By Bob Hiller –
Your Bible is bursting at the seams with metaphors aimed at delivering God’s love for you in Christ to your ears and hearts. The language of forgiveness, reconciliation, redemption, and liberation are just a few of the big themes that the Holy Spirit has chosen to convey everything God has done for you through the blood of God’s Son. We in the Lutheran camp tend to have a reputation of overemphasizing one particular way of talking about the Gospel: the legal metaphor. The technical language (for you who want to show off at the water cooler on Monday) is forensic justification. This is the idea that, before the God our judge, sinners are declared righteous completely on account of Christ’s shed blood. God’s final verdict on your life has been pronounced! He has found you not guilty! How? Because His Son took the rap and paid the price for your sins. He was declared guilty in your place, so there is no guilty verdict left to give. You are set free from the prison you deserve.
Now, this is the sort of stuff that gets us Lutherans all giddy. And why not? This is the sort of good news that raises the dead! However, there are times where we are accused of overplaying this part of the Gospel. The whole forensic courtroom idea is too narrow, I’ve heard. Though it is part of the Gospel, it isn’t the whole show. There’s a lot more to see. Further, this sort of metaphor doesn’t allow for much in the way of Christian living. It only (what a horrible adverb in this instance) declares the sinner righteous. It doesn’t teach them how to live!
Now, I happen to agree with many of these critiques. As I’ve said recently, we have to do with the whole council of God. However, as I spend my days listening to talk radio, wasting my life on Facebook, and serving the church as a pastor, I am more and more convinced that we should not move away from this “forensic” language all too quickly. Firstly, because the scriptures won’t allow us to. Creation itself has a forensic aspect to it. After God created everything out of shared love, He then declared it good. He judged His work to be righteous. Plus, have you read the OT prophets lately? They are all one massive courtroom scene! Secondly, it seems that today everyone lives in fear of judgment. Because of sin, we live in fear of God and neighbor. We live in animosity towards them because we either fear their judgment or disagree with it. It’s this antagonism towards judgment that drives and even motivates much of how we live.
You see this in sports all the time. ESPN ran an article by Royce Young this past week about Kevin Durant. He feels slighted because not everyone considers him to be one of the best players in the NBA. “If you talked about the best players, my name, still today, is still not in that conversation. And I feel as though I went out there and proved it to you, you know what I mean? If I had a great game, I was supposed to have that. Of course it’s not going to get talked about, but a lot of people are eating their words this season.” Durant discusses how this unfair judgment drives him to play better and harder. Being looked over makes Durant want to be noticed. He wants his judges to make a declaration about his abilities. He either wants to earn their praises or prove them wrong.
If you follow sports at all, you have just judged Durant’s sentiments as pretty cliché. However, what I find so fascinating about it all is how much the judgment of others drives Durant’s view of himself and how much of what he does is in effort to justify his place among the NBA elites. The entire culture seems to operate this way. This is why we are all so addicted to Facebook and Twitter. There, we have found an easy way to control judgment. We present the courtroom with all the evidence we want them to see. We hide all the evidence that works against our case. We are declared righteous with “likes” and “retweets.”
Judgment is the air we breathe. For years, the most popular shows on TV have been ones in which we get to help judge singers. We judge political candidates and everyone who supports them. We judge our daily bread with our taste buds. We judge our clothing: what is appropriate and what isn’t. Our best conversations are typically analyzing, debating, and discussing our judgments on various topics. Someone will read this blog and post in favor of it or opposed to it…as a judgment.
Now, at this point, I’m not actually rendering a judgment on whether this is a good or a bad thing. I am simply pointing out the depths of the legal reality we all operate in. If we are honest, we all are like Kevin Durant to some extent, working to prove our self-worth to others to justify our existence in this world. This is why many of us live in fear and uncertainty. We don’t know where we stand in the world before our neighbor.
This is why I think it is misguided to downplay the forensic nature of the Gospel. Everyone lives in pursuit of justification of one sort or another. That language is as natural to us as breathing. For the sinner who has any inkling that there is a God out there who is rendering a judgment one day, it is the most shocking and liberating news in the world to hear that the verdict has already been rendered in her favor and that he was found ‘not guilty’ despite all the evidence. To be told that God has used up all His condemnation as far as you are concerned because someone else has already taken the blame and served your time, that this person, this Jesus, is the end of God’s condemnation for you, that you don’t have to work to earn that verdict, but it is rendered by God’s grace alone, well, that is to introduce something new entirely.
The Gospel of forensic justification, this graciously declared righteousness, takes the legal scheme and no longer allows its fear to produce a life where we are constantly working to prove ourselves. This puts to death the confining shackles of the old system in which one seeks only to avoid condemnation and instead frees them to live fearlessly in the wide open spaces of God’s favor. This drives one to a life lived thanking God for creation and not merely groaning in it (though we know we are even free to do this!), loving our neighbors and not merely using them to score points with God, and listening to and trusting in God. We know His Son’s blood has rendered us free from God’s condemnation. God wants only to give us gifts and remove that which stops them from coming. He wants to set us free as His beloved creatures. God has declared you righteous for Christ’s sake! He has no condemnation for you!