With Holy Week soon upon us, I thought this an appropriate sermon to repost.
In the epistle which we read this morning, St. Paul introduces the metaphor or image of “justification” to describe what God has done for us in Jesus Christ. “Since we are justified by faith,” he says, “we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” (Rom. 5:1). The doctrine of “justification by faith” utilizes legal language and draws upon the metaphor of God as our “Judge.” This language appears throughout Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, which is in many respects one long meditation on the meaning of the justice of God and of God’s role as Judge of sinful humanity.
This metaphor of God as Judge is perhaps one that has left an unfortunate legacy to the Western church. (The Eastern churches have largely focused on other metaphors, like that of re-creation.) This juridical language, combined with the Western heritage of Roman law, has left us with an overly legal understanding of what it means to say that God has saved us in Jesus Christ. We Western Christians have too often interpreted God’s work in Jesus Christ as a juridical process in which we sinners deserved the punishment of eternal damnation, but God let us off by punishing his innocent Son Jesus instead. I remember that as a child I liked Jesus very much, but I wasn’t too sure about God the Father. He was a bit too rigid, I thought.
For several reasons, we find this image of God as Judge to be an unfortunate one. First, of course, we can all bring to mind those who have used this image of God as Judge to brutalize and instill fear in others. A number of years ago, the country was mesmerized by the ongoing drama of the leader of a fundamentalist religious cult in Waco, Texas who, after gunning down several law enforcement agents, announced himself to be the new messiah. David Koresh spoke with the certainty of divine judgment in this way: “If anybody dares to go against the truth of God and tries to hurt Christ because they know not and they refuse to know, well then we’re talking something serious.” Those who confuse their own megalomaniac delusions with God’s judgment cause us rightly to be suspicious.
Second, our own fear of judgment and of being judged makes this an extremely unpleasant image for us. Everyone has known at one time or another the feeling of being looked down on, of being disapproved of, of not measuring up, of not being good enough, of not fitting in. When I was growing up, I was the classic nerd: good at studies, terrible at sports. I was always the kid who was picked last for basketball, and put in the far far outfield in softball. Far worse than not being able to compete was my awareness of the disapproval of my classmates.
When we hear that God is our Judge, we can’t help but be reminded that we don’t measure up to his standards, that we’re not good enough for the divine team. For those like myself, who were brought up in restrictive Fundamentalist versions of Christianity, this fear of God’s judgment can still be paralyzing. I have spent much of my adult Christian life trying to find a good God. In the broad light of day, of course, I can affirm that God is a God of love. However, there are still those times when I awake in the middle of the night, trembling in a cold sweat, overwhelmed by my own sinfulness, and by the certain conviction that I have been cast into the outer darkness.
But then of course, we must admit that for many of us the tables have turned. For ancient and medieval people, God (or the gods) were approached with fear. Human beings approached God as the accused. For Martin Luther, the key question was, “How do I find a God who is gracious to me?”(1) But we modern people are generally not so easily intimidated as was the young Luther. We’re tired of being bullied, and we’re not going to take it anymore! As C. S. Lewis has pointed out, for modern people, the situation is reversed. We are the judges. God is on trial. If God has a reasonable excuse for creating a world in which there is so much pain and suffering, we might be willing to hear it. But the important thing to remember is that God is on trial, not us.(2)
But before we simply dismiss this image of God as Judge perhaps we should not presume so quickly that we know what we mean when we are talking about divine judgment. It is important to remember that all of the images and metaphors with which Scripture portrays God’s work in Christ are symbolic, including that of divine judgment. We must not presume that we know ahead of time what the symbols mean. Above all, we must not interpret divine judgment in terms of our own limited experiences of judgment. The problem with the three attitudes toward divine judgment I just mentioned is that each presumes that, based on our own previous experiences of human judgment, we already know what it means for God to judge us. All of these objections presuppose an overly literal view of the divine judgment. It may be that divine judgment does not mean what we think it means, and that God has chosen to judge us in his own way, not ours.
If we are going to know what God’s judgment means, we must learn it from listening to God’s story, not our own. To hear God’s story, we must listen once again to the story of Jesus, for that is where God meets us in judgment. The Christian story is the story of how God has come among us in the person of Jesus Christ to be our Judge. But what a strange Judge he is. In his teaching, Jesus gives us an impossible standard to live by, a standard which tells us to love our enemies, to do unto others as we would have them do unto us. Jesus says that motives are as important as actions, that we are to be perfect as our Father in heaven is perfect. At the same time, Jesus tells us that this perfect God embraces in love those who fail to meet these impossible standards. In his parables, Jesus tells us of a God who seeks out the lost sheep, of a Father who waits longingly for the prodigal son.
And the impossible standard Jesus proclaims is the standard by which he lives. As the Son of his Father, he is the good shepherd who has come to find the lost sheep, the physician who has come to heal the sick, not those who are already healthy. In the gospel reading this morning, we see how Jesus acts as our Judge. This nameless woman who meets Jesus at Jacob’s well, who has had five husbands, who comes to this well in the heat of the day—perhaps because she is a social outcast and wants to avoid the crowds of the cooler morning—this Samaritan woman to whom a Jewish man would normally not even speak (because she was a Samaritan and because she was a woman), this woman has no reason to expect anything but the most severe judgment from this Jewish rabbi, a holy man. However, the judgment that Jesus gives to this woman is not condemnation but rather the living water of eternal life. The rabbi who had asked her for a cup of
water now invites her to come and drink: “those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty; the water that I shall give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.” (Jn. 4:14).
The standard by which we are judged is the standard of the life of this Jewish rabbi, not that of an arbitrary deity, and of course we all fail. We do not love our enemies. We judge others, even though we would rather they not judge us. We all fail by Jesus’ standard, even as those of Jesus’ time failed.
And those of Jesus’ time did fail. For as we know, an even more peculiar thing happened to God when he came among us to be our Judge. Rather than God judging us, we judged him. We put God on trial and found him guilty.
Jesus proclaimed himself to be the representative of God’s coming kingdom. When he healed the sick and told sinners that they were forgiven, he pronounced God’s peculiar judgment on them. “Neither do I condemn you; go and sin no more,” (Jn. 8:11) was that judgment. Jesus’ claim to be the representative of God’s strange judgment was rejected by the religious and political leaders of his time. “Who can forgive sins but God alone?,” they demanded to know (Mk 2:7). So they had Jesus crucified as a blasphemer and political subversive. The divine Judge was judged and found guilty, and died abandoned by his followers, and even by his God. When Jesus cried, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?,” (Mk. 15:34) the divine verdict was clear to all. In judging Jesus, those who crucified him declared him to be in the wrong and to be condemned by God.
The divine verdict on Jesus was not pronounced on Good Friday, however, but on Easter morning. By raising Jesus from the dead, God vindicated his Son’s role as Judge and reversed the guilty verdict by which he had been crucified. So we see the importance of Jesus’ resurrection. If Jesus had simply died, his case would have been lost. The verdict of his judges would have stood. But because he is alive, Jesus is proclaimed to be the divine Judge, and so the one who alone has the right to pronounce on our own guilt or innocence. In vindicating Jesus, his Father demonstrated that Jesus alone was the one who had the right to pronounce the divine verdict, the verdict of the good shepherd who seeks for the lost sheep, the verdict of “not guilty.”
So the cross and resurrection of Jesus do not mean that now we must be judged as those who have crucified God. By a strange paradox of the divine logic, what the cross means (in the evocative expression of the Protestant theologian Karl Barth) is that our Judge has now been judged in our place.(3) By allowing himself to be crucified, the God who has come to us in Jesus Christ has now born in himself our judgment so that we do not have to be judged.
This then is the strange paradox of the divine judgment. God’s way of judging us is to take our judgment on himself in Jesus Christ. This is the great insight of Paul’s doctrine of justification by faith. By a strange reversal of logic, those who have judged the divine Judge are themselves now judged but pronounced not guilty. This is why Paul can say that “there is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus,” (Rom. 8:1) and that “since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” (Rom. 5:1).
This is also why it is so important to affirm that Jesus Christ is God incarnate, the one who existed “in the form of God,” but “emptied himself” and was “born in human likeness” for our salvation (Phil. 2:6-7). If Jesus were not God, then he could not bear the divine judgment; if he were simply a God-filled man, then his suffering and abandonment by God would be just one more example of the inscrutability of human suffering and would raise once again the question of divine justice. How could God allow this to happen to one who was so good? It is however because Jesus meets us as God incarnate that he is able to judge us without condemning us. The paradox of the cross becomes the mystery of the God who has met human evil and suffering in its full force and has borne it and been judged by it. As Karl Barth has pointed out, the question then becomes not that of how God can allow this evil to take place in a world which he has created good, but rather that of the “humiliation and dishonoring of God himself . . . the question whether in willing to let this happen to him he has not renounced and lost himself as God, whether in capitulating to the folly and wickedness of his creature he has not abdicated from his deity.” And the answer, Barth says, is that “in this humiliation God is supremely God, that in this death He is supremely alive, that He has maintained and revealed His deity in the passion of this man as His eternal Son.”(4)
The point of Paul’s message of justification by faith is that we no longer have to fear God’s judgment. The purpose of the divine judgment is to bring us life, not death. We might find ourselves alone, we may feel forsaken by God, we may even find ourselves confronted with our own wickedness and staring at what seems to be the slammed door of divine judgment. But because the crucified one has already been abandoned by God, we do not have to be. Because Jesus was forsaken, we cannot be. Because our Judge has been judged, we will not be.
Because God has judged us in Christ, we no longer have to judge ourselves. We do not have to face the frustration of our own self-condemnation, the despair that we just do not measure up. Neither do we have to engage in the ultimately self-defeating project of self-justification, of trying over and over again to convince ourselves that we really are okay, in the hopes that someday we might believe it. And, of course, and this is perhaps even more difficult, we do not need to enjoy the luxury of judging and condemning others. God is their Judge, as he is ours, and we know his verdict. In the apostle Paul’s words: “But God shows his love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us.” (Rom. 5:8).
1. Jaroslav Pelikan, Reformation of Church and Dogma (1300-1700) (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983), p. 138.
2. C. S. Lewis, “God in the Dock,” God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1973), pp. 240-244.
3. Karl Barth, “The Judged Judged in our Place,” Church Dogmatics 4/1 The Doctrine of Reconciliation (Edinburgh: T & T Clark,
1956, 1985), pp. 211-282.
4. Barth, C.D. 4/1: 246-247.