“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!