A PLAIN GUIDE TO ...
Some say that Christians are obsessed by sin and how to avoid its
consequences. This might be better stated as concern at a deep level about
how to be in a right relationship with the Creator. The Church has evolved
a teaching about this called the Doctrine of Justification. But a question
today is whether this teaching still makes sense.
The suggestion that human beings
must somehow have God's approval is central to many, if not most, world
religions. Christianity is no different and has worked out over
centuries a complex theology of how this comes about.
Christian teaching is based on two fundamental
starting points. First, central to the words and deeds of Jesus of
Nazareth is his unconditional acceptance of people as they are. In his
day acceptance in Hebrew society depended on birth and on adherence to
the rules and regulations of the Jewish religion. This kind of belonging
meant that only certain types of people could be admitted into Hebrew
society. The gospels record the consistent refusal of Jesus to relate to
people in this way.
Second, deriving from the Jewish approach to God, is
the stand of Paul of Tarsus as recorded in his letters to various
Christian groups some 20-30 years after the death of Jesus. A primary
sign of being Hebrew was the circumcision of men. Paul stood against the
insistence by Jewish Christians that only the circumcised could become
Christian. In so doing, he opened up the Church to non-Hebrews and
ensured its consequent expansion to become the Western world's major
religion. In other words, the Church began as a radically inclusive
The logic of the traditional teaching about
justification derives from the belief that everyone sins. Because God is
absolutely good, it's impossible for a less-than-good sinner to be
"God's friend". The perfectly good can't tolerate the imperfect.
Augustine of Hippo (354-430) was one of the first to
work out a theology of justification. This is hardly surprising since he
had also developed the idea that not only does each of us sin against
God, but we are also all sinful in nature. We all start life deeply
corrupted by what is called "original sin". Given this starting point,
it was hard for Augustine and other church people of the time to work
out how a totally corrupt humanity can take tea with absolute holiness.
The answer, said Augustine, lies in Paul's concept of
how we are justified - that is, brought into a right relationship with a
utterly holy God. Alister McGrath uses the analogy of a prison to
clarify the notion:
Let us suppose you are in prison, and are offered
your freedom on condition you pay a heavy fine. The promise is real -
so long as you can meet the precondition, the promise will be
Augustine proposed that because we don't have the necessary money,
and have no way of getting it, we are given it by the jailer. We
are liberated from the dark prison of sin into the enlightened freedom
of repentance and a reformed life by God's unsolicited gift.
Unfortunately, this solution - that God gives us access to the holy
presence free and for nothing - seems to merely push the problem a step
further back. The question arises, "What sort of money pays for our
That is, what is required in order to, as it were, trigger the gift
of justification? For if something doesn't trigger the gift, then what
we're really saying is either [a] that God gives justification to
everyone regardless of how they live and what sort of person they are,
or [b] that he picks and chooses between people either at random or by
some sort of criteria about which we have no knowledge. If the latter,
then it's all-important to know what are those criteria.
Martin Luther (1483-1546) answered that it is faith which triggers
God's gift of justification, which he understood as the acceptance of us
sinners as though we were actually righteous. This faith is a deep trust
in God. In other words, getting right with God requires the precondition
This theological response is summarised by McGrath:
Luther insists that God provides everything necessary for
justification, so that all that a sinner needs to do is receive it.
God is active, and humans passive, in justification ... even faith
itself is a gift of God, rather than human action. God himself meets
the precondition for justification.
But, as McGrath's summary implies, this position merely once more
pushes the matter one step back. This time it is required that a person
to receive the gift of faith before God can relate to him or her. A
problem with this is that few people will not agree to receive a
gift so important that it puts one right with God. Who could turn their
back on such a gift? Getting a free pass to the Creator's garden party
is not something one turns one's nose up at.
If this is true, then God might as well give the grace of faith and
hence righteousness to everyone. But those who put the doctrine of
justification together have to insist that we supply part of the
equation. How can God give a free pass to someone who is merely
pretending to agree. There obviously has to be a very basic change to a
person at some very deep level before they can genuinely agree to
accept the free gift.
The difficulty of providing a starting point for the process by which
God accepts us even though we are sinful has led to many ingenious and
tortuous verbal formulas. They are not worth going into in great detail
here. Suffice it to say that the contrary to the traditional teaching of
justification is the view that we have in some degree to earn God's
acceptance. That is, only when we do something to indicate our
willingness does God have anything to work with.
This is known technically as "justification by works". It is backed
up by quotes from the Letter of James, which counsels something close to
what is today called social activism. The author of the letter says that
Christians should be generous in giving and "doers of the word" - not
merely "hearers who deceive themselves" (1.22). The author goes on to
What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith
but do not have works? Can faith save you? (2.14)
The answer to this question is obviously, "No!"
Whichever approach might be correct, the logic of the traditional
position rules out the solution that God has everyone to tea without
precondition. For if God were to do this, then sin ceases to be a
significant barrier between us and God. And if sin is diminished, then
so is the saving death of Jesus on the cross - which was put at the
centre of the Christian vision by Paul and held there since by all but a
few (heretical) Christians. If so, then it follows that whatever God
does, a life reformed in deeds must be part of the
The 18th century ushered in various attempts to make sense of ancient
doctrines in the light of reason. Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) thought that
nature embodies certain truths about morality, and therefore about how
God will relate to us. Some actions are proved right because they
achieve aims we have previously decided upon. But other actions inhere
in the way things are (his "categorical imperative"). If nature - as he
and others thought at the time - runs rather like clockwork, having a
rigid set of laws to operate by, then we should be able to discover what
makes for right actions by getting to know all these laws.
In this context, justification becomes a process by which God sees us
as "essentially well-pleasing to him", says Kant. In our terms today,
God is not limited by space/time - so he can judge us as a completed
whole through what Kant calls "a purely intellectual intuition". When
God perceives us in this way, we become what we can be. That is, "ought"
becomes "can" and we are justified.
Kant's approaches relies heavily on reason to move from "ought" to
"can". Soren Kierkegaard (1813-1855) took a more intuitive approach.
There are those, himself among them as he confesses, who find they
cannot live a truly ethical life. That is, they recognise a gap between
them and the universal good or "Unconditional". This leads a person to
live out life beyond reason, to recognise that extra-human assistance is
a necessary component in our attempts to close the gap.
Such is the nature of doctrines such as justification, that they
become ever more elaborate and intricate. Differences of opinion are
therefore perhaps inevitable. The Roman Catholic Church has, for
example, evolved its own version of justification which - if one pays
attention to the detail - differs considerably from the Lutheran
version. To the untrained, uninterested eye, however, both the Roman
Catholic and the Lutheran versions appear generic.
Today, the once-fierce debates between Christians of differing
parties have died down. It is rare (and boring) for the old, worn-out,
bloodstained cudgels to be taken out of ecclesiastical cupboards and
waved around in sham conflict. For the fact of the matter is that most
Christians and (probably) all others are not in the least interested in
arguing the doctrine of justification.
This is not to say that people at large are not concerned with being
right with God - or whatever name they attach to that which is ultimate
in their lives. The matter is of as much concern as ever, but is
expressed in very different terms from the dim and distant Christian
An increasing number of reputable Christian theologians
question the traditional teaching that we can relate to God in the
same sense as we relate to each other. This is not to say that we
don't or can't so relate. But it is to say that the way we relate
differs in essence from human relationships. We don't perceive God as
people did previously - as a sort of glorious monarch, elevated far
above us in station and set apart in a holy haze.
The modern perceptions are very different - ranging from God as wholly
other and therefore mysterious for all time, or God expressed through
nature, or God discovered in deep meditation (all often variously
labelled as "new age" spirituality). In other words, the approval of a
majesty on high is not, as it once was, of any concern.
Similarly, it is becoming more and more difficult to think of a
God who steers human affairs as a driver steers a motor car. As
humanity discovers more about how the world and the universe work, it
becomes apparent that the latter is a complex whole. The universe is a
system. Change one part of it and the whole changes. The space/time
continuum allows only one-way change.
It is upon this perception of reality that we today base the
analytical discipline we call history. Without history, it is nonsense
to talk about Jesus as a man who really existed in history as we all
do - a lynch pin of traditional theology. In fact, history as a
discipline ceases to exist if God can intervene at will and change
things from moment to moment. This is because no cause and effect can
in that case ever be traced. The idea of God's grace reforming us
through the free gift of justification doesn't hold water in this
scenario because it requires God's intervention in human affairs. If
God does intervene from moment to moment in the world, we cannot
separate a normal cause from a God-cause. History in this case is a
The traditional idea of a humanity totally corrupted by
inherited sin is less credible now than ever before. While many
acknowledge sin in their lives, it is no longer necessarily something
which leads to eternal torment, and deliverance from which should be
our all-consuming concern.
The modern mind is rapidly becoming tuned to the notion that human
beings have developed gradually over millions of years. The idea that
we have been utterly corrupted somewhere along the line no longer
makes sense. The garden of Eden and the Fall have irrevocably been
placed into the category of myth. A corollary is that God's creation
is good as it is, warts and all. Sin is not inherited.
It is being increasingly recognised that Jesus of Nazareth, not
theism, makes Christianity distinctive. It might be said that God
belongs to everyone, while Christians stand out because they lay claim
to Jesus as someone special.
Many others worship God. Christian scholars are increasingly exploring
the implications of this in relation to other religions. For example,
they ask what happens if we give Muslims credit for venerating the
same God as do Christians? One of the implications of doing so is that
the life and person of Jesus becomes more, not less, important. And,
if the doctrine of justification is to fly at all, it must carry many
more on board than just a faithful Christian few.
Justification and the many controversies which surround it has a long
and (for the historian) interesting story. But it is now seldom the bone
of contention it once was. Indeed, I think it is true to say that it is
of little or no concern to Christians, facing as they do a large number
of much more pressing concerns.
 Christian Theology, Blackwell, 1994