Justification, Faith, and the Radical Question of Existence

by Robert W. Jenson

The gospel, in anyone’s version, is a promise that our life will be fulfilled by Christ. When­ever this promise is made, someone will rise and ask, But if he is to bring our meaning, what then is our role? What is the point of our works of culture and religion?

It was the great task of the patristic and medieval church to conquer and assimilate the cultural and religious heritage of the ancient world. Obviously this could not be done if all cultural and religious works were, in advance, declared irrelevant to the principal mean­ings of life. Therefore the medieval church sought, with great spiritual and intellectual subtlety and persistence, so to speak and enact the gospel as to reassure the aforemen­tioned questioners. However this might have been done, it was in fact done so: the availability of fulfillment was acknowledged as the sole work of Christ, temporally back there on the cross; our participation now in that fulfillment was made dependent on “cooperation” between God’s influence in our lives, “grace,” and our “natural” religious and natural energies. The completion of Christ’s past work was defined by Anselm of Canterbury’s doctrine of atonement; the exact nature of the cooperation was the great probem of subsequent “scholasticism.”

The trouble was, Christian theologians and pastors obviously could not leave the matter quite like that. For since the availability of “grace” is universally guaranteed by Christ’s past work, all the practical difference would be made by our present cooperating or not; and God would be left without a role in actual life. Medieval theology and pastoral practice sought to avoid this consequence by what we may call the “anti-Pelagian codicil”: If, they said, our religious and ethical response to grace is in fact that we cooperate and so come to participate in the fruit of Christ’s work, this fact of our cooperation is itself a work of God’s goodwill and grace. If we do respond properly to God’s offer, this response itself shows that we are of the “elect,” those whom God freely makes his own. The pattern should be familiar, having remained that of most of the best preaching: twenty minutes of ethical and religious exhor­tation, with the closing qualification, “of course, all this is by grace.” It was exactly this codicil that undid Luther and provoked him to revolt also against the doctrine of “coopera­tion” which made the codicil necessary.

As an item of academic theology, the anti-Pelagian codicil may appear adequate. But in the situation of a man hearing the church’s message in deep concern for the value of his life, it works differently. If I hear of God’s offer of fulfillment, and am told that I will receive it only if I do such-and-such, as “accepting” it, it will in most circumstances make no difference whatever to my existential situation to be told that only by grace can I accept it. I must still set out to do the accepting, knowing that salvation depends on this work. I am thrown back on the normal churchly and moral arrangements for becoming religiously affirmable as the real objects of my concern. And so it went throughout the Middle Ages: the anti-Pelagian codicil remain existentially empty, and the religious life of the people, as the Reformers would charge, remained straightforwardly works-righteous.

But if the normal religious arrangements fail, the anti-Pelagian codicil may acquire meaning. And in the actual situation of religious crisis, that meaning must be destructive. Its effect must be to suspend me over the awful question of whether or not God will indeed enable me to cooperate, whether or not I am one of the”elect”—and there will be no way to answer the question. The gospel can in this case provide no answer, for it is exactly whether the gospel is meant for me that is in doubt. The person who arrives at this point is asked—and cannot answer—whether his life has any point at all. God, the reality of all possible meaning, has himself become the threat of meaninglessness.

It is this experience of a radical threat to all meaning which, for Luther and his followers, attached to standard theological topics about “justification.” In Reformation language, Am I justified? acquired the sense: Have I any justification for existence? What is my excuse for taking up space and time?

This usage, moreover, closely resembled Paul’s use of the language, and so opened up a new possibility of understanding Paul. The image behind Paul’s talk of “justification” is that of the accused at the bar of a court, awaiting the verdict that will either “justify” him or condemn him; the court in question is that of “the last judgment,” the judgment about the value or lack of value of his whole life.

The radical question could, of course, have settled on some other language-complex than that of “justification.” Luther might have asked, for example, Is there any hope at all? or, Is God real? (Contemporary atheism is not necessarily a more radical questioning than that of the Reformation—as it in fact happens, quite the contrary.) That “justification” became the place of pain was determined by the tradition: by Pauline usage, by the Augustinian lan­guage of the medieval church in general, and Luther’s Augustinian order in particular, and probably also by the central place of “justifications” in the feudal social and legal order.

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.

We can already see why “justification without works” is a doctrine by which the church stands or falls; in times of meaning-crisis, preaching and teaching which disobeys this rule is not merely inadequate in certain respects, it speaks altogether past any possible issue. Perhaps we can also begin to see why the doctrine might be more relevant to our own time than its desuetude in the church would make it seem.

The Reformation discovery was that the message about Jesus, told without the medieval past tense, is an affirmative answer to the radical question, and so was so intended by its original speakers. If the gospel is allowed the present tense, if it is allowed to invade the previous reserve of  “cooperation,” it says: The Crucified lives for you. This affirmation is unconditional, for it is in the name of one who already has death behind him, and whose love can therefore by stopped by nothing. As Luther usually put it, Jesus died in order that his will to give himself to us might be a “last will and testament,” and so be subject to no further challenges.

With the present tense, and the transcending of conditions, we come to “faith.” 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.

Again there is a bridge to Pauline usage. With his talk about justification, Paul evokes the situation of the last judgment. He asserts that the gospel is the last judgment let out ahead of time, and as affirmative. Paul’s “faith” is the whole possibility of entertaining daily hopes and making daily choices as person irrevocably judged worthy rather than unworthy.

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 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.

Moreover, this assertion is itself unconditional. It cannot be agreed to with moderation, as “one legitimate concern” among many, or as a doctrine to be honored on some occasions but not on others. That is what offended such admirable and reform-minded Renaissance moderates as Erasmus or Thomas More or Cajetan: the line the Reformation draws between itself and medievalism allows only the one form of proclamation on its side, and calls all deviations therefrom evil. But that is the very logic of the case. For the only way to practice a conditional affirmation of the Reformation position is occasionally to speak the gospel conditionally—whereupon the Reformation discovery is wholly denied. Either we whole­heartedly and exclusively affirm the unconditionality of the gospel-promise, or in all that was of importance to the Reformers, we join the medieval church against them.

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13 Responses to Justification, Faith, and the Radical Question of Existence

  1. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    The above excerpt is from Lutheranism, pp. 38-42.

    For me personally, this maybe the most important passage Jenson ever wrote. It literally changed my life and set the course of my ministry from its beginning. I read it either in seminary (late 70s) or within a few years of my ordination to the priesthood (early 80s).

    Liked by 1 person

    • ebcvictoria says:

      This exact passage also changed my life as well, Fr Kimel. And that happened only last year in 2019. It brought to me the spontaneous joy that can only come when all conditions are removed and God’s love becomes pure gift, pure affirmation, pure hope. And I cannot see how the implication of this passage can be anything less that universal salvation. Any other Gospel would not be worthy of the concept of unconditional love.

      Liked by 3 people

    • Steven says:

      It was life-changing for me as well.


  2. Dwight Penas says:

    Personal note: My course on the Lutheran Confessions consisted of Jens and Gritsch working over their manuscript for this book, which coincidentally was published the year I graduated from Gettysburg and was ordained. The experience of getting these insights by ear and then being able to check those notes and memories with written texts was astounding for me. I had the same exerience with “Visible Words.” Gosh what a blessing.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. eandrewschenk says:

    Why, oh why, was I not taught this in Lutheran catechism?


    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Many Lutherans do not agree with Jenson’s promissory construal of the doctrine of justification by faith.


      • eandrewschenk says:

        Lutherans and non Lutherans alike…

        “Either we whole­heartedly and exclusively affirm the unconditionality of the gospel-promise, or in all that was of importance to the Reformers, we join the medieval church “


        • ebcvictoria says:

          Because…as it seems to me, reading Paul, the true Gospel simply sounds too good to be true to fallen earns. Sinners cannot fathom unconditional love, since all our human actions seem to be grounded in a fundamental conditional, ‘if it serves the self’. Hearing a promise of unconditional acceptance is alien to us. We don’t know what to do with genuine grace, and so we re-attach the conditions and invent religious bondage.


          • eandrewschenk says:

            Agreed! This raises the question, does the unconditional promise of the Gospel require an unconditional authority for the message to truly get across? But in the absence of one, I suppose, it’s encouraging to hear so clearly stated what it is we need and long for and what is at stake.


  4. ebcvictoria says:

    Paul knew his Gospel was scandal to the Jews and foolishness to the Greeks. It was a stumbling block to human reason and religion. Because it was so “unbelievable”, the best way to present it was not in the authority of (unverifiable) truth claims, but in the sheer beauty of its goodness. The goodness is self evident – it is the perfect fit for human need. If you have ears to hear, the gospel self authenticates in goodness and beauty, and if you have those two transcendentals, you also have the truth.


  5. amen amen hallejulah.

    gospel ain’t gospel if it’s conditional


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