Liberation theology has become a powerful force in many mainline Protestant denominations. This teaching claims that God “does justice” by bringing an end to unjust systems that provide power for “oppressors” at the expense of the “oppressed” (see Houston 2008). Conservative American Evangelicals tend to understand justice in a more personal way. Their piety is personal and more religious in the traditional sense. It is a piety about “Jesus and me.” They define being a good Christian as being a just person, but here justice is located primarily in the church and the family rather than in massive sociological and international systems.
Lutheran theology allows one to enter into this discussion about justice without choosing sides. Lutherans should sense that there are some theological problems with the liberationists “justice” meta-narrative. Lutherans confess the doctrine of original sin. The doctrine of original sin tells us that the distinctions between the poor and the rich or the oppressed and the oppressors are merely penultimate. Before God “there is no distinction, since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:22–23). All are sinners. On the judgment day of Jesus Christ, the poor and oppressed too will have to answer for their sins alongside their oppressors.
While Liberation theology is all about justice, we Lutherans also have justice at the center of our theology. Perhaps the central passage of all Lutheran theology and all scripture is the third chapter of Romans. It states:
But now, apart from law, the righteousness of God has been disclosed, and is attested by the law and the prophets, the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction, since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God displayed as a mercy seat, effective by faith in his blood. He did this to show his righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over the sins previously committed; it was to prove at the present time that he himself is righteous and that he justifies the one who has faith in Jesus.
Luther claimed that his breakthrough came when he understood the term “the righteousness of God,” as used by Paul in Romans. He saw that the righteousness of God is the righteousness by which God makes us righteous. Out of this insight bloomed the Lutheran dogma of justification by faith.
The New Testament Greek word for “righteousness” is dikaiosune. The Old Testament Hebrew word for “righteousness,” which stands behind the New Testament understanding of righteousness, is tsadaq. Both these words and concepts can be translated either as “righteousness” or “justice.” This is also true of the Vulgate’s “iustitia Dei” (righteousness/justice of God), through which Luther learned this concept. These were also the actual words Luther used in the preface to his Latin writings, in which he described his Reformation breakthrough. The Luther Bible’s “Gerechtigkeit” works the same way. It can be translated as “righteousness” or “justice.” The traditional rendering of Luther’s “iustitia” as “righteousness” is simply the translators’ preference. The choice of the word “justice” is not necessarily a better translation than “righteousness,” but in the current theological climate, filled with claims about “justice,” it should be remembered that the Apostle Paul had his own claim about justice and this claim is at the heart of Lutheranism. As we read in Romans, God is establishing a new “justice... apart from law.” A justice based on faith in the mercy of Christ’s blood.
Romans 3 shows us that if we define God’s justice as liberation theologians do, then God has a credibility problem, i.e. we cannot have faith in him. Why? He has “passed over sins.” Because he has not delivered the justice the oppressors deserve and liberated the oppressed. God’s wrath and punishment do not work like human justice. He does not hand out punishment in accordance with the transgression as human law attempts to do (See Elert 40–43). God as a Liberationist is a failure.
So how does God demonstrate his justice? “He justifies the one who has faith in Jesus.” This is a strange justice. It is the justice of faith alone apart from works. It is a justice that comes not from our works or even from our attempts to end oppression. Instead, it comes “by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God displayed as a mercy seat, effective by faith in his blood.” This is a mercy not equated with a worldly goal but with the blood of Christ shed to forgive “all,” who “have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”
The world knows not this justice. Liberation theologians suspect this justice as being an excuse for the status quo. However, justification or being made righteous or just by faith alone is not a master form of status quo politics. God’s word of liberation from death and sin is the most revolutionary thing on earth. Robespierre, Washington, Lenin, and all other worldly revolutionaries merely rearranged the deck chairs on the Titanic compared to this. God is making a new creation with his justifying word and creating new life that no oppressor can ever take away.
Those justified by faith are free to serve their neighbors. Although the world is no longer a stage for utopian schemes for justifying ourselves, justification by faith frees our created nature, and with it our reason, to think of how to help our neighbors. And on this level, we must be thankful for Liberation theology. The Liberationists have shown us that sin does not take place merely in the realm of personal responsibility and acts but is also systemic. Merely by trying to do the right thing and live our normal daily lives, we take part in these systemic sins. This is perfectly consistent with the Lutheran claim that sin is a power that rules over us and we are unable to free ourselves from it.
In this way, liberation theology is more biblical than what I call American-Evangelical theology. American Evangelicalism reads Romans 3 as a claim that we do not have to do any good works before God to be justified save “accepting Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior.” This accounts for the inherently personal piety of conservative American Christianity. Liberation theology is a good antidote to such thinking.
God does not like pietists who spend all their time examining their own hearts trying to figure out how things are “between me and Jesus.” He wants faith in his Son, which takes us outside of ourselves into Christ. We do not participate in God’s justice by being “good Christians” who fulfill familial and local obligations. Instead, God’s justice is to make us just/righteous by faith alone. We are then free to serve our neighbors with our works. Small acts of kindness and dealing justly with those we come into contact with on a daily basis are very important. Here conservatives can remind us that all ethics, even fighting against systems, always begin on the personal level among individuals and that it is much harder to help the poor person in your neighborhood, church, or family than to be in favor of helping “the poor.” However, we can hardly claim to be fighting against the devil if we do not think big.
For example, big sins of government and rich institutions that have benefited many average people are today threatening the very stability of our society. Is it right to permanently indebt our children in an effort to prop-up the value of houses we paid too much for and in many cases could not afford? Was it right to expect 12 percent returns from the stock market for 401k plans every year? Is an economy based on credit just? Why are the rich bankers “too big to fail” but Mom and Pop stores are expendable? Sometimes conservative evangelicals can help us ask such questions also. For example, is it just that our nation kills millions of unborn children every year?
By correctly preaching God’s justice as defined by Romans 3, Lutherans announce the forgiveness of sins and eternal life. This in turn frees people for true life in this world. In this freedom, we use our reason to unmask evil in the world. We create as much human justice as we can. We are not bound to particular political agendas but are free to use true insights from wherever they come. If there is any hope for American Christianity, it is the apostolic and catholic doctrine of justification by faith alone. The Evangelical-Lutheran churches have this doctrine at their core. It is a way forward out of the liberal-conservative debate, even if many would rather reject God’s righteousness and justice in an effort to keep their own fictitious righteousness and justice.
Nicholas Hopman is Pastor of First Lutheran Church in Dollar Bay, Michigan and Grace Lutheran Church in South Range, Michigan. He is a recent graduate of Luther Seminary and is beginning graduate studies at Concordia Seminary in Saint Louis.
BibliographyElert, Werner. The Structure of Lutheranism. Walter A. Hansen, trans. St. Louis: Concordia, 1962.
Houston, Walter. Contending for Justice: Ideologies and Theologies of Social Justice in the Old Testament. New York: T&T Clark, 2008.