I’ll have more to say about Fleming Rutledge’s latest book, about the cross of Christ, when I read it—I just ordered it on Amazon. But I entirely agree with Rutledge’s words from a recent Christianity Today interview.
You think justification is the most radical of ideas. Why?
The great biblical scholar F. F. Bruce was asked what being evangelical meant. He said it means nothing more and nothing less than the justification of the ungodly. I want to make that the centerpiece of my argument wherever I go—the justification of the ungodly.
This differentiates Christian faith from religion in general, because religion in general has as its purpose to create godly people. Godliness is the goal. But twice, Paul refers to the justification of the ungodly, which is the most irreligious thing that’s ever been said. It cuts against religion. We cannot achieve our own godliness. It must be given to us, and it has been given to us in this unrepeatable, world-overturning act of invasion of this satanic-occupied territory by the Son of God himself.
So you don’t believe the Cross is just a declaration of our righteousness.
It’s not an amnesty. This is why I talk about the inadequacy of forgiveness as a theme. God is not going to just forgive sin; he is going to do something about it. The sin, the error, the evil is to be wiped out and erased from memory. He will wipe away all tears from their eyes. This calls for a much stronger word than forgiveness. Reginald Fuller, an important New Testament scholar from England, said more than once in my hearing, “Forgiveness is too weak a word.”
Are we mistaken to think that New Testament writers, when they sum up the gospel, often use the word forgiveness to do so?
We have to be careful about that. Luke does that, but Paul does not.
The Gospel of Luke is justifiably beloved. We would be terribly impoverished without it. But at the same time, Paul needs to be the lens through which we read Luke and not the other way around, because Paul is more radical. Luke has, essentially, a gospel of repentance and forgiveness, but Paul conspicuously does not construe the gospel that way.The horrible death envisioned for the Suffering Servant and the horrific death suffered by Jesus Christ respond to the gravity of sin.
It is not accidental that Paul does not speak of forgiveness or repentance in any significant way. He chooses this other word—justification—which includes within it forgiveness as a Christian quality, a Christian act. It is a Christian act to forgive. That’s clear. But the word repentance, which is definitely missing from Paul, is even more striking. The temptation is to say that repentance is necessary before God can forgive us. The truth is the other way around. Repentance is something that God works in us as a consequence of his prevenient grace. I love the word prevenient, “going before.”
Paul interprets the four Gospels for us in a way that we would not have been able to do for ourselves.