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

Section V: Sola fide

In our discussion of the final Reformation phrase, “by faith alone,” we reach the heart of the doctrine of justification and, in fact, the heart of the Christian faith itself. All proponents of the traditional teaching on salvation argue that our faith is what saves us, which is perfectly correct when placed in its proper context. Jüngel, following the Reformers, is deliberate in emphasizing all four particles in this specific order—solus Christus, sola gratia, solo verbo, and now sola fide. The question posed to the traditional view is whether we actually possess any of these soteriological foundations. The first three clearly belong to God alone: the Christ of God, the grace of God, and the word of God. But what about faith?

First, at the very least, we can see that faith is impossible without Christ, grace, and the word. Without the gospel word that interrupts us with the grace of God in Jesus Christ, faith is an impossibility. But thanks be to God that the impossible has become an impossible possibility! Second, recent New Testament scholarship has made a convincing argument that Paul’s statement, “faith in Jesus Christ,” should also be understood as “the faith of Jesus Christ” (cf. The Faith of Jesus Christ, by Richard Hays). Third, theology supports this exegetical move in the doctrine of the mediation of Christ. Jesus is the only the mediator between God and humanity, but his role of mediation was not limited to his passive obedience on the cross as the bearer of our sins before the Father; that is, the cross and resurrection do not exhaust the significance of Jesus. While the cross rightfully receives the emphasis in Christology and soteriology, all too often such a narrow focus fails to give attention to the incarnation and the life of obedience that Jesus lived. What theologians like T. F. Torrance quite rightly affirm is both the passive and active obedience of Jesus Christ. Jesus not only fulfilled the atoning sacrifice for our sins, but he also fulfilled the necessary human response of faith and obedience. Jesus was our mediator not only in death but also in life. Jesus stood fully in our place, as the one who lived and died on our behalf. His death was our death, and his life of faithful response was our faithful response.

We return to the question: What about our faith? Does not Paul write in Romans that the righteousness of God “comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe” and that God “justifies those who have faith in Jesus” (Rom. 3:22, 26)? And did not Paul and Silas tell the jailer in the Acts of the Apostles, “Believe on the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household” (Acts 16:31)? And as 1 John 5:1 declares, “Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Messiah has been born of God.” It would seem from such passages that our faith saves us, or that our faith does something necessary for us to be the children of God. In a certain sense, yes, our faith is essential and necessary. But in what way? To answer that question, I shall quote from Eberhard Jüngel on the subject of faith.
Why and how is faith justifying faith, fides iustificans? Why and how is it that very faith which justifies human beings? What is human faith that it can achieve such great things? The simplest answer to the question of the nature of human faith is that faith is the human ‘Yes’, the affirmation, coming from the heart, to the definitive affirmation from God which comes to us in the occasion of our justification. It is the human ‘Yes’ to that clear and already accomplished negation by God which we have because of that definitive affirmation in Jesus Christ. Believers say Yes to God’s Word, to God’s judgement, to the judgement of God which condemns sin and condemns the sinner to perish, but also acquits us, because it acquits sinners. Believers agree that God’s condemning and acquitting judgement is already accomplished in the person of Jesus Christ. It has been accomplished to such a degree that a sinner’s death lies behind us and the life of the just lies before us, right now. Faith is our heartfelt affirmation of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. It affirms Good Friday and Easter Sunday as being the two great events which are decisive for all human beings. Because it is this heartfelt affirmation, faith is justifying faith, it is fides iustificans. (E. Jüngel, Justification 237)
Faith is our ‘Yes’ to God’s ‘Yes’ to us in Jesus Christ—this is the meaning of sola fide. Faith is our affirmation of God’s affirmation of us. Faith passively accepts what was actively accomplished on our behalf. In terms of the atonement and the being of Jesus Christ, faith is not a deed or work which actualizes what would otherwise remain merely potential and thus ineffective. In terms of our own relation to this salvific event, however, faith does indeed effect something, but only as a passive relation to the divine self-determination in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Faith is the opening of our hearts to the person of Jesus Christ.

Faith allows the word of God to penetrate, disrupt, and reorient our very existence: “Faith is understood here as the relation of man who responds to the God who addresses him, a relation which is made possible by the event of the God who speaks and which is existentially called into being” (Jüngel, God as the Mystery of the World 163). Faith is “called into being” by the word, and thus faith depends upon the creative grace of God. By faith alone, we are existentially made new so that we ontically correspond to the God who recreates sinners as the people of the covenant. To put this another way, in faith we correspond with the person that we already actually are in Christ—i.e., we correspond with ourselves, with the self that already died and was raised to new life. In faith, our existential self in the ‘here and now’ corresponds with the ontological self in the ‘there and then.’
Man is removed—through the word of God addressing him—in faith into that very defined extra nos which has in the series of human being-here and being-now a concrete historical place in a very definite ‘here and now’ (hic et nunc), namely, in the ‘there and then’ (illic et tunc) of the cross of Jesus Christ. (GMW 183)

The faith of human beings is their heartfelt Yes to Jesus Christ and to the divine judgement that has been passed and enacted. This Yes comes from the heart, because the divine judgement has come into the heart of believers, striking them in the centre of their existence. … The Yes of faith is the most concentrated expression of human existence. When we believe, our whole existence becomes a single Yes by which we are affirming God’s decisive judgement over all human existence and thus over our own existence. But who is really making the decision here? Who makes the decision in my heart? Do I make the decision about myself? (Justification 238)
The answer must be, ‘No, only God determines who we are. Only God can make the judgment about my being.’ This is not a comfortable thought for a free-thinking, enlightened, individualistic society which proclaims the pseudo-gospel of self-realization and self-determination. The modern individual thinks that she must “find herself” or that he must “become all that he can be.” Inevitably, in such a corrosive milieu, faith becomes an individual act of self-determination. We make a “choice” for God, just as we make a choice to go to this particular college or this particular church. “Faith is frequently understood as being a human decision for God, whereby the human Self makes its own fundamental decision about itself. Faith has been interpreted as a free and fundamental decision of the human subject” (238). All of this is part of an individualistic, voluntaristic culture which relocates action and identity in the individual human. ‘You are what you do’—this is what we are told by parents, media, books, even pastors. The gospel of Jesus Christ declares something else entirely, a message of radical passivity and dependence upon the God who alone is self-determining. And in that God determines God’s own being, God also determines our being. In that God justifies Godself, God also determines that we shall be justified.

Faith is thus not our decision for God, but our acceptance of the fact that God has already decided about us. Faith is our existential Yes of acceptance to the historical-ontological Yes of God actualized in the person of Jesus Christ. By faith we do not ‘make something of ourselves’; instead, we discover that we have already been made. We discover that we are not our own, that we belong to the Creator of heaven and earth. Faith is a journey of discovery in which we discover ourselves at the same time that we discover God.
By responding with a heartfelt Yes to God’s effectual justifying judgement, we are affirming that a gracious decision has already been made concerning us and that the justified and thus new nature is already established by this effectual divine decision. We discover ourselves as new people, constituted by God. Faith is a self-discovery that begins at the same time as we discover God. It is the discovery of a self-renewal that affects the whole person. Those who discover themselves as new persons cannot make themselves into new persons; nor can they decide to exist as such. (241)
Faith is the “act of saying Yes to my own negation and affirmation by God” (242). Faith is the Yes of Mary when she answers the angel, “Let it be with me according to your word” (Luke 1:38). Faith follows after the word of God in obedience. Faith is being-after God’s promise, just as theology is thinking-after God’s self-revelation. In theology, one thinks after the movement of God in the triune economy of salvation history. In faith, one responds after the movement of God who addresses us and calls us outside ourselves. Faith is a movement of our own being that follows God’s being. But in that we follow God’s being, we are also following our own true being. Thus, as we follow God in faith, we come to find our own true identity in and with God. Because God posits Godself as a being-in-becoming—who created human creatures as beings-in-becoming by God’s grace alone—we are freed from the sinful pursuit of trying to “become” something new in ourselves. Instead, in freedom, we recognize that God has already determined us to be new creatures in Jesus Christ. In our faithful affirmation of this divine determination, we then allow God to alter us and make us new creatures here in the present. In the freedom of faith, we passively follow the active God who creates ex nihilo. Faith is a process of being shaped, of being conformed to the image of God in Jesus Christ (conformitas Christi). Faith is a being-after, a being-taken-along by God:
Faith … is the immediate form of being taken along by God. Faith is the ego’s going out of itself unceasingly. … God does not come near to us without moving us out of our self-realized nearness to ourselves: ‘he puts us outside of ourselves’ (ponit nos extra nos). God is only present to the ego which has been moved outside of itself. On the other hand, God with me is removed from me for the very reason that he comes nearer to me and is nearer to me than I am able to come near to myself. That very thing which is closest to me is that which is radically removed from me. It can be experienced only in the ecstatic structure of this ‘we being outside ourselves’ (nos extra nos esse). (Jüngel, GMW 167, 182)
In conclusion, faith brings us back to the other three particles of justification. Faith follows the word of God which addresses us, a word of promise and grace that was embodied and effected in Jesus Christ. Faith is established in the past objective event of Jesus Christ, summoned in the present event of the word, sustained through the ongoing gift of grace, and perfected in the future eschatological hope of resurrection. Faith finds its origin and telos in God alone. Faith is protologically prepared in the divine election of grace, historically accomplished in the life of Jesus of Nazareth, and awaits eschatological completion in the divine promise of new creation. Faith begins in the heart of God and takes root by God’s grace in the heartfelt trust of the person who entrusts herself to God now and throughout eternity. Faith is indeed the narrow way, but it is a way that was traveled for us by Jesus of Nazareth, who represents us as the faithful Son before the loving Father.

Faith, therefore, does not belong to the one who believes, because the one who believes recognizes that God has displaced us from ourselves. We no longer possess ourselves but are instead possessed by God; we are not our own, but we belong to God. True faith affirms that “every perfect gift is from above” (James 1:17), including but not limited to the gift of faith, which is more accurately the gift of ourselves. We live anew as those who are gifted with ourselves, as those who continually receive our being from God. Insofar as we receive ourselves from God—insofar as we allow ourselves to be displaced, allow God to be nearer to us than we are to ourselves, and entrust ourselves to God as those who live-after the life of Jesus Christ—we become truly human. “Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it” (Matt. 10:39). The truly human person lives outside of herself and entrusts herself wholly to God alone.
Faith, the heartfelt Yes to God’s judgement, is the foundational act of a life lived definitively outside itself. Faith thus follows the movement of the Word that justifies sinners. In faith we agree that God’s justifying Word is calling, taking and placing us outside ourselves. In faith we go outside ourselves, that is, in conformity with the divine decision that affects us. In faith we comprehend the movement of our own justification which has already taken place in Jesus Christ, and it is in that comprehension – and not in some other way! – that we also complement that comprehension. As those who have been moved, we move; as those who have been moved by the grace and the Word of God, we move in accordance with this movement of divine grace and the divine Word. Believing, we trust God and thus entrust ourselves to the movement of grace and God’s Word. That is why the external righteousness of God becomes in faith our own righteousness. For, as we believe, we allow ourselves to be transposed to the place which is our rightful place, that is where we, as human beings, are in our rightful human place: with God and his righteousness – with the God who is gracious to us and who, out of his grace, has suffered the judgement of a sinner condemned to death in order to bring new, justified life to light out of the darkness of such a death.

That is where I come to myself. That is where I am righteous. Outside myself I am in full possession of myself. If such a thing as Christian mysticism existed, it would consist of some such crossover of the inward and the outward, whereby the God who speaks to me in the act of justification calls me out to him in a fellowship of life. Of course, such fellowship can only be a fellowship along the way. The mystical union would not be the goal, but the way. Furthermore, it would be a way where the world was not shut out, but viewed from a new perspective. It follows that this would be a way where our senses might not – as is otherwise the case in mystical exercises – be excluded, but rather would be heightened, so that we would have eyes to see, ears to hear – to hear and be amazed. It would be a mysticism of opened eyes and opened ears. (242-43)
What all four particles emphasize is our human passivity before the God who came in Jesus Christ, whose grace overcomes the world, who speaks to us in the “word of the cross,” and who lived a human life of faithful obedience. Justification by faith alone is passive because God is active, inclusive because we are excluded from the act of atonement, gracious because we are judged, dialogical because God speaks to us and opens our ears to the word of truth, and creative because the triune Lord who made heaven and earth determined in Godself to make all things new (Rev. 21:5). All of this coheres in Jesus Christ, who is the proleptic realization of God’s eschatological promise to be “all in all” (1 Cor. 15:28). In him, all things are reconciled (2 Cor. 5:19; Gal. 3:28); in him alone we find our true freedom as the children of God.

All four particles are thus nothing more than a gloss on the twin proclamations of the gospel: solus Deus [God alone] and Deus pro nobis [God for us]. The God who is the exclusive source of life is also the God who condescended to be with us and who took our place in life and in death so that new life might be ours without restriction. We can then say that solus Deus pro nobis is the sum of the gospel. We find our identity and true humanity in nothing and no one apart from the God who accomplished all things ‘for us and for our salvation.’ God alone for us—that is the summa.


J said…
Hello D.W.

You wrote early on that"... recent New Testament scholarship has made a convincing argument that Paul’s statement, “faith in Jesus Christ,” should also be understood as “the faith of Jesus Christ.”

Where did you find this information? I would like to learn more about this remarkable discovery.
The scholarship is immense and numerous, but only one book is necessary: The Faith of Jesus Christ: The Narrative Substructure of Galatians 3:1-4:11, by Richard B. Hays.

It might interest you to know that one English translation, in particular, follows Hays's recommendations: the King James Version. I was more than a little surprised to see that at almost every crucial point (e.g., Gal. 2:16, Rom. 3:22), the KJV translates the passages "by the faith of Jesus Christ." Virtually all of the modern versions say "faith in Jesus Christ." In all these passages, the Greek uses the genitive. Hays then argues that we should tranlate these passages with a subjective genitive (Christ's faith) rather than an objective genitive (our faith in Christ).

The significance of this I did not explain in my post, since it is more tangential to my discussion. However, it is definitely related. As I mentioned briefly, the importance of this exegetical discovery goes hand-in-hand with the theological emphasis in recent years on both the active and passive obedience of Christ. The passive is connected, obviously, with the passion, death, and resurrection of Jesus. But the active obedience concerns his life of ministry, and here theologians urge us to see this as part of Christ's mediating work on our behalf -- and the exegesis supports it.

Furthermore, this textual difference also protects against the portrayal of faith as a justifying work, something that evangelicals today along with people like Jacob Arminius have been prone to do.
J said…
Thank you for responding. I will definitely pick up Hays' book.

I am just starting to learn about Universalism, so this is something that I am going to have to chew on for a while. I can see how this exegesis would reflect the completeness of Christ's redemption of humanity.
If I can recommend just one thing, it would be to read Karl Barth and keep reading him. If you have some spare time and wish to read others, then check out Eberhard Jüngel -- he's tough but oh so worth it. Of course, always return to the church fathers and the Reformation leaders, but Barth will serve you well in everything that he writes.
J said…
I've been meaning to pick up a volume of the Church Dogmatics, but I don't know where to start. I'd buy them all, but we all know how expensive that would be! Which book would you recommend that I start with?
Jackson, I'd start with IV.1 if you're new to Barth. However, I started (against the advice of some) with I.1 and found plenty to chew on there.
John P. said…

I just saw now came across your comments over at Chrisendom regarding my struggles with universalism...sorry for a delayed response...

you are correct in saying that i cannot reject universalism, as such, as a result of one (non-academic) book. I cannot argue with that. My main struggle was with the strict universalism it espoused, at the sacrifice of any well developed christology or soteriology. Unfortunately, this is the type of universalism that i encounter most within church-going folk who claim to be universalists.

despite my lack of clarity in the comment, i was merely attempting to point out how i feel caught between two extremes, neither of which seemed theologically defensible. The type of discussions that have been going on around the blogosphere, however, represent a universalism of a different stripe...

I hope that clarifies my somewhat flippant remark.

IV.1 is indeed a great place to start, and maybe the very best. It is surely, in my opinion, the single best volume of theology ever written. However, 2.1 is also a good place to start; you can see Barth's christocentrism develop here and his discussion of God's attributes is second to none.
J said…
Thanks D.W and goodbynelly for the advice on which volume of the CD to start with.
Weekend Fisher said…
If faith is our "yes", are you claiming "no" is impossible?

If God has sovereignty and the ability to direct his own course, do we share any of that as part of his image that we bear?

Do you find any of the Scriptures specifically depicting judgment that speak as if none are condemned?

What do you make of Christ's teaching of separation at the Last Day into two groups, e.g. "those welcomed" and "those sent away"?

Neither our Yes nor our No determines who we will be for eternity. Our Yes does not reconcile us to God, nor does our No separate us from God. Our Yes is simply the gift of God to us that affirms who Jesus Christ has determined us to become in his own death and resurrection. In other words, the Yes which we utter in faith is an eternal affirmation, because it is an affirmation granted by God. Our No is a finite refusal, a penultimate answer to God which God has determined by divine grace to nullify. Our No cannot overcome God's Yes. Our No is a human, fallen, creaturely response to God that will pass away when God establishes the new creation. In Jesus Christ, God bore the weight of all our rejections and refusals and destroyed them once and for all. Our negation of God was negated by God in Christ.

I should have made more clear in §6 of my series that God does not spare us from judgment in judging Jesus. Barth rejects this notion of the substitionary atonement. What he affirms, and what I affirm, is that everyone is judged. We are all judged in our sins as sinners, but this judgment took place 'there and then' in the cross of Jesus Christ. Jesus does not spare us from judgment, but he is the one who experiences the judgment under which we all stand in him. We are indeed judged, but we cannot read the eschatological passages in Scripture outside of their Christological center.

I will devote some time at the end of this series to exegesis of certain passages. Let me just state up front that the Bible is ambiguous and complex. We cannot reason our way through such difficulties. There are passages in the Old Testament that are far more difficult than issues of a final separation, e.g., God sending evil spirits and the conflation at times between God and satan.

Suffice it to say for now that proper exegesis of Scripture requires hermeneutical categories which give certain parts of Scripture greater importance. For example, the Galatian verse that in Christ there is no slave or free, Jew or Gentile, male and female, cannot be placed on equal ground with passages that speak of female subordination. Our hermeneutical guide is the person and work of Christ, in whom all are socially equal. The same goes for passages of the last judgment, which cannot be read apart from (1) the cultural context of such passages, such as those in Revelation, and (2) the Christological focal point which determines the nature and content of judgment. The passion of Chris is the center of all Scripture, and everything must be read through that lens.

Finally, I return to your question about the "image of God." You have asked a fascinating question whose logic goes as follows: (1) God is sovereign and self-determining; (2) humanity is made in the imago Dei; (3) ergo, humanity is also, in a way, sovereign and self-determining.

Now, I will give you the benefit of the doubt and assume you do not agree with this. If you do, you have fallen into the greatest of all heresies, the one which set the Fall into motion: we are like God. Even if I assume you follow my argument that the 'image of God' only applies to the redeemed, your question displays a fundamental misunderstanding of theological anthropology. The one primary ontological difference between God and humanity is this: God is self-determining, while humanity is determined by God. God alone gives being to Godself; humanity must always receive its being from God. God is independent; humanity is dependent. God's freedom is eternal and self-determined; human freedom is finite and limited.

I hope and assume that you recognize this difference. Those who do not are thus bound to a theology which says that humanity must and can save itself. I find your question fascinating insofar as I think it underlies much of contemporary evangelical thought on salvation. I sincerely hope you reject the notion that the image of God makes us free to determine ourselves. If anything, the doctrine of the image of God states that we are conformed to the person of Jesus Christ, and thus our new being is one of obedience and (inter-)dependence upon God — never independence from God and others.