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

Section IV: Solo verbo

The God of grace, the God who justifies the ungodly is a God who speaks. This very fact, that he is not a silent partner, but speaks as he interacts with us, is grace. (Jüngel 198)
The justification of the ungodly is a word event. Primarily, this is because the justifying grace of God is actualized in Jesus Christ, the Word of God incarnate. Secondarily, God’s grace reaches us existentially in the “word of the cross” (1 Cor. 1:18), in which the reality ‘there and then’ in AD 1-30 becomes our reality ‘here and now.’ Jesus Christ is the Word of God to us, for us, and with us. In him God has spoken new life through the cross and resurrection. In him God has revealed the No of judgment and the Yes of reconciliation. In him the dialectic of rejection and justification are conjoined and completed. In him we hear the word of the gospel: Immanuel, God is with us.
God has spoken, spoken once and for all, in the person of Jesus Christ, who died for all human beings and was raised from the dead (Heb. 1:2). And he has said what he had to say once and for all in the story of this person. Paul compresses this neatly when he writes: ‘in him it has always been “Yes”’ (2 Cor. 1:19 [NIV]). And this Yes of God’s happened when God gave his grace its due place and thus set in motion the justification of the ungodly. (198)
Justification is a trinitarian dialogical event. We can describe the dialogical theo-drama of salvation in the following way. In the protological first act, the triune God constitutes Godself in triunity by speaking the primal Yes ad intra—the Father speaks, the Son is spoken, and the Spirit unites the divine dialogue—followed by the second act, in which God both reveals this Yes ad extra in the incarnation of the Word in time and space and empowers the Yes of God’s Word through the agency of the Holy Spirit, who welcomes broken humanity into the divine dialogue of grace. The economic work of the triune God is thus an act of self-communication to humanity in the person of Jesus Christ, who comes to us now in the “word of the cross,” the gospel of grace, in which we hear the proclamation of our justification and the invitation to respond with thanks and praise. The Yes of God to humanity invites us to respond with our own Yes.

The event of justification in the economy of salvation has a two-fold movement—ontological and ontic, or christological and existential—which begins when God speaks the divine Yes as a judgment on the life and death of Jesus “in the form of a Word that raises from the dead” (Jüngel 199). God’s Yes to Jesus establishes the ontological status of humanity, who are all elect in the incarnate Word, the one mediator between God and humanity. The locus of our ontological identity is found in Jesus Christ, the Word of God incarnate, in which the old self is crucified on the cross and the new self is raised again to new life “for our justification” (Rom. 4:25). The old self caught in the relationless spiral toward the abyss is definitely destroyed ‘there and then,’ opening up a future of new possibilities in the ‘here and now.’

The event of justification is then realized existentially when God speaks the divine Yes to human beings in the kerygma. The human response of faith establishes the ontic status of each individual by allowing the God who speaks in the word to interrupt and displace the hearer of the word. Those who are displaced live ec-centrically; they ex-sist outside themselves (extra se) with God in correspondence to the locus of their identity in Jesus Christ. In the disruptive event of the word, God brings the inner person into correspondence to God. The passive new human responds with her own Yes to God in invocation and thanksgiving through the Eucharistic fellowship of the communio sanctorum. The joy of this Yes overflows to the outer person who is liberated to continue this dialogue in human acts of love. To quote Luther, “nothing happens but that our dear Lord himself speaks with us through his holy word, and we in turn speak with him through prayer and praise.” Thus we do not act on our own power but only out of the encounter with the speaking God who conforms us into Christ’s image, and thus into the imago Dei. The God who is pro nobis graciously communicates to humanity, and humanity—by grace alone—is able to respond.

The divine Yes sums up all we need to know of justification solo verbo, but we must remember that this Yes always includes the divine No. Both the No and Yes of God are brought together in the person of Jesus, who took upon himself the No of judgment against sin and the Yes of pardon from sin: in the Word incarnate we see the word that both judges and pardons. This judgment reaches us in the gospel, the “word of the cross,” and an encounter with God’s Yes to us gives our very existence “a word-shaped structure” (Jüngel 199). As those defined by the word of God, we take on the forma verbi—the “shape of the word”—and the church functions as the creatura verbi—the “creature of the word.”

The drama of the word provides the framework for our analysis of justification by the word alone. We must still investigate what this word is and how it affects human beings existentially in our ontological identity coram Deo. I will do so in the form of numbered theses.

1. The word is both divine judgment and divine creation; the word judges as it creates, and creates as it judges. Justification is a judicial or forensic event, but such judgments must be understood as part of the divine drama of salvation in which the Yes of God connects God’s being and our being in an ontological relation of new creation. This is what distinguishes divine judgment from human judgment: human judges make judgments based on what is already true—a person is innocent or guilty—whereas God’s judgments establish truth—God makes the guilty innocent and the ungodly righteous. What God determines in divine judgment is the truth of life, and what was true prior to God’s judgment is nullified by God. God determines who we are coram Deo, which means that our actions do not decide our identity. God’s creative judgment on Jesus raises him from the dead to a new existence, and God’s judgment on us re-creates us now as new creations that await the consummation of this judgment in the eschaton, when mortality will put on immortality and we too will participate in the resurrection of all things.
If sinners are pronounced righteous by God’s judging Word – which is also pre-eminently creative in its judging power – and thus recognized by God as being righteous, then they not only count as righteous, they are righteous. Here we must again remind ourselves that the Word alone can in this way do both things at once: a judgement and a creative Word – a pardon and a Word which sets us free. (211)
2. The word addresses human beings as God’s dialogue partners in the covenant of grace. The essence of the Logos is self-communication, in which God’s self-disclosure and self-revelation not only find concrete expression in the incarnate Word, but also become words of address that communicate righteousness to the otherwise unrighteous. The Logos is an effective word which not only speaks to us, but also imparts or imputes righteousness to us. In other words, the word of God is both declarative and ontological; the word reveals and transforms, proclaims and renews, judges and reconciles. Human beings are linguistic creatures who are shaped by language. In the event of justification, the word reshapes us so that we are reoriented to the divine Word, and thus our identity is located in the Logos and no longer in ourselves. We are declared righteous, and thus we are righteous. We who once were incurvatus in se—curved in upon ourselves—are now externally reoriented and relate to God, others, and ourselves as those who are interrupted and displaced. We speak a new language. We are part of a new dialogue.

3. The creative word creates us anew by placing us extra nos [outside ourselves]. The Logos of God speaks to us and interrupts us by displacing us from ourselves. We “find ourselves” only outside of ourselves, contrary to all contemporary spiritualities that tell us to seek the source of our identity within ourselves. The one who is justified does not possess righteousness, just as no person possesses the imago Dei. Identity, the image of God, righteousness, and salvation are all located in God alone—solus Deus—who brings us into right relations with others and ourselves by bringing us to God through the divine word. Sin is the opposite of such right relations as the individual descent into relationlessness, which is death. By allowing God to place us extra nos, we allow God to interrupt our endless spiral toward nothingness and give us new life which is found in the abundant riches of God’s grace alone. When we are outside of ourselves, we are with God, affirmed by God, made new by God.
I am always accepted by someone else. I always have to gain my acceptance before a group. So recognition can never be ‘had’ as a possession by the one who is accepted or recognized. Those who are justified must resort to a tribunal outside themselves (extra se). There is nothing about them or in them – not even justifying grace poured into them – which can make sinners righteous. In the reality of the state of the justified there are no concessions to be made. They are righteous purely and simply because they are pronounced righteous. And they are only pronounced righteous because God’s righteousness, which is extraneous to them, is attributed, imputed to them. So in the strictest sense, God’s righteousness comes to them from outside, it is outward. Sinners are righteous externally to themselves: extrinsece Iustificantur semper. Sinners are righteous externally to themselves in the same sense that the Word is an external One, coming from the outside into our innermost being and responding and relating to what has happened outside us (extra nos) in Christ. (206)

[The] justifying Word of God speaks to us creatively. Such a Word can never remain ‘external’ to those addressed. Together with the righteousness of God that brings it to us, it touches us so greatly that it touches us more closely than we can touch ourselves. It becomes to us something more inward than our inmost being: interior intimo meo. However, now we need to emphasize again that the justifying Word that so addresses and touches sinners does not let us remain in ourselves; it calls and places our inner being outside ourselves. If our inner being were to stay put, it would not be justified. This is what creatively defines those who are in concord with God: they come out of themselves in order to come to themselves – outside themselves, among other persons, and above all with the person of the wholly other God. And this is our human sin: that we want to come to ourselves by ourselves – instead of outside ourselves. So, leaving the relational riches of our being, we press forward into relationlessness. The Word of justifying grace essentially interrupts sinners in this urge towards relationlessness as it speaks creatively to us. It calls us out of ourselves as it comes so close to us, as it speaks and relates to what is outside ourselves, to what has been definitively moved by God's righteousness. It speaks and relates to the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ as they are outside us. The justifying Word from the cross addresses our inner being in this exterior aspect of our existence so that there we may come to ourselves and thus really, effectively be renewed. ‘Anyone who is in Christ is a new creation’ (2 Cor 5:17). (212-13)
4. The word finds concrete expression as both word and sacrament, as proclamation and Eucharist. With the justifying word that addresses sinners, we have no dichotomy between spirit and senses, between reason and experience, between invisible and visible. The word that proclaims to us the truth of life—the justifying judgment, the Yes to grace and life and the No to sin and death—is a word that also demands concrete expression in our worship as the communio sanctorum, the communion of saints gathered at the cross and marked out for the path of discipleship. We must proclaim and embody the gospel; we must hear, but also take and eat.

5. ‘Solo verbo’ means both ‘solus Christus’ and ‘solo evangelio’—Christ alone, by the gospel alone. The divine word is both the incarnate Word of God in Jesus Christ, and the proclaimed Word of God in the gospel kerygma which declares to us the truth of life: that the ungodly have been declared righteous in Christ alone. The gospel of Jesus Christ “so unites with Jesus Christ human beings who have been named as sinners that they are able conscientiously to have no conscience” (232). In sum, solo verbo, solus Christus, and solo evangelio all state the same reality: freedom.