Justification and Judgment Day: Part 7, On Grace and Confidence

Recall from Part 1 that one of the reasons I went down this rabbit hole, exploring discontinuities between justification and judgment, was how this view reminded me of a post I wrote called "A Theology of Drowning."

To recap, the theology of drowning post came as a post-script to a series entitled "Calvary as Theophany." The point of that series was that Jesus' death on the cross didn't change how God feels about us but rather revealed God's love for us. Upon finishing that series, however, I began to wonder about the implications of that position. If God already loves everyone, always and forever, then what is the drama of salvation all about? The working assumption among many Protestants is that salvation is being rescued from the wrath of God. But if it's true, as I argued, that God has always and will forever love you, then by definition everyone in the world is already saved. Because God loves everyone. Love wins, right?

So I wrote the theology drowning post to suss out the difference between God's love and salvation, arguing that these are two different things. Salvation, I argued, isn't about changing God's affections toward you. Salvation is being set free from sin, death and the devil. Salvation isn't about God's love but about God's rescue. Or, more accurately, because God loves you God is trying to save you.

The argument I made in my theology of drowning post is that because we've lost the apocalyptic framework of Paul's gospel we tend to miss the Christus Victor themes of cosmic enslavement, that the drama of salvation involves, in the words of Fleming Rutledge, a "third power." This third power, variously described as sin, death and the devil, is why salvation can't be reduced to God's love. Salvation is less about God's affections than your relationship to this third power. Are you free or in bondage

Another way to describe the contrast I'm talking about is that most Protestants tend to think of salvation through the lens of the Day of Atonement, the cleansing of accumulated sins. Focusing upon enslavement to the third power, however, takes its cue from the Passover. That's the biblical image behind my theology of drowning post. God loves you and he wants to rescue you from slavery in Egypt. Here's that image at work in how Paul describes salvation in Colossians: "He has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son." Salvation isn't just about God's affections, it involves being transferred from one domain of power (Egypt) to another domain of power (the Promised Land). Salvation is Exodus.

I'm walking back through all this to show why I was intrigued by possible discontinuities between justification and judgment. The mapping isn't precise, but you can see some parallels. God's love tends to be associated with justification. Salvation, though, fully experienced, is something I'm striving for and will receive on Judgment Day. Passover has set me free but full salvation is deposit in the Promised Land. I am justified, but I am not yet saved. I'm journeying toward the Promised Land. We're still "working out" our salvation. Or as Paul famously says it in Philippians:

I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead.

Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.
Note the language of future-oriented contingency. "Somehow." "Not that I have already obtained all this." "I press on to take hold." "I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it." "Straining toward what is ahead." "I press on toward the goal to win the prize." Paul is justified, but he's not yet saved. 

And yet, Paul is very, very confident that he will be successful. Paul is straining, but he's joyful--so, so joyful--and brimming with confidence. Nothing can stand in his way. As he exults in Romans:
For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.
But notice the "third power" themes here! Paul is confident that there is "no power" that can separate us from God. No demon. Not death. No power in creation can separate you from the love of God. This is the source of Paul's confidence. For those who have been transferred into the kingdom of God's Son, we live under protection. Our situation isn't fragile. Sure, we're going to face some trials and temptations. But we have confidence that God has and will give us everything we need to face the challenges. As Paul says in 1 Corinthians:
No temptation has overtaken you except what is common to mankind. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can endure it.
Notice again the contrast between God's love and God's rescue. God loves you which means God will rescue you. And that contrast makes sense only when you have the third power in view, the temptation that's threatening to drown you. That was the point of my theology of drowning post: When you're drowning you don't need assurances of affection, you need someone to throw you a life preserver. And Paul's confidence comes from the assurance that God will always throw a life preserver. 

Ok, I've been walking through all this to talk about grace and confidence. As I promised you in the last post, I wanted to share some comforting news in this series. But you can't appreciate the comfort without understanding how justification and salvation involves a rescue from the third power. 

Let's start with grace and works. In this series, it has been suggested that justification is by faith and that judgment will be by works. To many, such a scheme would seem to nullify grace. But if we come to understand grace as rescue from the third power the problem here evaporates. The atoning death of Jesus and the gift of the Holy Spirit are God's unconditional gift to sinners to all those who have faith. We have been justified, made righteous, transferred into the kingdom of God's Son. And with these gifts we are called and expected to "live a life worthy of our calling" (Eph. 4.1). Judgment Day will be the test of that worthy life. And no one found worthy on that day will be able to boast because the only reason we're standing there is because of God's rescue in Jesus Christ. And if you were boast, well, that boasting will be exposed and consumed as straw in the fire (1 Cor. 3.13). Yes, we strain and press on toward the goal, but the entire journey is made possible and sustained by grace. Without God we would have drowned. So we work out our own salvation in fear and trembling, confident that it is God who both wills and works within us. Grace carries us, start to finish.

And grace gives us confidence. No power in creation can separate you from the love of God. God will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. And if we do fall, the blood of Christ continually cleanses us from all sin (1 Jn. 1.7). And yet, some will ask, what if our lives end up a total wreck? Well, there's a lot of tolerance here. As it says in 1 Corinthians 3, if you build a life upon the foundation of Christ that is wholly trash that poor work will be consumed by fire and you will suffer loss. But you will be saved, "even though as one escaping from the flames." Salvation isn't 100% a done deal, but it isn't a risky proposition. Thus the point Paul enjoins over and over again: Keep pressing on. Get back up. Stay in the fight. God will prove faithful. 

The point here is that we don't need to twist Paul into pretzels on the issues of justification and judgment to push back on Lutheran scrupulosity, feeling that every little sin and our feelings of shame and worthlessness puts us at risk of hellfire. The solution to moral anxiety isn't to create a theological edifice that distorts Paul. Our comfort shouldn't come from a theological system. Our comfort comes from confidence in God. Yes, we are weak and wayward, but God is able to bring us home. Let's quote Paul one more time:
Being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus. (Phil. 1.6)
All that to say, judgment by works doesn't nullify either grace or confidence. By grace, God has begun a good work in us, and our job is to confidently partner with God to bring that work to completion on the day of Christ Jesus

So that's my answer about grace and confidence. Having our works tested on Judgment Day doesn't nullify grace. And God's children can face that testing with confidence.   

And yet, what about those who fall outside of this saving work? Or fall away from Christ? What about hell at the final judgment? I'll turn to that issue in the next and final post.

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