Review: Sin Boldly: Justifying Faith for Fragile and Broken Souls (Fortress Press, 2015)

[Originally published in JLE September 2015]

[1] Ted Peters opens up the doctrine of justification by grace for Christ’s sake through faith so that we can see and appreciate how truly radical it is as he unpacks its vitality for our lives and our life in engaging this complex world. The doctrine of justification though familiar is always new and Peters helps us feel that creative energy of living in grace.

[2] As the subtitle tells us, Peters wants to speak of justification by faith in terms of “justifying faith.” The term has two meanings which, taken together, alert us to the scope of the book’s discussion. The first meaning points to the need for persons of faith to justify their embrace of faith in a secularized world that seems to get along quite well without it. Accordingly we find Peters engaging, on and off throughout the book, the aggressive new Atheists and the “spiritual but not religious.” The second meaning of justifying faith is that “…in the eyes of God we are just. It’s God’s will that our daily lives be imbued from dawn until dusk with love, compassion, care, and the pursuit of justice in an unjust world.” (xxiv) This statement of the second meaning tells us in advance that Peters will not rest with a simply forensic interpretation of justification by faith. Rather, as the book goes on to forcefully show, justifying faith in this sense is a total way of life marked by the indwelling of the Christ through whom we are justified. It is this second meaning that speaks directly to the “fragile soul” and provides spiritual substance for the care required seek the healing of the “broken soul.”

[3] The fragile soul is the person who lives in the anxiety born of the fear that there is really nothing at the center of one’s life – I’m thinking a deep sense of possible unworthiness. Be that as it may the “spiritual duct tape” used by the fragile soul to keep it together and reassure itself is self-justification through some form of legalism or perfectionism responsive to what is thought to be a “moral universe” that can provide the ground for self-justification. “By applying self-justifying duct tape, the soul attempts to defend its inner fragility through simply declaring itself to be just good, and right.” (35) Sadly, the rigidity, moralism, fundamentalism, and absolutism of the churches in our society only serve to feed the drive for self-justification.

[4] The robust soul, by contrast, “…includes gratitude for God’s grace and, out of this gratitude, feels the fire of compassion for a world in need of grace. Rather than absorb a moral universe into his or her soul, the robust person of faith makes the neighbor’s agenda into his or her own agenda…The presence of Christ within the robust soul breaks forth like a spring rose in color and beauty.” (36) The contrast between our self-justification and God’s gracious justification of us is “the hinge on which everything in this book swings.” (199)

[5] Peters turns to a probing discussion of our love for justice, illuminating in the process the “political use of the law.” Justice when born of love and mercy for the benefit of the neighbor and the common good is truly healthy. However, the love of justice, when incorporated into our moral universe as a path of self-justification is the opposite. Restorative justice, for example, is to serve the victims not for the aggrandizement of one’s self or some institution. “Justice is a serial killer,” Peters says provocatively. We cannot only use it as a fatal pretense for our own righteousness but also as a justification for “killing” in warfare or metaphorically in the realm of economic competition. For the robust soul in healthy pursuit of justice out of love of neighbor the task may require some “bold sinning.” But more on that later.

[6] A key mechanism for self-justification is to draw a line between those or that which is good and those or that which is evil and to place oneself on the good side and those others on the evil side. In this way one can distinguish oneself or one’s cause or one’s nation from the morally inferior other. Thus, the spiritual but not religious justify themselves by placing themselves on that side of the line which represents a higher standard of justice than that practiced by religious folk. A similar tack is taken by the Atheists. But this is everyone’s tendency in common parlance and it prevails in the justifications of military and political life. One is reminded of Reinhold Niebuhr’s essay on tribalism as a source of human beings inhumanity to each other. (Man’s Nature and His Communities) Peters is simply saying that this device of self-justification is a part of everyday life.

[7] If a legalistic ethic that invites self-justification (duct tape for the fragile soul) is an illusory alternative to what is truly eternal for the soul, what is the ethic born of justifying faith? What is the ethic for bold sinners? Before we get the answer, Peters offers another provocative thought, namely that ethicists are evil! As an ethicist that caught my attention. What he seems to be saying is that ethics can and often does draw lines between good and evil in such a way that we may justify violence in the name of the right and the good. Jesus, he says, does not ask us to be moral or just but, rather, to stop the cycle of violence. The culprit is ethics as a form of self-justification. So it fits that he sees everything in his book as an interpretation of the parable of the self-justifying Pharisee and the repentant and suppliant Tax Collector. What then? We pursue justice and righteousness as sinners reaching out to sinners. “Saved sinners make good ethicists because they sin boldly.” So, all ethicists who live that description as an existential reality may continue to do ethics!

[8] “Sin boldly” is, of course, a phrase from Luther’s advice to Melanchthon. It recognizes that we are a sinful people living in a sinful world whose justification is in Christ alone but who are nonetheless called on and empowered to live the ethic of neighbor love that Jesus commended. We know that imperfection, ambiguity, and mixed motives will dog our best efforts but in the confidence of our acceptance in Christ we sin boldly, earnestly seeking the good of our neighbors and our world.

[9] Peters for his part captures the ambiguity of the ethical task in our world of imperfection in his embrace of “proleptic ethics.” The Christian ethical vocation of faith active in love seeking justice is energized by the promise of the complete triumph of love and justice in God’s future, the Kingdom of God, which draws us to it. That future is present to us as grace for the way while this penultimate present remains a broken world. Living propleptically in the future present we sin boldly in the reality of our not yet world.

[10] A feature of self-justification is the use of scapegoats who are on the evil side of the line. This can be illustrated by the dreadful historical examples of Christians cursing Jews. Perhaps the scapegoat that is the demonized enemy unites the country. We purify ourselves as a nation by vilifying the scapegoat/enemy. Those are the visible scapegoats but there are also invisible scapegoats who are not the enemy but are one of us whose death sanctifies the nation. For this role Peters nominates the American soldier who dies for us that we might live. Lurking in the patterns of scapegoating is the national temptation to develop a messiah complex and see itself as savior of the world.

[11] Peters then takes us from the fragile soul to the broken soul and the phenomenon of moral injury. Moral injury among veterans of combat is a matter that has gained an increasing amount of attention in recent years along with concern for the healing of these wounded warriors.

The soul breaks because the moral universe disintegrates and evaporates. The atrocities which our soldiers commit or watch are so overwhelming that belief in a moral universe loses its credibility. Witnessing the writhing and terror of the vict​ims of torture, sniping, massacre, drone bombing, and wanton murder destroys both the metaphysical justice above and the moral soul within. The result is anomie, anarchy, mania, disintegration, and finally suicide. (262)

Peters recognizes that no simple forensic rendering of justification will heal the broken soul. That requires the presence of others who can create a place of trust, especially those who share similar experiences. Healing, if possible will take time.

[12] Peters’ discussion of faith as belief and trust offers seven features of faith that distinguish faith in the God of Jesus from other objects of faith: “1. Faith responds to God’s Word. 2. Faith recognizes that God is gracious. 3. Faith believes. 4. Faith trusts. 5. Faith experiences the risen Jesus Christ dwelling in one’s soul. 6. Faith sins boldly in love. 7. Faith seeks understanding.” (275) In discussing these seven features Peters makes very clear that, while faith may be an admirable human work or virtue, it does not save; God alone justifies.

[13] Peters’ discussion of the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification provides us with a helpful distinction between Lutherans who favor a forensic model of justification in which it is extra nos and those who favor the model of justification that posits and affirms the indwelling of Christ in the justified. The latter model, which distinguishes but emphasizes the close relation of justification and sanctification, is closer to the Roman Catholic and Orthodox traditions. As he later points out, sanctification like justification is by grace and, though they are distinguished, in real life we live with a “messy mixture.” Peters also makes what he believes is a uniquely Lutheran point that love of neighbor in the Christian life is for the neighbor not as a means to the end of the sanctification of the believer. There is no end but the neighbor when it comes to self-giving love that seeks no reciprocity.

[14] The Christian life is for Peters the life of Beatitude. He shares with us his views on the implications of Jesus beatitudes for the Christian life in today’s world (Matt. 5:3-9). He sees them as proleptic in structure. They are expressions, however fragmentary or incomplete, of the presence of God’s gracious future. They anticipate the righteousness of that future that determines the significance of the present. They reveal the character of the Christian life. They are the gift of God.

[15] Peters’ book is both scholarly and conversational. His prose is lively and at times fun. He draws on an impressive number of classical and contemporary sources inside and outside Lutheranism and from the ranks of philosophy, both ancient and modern. His long and ongoing history of dialogue with the culture enables him to provide a wealth of illustrations for the points he make along the way. Peters develops his arguments with admirable thoroughness. He is a mature theologian whose own theological stamp is unmistakably present throughout the book. This is a fine book born of long thoughtful experience.

James M. Childs is Joseph A. Sittler Emeritus Professor of Theology and Ethics at Trinity Lutheran Seminary in Columbus Ohio.

James M. Childs

James M. Childs is Joseph A. Sittler Emeritus Professor of Theology and Ethics at Trinity Lutheran Seminary in Columbus Ohio.