Joseph M. McShane, S.J., is associate professor of religious studies at LeMoyne College in Syracuse, New York.
This article appeared in the Christian Century. October 25, 1989, p. 955. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.
Unlike the gods and goddesses of the other nations and unlike the philosopher’s vision of a transcendent goodness, the God of Abraham has taken a stake in human affairs.
"But this is the covenant which I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and 1 will write it upon their hearts" [Jer. 31:32]
Luther challenged the church to show the world God’s righteousness. Works of religious and political grandeur and examples of religious piety left believers untouched by the gospel. The biblical texts for Reformation Day (Jer. 31:31-34, Rom. 3:19-28, John 8:31-36) all reflect Reformation theology’s fundamental suspicion of human nature and human institutions. Jeremiah’s vision of the new covenant which God would inscribe upon the human heart follows his bitter reflections about how little individuals or nations learn from their experience. Neither the devastating loss of northern Israel nor the attempted reforms in Jeremiah’s own day had turned the nation back to God. St. Paul’s reflections in Romans generalize Jeremiah’s experience to include all human beings: "For there is no distinction; since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God."
Faced with the universality of evil, what does God do? Unlike us, God exhibits patience; God does not punish those responsible for evil. Through his suffering and death Jesus offers believers the unmerited gift of righteousness, life and forgiveness (Rom. 3:24-28) This gift resolves the dilemma of sinfulness among a people covenanted with God.
God’s goodness is "on the line" in the justice and well-being of the human community. Consequently God is not "beyond" the messy world of human affairs. If God makes sinners righteous, God’s own righteousness becomes evident.
The Reformation slogan "by faith alone" poses a challenge to our own response to human evil. We accept God’s gift but we ignore God’s way of acting. Take any case of evil that grabs our public attention. What do we clamor for? Military retaliation, laws, tough sentences, mandatory programs -- and all of it as quick1y as possible! Certainly not how God responds to evil.
We may write off Luther’s critique of "works" as his rejection of a corrupt church, but we should consider the wider implications of his message. Luther insists that law and external works do not bring grace and freedom. Anything less than spiritual transformation is a physical action which can be performed by the good and the wicked alike. Suffering and other ills also know no distinction. Yet we persist in thinking that more laws, rules, regulatory agencies and watch-dog committees will defeat the evils we face. We should not ignore the message addressed to Jewish legalism in the New Testament or to Luther’s Roman church. Like them we have abundant faith in our laws, procedures and bureaucracy.
Luther observes that most preachers escape the radicalism of the gospel because they combine laws and good works with a message of faith. But any endeavor to live up to the law will end in despair or a cynicism that erodes public morality. It is OK to deceive one’s spouse, lie "a little bit," or steal from an employer -- all we have to do is be a bit less corrupt than the people we read about in the newspaper.
Luther faced the challenge that his gospel would encourage lawless behavior. Yet he insisted that the freedom a Christian enjoys follows upon transformation into a new person in Christ. Unlike the loudly proclaimed and legalistic piety of many born-again Christians, Luther counseled the newly converted to "forget the Law," to live before God as though there were no Law. Similarly, Jeremiah speaks of a covenant written upon the heart, which one person does not need to learn from another. The question, both Paul and John insist, is not whether the Law represents what is good or just, but how human beings can cease to be the slaves of sin.
God demonstrates righteousness through patience, suffering and freedom, not coercion, tough justice or rigid legalism. The American desire to demonstrate national righteousness in dramatic actions, new laws and programs and a "quick fix" for human nature can hardly stand such a message. Yet there is no other gospel. Reformation theology reminds us that the church itself is never a kingdom of the righteous but a communion of "justified sinners" and as such is always in the process of reform. According to the gospel, the way of faith is the only true hope for freedom, "so if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed" (John 8:36)