Saturday, 24 April 2010

Miroslav Volf on justification by grace

On Thursday morning I read this extract from Miroslav Volf's Against the Tide at chapel. This is from a wonderful essay called "Shopkeepers Gold".

Could the hope for the inner cities lie in part in the retrieval of the doctrine of justification by grace? How could dead streets receive life from a dead doctrine? Imagine that you have no job, no money, you live cut off from the rest of society in a world ruled by poverty and violence, your skin is the "wrong" color - and you have no hope that any of this will change.
Around you is a society governed by the iron law of achievement. Its gilded goods are flaunted before your eyes on TV screens, and in a thousand ways society tells you every day that you are worthless because you have no achievements. You are a failure, and you you know that you will continue to be a failure because there is no way for you to achieve tomorrow what you have not managed to achieve today. Your dignitiy is shattered and your soul is enveloped in the darkness of depair.
But the gospel tells you that you are not defined by outside forces. It tells you that you count - even more, that you are loved unconditionally and infinitely, irrespective of anything you have achieved or failed to achieve, even that you are loved a tad bit more than those whose efforts have been crowned with success.
Imagine now this gospel not simply proclaimed but embodied in a community that has emerged not as a "result of works" (Eph. 2.10). Justified by sheer grace, it seeks to "justify" by grace those whoa re made "unjust" by society's implacable law of achievement. Imagine furhtermore this community determined to infuse the wider culture, along with its political and economic institutions, with the message that it seeks to embody and proclaim. This is justification by grace, proclaimed and pacticed. A dead doctrine? Hardly.
As I was reflecting on the social significance of justication by grace, I remembered a passage from Nietzsche's Thus spoke Zarathustra ... "O my brothers, I direct and consecrate you to a new nobility: you shall become begetters and cultivators and sowers of the future - truly, not a nobility that you could buy like shopkeepers with shopkeepers gold: for all that has a price is of little value."
Justification by grace, I thought, musing on Nietzsche's profound observation, is so deeply at odds with our "shopkeeper's culture". It takes the price tags off human beings not so as to devalue them but so as to give them but so as to give them their proper dignity, a dignity not based on what they have achieved but rooted in the sheer fact that they are loved unconditionally by God. Divine love is that indispensable nourishment for the human soul of which the prophet speaks when he calls, "Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters: and you that have no money come buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price." (Isa. 55:1)

I shall now try to stop quoting large chunks of Volf but really recommend the book, deeply satisfying. Go out and buy a copy! I feel profoundly challenged to think about how to "love in a time of petty dreams and persisting enmities". I often feel caught in petty dreams and persisting enmities, reading Volf's has helped me once again to see my faith as the key way through that. I like the way he speaks about faith rather than spirituality too.
The book is a real reminder of why societies need intellectuals and why Christianity needs thinkers.