If God’s acts speak of God as he is, how does this apply to salvation?

creatorIn a prior post, I gave some attention to the doctrine of justification by faith. With this post, I am circling back around to look at the doctrine again but from a broader theological perspective.

It is clear that with some articulations of justification, the separation between justification and sanctification is obscure (or, in the case of Catholic teaching, removed). There is something of a sound instinct embedded in this move. Obedience to the Lord is important. Salvation isn’t just a get-out-of-hell-free card. And some have seen the forensic emphasis of justification (which, no matter how you cut it, is intrinsically forensic) as undermining the renovative work of God in the life of the believer by regeneration. This in turn has produced accounts of justification that establish it as the entry point into a sanctified life. The Catechism of the Catholic Church cites the Counter-Reformation Council of Trent in this connection, which reads: Justification is not only the remission of sins, but also the sanctification and renewal of the interior man.[1]

Notice the “but also”; hence, the sentence could be re-phrased as ‘justification is … the sanctification and renewal of the interior man.’ Here, justification and sanctification are conflated and the distinction between the two is removed. Yet, all sound ‘protestant’ articulations of justification would argue that God’s justification of sinners does not remove the importance of obedience or progress in sanctification. In fact, the apostle Paul addressed this exact implication of his teaching on justification. Now that we have set up the background to the doctrine of justification, I will now turn to the broader theological themes implications surrounding both justification and sanctification.

First, it needs to be stated that both justification and sanctification say something about God. This is because these are acts of God, and as such, they reflect who God is. God’s works cannot be separated from God himself but rather reflect who he is. God cannot, in other words, act contrary to himself. What does justification and sanctification say about God?

Justification speaks of God’s justice. As was mentioned earlier, it is intrinsically a forensic or legal notion. Legal language can often bother us and feel as if we are talking about formalities or jurisprudence, but that would be a serious mistake. Justice is deeply connected with who God is as love. Love is concerned with the right (just) treatment of the object of love’s affection. God loves and thus is concerned with the just treatment of the creation which he loves. God is concerned moreover with how he is treated as he is the object of his own love, to put it crudely, for he is a God who is irreducibly three persons.

The reality is that sin, to any degree and of every kind, is an affront to God’s justice. In fact, it is a gross aberration which, as directly contradicting and conflicting with God himself is worthy of only one response, namely, a just one. This is where justification comes in. God would be perfectly justified (i.e., just) if he were give each person the just merits for their actions. It would in fact be loving to do so because love upholds what is true, right, and good; love, in a word, upholds justice.

So, justification speaks to God’s justice, but in a way that is unexpected. Justification is the teaching that we are justified in the sight of God not by any merit of our own but by receiving Christ and what he’s done by simply trusting in him. Yet, lest we miss the weight of this, it must be restated, Christ is the ground, the basis, of our justification. It is what he did in his life, death, resurrection and ascension that serve as the legal ground for our justification. God is, in sum, just in justifying us because the crime of sin has been answered by the person and work of Christ.

If justification speaks of God’s justice, then what does sanctification, and its concomitant regeneration, speak of?  Trent is right on this count. Sanctification is closely connected with the “renewal of the interior man.” The renewal of our interiority in turn speaks of God’s creative or, in this case, re-creative activity. Sanctification is part and parcel of the creative act of God found in regeneration. The regenerated, born-from-above person is brought into newness of life. God can give life because he has life in and from himself. Yet, God’s role as life-giver, as creative agent, is not something that is inevitably bound to notions of justice, at least in the most direct sense.

God truly did create human beings before the forensic status of these same beings was in view, at least speaking temporally and with the narrative development of Genesis 1-3. God created human beings and he deemed this act to be very good and, at least implicitly, they were also reckoned to be ‘good’ in terms of justice. Speaking counter-factually, if God created and human beings never sinned or rebelled against him, he would still be the giver of life but questions of justice, of right and wrong, would reside in the background, if existing at all. In a word, God as creator does not directly give way to God as just. The presentation, the revealing of God’s justice takes center stage with the entrance of sin and rebellion, with the intrusion of evil into God’s ‘very good’ creation; it is with the entrance of this gross aberration that questions of justice rise to the surface.

Now, before I get to my main point, a possible objection must be answered. Some may say that this understanding of God’s regenerative work as reflecting God’s creative activity distorts the deeply salvific role that sanctification plays. But this very objection actually points to the thrust of my argument. Sanctification or God’s giving of new life is closely connected to and bound up with justification. Sanctification and justification are inseparable while they are distinct.

Yet, the reason why there is even a need for God’s renewing work is because of the initial breach in relationship, the unjust and heinous reality of sin. The reason for spiritual death requiring spiritual renewal is that death is the just due for sin. Put differently, it is because God is just that death is the punishment for sin; this death has both a forensic (legal condemnation) and de-creative (interior, physical) aspect. The two-fold aspect of death is answered by the two-fold aspect of salvation: justification and sanctification (and, with the latter, glorification).

This then brings us to the thrust of my argument. If one conflates justification with sanctification, then one removes or at best obfuscates the forensic aspect of salvation. This conflation places God as creator above God as just.

If God’s justice is moved to the background, then a tragic account obtains. Placing the stress on God as creator at the expense of God as just forces us to relate to him on these terms, yet, to relate to God as creator simpliciter creates significant cognitive and ethical dissonance as we are persistently face with the reality of our interior and physical malformity. We are beings who suffer under the weight of death who are urged to relate to our creator. Yet, with justice removed, so is love. The love of God is removed (or at least misplaced) from our account of God but we are unable to avoid the sense of our de-creative existence; that is, justice looms in the background. It is not silent or forgotten; rather, we feel the pull of it, we sense its magnetism. Thus, God as creator quickly becomes the God who is just, but this ‘becoming’ is an implicit, under-the-surface ‘becoming.’

We have no way to access or approach this tacit, hidden God of justice because our account has confused his creative with his just activity. How are we to relate him? By faith, we are told, but really, by love. If we come to him by faith, and love him, we will be justified, but remember that in this account justification means that we will be both forensically forgiven and creatively made new. But, when the forensic is indistinguishable from the (re-)creative, then so is God as creator indistinguishable from God as judge. The meshing of these two results in the account of God given above. Ironically, by failing to distinguish these two aspects of God and his salvation, this renders them discordant and in competition with one another.

Better then is an account of God and his salvation which sees justification and sanctification as the two-fold expression of the one salvation given by God in Christ. With this account, God as creator and as just are not placed in competition but they are rightly seen as distinct yet inseparable aspects of God and thus of his salvation. By placing justice and creativity alongside each other, it is made clear that God is both our creator and our judge, leaving nothing to the subliminal intuitions of our conscience or our intractable sense of our de-creative existence. Then it in turn does not obscure the certainty of God as love for behind the justice of God is the love of God and behind the love of God is the Son of God, the Christ. Finally, the salvation found only in Christ, not in our renewed self-effort or Holy Spirit-inspired good works, is given primacy of place for he alone is the ground and basis of our two-fold salvation. Indeed, God is “just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus” (Rom 3:26). Let Jesus, the ground of our salvation, receive “blessing and honor and glory” (Rev 5) so that every man may boast in him alone (Phil 2).

[1] The Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1989.

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