“Give me this fisherman, this man without education or experience …”

While he was on the mountain with Christ the Lord in company with the two other disciples James and John, the blessed apostle Peter heard a voice from heaven saying: “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased. Listen to him.” The apostle remembered this and made it known in his letter. “We heard a voice coming from heaven, he said, when we were with him on the holy mountain; and he added: so we have confirmation of what was prophesied. A voice came from heaven, and prophecy was confirmed.”

How great was Christ’s courtesy! This Peter who spoke these words was once a fisherman, and in our day a public speaker deserves high praise if he is able to converse with a fisherman! Addressing the first Christians the apostle Paul says:

Consider your own calling, brothers. Not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. Rather, God chose the foolish of the world to shame the wise, and God chose the weak of the world to shame the strong, and God chose the lowly and despised of the world, those who count for nothing, to reduce to nothing those who are something. (1 Cor 1:26-28)

If Christ had first chosen a man skilled in public speaking, such a man might well have said: “I have been chosen on account of my eloquence.” If he had chosen a senator, the senator might have said: “I have been chosen because of my rank.” If his first choice had been an emperor, the emperor surely might have said: “I have been chosen for the sake of the power I have at my disposal.” Let these worthies keep quiet and defer to others; let them hold their peace for a while. I am not saying they should be passed over or despised; I am simply asking all those who can find any grounds for pride in what they are to give way to others just a little.

Christ says: Give me this fisherman, this man without education or experience, this man to whom no senator would deign to speak, not even if he were buying fish. Yes, give me him; once I have taken possession of him, it will be obvious that it is I who am at work in him. Although I mean to include senators, orators, and emperors among my recruits, even when I have won over the senator I shall still be surer of the fisherman. The senator can always take pride in what he is; so can the orator and the emperor, but the fisherman can glory in nothing except Christ alone. Any of these other men may come and take lessons from me in the importance of humility for salvation, but let the fisherman come first. He is the best person to win over an emperor.

Remember this fisherman, then, this holy, just, good, Christ-filled fisherman. In his nets cast throughout the world he has the task of catching this nation as well as all the others. So remember that claim of his: “We have confirmation of what was prophesied.”

St Augustine of Hippo

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“We may with reverence ask from our lover all that we will, for our natural will is to have God”

We pray to God for his holy flesh and for his precious blood, his holy Passion, his precious death and his glorious wounds, for all the blessings of nature and the endless life that we have of all this, it is of the goodness of God. And we pray to him for the love of the sweet mother who bore him, and all the help that we have of her, it is of his goodness. And we pray for his holy Cross on which he died, and all the help and the strength that we have of that Cross, it is of his goodness. And in the same way, all the help that we have from particular saints and from all the blessed company of heaven, the precious love and the holy, endless friendship that we have from them, it is of his goodness. For the intermediaries which the goodness of God has ordained to help us are very lovely and many. Of them the chief and principal intermediary is the blessed nature which he took of the virgin, with all the intermediaries which preceded and followed, which are a part of our redemption and of our endless salvation.

Therefore it pleases him that we seek him and honour him through intermediaries, understanding and knowing that he is the goodness of everything. For the highest form of prayer is to the goodness of God, which comes down to us to our humblest needs. It gives life to our souls and makes them live and grow in grace and virtue. It is nearest in nature and promptest in grace, for it is the same grace which the soul seeks and always will, until we truly know our God, who has enclosed us all in himself.

A man walks upright, and the food in his body is shut in as if in a well-made purse. When the time of his necessity comes, the purse is open and then shut again, in most seemly fashion. And it is God who does this, as it is shown when he says that he comes down to us in our humblest needs. For he does not despise what he has made, nor does he disdain to serve us in the simplest natural functions of our body, for the love of the soul which he created in his own likeness. For as the body is clad in the cloth, and the flesh in the skin, and the bones in the flesh, and the heart in the trunk, so are we, soul and body, clad and enclosed in the goodness of God. Yes, and more closely, for all these vanish and waste away; the goodness of God is always complete, and closer to us, beyond any comparison. For truly our lover desires the soul to adhere to him with all its power, and us always to adhere to his goodness. For of all the things that the heart can think, this pleases God most and soonest profits the soul. For it is so preciously loved by him who is highest that this surpasses the knowledge of all created beings. That is to say, there is no created being who can know how much and how sweetly and how tenderly the Creator loves us. And therefore we can with his grace and his help persevere in spiritual contemplation, with endless wonder at this high, surpassing, immeasurable love which our Lord in his goodness has for us; and therefore we may with reverence ask from our lover all that we will, for our natural will is to have God, and God’s good will is to have us, and we can never stop willing or loving until we possess him in the fulness of joy. And there we can will no more, for it is his will that we be occupied in knowing and loving until the time comes that we shall be filled full in heaven.

Dame Julian of Norwich

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Hell, Freedom, and the Predestinating Gospel

But what about HELL? This is always the first question posed when confronted with Robert W. Jenson’s understanding of the gospel as unconditional promise. If the Church is authorized to speak the Kingdom to all comers, does this not imply universal salvation? In his youthful systematics, Story and Promise, Jenson refuses to answer yay or nay:

What is the point of the traditional language about damnation? Two points only. First, damnation is not part of the gospel. The gospel is not a carrot and a stick: it is unconditional promise. Damnation is a possibility I pose to myself when I hear the gospel and instead of believing it begin to speculate about it—which we all regularly do. Therefore, this book, which tries to explain the gospel, has talked only about Fulfillment and will continue to do so. Second, damnation would be that we were finally successful in self-alienation from our own destiny. Is this a real possibility? We do not know; and we do not need to, for the gospel says to us: “Jesus’ love will find you, in spite of everything and anything.” So much, and no more about damnation—which already is rather too much. (pp. 78-79)

To understand his reasoning we must remember that for Jenson all theological reflection is grounded in God’s self-revelation in Jesus Christ, presented to us in the gospel message. At no point do we stand outside the event of having been personally addressed by God, as if we could objectively validate or assess the gospel from a neutral philosophical position. No such neutral position exists. Jenson explains:

Theology has most often been done from the location of an observer: the theologian observes the realities “God” and “creature” and the relation between them, and tries to describe and partly explain what he sees. It may be doubted that there is any location from which to observe God; but whether there is or not, the doctrine of justification locates the theologian elsewhere. Proper Lutheran theology occurs within the event of hearing and speaking the gospel; it is the thinking involved in moving from hearing to speaking. Lutheran theology is reflection within the discourse of the church on how this discourse may be gospel and not only law. (Lutheranism, p. 64)

(Orthodox theologians may wonder whether locating theological reflection within the event of the speaking-and-hearing of the gospel in some way parallels, and even illumines, the Byzantine distinction between the divine essence and energies: we cannot know God in his essence [i.e., he is never an object that we may directly apprehend and define], but we may know him by his activities [i.e., in his acts of self-communication]. There are points of contact.)

All we know as Christians—and this is a knowing of faith—is that we have been grasped by the story of Jesus as the guarantee of our salvation. We have heard the good news and cannot get away from it. Even when we try to get away from it, even when we depart into the darkness of rebellion and sin, we keep hearing the voice of Christ: “Nevertheless … I will be your happiness and joy.” God’s decision to justify the ungodly in and by the preaching of the gospel is absolute, for it is identical to his eternal decision to be the God who dies on the Cross for the salvation of all.

But that then means … (gulp) … predestination. Absolutely right, replies Jenson. It most certainly does imply predestination—but not the predestination of the philosophers but the predestination of unconditional promise. Predestination is but the flip side of justification by faith, prophetically spoken in the active voice, with God as subject: “I have chosen you in my Son for eternal glory, and I will make good on my promise, no matter what.” Once the electing decree has been spoken to you, what choice do you have but to believe or disbelieve. Once God has told you that he has appointed you to his Kingdom, then that’s simply that. Deal with it!

A doctrine of predestination appropriate to the gospel has nothing to do with any sort of cause-effect “determinism” … and little to do with explaining why some are “saved” and some are “lost.” A proper doctrine of predestination is not a description of God’s relation to mankind in general, done from some third-person observer standpoint—so as then to say: “That man came to a good end because God picked him, those others to a bad end because God did not.” A proper doctrine of predestination is a first- and second-person doctrine: it reminds me, trying to speak gospel to you, not to take “No” for an answer; it reminds me that God chooses you and me here, despite everything. It says nothing one way or the other about some other fellows off there—until you or I turn to speak gospel to them. (Story and Promise, p. 122)

We want to think of predestination as God arbitrarily choosing some to be saved and some to be damned—a divine lottery of sorts, minus the element of chance. This has a long history in the Western theological tradition but is simply the wrong way to think about it, Jenson insists. Predestination is not an explanation of the mechanics of salvation; it’s not an explanation of anything at all: “As the reverse of the doctrine of justification, this doctrine also is instruction to gospel-speakers. It instructs us: to whoever will listen, promise fulfillment regardless of his ‘works’; say, ‘It will be yours simply because God wants it that way'” (Lutheranism, p. 159). God elects sinners in the event of the gospel, proclaimed from the final future. As the Lord himself declared through the prophet: “So shall my word be that goes forth from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and prosper in the thing for which I sent it” (Isa 55:11).

“But that implies that I am but a mere puppet,” we respond. “What’s happened to my freedom?” But reflect a bit more on this. You are seated in the pew and the preacher declares, “In the name of Jesus Christ, crucified and risen, I declare to you that God has destined you to his Kingdom.” How is your liberty compromised? In fact, is it not the case that because of this prophetic announcement you are now free for the first time in your life? The Creator of the universe has just spoken to you the most thrilling words imaginable. You are free—free for faith, free for repentance, free for joy, free for love! Here is genuine liberty, the freedom of the Spirit—the freedom to love God and neighbor unconditionally and selflessly, absent the taint of egoism, gain, and self-righteousness. All other considerations are moot:

Whether predestination means tyranny or freedom depends entirely on which God is absolute. If a Decider throned outside of time settled our destinies as one might sort potatoes, this would indeed end human freedom. But the God who is absolute is the very event in time that opens our freedom. The decision that is absolute is the decision of love. Therefore God and we do not compete to determine our lives: just because there are no conditions on his choice, we are free. We are unfree and bound because we prefer to compete with God and each other. But—says the gospel to you and me—God will not let that stop our freedom either. (Story and Promise, p. 122)

But what about hell? In asking this question we have done what we cannot and must not do: we have abstracted ourselves from the promise God has spoken to us and begun to speculate on the fate of others from the position of a neutral observer. We engage in a kind of fiction. Let’s pretend we do not know who God is. Let’s pretend we have not met Jesus Christ and have not heard his Word. Let’s pretend we have not been saved by the gospel. What is this speculation but sin? If we are concerned about the salvation of others—and we damn’d well better be—then we should be busying ourselves with evangelism. That is the task of our love. Yet still we ask, “Am I not free to reject Christ’s promise of the Kingdom?” The young Jenson refuses to answer.

Jenson returned to the question of hell and damnation in his celebrated Systematic Theology, written some twenty-five years after Story and Promise. Here he cites the contradictory testimonies within the New Testament. On the one hand, the Apostle Paul can assert that “Those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus … will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, separated from the presence of the Lord” (II Thess 1:8-9). Jenson reads Paul’s statement as affirming an eternal perdition (unfortunately he does not discuss the semantic range of aionion) but does offer this qualifying observation: “We may also note … that Paul says this as comfort to the Thessalonican congregation—that his judgment is pronounced on third parties who when the letter is read will not be there to hear” (II:360). On the other hand, the same Apostle can declare: “Therefore just as one’s man responses led to condemnation for all, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all” (Rom 5:18) and “And so all Israel will be saved. … For God has imprisoned all in disobedience so that he may be merciful to all” (Rom:11-26-32). “The logic of Paul’s own soteriology,” comments Jenson, “can never stop short of universal affirmations” (II:360).

He then proceeds to examine the question of damnation under two aspects—the baptized and the unbaptized. I shall focus on the former, since that is the worrisome point:

A believer’s baptism is God’s own promise of the Kingdom, sealed personally. Paul nevertheless warns the Corinthian baptized to take heed lest they “fall” [1 Cor 10:1-13]; exclusion is evidently a possibility. Yet if the promise of God cannot fail for the Israel that does not obey the gospel, as Paul also insists [Rom 11:26], how can it fail for those to whom God has addressed his baptismal promise and who in baptism have in fact obeyed the gospel? If I am baptized, should I fear exclusion? Paul apparently thinks I should, and in the referenced passage puts this fear into me. And yet were this fear to determine any part of my believing life, all would be undone. For to hear and believe the gospel and simultaneously to fear exclusion from the Kingdom is impossible. So Catholic-Reformation dialogue: having defined faith as “the giving over oneself to God and God’s word or promise,” the parties agreed, “No one can in this … sense believe, and simultaneously suppose that God in his word of promise is unreliable. In this sense Luther’s dictum holds: … faith is certainty of salvation.” (II:362)

How then do we reconcile the unconditionality of the gospel, confirmed and sealed in baptism, with the Scripture’s apparent acknowledgement of the possibility of eternal reprobation? Jenson suggests that the biblical warnings can “only be understood as addressed to believers insofar as they do not believe,” that is to say, insofar as they are involved in living their lives as if they had not been baptized. Jenson is thinking here of Romans 6:1-14: we have died to sin in baptism and have been given a new identity in Christ. Paul’s warnings of the possibility of exclusion from the Kingdom, therefore, are intended to remind his readers that they no longer belong to the old age and are dead to the allurements of the world. “That is, the threat of exclusion is made precisely to turn us away from entertaining it. So again, if am baptized, should I fear exclusion? Perhaps the confessor’s proper answer is, ‘Since you ask, No.'” Jenson concludes: “The third-person proposition, ‘It is possible for the baptized to be lost,’ can, it seems, only function as just that, a proposition about a third person not there to be addressed. It has no context in which to be actual” (II:362).

So far, Jenson’s mature view on damnation is continuous with that of his younger self. Those who have been baptized into Christ are not in a position to entertain the possibility that God will not fulfill his salvific promise. To do so is to step outside the event of gospel-communication. At the same time, and for the same reason, Jenson is unwilling to explicitly affirm apokatastasis: “with respect to the baptized, the children of Israel, and those simply outside the covenant, in each case differently, ‘Exclusion is possible’ is a true theological, that is, second-level proposition, to which, however, no first-level believing discourse corresponds. … The Church must think that damnation is possible but is not to make it an article of faith, proclaim it, or threaten it except in such fashion as to obviate the threat. What sort of truth does ‘Damnation is possible’ then have? Perhaps God does not wish us to know” (II:365).

A true second-order proposition that fails to correlate with the primary language of faith? How can it then be true? I do not find Jenson’s argument here convincing, though I respect his desire to take seriously the biblical threats of exclusion. Neither believer nor preacher can ignore these threats. Further historical exegesis may prove helpful in placing them in their proper context. We should not uncritically assume that either Jesus or the Apostles intended to teach as revealed truth a doctrine of everlasting perdition. Ultimately these texts of eschatological terror must be interpreted through a hermeneutic of Pascha. Did Christ empty hades just to create hell? Surely not. Is omnipotent Love impotent against our vaunted freedom and pride? Again, surely, surely not. If such were the case, the uncondi­tional gospel would be nonsense and in the strongest sense incredible. Perhaps the challenge for the preacher is even greater. How does one preach the threats today in gospelwise fashion? The preacher does not need to introduce us to the torment of the outer darkness, for it exists within us as an ever-present existential reality. Sometimes we do need to be bluntly warned of the devastating consequences of our impenitence. Yet Old Testament Israel teaches us that the summons to repentance cannot ultimately save, as well evidenced by her—and the Church’s—interminable cycle of new beginnings followed by wornout endings, failure, disobedience, and betrayal. As Jenson comments: “For history conceived as repeated recreation to be good, there must finally be new beginning that leads to no decrepitude” (“The Preacher, the Text, and Certain Dogmas,” dialog 21 [Spring 1982]: 110). The coming Kingdom of the risen Christ represents precisely this new, enduring, and decisive beginning. If the gospel is true, this Kingdom is freely and unconditionally granted to us in the proclaimed Word. Here is the real challenge of evangelical preaching, to give the final future of Christ:

The promise is and is to be final. … This can be established simply by … noting that the coming of a crucified and risen one, a person with death behind him, must be an unsurpassable event, i.e., the promise in question is “eschatological.” The rule is: What does this text promise, and what may I promise, eschatologically, as the last future that Jesus and he only can bring? … The final promise is and has to be … absolute, unconditional, entirely and utterly free of “if”s or “maybe”s of any sort. The point is again tautologous; an Eschaton can be promised only unconditionally—whatever problems that may raise about the significance of the hearer’s acceptance, etc. I have not got things going until I hear from the text and can say to my hearers, “You will be …, in spite of all considerations to the contrary.” This is the distinction of gospel from law; the law is any address with an “if.” (p. 112)

A conditional gospel, which is no gospel, necessarily distills to the terrifying threat of eternal perdition: “Repent or be damned.” It’s as simple and unavoidable as that. How does the preacher threaten hell without conditionalizing the promise?

My question for my departed teacher: When the word of unconditional promise is spoken to me by the Church, is it only spoken to me? Does not the gospel itself teach me that I am a person only in relation to others? Do I exist apart from my parents, my spouse and my children, my friends, neighbors, and enemies, past and future generations? If I believe that the unconditional love and forgiveness of God intends me, as God has told me and continues to tell me that it does, then surely I may infer that it also intends all of humanity. In the words of the poet: “No man is an island / Entire of itself.” My brother exists in me and I in him. On Great Saturday the Orthodox Church sings: “Uplifted on the Cross, Thou hast uplifted with Thyself all living people; and then, descending beneath the earth, Thou raisest all that lie buried there.” We will not be saved apart from all others, the total Adam, for whom the Second Adam died and rose again. To hear the predestinating gospel spoken to me is to hear the salvation of mankind—apokatastasis! Hence as long as we indwell the gospel and feed upon the Body and Blood of the risen Christ, we must deny the possibility of the eternal loss of our brethren. To do otherwise would be to deny the promise sealed to us in Baptism and renewed in Holy Eucharist. The God who is Love will not renege on his promises. As the Apostle reminded the faithful in Corinth: “For the Son of God, Jesus Christ, whom we preached among you, Silva′nus and Timothy and I, was not Yes and No; but in him it is always Yes. For all the promises of God find their Yes in him. That is why we utter the Amen through him, to the glory of God” (2 Cor 1:19-20).

(Return to first article)

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To Preach the Gospel is to Justify the Ungodly

“What happened to the world with Jesus,” Robert W. Jenson avers, “was that at the end of the long history of Israel’s promises, a sheerly unconditional promise was said and became sayable in the world” (Story and Promise, p. 50). But exactly what does he mean by unconditional promise? Here he offers a simple bit of linguistic analysis. In the exchange of verbal communication, we may ask of any given utterance, what does it do to us? Jenson proposes an either/or answer: an utterance either opens the future for us as gift, or it poses the future to us as demand.

An example of the former is the statement “I love you.” “It is obvious,” he notes, “how the speaking of it opens an entirely new life for the hearer—even if he rejects the offer, his life will never be quite the same again” (pp. 6-7). In the assertion of his love, the lover promises himself to his beloved. It’s easy to think of other examples:

“I am going to deposit $1,000,000 to your bank account.”

“You have been awarded the Nobel Prize.”

“I am going to recommend that you be promoted to general manager.”

“I have found and will return your lost puppy.”

“Yes, I will marry you.”

In all such utterances, a good is communicated as to grant new possibilities. The hearer does not create these possibilities; they are freely given to him: the speaker assumes full responsibility for their fulfillment. In this sense such utterances function as performative speech-acts. Jenson groups them under the classification of unconditional promise.

Now examples of the alternative form of discourse:

“If you pay me $500,000, I will give you the drug that will cure your bone cancer.”

“If you are faithful to the vows you made on our wedding day, I will be faithful to mine.”

“If you continue to act naughtily, Santa Claus will not bring you any presents this Christmas.”

“Thou shalt not steal.”

These utterances also pose a possible future, but they bind that future to a prior condition and thus function as demand and obligation: the realization of the promised possibilities, whether good or ill, depends upon the performance of the hearer. Jenson groups these utterances under the classification of law. I imagine that a linguistic philosopher might want to refine the distinction of promise and law laid out by Jenson, but on the whole it seems to accurately map human discourse.

Conditional promises share a common grammatical structure, explicitly or implicitly: “if … then.” The if-clause does not have to explicitly stated in order to be in force. This structure pervades the web of communal speech, and one might wonder how it could be otherwise. Even our strongest promises—as in traditional marriage vows—are conditioned by death. We may pledge to be faithful to our spouses “for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health”; yet always our mortality imposes itself: “until death do us part.” We cannot commit ourselves beyond that point. Death steals from us our freedom for communion. In our fallen world verbal communication ultimately reduces to law and contract.

Yet we can still theoretically imagine the linguistic structure of a genuine unconditional promise, without any hidden clauses: “because … therefore.” Jenson elaborates:

A promise goes: “Because I will do such-and-such, you may await such-and-such.” The pattern is “because …, therefore …,” the exact reverse of “if …, then …” Here a future is opened independent of any prior condition, independent of what the addressee of the promise may do or be beforehand. Indeed, we may say that whereas other communication makes the future depend on the past, a promise makes the past depend on the future, for it grants a future free from the past, and so allows us to appropriate the past in a new way. This is the point of all the biblical and churchly talk about “forgiveness;” if we are accepted in spite of what we have been, we are thereby permitted to appropriate what we have been afresh, as the occasion and object of that acceptance. (p. 8)

A truly unconditional promise can only be made by one who lives with death behind him. Only he who has died and been raised into life eternal possesses the power to fulfill a vow beyond the death that conditionalizes existence. The narrative content of such a promise, if it is a true promise, is Pascha.

For 2,000 years the Church has boldly proclaimed in the name of Jesus Christ a solemn pledge that transcends all circumstances, contingencies, and limitations. We call it the gospel:

“Because Jesus is risen from the dead, you will be healed of your sorrows and fulfilled in happiness and bliss!”

“Because Jesus offered himself on the Cross for you, you will dine with him in the Banquet of the Kingdom.”

“Because Jesus has destroyed death, you may embrace a life of asceticism, sacrifice, self-denial, even martyrdom, without fear of losing yourself.”

The Church dares to declare this gospel, because he who originally spoke the gospel stands as surety. Jesus has been confirmed by God as divine Son and mediator of the goods of redemption. His salvific will must therefore triumph. “Behind the conditionality of our promises,” Jenson elucidates, “is the certainty of death: by every promise I commit some part of my future, which I do not surely have. The gospel promise is unconditional, for behind it stands the victor over death. Just so, it is the word of God, who has all the future” (Visible Words, p. 6). With Christ’s death and resurrection a new age has been inaugurated, an age in which unconditional promises have become proclamable. It is the age of the Spirit, of life that is freedom, new creation, extravagant love and confident hope. The Church proclaims Pascha and thereby demonstrates Jesus as alive in the final future:

The gospel, spoken by one man to another, is Jesus’ word: his address of himself into a common world with us. The gospel is Jesus’ word because what it promises only he can rightly promise: the gospel promises that Jesus will give himself to us; it promises the total  achievement and outcome of his deeds and sufferings as our benefit; it promises his love. If the gospel-promise is true, its occurrence is Jesus’ occurrence as a shaping participant in our world. It is the truth of the gospel-promise that is the presence of the promised. If the gospel is not true, then when we hear it we hear only each other. (Story and Promise, p. 160)

Jenson believes that it was the great gift of the 16th century Lutheran Reformation to have clarified for the Church the unconditionality of the gospel. (The Calvinist movement must be excepted, with its assertion of limited atonement and double predestination.) Given developments in medieval penitential practices and an ever-increasing homiletical emphasis on eternal perdition, the unconditional giftedness of salvation of Christ ceased to be experienced by many. The meaning of life was called into radical question. Am I worthy? Can I ever become worthy? How can I possibly become worthy? The despair of Luther is well-known. Against this threat of damnation, the Lutheran Reformers asserted the gratuity of divine grace. We are justified by faith, not by works, they declared. They did not thereby signify the promotion of faith as a meritorious and justifying work; rather, they bespoke an eschatological existence beyond justifying works, freely bestowed by the Savior through the preaching of the gospel:

The Reformers’ fundamental insight was that the radical question about ourselves can accept as answer only an unconditional affirmation of the value of our life. An affirmation which sets a condition of any sort whatever, which in any way stipulates “you are good and worthy if you do/are such-and-such” only directs me back to that very self that is the problem. The point made by “without works” is: any affirmation of our life which says “if you do/are …” is not merely a poor answer to the Reformation question about justification, it is no sort of answer to the question being asked; for what is being asked is whether it is worth doing or being anything at all. …

In Reformation language, “faith” is not the label of an ideological or attitudinal state. Like “justification,” the word evokes a communication-situation: the situation of finding oneself addressed with an unconditional affirmation, and having now to deal with life in these new terms. Faith is a mode of life. Where the radical question is alive, all life becomes a hearing, a listening for permission to go on; faith is this listening—to the gospel. …

According to the Reformation insight and discovery, the gospel is a wholly unconditional promise of the human fulfillment of its hearers, made by the narrative of Jesus’ death and resurrection. The gospel, rightly spoken, involves no ifs, ands, buts, or maybes of any sort. It does not say, “If you do your best to live a good life, God will fulfill that life,” or, “If you fight on the right side of the great issues of your time …,” or, “If you repent …,” or, “If you believe….” It does not even say, “If you want to do good/repent/believe …,” or, “If you are sorry for not wanting to do good/repent/believe….” The gospel says, “Because the Crucified lives as Lord, your destiny is good.” The Reformation’s first and last assertion was that any talk of Jesus and God and human life that does not transcend all conditions is a perversion of the gospel and will be at best irrelevant in the lives of hearers and at worst destructive. (Lutheranism, pp. 41-42)

That the Reformers latched onto the language of justification by which to express their rediscovery of unconditional promise was determined by their cultural location in history. No doubt they would have found different conceptuality if they had lived in Greece or Russia. But in 16th century Germany, “justification” became determinative. In their reading of St Paul’s Epistles to the Romans and Galatians, Luther. Melanchthon, Chemnitz, and Brenz came to see that the preaching of the gospel is nothing less than the final judgment of God spoken to sinners. “The image behind the word,” Jenson explains, “is that of a court where I await decision on the meaning of my deeds; in this case, the judgment will cover the whole of my life. The gospel claims to be the last judgment let out ahead of time: ‘Not guilty.’ ‘Justified.’ ‘Good'” (Story and Promise, p. 121; emphasis mine). The point is not the elevation of a forensic “doctrine” of justification above other doctrines. The point is the prophetic preaching of the story of Christ in the performative mode of unconditional promise: so speak of the crucified and risen Jesus that the future of his Kingdom is opened to your hearers (see my series “Preaching Gospel as Gospel“).

Catholics, Orthodox, Reformed, and revivalist Protestants will inevitably raise a host of questions about Jenson’s formulation of the unconditionality of the gospel. What about free will? What about the necessity of repentance, conversion, prayer, and good works? What about theosis and holiness? What about hell? These are important questions, yet Jenson refuses to back down. If we wish to speak gospel as gospel, as good news that liberates sinners from their egoism and rescues them from the existential threat of absurdity, we must dare to follow in the steps of our Lord and lavish upon sinners, to do to sinners, the gift of the Kingdom. By Word and Sacrament, we are called to justify the ungodly!

(Go to “Hell, Freedom, and the Predestinating Gospel”)

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“Open the Bible at any page and you will find it extolling love”

I know, beloved, how well fed you are every day by the exhortations of Holy Scripture, and what nourishment your hearts find in the word of God. Nevertheless, the affection we have for one another compels me to say something to you, beloved, about love. What else is there to speak of apart from love? To speak about love there is no need to select some special passage of Scripture to serve as a text for the homily; open the Bible at any page and you will find it extolling love. We know this so from the Lord himself, as the gospel reminds us, for when asked what were the most important commandments of the law he answered: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind; and you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” And then, just in case you might be tempted to search further through the pages of Holy Scripture for some commandments other than these two, he added: “The entire law and the prophets also depend upon these two commandments.” If the entire law and the prophets depend upon these two commandments, how much more must the gospel do so?

People are renewed by love. As sinful desire ages them, so love rejuvenates them. Enmeshed in the toils of his desires the psalmist laments: “I have grown old surrounded by my enemies.” Love, on the other hand, is the sign of our renewal as we know from the lord’s own words. “I gave you a new commandment—love one another.”

Even in former times there were people who loved God without thought of reward, and whose hearts were purified by their chaste longing for him. They drew back the veils obscuring the ancient promises, and caught a glimpse through these figures of a new covenant to come. They saw that all the precepts and promises of the old covenant, geared to the capacities of an unregenerate people, prefigured a new covenant which the Lord would bring to fulfillment in the last age. The Apostle says this quite clearly: “The things that happened to them were symbolic, and were recorded for us who are living in the last age.” When the time for it came the new covenant began to be openly proclaimed, and those ancient figures were expounded and explained so that all might understand that the old covenant promises pointed to the new covenant.

And so love was present under the old covenant just as it is under the new, though then it was more hidden and fear was more apparent, whereas now love is more clearly seen and fear is diminished. For as love grows stronger we feel more secure; and when our feeling of security is complete, fear vanishes, since, as the apostle John declares, “Perfect love casts our fear.”

St Augustine of Hippo

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Gospel the Paschal Hope

“Jesus is risen!” Here is the gospel in its most compact, succinct, and exhilarating expression. The gospel can be proclaimed in a multitude of ways, yet all ultimately distil to Easter. Apart from the resurrection, Jesus’ preaching of the coming Kingdom is proved empty and his agonizing death on the Cross meaningless. Apart from the resurrection, Jesus simply joins a long line of dead prophets and messianic pretenders. He may have exercised a powerful ministry back in the day, but why should subsequent generations pay him much attention? If Jesus is dead, then he exists only in the past, and it would be folly to imitate him. It’s one thing to die for a cause that one deems greater than oneself, but it’s quite another to embrace a loving that inevitably leads to death and is at that moment undone. Love promises the gift of self to one’s beloved, yet death destroys the gift and voids the promise. How is that salvation for the world? As the Apostle Paul reminded the church in Corinth: “If Christ be not raised, your faith is vain; ye are yet in your sins” (1 Cor 15:17). Apart from the resurrection, life in Christ is impossible. Faith rests on the unconditional promise of the Kingdom proclaimed by Christ and sealed in his obedience unto death:

If Jesus were dead, following him would be the imitating of a figure of the past, and so self-defeating: for the life to which the past Jesus called was exactly that we give up all such clinging to the past, and live by hope for the future Kingdom. Precisely the historical facts of his words and his actions means that only if he is alive, only if he is free to surprise us and upset all our imitations of what has been, is it possible to be his followers. Christian faith is not a matter of knowing about what Jesus did back there, and then seeking how now to get benefit from it; it is a matter of the promise made right now in the name of a living man, Jesus—who is of course known to us only by what he did back there, and by the self-surrender unto death in which he did it. (Robert W. Jenson, Story and Promise, p. 44)

The message of resurrection need not be heard as gospel. It all depends on who Jesus was. If Jesus had been an inconsequential fellow who lived down the block (“Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” [John 1:46]), we might well respond to the news of his resurrection with a yawn. “How curious,” we’d remark, and then proceed with our lives as if nothing of import had happened.

If Jesus had lived a particularly wicked life, if he had in fact been a tyrant responsible for the oppression and death of millions, then we would probably be horrified by the news. Substitute the name “Josef Stalin, “Adolf Hitler,” or “Pol Pot” and see how you feel. As Jenson wryly observes: “‘Hitler is risen’ would lift few hearts” (Systematic Theology, I:31). The world rejoiced when Hitler died, for his death meant that his evil had finally reached its conclusion.

But everything changes when Jesus of Nazareth is made the subject of the resurrection confession. Hearts are transformed and disciples are made—suddenly there is Church. “Jesus is risen!” becomes breathtaking news because “Jesus” names the love narrated in the four gospels. If Jesus lives, his love has a future, for us and for his God:

Jesus lived and then died. Therefore we have a definition of what it means to be Jesus, we know what he is: he is the one who lived wholly in the hope he had to bring his fellows, giving himself to that hope even to death. If despite death he now lives, then his self-giving is not only an item of the past to be remembered, but a surprise in the future to be expected. And if that, then not merely one item of the future, but the last future, the conclusion of the human enterprise. For death is already behind him, and nothing can any more limit his hopeful self-giving; it will necessarily encompass all men and all man’s history. To say “Jesus was dead and is alive” is to say something about the last future. (Story and Promise, p. 44)

Jesus now lives with death behind him—here lies, contends Jenson, the eschatological significance of Jesus’ proclamation of the coming Kingdom. And here lies, I contend, the driving conviction of Jensonian theology. That the God of Israel has exalted Jesus as Lord and Christ means not only that God has ratified the teaching and mission of Jesus, but that he has eternally established him as the eschatological consummation of humanity. (I know that the way I have just worded the above might sound alarms of adoptionism. Be at peace. Your worries are misplaced.) Jesus is risen and his love must triumph! The Kingdom would not be Kingdom otherwise.

Death limits all the promises we may make to each other, yet Jesus dared to proclaim the Kingdom unconditionally to his hearers. When the Lord invited himself into the life of Zacchaeus, thereby incorporating the tax collector into the communion of the Kingdom, Zacchaeus responded with an act of sacrificial thanksgiving: “Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor; and if I have defrauded any one of anything, I restore it fourfold” (Luke 19:8). “Today,” Jesus immediately announced, “salvation has come to this house” (Luke 19:9). We misread the story if we interpret Zacchaeus’ repentance as a precondition for his salvation. In the symbolic act of table fellowship, Jesus had already brought the Kingdom to him. Such was Jesus’ faith in his Father and the eschatological mission entrusted to him. In this faith Jesus freely embraced the death the passion and death that was the inevitable conclusion of his mission. “Father, if thou art willing, remove this cup from me; nevertheless not my will, but thine, be done” (Luke 22:42). Only Pascha would prove the faith of Jesus. “In that he interpreted his fellows’ lives by God’s future rather than by their own pasts,” writes Jenson, “Jesus interpreted his own life by that same future. The outcome of his own life would be the fulfillment or failure of the promise he brought” (pp. 39-40).

By the mighty act of God, Jesus now lives. Death lies behind him, and therefore his promise of Kingdom is not only confirmed but has become sayable in the world.

If Jesus died but now lives, his reality is open to the meaning and outcome of what he did, suffered, and was, without the condition that we must observe: he does not need to specify, “I am committed, of course, only insofar as my commitment does not lead me to death and so to its own negation.” Since death is behind him, nothing can anymore separate him from his future. He is himself the one he evoked by his teaching, the one for whom the prophets’ promises are the word to live by right now—without intervening space for preparation, postponement or failure, without intervening death, without intervening law. Alienation is no longer a possibility. …

If Jesus died and lives, the fulfillment of his life opens unconditionally to him. But his life was speaking the promise of Israel’s Kingdom to other men, acting it out with them, and doing both in a way that removed all conditions and refused all social and religious distinctions. Therefore the fulfillment now promised to Jesus, is exactly that the promises of Israel will be fulfilled for his fellows, and that his fellowship will reach to all men. “The Word of God” is first of all the word by which the man Jesus now lives; and what that word says to him is: “All men will be your brothers, despite their alienation and unconditionally, in the new order that will fulfill Israel’s hope. Just so this word is equally addressed to us, without distinction; it is the word that each of us may speak to the other in Jesus’ name, and in this form it says: “Israel’s hope will be fulfilled for Jesus’ sake, and for you; despite all past or future failed conditions, despite all alienation, and despite the death that rules in both.” (pp. 48-50)

Jesus is risen!

The gospel of Easter!

Our paschal hope!

(Go to “To Preach the Gospel”)

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Reading Scripture through the Creed

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