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The Magazine of The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America

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God's radical work

Justification insists on God's utterly undeserved favor

Editorial note: On May 20, 2003, the ELCA lost one its most energetic and engaging teachers. Timothy Lull, pastor, historian, theologian and president of Pacific Lutheran Seminary, Berkeley, Calif., died unexpectedly—and much too soon.

Tim’s specialty was Reformation history and theology. As Reformation Day approaches, it’s helpful to hear Tim’s voice again, talking about the doctrine of justification on which Christ’s church stands or falls. The following is an excerpt from “God’s radical work,” which appeared in the February 2003 issue of The Lutheran.

Lutherans consider the Bible a great treasure with many themes. It presents the complex story of God’s relationship to the world, a story of judgment and grace, demand and gift. But these aspects of God's relationship to humanity don't constitute a standoff, with law balancing gospel and sin balancing redemption. Our hope and confidence rest in the conviction that God is ultimately gracious and that our sins and brokenness are overcome by God's great love.


The term that expresses this bottom-line Lutheran conviction is justification by faith or, more completely, that we are “justified as a gift on account of Christ's sake through faith” (Augsburg Confession, IV). Justification is an image taken from the courtroom. We find it especially in Paul's letters. He compares God's action in Christ to the work of a judge who throws out the guilty verdict and sets the convicted prisoner free. …

Proud human beings may feel they need no saving at all. Even those who acknowledge their sin still want to do their part. Justification sweeps that all away. …

Humans are responding creatures. We resist the notion that in the most important issue of our life—our relationship with God—God has already done what is needful. We are invited simply to trust God rather than ourselves, to walk each day resting our confidence in Christ and in all God's promises.

Sometimes, alas, Lutherans have been so anxious about faith that they made it into a new requirement. People were commanded “to believe” as if it were possible to fear, love and trust in God just by trying hard. Luther taught otherwise. In the Small Catechism he wrote: “I believe that by my own understanding or strength I cannot believe in Jesus Christ my Lord or come to him.”

Faith isn't the condition that completes the circuit and makes justification possible. Faith itself is a gift of the Spirit. …

Our society is full of people struggling to hold their lives together by their own strength. They may not be trusting in good works, but they are trusting in hard work to assure the meaning of their lives. They, too, are in bondage.

We have something to offer them—if we have the courage to tell the story of God's radical love and to face the unsettling consequences it brings to our pride. Our churches are full of people who have never encountered justification in all its disarming and healing power.


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December issue

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