“Luther’s doctrine of justification has frequently been attacked for being monotonous, empty, and even obsessive.” So notes Oswald Bayer in his article, “Justification as the Basis and Boundary of Theology.”
GES’s emphasis on the promise of everlasting life has faced the same criticism.
Bayer continues to explain that Emmanuel Swedenborg caricatured Lutherans in this way: “the Lutheran is locked up in a darkened room his entire life. Pacing back and forth in the room, unable to see anything, he searches for light by repeating only one sentence to himself: ‘I am justified by faith alone; I am justified by faith alone; I am justified by faith alone!’”
I’m sure that’s what we sound like to many people—obsessed with the promise of life and therefore shut out from the real world.
But in his article, Bayer explains why the opposite is true. “Justification is not a separate topic apart from which still other topics could be discussed. Justification is the starting point for all theology and it affects every other topic” (emphasis his). Knowing that we are justified by faith apart from works affects our entire approach to existence.
For example, Bayer ties justification to creation. He says there are two basic approaches to creation—by works, or apart from works. People today think they can create themselves, just as they think they can save themselves: “The modern human being thinks of himself, from beginning to end, as a doer and maker. In the terms of Karl Marx, a human being produces him- or herself through work.”
By contrast, Bayer notes that God created the world out of nothing: “Creation out of nothing means that all that is exists out of pure goodness; it is unmerited.” How does creation out of nothing connect to justification? Just as the world cannot create itself, neither can man save himself. The same God who creates the world out of nothing also creates the new man out of nothing. Creation and new-creation are both received as a gift. There is nothing you did to earn the former, and there is nothing you can do to earn the latter.
In other words, far from being an isolated or isolating doctrine, justification (or the promise of eternal life) is tied to the very motif of creation itself. It does not cut us off from the world, but reminds us of the world’s true nature as a gift from God.