Justification and contemporary culture

Justification and contemporary culture January 9, 2017

15692653361_7e7cf1101b_zLuther-influenced Anglican David Zahl has a brilliant article in the latest Christianity Today about Luther’s distinction between Law and Gospel and his understanding of justification by faith.  These teachings, Zahl shows, go to the very heart of what people are most struggling with today in contemporary culture:  perfectionism, the need for approval, and the futility of self-justification.

These are all symptoms of living under the law–if not God’s law, the other laws that we try to replace it with–and the new high-tech information environment only makes the symptoms worse.  (Zahl quotes a friend saying, “The internet is like the real world, only with all the forgiveness vacuumed out.”)

Luther’s breakthrough, that we do not have to justify ourselves–that is, attain perfection, or try to convince ourselves and other people that we are right and good–but that Christ justifies us, is as liberating today as it was 500 years ago.

From David Zahl, 500 Years After Luther, We Still Feel the Pressure to Be Justified | Christianity Today:

A few years ago, in response to a spate of suicides on its campus, the University of Pennsylvania put together a task force to explore the mental health of its students. What they found was tragic, but sadly unsurprising. “The pressures engendered by the perception that one has to be perfect in every academic, co-curricular, and social endeavor can lead to stress and in some cases distress,” the task force’s report said. “[I]n turn, [distress] can manifest as demoralization, alienation, or conditions like anxiety or depression. For some students, mental illness can lead to suicide.”

The mercilessness described here hints at a tragic escalation of a phenomenon experienced not just by college students, but by everyone today—the pressure to perform, to make something of oneself, to become acceptable, to make a difference in the world, to justify one’s existence. It’s a phenomenon that cannot help but reinvigorate narcissism. It throws us back on ourselves, and when we falter in some irreversible way, we inevitably view self-harm as an option.

Some wonder on this 500th anniversary whether the Reformation that Luther started is essentially over. That is, don’t we get the message already? Aren’t we all on the same page when it comes to salvation by grace through faith? The short answer appears to be no. . . .

Not surprisingly, relationships characterized primarily by law often bite the dust. In their book Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me), social psychologists Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson describe how a fixation on righteousness can choke the life out of love.

“The vast majority of couples who drift apart do so slowly, over time, in a snowballing pattern of blame and self-justification,” they write. “Each partner focuses on what the other one is doing wrong, while justifying his or her own preferences, attitudes, and ways of doing things. . . . From our standpoint, therefore, misunderstandings, conflicts, personality differences, and even angry quarrels are not the assassins of love; self-justification is.”

[Keep reading. . .A subscription is required, but you can access the article via Google] 


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