and payment, and thus it is not focused on God’s anger but on the love of God (and wrath as a subcategory of love). There is no room for God being eternally angry and there cannot be a category of eternal punishment. Most importantly, the nature of human bondage is directly tied to death, law and punishment, so that the manner in which justification by faith may be misconstrued, is simply an example of the universal human bondage to sin, death, and the devil from which unconditional grace saves.

 Douglas Campbell works out this misconstrual, working in close conjunction with the Torrances, but he calls this failure “justification by faith.” Paul, after all, initially accords the name gospel to those who are preaching what he then says is no gospel at all, but is an accursed message. So too there is “justification by faith,” the answer to the problem, and then there is “justification by faith,” the problem repackaged as the solution. Though it may appear a confounding of problem and solution, sorting out the two simply means following Paul’s argument concerning a law-free gospel, and that “gospel” which the false teachers bind to the law. The law always requires conditions and the gospel frees from every form of conditionalism. “Therefore the Law has become our tutor to lead us to Christ, so that we may be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a tutor. For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:24–26). The law is not the standard for faith, but faith, trust, and covenant are primary.   

The false teachers’ accursed gospel makes the law primary and Christ secondary, so that Christianity is reduced to a contract rather than a covenantal relationship, and though we are still calling it justification by faith, both justification and faith have taken on a different meaning. In short, justification is measured by the law. Rather than justification or righteousness referring to the world changing apocalyptic breaking in of the love of God, righteousness is measured and distributed according to the law. Faith, in turn, is defined in conjunction with Christ’s meeting this condition in his death (his life, resurrection, the church, and the Holy Spirit, are rendered secondary), so that the death of Christ becomes the primary and perhaps singular focus. One is saved by applying the legal benefits of Christ’s death to one’s personal law books. One is not saved by taking up the cross and following Christ and being loving and faithful with and through his extended body. One might or might not do such things, but this does not pertain to salvation.   

In brief, according to this understanding, Old Testament law and natural revelation are a system in which one is justified or made right in the eyes of God through works of the law. No one can keep the law perfectly, and therefore everyone fails to be justified. This produces feelings of guilt and depression, but the gospel allows justification, not by works but by faith, which is the new condition (in Arminianism at least). Whenever anyone hears the gospel, they are so happy to be relieved of their burden of guilt for sin. Now they realize that all they have to do is have faith and their sin problem is taken care of. The exchange between the Father and the Son has taken care of the condition, and now one believes this fact and they are saved.

There are several problems in this system, in that law is the standard of measure for Christ and faith, rather than Christ setting aside the law. Justification or righteousness, rather than referring directly to God, refers to law (perhaps a kind of secondary manifestation of God), leading to a depersonalized or fictional element to the entire procedure. Faith consists in believing Christ has met the conditions of the law, and in this sense, faith goes nowhere, as it seems to reduce to faith in faith (that which meets the condition). In this system, to speak of imitating the faithfulness of Christ makes no sense, as Christ’s primary work is in conjunction with meeting the requirements of the law, which is inimitable. Again, faith is not so much participation in or being joined to Christ, as it is the application of an imputed righteousness (a kind of legal fiction).

At the same time, this justification by faith sets a very high standard on both human capacity and incapacity. Jews have the law through revelation and scripture, but what the Jews have through special revelation, everyone else has through the law written on the heart or natural revelation. Under this system everyone, both Jews and Greeks, recognize that God is omnipotent, omniscient, and just and that he has a law which everyone must obey perfectly, if they are going to be justified. So, all have the capacity to recognize God and his absolute standard, but no one has the capacity to live up to this standard.

In the doctrine of Original Sin, as we get it from Augustine, everyone knows enough about God to know his perfect standards, but no one knows enough or can do enough to keep this standard. We all know enough to feel really depressed about our situation in life. In fact, if one does not feel guilty and depressed they have missed the first condition of coming to Christ. They may feel proud, and they may be stubborn, a particular problem with the Jews, but most people finally reach the condition of feeling bad, then they are prepared to hear the gospel message. Luckily, Christ died to meet the requirements of the law, and now the problem with the law, the reason for the guilt and depression, is resolved.

I suppose we can all adjust our conversion story to fit this model, just as Paul’s conversion is pictured along the lines of Luther’s. On the road to Damascus, Paul must have been struggling with his introspective conscience, feeling guilty and miserable until he meets Jesus, who relieves him of his guilt and depression. He meets Christ and understands deliverance is now provided from the requirement of the law, as Christ has met the requirements, paid the penalty, and grace is now available in place of wrath and punishment.

Misery may be the anteroom to many forms of conversion, and perhaps we can chalk misery up to some form of consciousness that we have broken the law. However, after more than twenty years in Japan (a place largely unexposed to justification theory) I never met anyone who had this perception of God, sin and the law, and this is not the way Paul describes his former pride in his religious achievement. Paul narrates his pre-Christian understanding as guilt free and “without fault” in regard to the law (in fact, this fits common Japanese self-perception). As he describes in Philippians, he considered himself righteous, zealous beyond his peers, and bearing the highest qualifications and impeccable credentials: “circumcised the eighth day, of the nation of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the Law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to the righteousness which is in the Law, found blameless” (Php 3:5–6).

Romans 7 might be cited as support of Paul’s guilty conscience, but this chapter is Paul’s retrospective view, about either himself or Adam, from the perspective of a Christian. This is not a narrative about conversion, but about being trapped, and deceived. There is no clear route from Romans 7 to Romans 8, apart from the appearance of Christ and the breaking in of a new order. Romans 7 describes the pre-Christian condition and the nature of deception, and it is a lie that includes Paul’s notion of self-salvation as a Pharisee. It is a lie in which one is entrapped by the law of sin and death, and the law is the object of deception, and the deception is such that one is not aware of his own condition.

The question arises as to exactly what law both Jews and Gentiles share, and obviously, it is the law of sin and death (the law of deception). But in justification theory, law plays a key role in making one guilty about their sin, so the law is a primary force in prompting acceptance of Christ. But what law? If it is something along the line of the ten commandments, do we expect everyone to know about sabbath keeping, and the details about sexual morality? If it concerns the details of the Jewish law, should we expect everyone to know in their heart about not eating blood, about not cutting the forelocks, and about circumcision?. Can we glean a universal ethical standard from the Jewish law, separate from the details of this law?

Maybe there is not one law code but two, and then not one ethical system but a mix, but then we end up with a tightly regulated and specific ethical system, and a more general natural law. Since the law directly reflects the character of God (in this theory), and all infractions are duly punished, the two-system method seems flawed.  As Douglas Campbell concludes, “Either the model must claim that the Jewish law, in all its detail, is derivable from the cosmos through natural revelation or it must work with two ethical systems – one a more general set of ethical principles applicable to all and discernible in the cosmos, and the other a more extensive set with additional distinctive practices incumbent only on Jews and accessible primarily through revelation and texts.”[6] This system is grounded in retributive justice, so that according to how well people do with the prescribed rules, this will determine their punishment. But is this retributive justice on the basis of two distinct standards – the Jewish and Gentile standard? The exact perfect standard by which all are judged is unclear.

On the other hand, if the law is posited, as Paul explains in some detail in Romans and Galatians, not as the anteroom to the gospel but as the law of sin and death, then the universality of deception in regard to the law (Mosaic or otherwise) is accounted for. The law does not set the condition for salvation, but is what unconditional salvation delivers from.

There is clearly a problem in the presumed disjunction between what all people are capable of knowing and what none of them are capable of doing. On one hand they have intellectual capacities, I am suspicious are non-existent. Is it really the case that all people can derive the same basic facts about God, such as his omniscience, his omnipotence, and his righteousness, from nature? Can they then go on and deduce the same uniform ethical requirements – and then, though they are capable of all of this, are they completely incapacitated to do what they know is right? All of this feeds into the false gospel’s notion of faith and justice. “Justification theory posits a God of strict justice who holds all people accountable to a standard they are intrinsically unable to attain, and this seems unjust.”[7]

Or could it be that this perception of God, as law-giver, punisher, and destroyer is the pagan equivalent of deifying death? Isn’t this the lie from which Christ delivers rather than a truth he verifies and satisfies?

There is a further conflict in exactly what it is everyone is expected to know and how this connects to faith. Christianity and Judaism are based on historical revelation, yet the presumed universally shared knowledge is not historically specific but more of a philosophical understanding. That is, the criteria by which people are judged are universal, yet no one can live up to these criteria, so we have Christianity, which is historically specific. So, we have one criterion to condemn and another to save, but what is key is both criteria serve as a condition. As Campbell concludes,

 It is of course a much less arduous criterion than the rigorous demand under the law for ethical perfection (or even for 51 percent righteousness), but it is a criterion nevertheless. It is Luther’s own incapacity, now ruthlessly exposed, that demands this significantly reduced criterion, but the need for a criterion per se is grounded in the model’s opening assumptions. Justification is a voluntarist model throughout, focused on the deliberations of a rational individual, so any such individual must at the crucial moment do something![8]

The answer to Luther: faith saves, not due to the prior criterion of the law nor on a presumed capacity and incapacity for knowing and doing, but on the fact that death reigns in the sinful, deceived orientation to the law, and Christ delivers from sin and death and this is, as Paul describes throughout his gospel, universal, cosmic, for all people and creatures, and is the consummating fact of the eschaton when: “at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those in heaven, and of those on earth, and of those under the earth, and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Php. 2:10-11). Faith is not a condition for salvation, it is salvation enacted in the life of the believer. In the justification system, faith does not seem to address any issue, or change the person beyond believing a set of facts. And the question arises, why these particular facts? But in unconditional salvation, faith is the uprooting of the orientation to death, in that being found in Christ is to be found in his resurrection life.

I conclude where Alvin Kimel concludes, with the Apostle Paul:

In him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of flesh in the circumcision of Christ; and you were buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the working of God, who raised him from the dead. And you, who were dead in trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, having canceled the bond which stood against us with its legal demands; this he set aside, nailing it to the cross” (Col 2:11-14).

This circumcision is not of the law but that performed on the heart by Christ. In the same way baptism, with its death and resurrection, is not an act of the one being baptized but a being acted on by Christ. Forgiveness is freely granted in the “making alive” of God through Christ. “The old Adam has been slain, and we now live in the Eucharist of the eschaton. We are saved by the nothing of grace because God’s love is absolute and unconditional: God wills our good, and he will accomplish it. He has sealed his commitment in the death of his Son.”[9] Through faith God is saving, cancelling the condition of the law (and its death dealing deceit) through the cross.

(Sign up for our next class, Romans: Salvation through the Body of Christ A theological study of the faithfulness of God revealed in Christ Jesus as articulated in Paul’s letter to the Romans. Focusing on Paul’s exposition of God making the world right through Christ. Starting September 4th https://pbi.forgingploughshares.org/offerings

[1] Alvin Kimel, David Bentley Hart, Destined for Joy: The Gospel of Universal Salvation (p. 103). The Gospel of Universal Salvation. Kindle Edition.  

[2] James B. Torrance, “The Unconditional Freeness of Grace,” Theological Renewal (June/July 1978): 7-15. The article has been reprinted in Trinity and Transformation (2016), ed. Todd Speidell, pp. 276-287. Cited by Kimel, 104-105.

[3] Gerhard Forde, Justification by Faith—A Matter of Death and Life (1990), p. 22. Quoted in Kimel, 22.

[4] Forde, 22-23. Quoted in Kimel, 107-108.

[5] Kimel, 109.

[6] Douglas A. Campbell, The Deliverance of God: An Apocalyptic Rereading of Justification in Paul (p. 41). Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.. Kindle Edition.

[7] Campbell, 45.

[8] Campbell, 25-26.

[9] Kimel, 112.