Veith, Gene Edward Jr., & A. Trevor Sutton. Authentic Christianity: How Lutheran Theology Speaks to a Postmodern World. St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2017. “Chapter 3, “Stop Justifying Yourself” pp. 81-99.
Veith and Sutton observe that justification by God’s grace through faith in Jesus, apart from any works of our own is control to Christianity and was also the center of the Lutheran Reformation (Veith & Sutton 2017, 81). Christianity is all about the reality of sin and the free forgiveness of that sin. Although many in our current culture deny the reality or importance of sin, Veith and Sutton note that most people will try to justify themselves (Veith & Sutton 2017, 82). However, because of the pitfalls of our own efforts, self-justification can be an unending and fruitless pursuit. For this reason, Veith and Sutton see the historic Lutheran view of justification from outside of ourselves as attractive to our generation.
To understand the idea of justification more thoroughly, Veith and Sutton note that much of our culture simultaneously rejects the idea of sin and an objective morality, while making moral judgments against others (Veith & Sutton 2017, 83). Meanwhile our own moral failings often leave us with a sense of guilt. While many reject moral standards found in the Bible they will normally set up some other standard. Yet apparently we fail at these standards, as we “feel the need to show that we are right. At work, online, in our casual conversations, in our relationships with others, we are always seeking approval, scoring points. making excuses, and defending ourselves. These are all facets of self-justification (Veith & Sutton 2017, 84). In ways large and small, Veith and Sutton see humans in a constant cycle of accusation and self-justification. The work of Oswald Bayer analyzes this problem, even observing that evil and suffering in the world are used to accuse God. However, even in the absence of God, there is still evil and suffering, so there is no way for us to justify the world (Veith & Sutton 2017, 87). However, if the eternal God declares people good despite their failures, we can stop our evasions and find peace in what Bayer and others refer to as “passive righteousness,” not earned but imputed (Veith & Sutton 2017, 88).
Veith and Sutton go on to discuss the biblical idea of atonement, the act of providing an adequate substitution for us in our condition. The Bible describes this as accomplished by Christ’s death. Though God, he assumed a human nature but without sin. He was able, by his divine power, to take the sin of the world upon himself and die as a human, bearing our sin. Veith and Sutton describe this using multiple passages from the Bible (Veith & Sutton 2017, 89).
The message of historic Christianity is that Jesus’ forgiveness, justification, is received by faith, through means of grace such as hearing the Scripture and receiving the Sacrament (Veith & Sutton 2017, 91). Veith and Sutton remind the reader that in Luther’s Small Catechism on the third article of the Apostles’ Creed, Luther taught that our reason could not comprehend forgiveness, but that it is received by faith. Veith and Sutton say this begins to be possible when we stop our efforts at self-justification, persuaded by our failure to keep God’s moral law (Veith & Sutton 2017, 92). We then start considering not our own work, but God’s work on our behalf, called by the Gospel, so as to see that we can trust that God hasdone everything needed to accomplish our salvation (Veith & Sutton 2017, 93).
Veith and Sutton specify that Lutherans confess a need for repentance (sorrow for sin) and reception of forgiveness on an ongoing basis. God delivers this forgiveness through tangible means, where He has promised to be present for forgiveness. The means, to be discussed in more detail later, are baptism, communion, and the hearing of God’s Word (Veith & Sutton 2017, 96). The life of repentance and walking in the justifying work of Jesus is not entirely unique to Lutherans, but Veith and Sutton find it expressed better there than elsewhere. They discuss shortcomings in the teaching of other Christian bodies in brief terms (Veith & Sutton 2017, 95). In its essence, it is lutheran theology which consistently finds justification available to all, based only on their faith in a gospel which is outside of themselves (Veith & Sutton 2017, 96).