Jesus is Lord and your sins are forgiven

My recent crash-course on objective/universal justification was prompted by the following comment by Alastair over on his blog recently:

The message of the kingdom is not merely that forgiveness is now possible, but that the Forgiveness of Sins has actually taken place and that all who will believe can enter into this.

That strikes me as an excellent summary of objective justification, and how subjective justification involves entering into an existing status of “forgiven!” rather than turning a mere possibility into an actuality.

The emphasis in objective justification is on the gospel as the proclamation of a completed accomplishment, a state of affairs that has already been brought about by Christ’s death and resurrection. This has strong affinities with the perspective of N.T. Wright, whose presentation of the gospel emphasises these objective aspects:

The gospel – the “good news” of what the creator God has done in Jesus – is first and foremost news about something that has happened. And the first and most appropriate response to that news is to believe it.

God has raised Jesus from the dead, and has thereby declared in a single powerful action that Jesus really has launched the long-awaited Kingdom, and that his death really was the moment when, and the means by which, the evil of the world was defeated at last. When the alarm clock goes off, this is what it says: here is the good news, wake up and believe it!

– N.T. Wright (Simply Christian, pp.176f.)

Note the parallel between what Wright says in that first paragraph and Walther’s presentation of objective and subjective justification as quoted in my earlier post: God has acted in the death and (especially) the resurrection of Jesus, and the appropriate response to this is to believe it.

All this brings us back round to what originally prompted this series of posts on law/gospel and objective justification, namely Alastair’s assertion that the word “gospel” as used by Lutherans (and other Reformation Christians) when speaking of “law and gospel” represents a divergence from how Scripture uses that term.

There can certainly appear to be a “disconnect” between the gospel of “Jesus is Lord and God raised him from the dead” and the gospel of “Your sins are forgiven on account of Christ”. To those who tend towards the “Your sins are forgiven” approach, the “Jesus is Lord” emphasis of Wright can appear to overlook or downplay the importance of personal forgiveness and justification as part of the gospel. (And certainly Wright does have a habit of emphasising the horizontal aspects of forgiveness – such as the Truth & Reconciliation Commission – rather than the vertical.)

And to those who emphasise “Jesus is Lord”, the “Your sins are forgiven” approach can appear narrow and individualistic, overlooking or downplaying the cosmic and universal – not to mention political – implications of the gospel. I have a lot of sympathy with this criticism, which is why I was having a quick chunter yesterday about Walther’s reference to “going to heaven”.

In short, the difference is between emphasising the gospel as the announcement of an established state of affairs into which we are called to enter, and the gospel as the announcement of a change of status before God that we are invited to receive.

The more I think about it, the more I am convinced that the key to bringing these two approaches together lies in the “secret” and “shocking” Lutheran doctrine of objective universal justification. What this does is add to the objective announcement that “Jesus is Lord and God raised him from the dead” the additional statement that “and he has won forgiveness from God for all people”. It does so on the strongest biblical grounds, both in terms of texts such as those examined in a previous post and the examples we see in Acts of how the apostles proclaimed the gospel (e.g. Acts 2:38, 5:31, 10:42,43, 13:38,39).

And it is then that we see that to enter into the kingdom of God as established by Christ – this kingdom of Christ’s Lordship, of resurrection and of forgiveness – is precisely to hear and receive for oneself the good news that “Your sins are forgiven”.

Hence there is not (or, at least, need not be) any divergence between the use of the term “gospel” when Lutherans speak of “law and gospel” and how the New Testament uses this term. As a matter of pastoral practice – which is where the distinction between law and gospel principally arises, rather than as a “hermeneutic” or “interpretive key” for Scripture – it is natural for the church to emphasise the subjective aspects of the gospel (“Your sins are forgiven”), just as the apostles did.

But everything that is encompassed in the announcement that “Jesus is Lord and God raised him from the dead and all people are now forgiven on his account” falls within what Lutherans would call “gospel”. Indeed the subjective aspects of the gospel are founded entirely upon those objective aspects, not least the objective, universal justification of all people in the risen Lord Jesus. Conversely, it is only the forgiveness of sins that turns the announcement that “Jesus is Lord” into good news for sinful humanity (after all, the demons hear those words, believe them – and shudder).

Hence the gospel of “Jesus is Lord” and the gospel of “Your sins are forgiven” are one and the same, with no need to play one off against the other or regard one as more fundamental than the other.

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8 Responses to Jesus is Lord and your sins are forgiven

  1. Rob says:

    An absolutely fantastic post, John.

    One reason the “Jesus is Lord” understanding of the term “gospel” often furrows Lutheran brows, is the collective anticipation that the next phrase will be “so get to serving him or you’ll be in trouble.” We have a real uneasiness surrounding the implications of “Jesus is Lord” on our assurance of salvation (not to mention, our politics).

    But as Wright (that name keeps popping up) has pointed out, when St. Paul appropriated the word “gospel” from the Roman political rhetoric of his day, he was doing so to emphasize a stark contrast between the kingdom of Caesar and the kingdom of God. In the kingdom of Caesar, the appropriate response to the so-called “good news” of his reign was get on your knees, pay your taxes, or get crucified. In the kingdom of Christ Jesus, (the one resurrected from that same crucifixion) the appropriate response is “believe.” Where Caesar’s gospel was defined by the right-handed power of the sword, Jesus’ was defined by the left-handed power of mercy and forgiveness.

    When we use a phrase like your convention, “Jesus is Lord and God raised him from the dead and all people are now forgiven on his account,” we are not only announcing the objective forgiveness of sins, but simultaneously making a bold statement about how God’s power works. A kingdom marked by freed slaves, forgiven thieves, pardoned murderers, the dead raised to life, is something entirely different from Caesar’s kingdom of “might makes right.” As your post emphasizes, Christians shouldn’t fear the statement “Jesus is Lord,” because he rules out of the same compassion, mercy, and love that drove him to the cross.

    As an aside, I’m becoming convinced that Wright’s careful reading of scripture–though it may on the surface put off the confessional Lutheran–actually builds a stronger foundation for core Lutheran doctrine (Word/sacrament, theology of the cross, etc.) than more traditional readings. I’m planning on spring-boarding off of this post series on our blog to discuss Wright’s view on imputation and Law. I’ve just come back from a long business trip where a Wright lecture series on Romans was my only traveling companion, and I absolutely can’t shake some of his insights.

  2. John H says:

    Rob: thanks for your comment. I very much look forward to your own posts on Wright – I think I have a copy of the same lecture series, which I will now have to go back and listen to properly!

    I have been convinced for a long time that there is a lot of affinity between Wright and confessional Lutheranism. The problem is that Wright understands Lutheranism only in terms of the European state churches, and confessional Lutheranism tends to encounter Wright only as he is filtered and distorted through the lens of his Truly Reformed critics.

  3. UberGoober says:

    Alastair gives some help, I think, on the perspective of Wright as contrasted with others. He submits that Wright is approaching justification with a theological beginning and others are inclined to begin with an anthropological one. “Jesus is Lord” (while having antrhopological implications) is clearly a theological statement. “Your sins are forgiven” (though not without theological implications) is an anthropological statement.

  4. The Scylding says:

    Good post John – I needed that (today).

  5. Tim Boerger says:

    Great post, John.

    “Hence the gospel of ‘Jesus is Lord’ and the gospel of ‘Your sins are forgiven’ are one and the same, with no need to play one off against the other or regard one as more fundamental than the other.”

    Your insight here brought to mind Luther’s discussion of the Second Article of the Creed in the Large Catechism:

    “If now you are asked, What do you believe in the Second Article of Jesus Christ? answer briefly: I believe that Jesus Christ, true Son of God, has become my Lord. But what is it to become Lord? It is this, that He has redeemed me from sin, from the devil, from death, and all evil. For before I had no Lord nor King, but was captive under the power of the devil, condemned to death, enmeshed in sin and blindness. . . . . Let this, then, be the sum of this article that the little word Lord signifies simply as much as Redeemer, i.e., He who has brought us from Satan to God, from death to life, from sin to righteousness, and who preserves us in the same.”

  6. Jim says:

    I think this is a very important point that Lutherans often miss — proper preaching of “Jesus is Lord” is the gospel.

    First, if Jesus is Lord, then Satan isn’t. “For [the Father] rescued us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son” (Col 1.13). Satan’s dominion gives us death and condemnation; Jesus’ Kingdom gives us forgiveness and life. That Jesus is Lord means that we can receive forgiveness from him.

    Secondly, in Jesus’ kingdom, the one who rules is he who serves. “[T]he one who is the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like the servant. For who is greater, the one who reclines at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one who reclines? But I am among you as the one who serves” (Lk 22.26-27). Matthew adds that “the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many” (Mt 20.28).

    Jesus is a peculiar Lord, at least by the world’s standard. Submitting to his lordship means not that we work, but that we rest. “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls” (Mt 11.29).

    So it seems to me that Jesus being our savior is inextricably tied up with Jesus being our Lord. Jesus establishing his lordship through the work of the cross is the Gospel. Receiving Jesus as Lord is receiving the forgiveness and salvation offered to us in the Gospel.

  7. John H says:

    Jim: thanks for your comment. I agree that “Jesus is Lord” is gospel not law (though it functions as law to those who reject Jesus). Indeed, I posted on this quite recently: Jesus is Lord and your sins are forgiven.

    So I don’t mean my outline to downplay or deny Jesus’ lordship. Equally, I’m not sure that 2WTL’s depiction of his lordship (as a crown above us) captures the second and third aspects of his lordship as delineated by you.

  8. Andrew says:

    Great posts. I’ve been enjoying learning from this and related posts of yours, especially as I continue to “sit on the fence” between Lutheranism and Reformed evangelicalism, particularly over the issues of baptism (what God does in it), the effects of the atonement (does Jesus actually save people, or does he just make salvation possible?), and the sum of those two: apostasy and perseverance.

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