Monday, May 24, 2010

The Judge Judges in our Place

It is a well-known but easily misapplied tenet of Christianity that we should not judge others. One of the ways that Christians combat this is to remember to judge ourselves first. This humble approach is commendable, and is in fact a kind of foundation on which popular variations of tolerance and philosophical variations of self-criticism are built. But when it comes to the internal meaning of the Christian life, it does not go far enough.

Yes, the New Testament tells us to judge ourselves lest we be judged, and to consider others better than ourselves, but when we lose our Christian moorings on this we tend toward the inward spiral of self-criticism instead of hearing in it the fulfilment of the Psalmist's "search me O God and know my heart . . . . and lead me in the way everlasting."

Karl Barth brought this home to me in a very prolific and personal way not too long ago -- and as I've been going over my notes from his Doctrine of Reconciliation I've been reminded of the way I was first taken aback. In a section titled "The Judge Judged in Our Place", he writes about Jesus as not only the substitutionary sacrifice, but also the substitutionary judge. Guilt-ridden evangelical that I am -- addicted to and troubled by the psychological self-enclosed spiral of introspection and release (but seeing a worse alternative in oblivious self-deception) -- this came as a great revelation to me:

The fact that Jesus Christ judges in our place means an immeasurable liberation and hope. The loss which we always bewail and which we seem to suffer means in reality that a heavy and indeed oppressive burden is lifted from us when Jesus Christ becomes our Judge.

It is a nuisance, and at bottom an intolerable nuisance, to have to be the man who gives sentence. It is a constraint always to have to be convincing ourselves that we are innocent, we are in the right. It is similarly an affliction always to have to make it clear to ourselves so that we can cling to it that others are in one way or another in the wrong, and to have to rack our brains how we can make it clear to them, and either bring them to an amendment of their ways or give them up as hopeless, withdrawing from them or fighting against them as the enemies of all that is good and true and beautiful. . . .

[I]f we eat of this tree we must die. We are all in process of dying from this office of judge which we have arrogated to ourselves. It is, therefore, a liberation that it has come to pass in Jesus Christ that we are deposed and dismissed from this office because He has come to exercise it in our place. What does that mean but that at one stroke the whole of the evil responsibility which man has arrogantly taken to himself is taken from him?

It is no longer necessary that I should pronounce myself free and righteous. It is no longer necessary that even if only in my heart I should pronounce others guilty. Neither will help either me or them in the very least. Whatever may be the answer to the question of their life and mine, at any rate it no longer needs to be given by me. To find it and to pronounce it is no longer my office or in any way my concern. I am not the Judge. Jesus Christ is Judge. The matter is taken out of my hands. And that means liberation.

A great anxiety is lifted, the greatest of all. I can turn to other more important and more happy and more fruitful activities. I have space and freedom for them in view of what has happened in Jesus Christ. And that also means hope. I have good cause to fear before the true Judge, who is not I. When I think of Him I may have fears for others. But . . . . in fear before the Judge on whose good and redemptive will I can already count, whose decision I can look forward to with trust whatever it may be, in whose hands I can know that my own case and that of others is at least safe. In a fear, therefore, which at bottom is hope.

He who knows about myself and others as I never could or should do, will judge concerning me and them in a way which is again infinitely more just than I could ever do-and judge and decide in such a way that it will be well done. Indeed, in such a way that it is well done, this real Judge having already decided at the point when the Word became and was flesh. And whatever the decision may be, I have reason to look forward to its disclosure with terror, but with a terror-stricken joy.

- Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics IV/1, 234-235


Stewart said...

I love this side of grace...yet i struggle with passages such as 1 Cor. 5 where we are instructed to "judge those inside the church" (NLT) and 1 Cor. 11:31-34 where we are instructed to "examine ourselves" (NLT). This tension of being justified but not fully sanctified (ie without sin) is what we constantly battle down here, and to remove this necessity of personal discernmen (if you will) does disservice to God's wondeful grace. Or am i missing something here? Yes rejoice in the grace of God right now, but also be on guard constantly for that ugly rearing up of the sin nature.

Jon Coutts said...

I think this is better thought of as coming under God's judgement together, and discerning that in its particularity together, rather than as judging in itself.