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“… a firm and certain knowledge of God’s benevolence toward us, founded upon the truth of the freely given promise in Christ, both revealed to our minds and sealed upon our hearts by the Holy Spirit”
Institutes III.2.vii

Here are my summary notes on Chapter 16 of Christian Doctrine1, “Are You a Christian? The Doctrine of Justification”:

Guthrie introduces the topic with possible answers to someone’s question “Are you a Christian?” What do you say? That you go to church, etc.? So, it’s about what you do? That you believe Jesus Christ died for your sins, is your personal savior, whatever – so, it’s just a matter of having the right ideas? That God has done this and that for you – so, it’s about God, but how does that make you a Christian? It feels like a trick question, some kind of trap. From there he goes on to deal with the problem the doctrine of justification developed to solve, its core meaning and “justification” if you will, the role of faith in “justification by grace through faith,” and the [potential] problem of how people come by that faith, with a final nod to theologians who want to recast the doctrine to be less individualistic and more social.

The Problem of Justification: Everyone knows Luther started the Protestant Reformation(s) with the cry of “justification by grace through faith alone.” Luther’s problem was that he believed in God’s justice, and his own unworthiness in the face of that, and even after becoming an Augustinian monk and working very very hard, he could not find a gracious God of forgiveness and acceptance. Until he re-read Romans, and realized that God had forgiven him by the grace of Jesus Christ through faith = problem solved. Our contemporary people problem is that we don’t really share Luther’s experience, so how does this translate experientially into contemporary terms? Guthrie discusses the various things people do to make themselves feel like their lives and selves are worthwhile [in Brené Brown’s terms, “enough”] : gaining self-worth through work – which makes us competitive, driven, fearful, or despairing if we fail at it or don’t do as well as others; or working out and getting beautiful, but again, our “real” inner selves aren’t that beautiful, or we fail, or we fall short of others, or …; criticizing others to make ourselves feel better – which damages all our relationships; or criticizing ourselves without mercy, to drive ourselves to greater effort or to bid for pity or … again, damaging all our relationships, including the one with ourself; or “being good” – again, using people to feed our self-interested ambition of being “enough” already, oscillating between spiritual pride when we think we’re succeeding and spiritual despair when we realize we’re still not there … all routes to self-justification (“my life is worthwhile, I’m worthwhile”) ultimately fail – if we’re honest with ourselves, which we eventually are, even if only at 3 a.m. on a bad night, we see this. [It reminds me of that line in the movie City Slickers, when the character played by Billy Cristol says “you know, you get to a point where you realize, this is the best I’m ever gonna look, the best I’m ever gonna do, the best I’m ever gonna feel …” and it just isn’t all that great.]

Justification by Grace: So, we long for justification, we can’t give it to ourselves, and we cannot earn it. Fortunately, we do not need to; justification by grace means that God already loves and accepts us, has accepted us, “as is.” God is not blind to our faults, but justifies us despite them. We know this because “God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:8) – among other references to the same effect.

Justice of Justification: But how is this justification just? Guthrie identifies the cognitive problem we often have as stemming from the judicial metaphor that gives us the term “justification.” We think of God as the just Judge, who allows Christ’s righteousness to substitute for our unrighteousness. So we can’t really understand this, because that procedure leaves us just as guilty as we began, making it seem that God is not really all that just, and maybe even countenancing sin. Guthrie suggests a different analogy, that of a problem student in an elementary school. A student might be a bully, defiant, a troublemaker; or a student might be anxious and withdrawn and self-critical, with no friends because her withdrawn-ness is interpreted as stuck-up-ness; punishment won’t really solve the student’s underlying problem, whatever it is; instead, “love” – in the form of acceptance and friendship from a teacher or administrator, establishing relationship, has to happen first to deal with the problem. Similarly, justification by grace establishes or re-establishes relationship with God, or at least the basis for relationship with God, and that new relationship with God changes the people we are, as we live into it. The point is that by the time we hear about justification by grace, it always already applies to us.

Justification by Grace Through Faith: So how is faith involved in this justification? There’s a seriously distorted account (which is nevertheless common), and then there is the real thing. Here’s the distorted account: the idea that Protestants believe that instead of having to do good works to win God’s approval, we just have to have faith to be approved and accepted by God. That account, in fact, makes faith into another “work,” and amounts to a form of self-justification: anxious concern with whether we have enough faith, faith that’s pure enough, etc.

Here’s the real thing: we are already justified by grace. But to receive that justification, to receive its benefits, we have to trust it. It becomes effective – that is, it has an effect on our attitude, our lived relationship to God, our experience, our choices and all of that – when we trust it. So the justification that is given to us as a gift, by grace, we receive through faith. Guthrie gives the analogy of marriage: if a man’s wife doesn’t love him, no amount of faith in her will change that; but on the other hand, if the man doesn’t trust his wife’s loving words and actions, if he’s always suspicious, or always rejects their sincerity because he doesn’t think he’s worthy, then he can’t receive the real love his wife has for him. So, when it comes to God, we aren’t made right with God by our faith, but we participate in a right relationship with God through our faith.

The nature of this faith is not exactly “belief.” It’s not faith in the Bible, or in doctrine. It’s trust in God. It’s personal.

But how can we have that faith? If it’s a gift, we can’t give it to ourselves. So, what if God never gives it to us? [Here, I think it might have been helpful if Guthrie had noted that we also trust that God does, in fact, will to give people faith.] Still, there are things we can do to prepare ourselves to receive that gift. 1) We can admit that we don’t have this faith – this allows us to be open to receive it. “I believe, Help my unbelief.” 2) We can put ourselves in the position to hear about and experience God’s love, which is primarily in the Church – in the community of faith; and not just hear about it, but hopefully also see demonstrations of it – in the sacraments, in the kindness of members of the community, etc. 3) In the end, there is also “the obedience of faith,” there is “getting out of the boat” when Jesus calls, so to speak (see Matthew 14:28) – and how can we have that faith unless we exercise it, step out on it [the image I have is of those experiments with babies where there’s a plexiglass surface connecting two visible surfaces, so it looks like a drop-off, and what are the conditions for getting the babies to crawl across the cliff? It helps if Mom is on the other side smiling … but the point is, there is actually something there supporting them, it’s safe. (See, e.g., Wikipedia on the Visual Cliff experiment) Faith is trust that we’re safe to take the next step, and taking the next step builds up that trust.]

Guthrie concludes then with that initial question: Are you a Christian? Well, here’s a long quote that gives the touchstone answer for that question:

Christians are people who know that they are guilty of offending God and of hurting other people and themselves by their attempts to justify themselves. They are people who believe that nevertheless, despite everything, they are forgiven, loved, and accepted by God’s grace in Jesus Christ. And as they experience freedom from the anxious or proud need to justify themselves, they also experience a new freedom for God and other people, and a new freedom to accept and be themselves (327).

This freedom for God and other people and to be oneself is the point at which Christian faith, the channel through which we receive the grace of God, links up with the Christian life of faith, and the transformation that comes with living that life, aka “sanctification,” which comes up in the next chapter.

Guthrie adds a postscript regarding justification and social justice. The way Guthrie has told the story so far, it sounds like justification is all about individuals. But it is clear from scripture that God acts in the lives of groups or communities of people, and that justification and reconciliation have something to do with communal reconciliation. One way to express this might be: “Justification means that God helps those who cannot help themselves and gives rights to those who have no rights” (328). So, while justification by grace is good news for individual people, it is also good news for groups of people who are in the position of being helpless vis-à-vis their surrounding social environment, and having no rights in their surrounding social environment. So, that would mean that justifying grace could be expressed as God’s helping and giving rights

to people who are (1) poor, helpless, and without rights because they are ignored and excluded by the rich and powerful; (2) victims of unjust social systems; (3) denied the opportunity to care for their own and their family’s health and welfare; (4) deprived of the ‘civil rights’ and freedom others enjoy. (328)

Just as God gives sinners rights and privileges in their relationship with God, God gives poor human beings the rights and privileges they are denied by the powerful, without their having to prove themselves “worthy.” So, from this perspective, there is no conflict between an individual account of justification and a social account. They stem from the same source, and lead to the same place.


1 Shirley C. Guthrie, Jr., Christian Doctrine (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1994) 314-329.