First of all, in case any of you were unaware of the fact, the “Pontificator” is back. Father A. Kimel, the prolific theological blogger who converted from Anglicanism to Roman Catholicism years ago, has now become Eastern Orthodox and is now blogging over at Eclectic Orthodoxy. Years ago, Father Kimel’s blog was the place for very interesting theological discussion for those of the more ancient expressions of Christian faith, and I always found it interesting how he tried to incorporate Lutheran insights into many a conversation.
Recently, he has had a few posts discussing justification by faith, and with this notions of penal substitution (see here and here and especially here) In his view, we cannot say “the attributes of justice and mercy are reconciled at Calvary.” This is because “the penal construal of atonement makes justice prior to mercy: the latter can only be displayed once the demands of justice are fulfilled.”
Put that way, of course there would be a problem. After all, God’s merciful heart not only flows from the cross, but leads to the cross. In any case, this series of posts can be seen as a re-frame and defense of God’s just nature. Here goes…
We are all utterly damnable. Mercy-rejecting people all. How so?
Note that “the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth… God gave them up… (3 x)” (Romans 1:17, 24, 26, 28). Not only this, but part of our ungodliness and unrighteousness is this: “in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, practice the very same things” (Romans 2:1).
Ouch. Evidently, this fact also points to a suppression of the truth on our part.
And first and foremost, let us all acknowledge that there is plenty of this suppression going on. As Romans 1 also indicates, men have an unarticulated sense – in their bones – of the reality that is God, and this from their earliest days (this is your “infant theology” for this post – see here for more). Further, intellectually they simply know that something cannot come from nothing (see here for more on this). But suppression of the truth is not something that only applies to those denying these realities.
As far as how we are to act there is also a great deal of suppression going on. I hope you will allow me to demonstrate. Note that all adults are able to at least grasp the idea behind the “Golden Rule” – we are not just to not do to others what we don’t want them to do to us, as many teachers before Jesus Christ said – but we are simply to do unto others as we would have them do to us! (note: if a person does not think this seems to work with the sixth commandment, for example, that person should think about how they would want others to treat their own mother, sister, or daughter).
So, the “Golden Rule” is our template for how we treat our fellow man. Now consider this: Do we want others to forgive us – i.e. restore us when we have done what is wrong and harmed those relationships? Of course we do (after Adam and Eve’s sin, love does mean, contrary to the song, all of us having to say we are sorry). And hypothetically, if we found ourselves to be those who had done deeds that not only harmed relationships but were universally seen as heinous and evil, would we still want forgiveness for ourselves? Unless we were in total despair over our despicable deeds, we certainly would! We would long for a mercy and kindness that could restore us – and not justice of the retributive kind.
We Christians also know that “God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance” (Romans 2:4). But this is not how we operate – for we are not ready to show such kindness to others, and this extends to our anemic understanding of how the “Golden Rule” should permeate our lives. We are not ready to give forgiveness to others as we would like to be forgiven – where our own inward evaluation takes us outside of ourselves and our individual interests and concerns. No. Rather, we see life as being all about “what I do for myself by myself to enrich myself” (Beverly Yanke) – and we are self-centered persons who want from others what we will not give to others. In short, we do not love our neighbor as we love ourselves, much less love God with all our heart, strength, soul and mind. We do not fear, love and trust in God. And this is incredibly serious.
Without Christ in our life, it is not just that we will be damned, but we are damned already. Life without God is hell.
To say that we should freely restore all who sin, however they have sinned seems unfair (note: this does not mean that there will never be consequences for our sin)… there is a bit of the scandal of the cross detectable even here, written in the reason God gives us and which is accessible to every man. Not only this, but the Holy Scriptures of course give us definitive proof that God is kind, and that in His patience, He is always looking to lead persons to the path of godly sorrow and repentance which leads to faith in His pardon, and hence, forgiveness, life, and salvation. Jesus has cleared up any confusion once and for all regarding what the Father’s face looks like towards sinful human beings.