Why I Am A Universalist, §7: The Doctrine of Justification (Section III)

Section III: Sola gratia

If the exclusive Christological formula excludes our having any other mediator but Jesus Christ (or any other mediatrix), then the exclusive formula of sola gratia guarantees that everything God has done for humanity in, through and for the sake of Jesus Christ is an unconditional divine gift. (Jüngel, Justification 173)
The phrase “by grace alone” conditions the statement “Christ alone” by asserting that God’s love and mercy is not conditioned by anything external to God. The triune God alone is the unconditioned, self-determining God of all grace. Nothing humanity does or fails to do has any impact upon what God accomplishes. The formula sola gratia “clearly excludes human beings from taking an active role in their justification” (175). Any active participation on the part of human beings is excluded by God’s free and sovereign grace. The outworking of God’s love remains free from any creaturely conditions, and thus is not deterred by human sinfulness. As made clear in our discussion of the divine attributes, God’s love must be understood out of itself, out of divine self-revelation, and not out of any comparison with human love. God’s love does something sui generis; it is utterly incomprehensible and yet revealed to us in the person of Jesus. The love of God is grace, and as grace it is creative and replete with possibilities. The gracious love of God accomplishes what humankind cannot accomplish: it brings the dead to new life.
God’s love for us thus flies the banner ‘by grace alone’. A fellowship of love is by definition a fellowship of choice, except that there is an important distinction between a fellowship of love from human being to human being and one of God to human beings. Human love, amor hominis, chooses what is attractive and present. [. . .] The amor crucis, on the other hand, God’s love revealed in the cross of Jesus, discovers nothing attractive, only sin, so that God’s love first creates what is attractive by the act of love: ‘The love of God does not find, but creates, that which is pleasing to it’ (Luther). The love of God, the amor Dei, is directed to the unlovable and the ugly and by the act of creative love makes them lovable and beautiful. That is the difference between human fellowships of love and the loving fellowship of God and human beings which is founded on compassion. God has mercy on those who are totally unlovable. (174)
Jüngel writes at length about the nature of God’s love in God as the Mystery of the World:
Love wants to radiate. As love, it presses to move beyond the lovers themselves. … It wants to radiate out into the realm of lovelessness. … And so it does not fear lovelessness but rather drives out fear (1 John 4:18). … For love does not assert itself in any other way than through love. And that is both its strength and its weakness. Since love asserts itself only lovingly, it is highly vulnerable from the outside, but inwardly it is profoundly indestructible. It remains with its element, and it radiates in order to draw into itself. It cannot destroy what opposes it, but can only transform it. (GMW 325)

God has himself only in that he gives himself away. But, in giving himself away, he has himself. That is how he is. … God is the one and living God in that he as the loving Father gives up his beloved Son and thus turns to those others, those people who are marked by death, and draws the death of these people into his eternal life. (GMW 328)
Jüngel is thus able to extrapolate from the Johannine definition of God as love the further definition of God as the one who “unites life and death in favor of life” (GMW 326). As the self-giving God of love and grace, the triune God who created all life became vulnerable and weak in the person of Jesus Christ, taking on the likeness of sinful flesh, in order to overcome death in the death of the Son for the sake of new life for all people. As the Latin saying goes, “Mors mortis morti, mortem mors morte redemit, et Christi morte est, sic reparata salus,” which, when roughly translated, states, “The death of death by death; death redeemed death through death—through the death of Christ—and thus life has been restored.” The point is that God’s loving grace is such that it indeed overcomes opposition, but it is not omnipotent in the sense of absolute power. Rather, the love and grace of God is the one place where we find power and weakness existing together in a dialectical unity. Only as divine love can God’s cruciform weakness have the power to transform lovelessness. Only because God is the “union of death and life for the sake of life” (GMW 299) can God make what is ugly and unlovable truly lovable and beautiful. Only because God is Love can the expression of love in the cross lead to the victory of love in the resurrection.

Because God is the triune God of all grace, however, we as sinful human beings are excluded from having any “active participation” in our justification. If justification occurs solely by God’s grace, then “sinners simply can do nothing for their own justification” (179). As Jüngel states clearly, “We ourselves can contribute nothing towards our fellowship with God, absolutely nothing. We can only receive. We are in fact involved in our justification in a merely passive way” (181). We are brought into an ontological participation with God, but it is one in which we are taken outside ourselves (extra nos) and made to conform to the image of God embodied in Jesus Christ (conformitas Christi). We have no role to play in making ourselves beautiful; we cannot make ourselves more lovable before God. We must all find ourselves by going out of ourselves, by finding our identity in the person of Jesus, first at the foot of the cross and only then at the empty tomb.

Once we recognize and affirm that justification is by grace alone, that we can do nothing to alter the reality of sin and nothingness that encompasses our lives, only then will we recognize that God has determined to be our God and for us to be the people of God. In other words, when we are extra nos, faith then recognizes Deus pro nobis (God for us) as well as Deus in nobis (God in us). “God is only near to us in that he distances us from ourselves. … When we, in listening to his word, are outside of ourselves, then God is already there for us” (GMW 183). Those who were once marked by death are by the grace of God now drawn into eternal life. The mystery of the gospel is that the mors mortis—the death of death—has already occurred. The reign of sin and death has already been defeated. What we must proclaim now is not that our good works do nothing to save us, but that our good works have already been nullified by the glorious grace of God who came to this world to draw those “who are marked by death” into new life with God. We are all excluded for the sake of being included.

This is the meaning of Immanuel: God is not just with some, but rather God is with all and for all as Love, as the God who did not spare his only Son but came to the world to become both our sin and our death for the sake of a new and glorious life with God for all eternity.