Martin Luther placed, “the justification of the sinner,” at the heart of his preaching and teaching because he believed that the restoration of the righteousness—the justified nature—of those who had revolted against God in sin constituted the heart of the Biblical recital of God’s interaction with human creatures after the Fall into sin. We usually associate a description of the Atonement as the vicarious satisfaction of the Law’s demand for the death of the sinner (Romans 6:23a) with Luther’s doctrine of justification. Indeed, forgiveness of sins through Christ’s death formed an essential element at the heart of Luther’s understanding of justification. But his use of Romans 4:25, “Christ was handed over into death because of our sin and rose to restore our righteousness,” often with the application of that death and resurrection to the baptized in Romans 6:3-11 and Colossians 2:11-15, opened up a number of other expressions of how the work of Christ results in the restoration of our existence as God’s children. For at its heart Luther’s understanding of “justification” meant a restoration of the perfect trust and love Adam and Eve enjoyed as the core of their nature as human beings in Eden. For Luther, justification is “humanization,” the restoration of our true humanity.
One of those other expressions found form in the concept of purification. Luther did not speak often of purification, but he recognized in baptism the cleansing power of God’s Word which washes away all that makes us feel foul and fouled, whether we have soiled ourselves or been polluted by the way others have treated or regarded us (Babylonian Captivity, LW 34: 67-68). Likewise, encountering God’s Word by reading the Bible provides believers with a practical way to cleanse the mind from grimy thinking. “Holy Scripture… refreshes a person, purging evil thoughts and introducing good thoughts. If the evil thoughts return, one should open the Book again, for Scripture is called a book of patience. The nature of this Word is to cleanse the heart and set it afire.” Therefore, Luther urged prayer along with reading the Biblical text to fend off Satan’s attacks and those of the world (Lectures on Titus, LW 29:69). Faith in Christ itself cleanses away sins because it trusts in God’s promise and produces the purity of a life of love for others (Lectures on Titus, LW 29:45-46, 67-68).
In the cartoon “Charlie Brown,” Charles Schulz sketched a character named, “Pigpen,” whose outward identity lay in the dirt covering him. Many people exult in such an identity as a way of defying others’ norms; the feeling that those with whom they have daily contact regard them as sullied and soiled. Sooner or later most come to hate being thought of as untouchable and undesirable companions. They often are possessed by feelings of shame and driven by embarrassment and humiliation to hide themselves and flee from associating with others. Shame is defined in several ways, but it always involves loss of honor and a sense of a person’s own integrity. It is said to differ from guilt because it stems not from the burden of responsibility for the way a person has acted but rather from the fear of bringing discredit to family, friends, or other associated people. Shame is also described not as the result of what we have done but of the person we are or are perceived to be. Shame can, however, arise from the recognition in my most private thoughts that I have drug myself through the mud and gladly played in the pigpen. Shame can proceed from the acknowledgement that I bear responsibility for my shameful thoughts, words, or deeds, and I dare not appear in public with my longtime acquaintances. Shame comes from comparing ourselves or being compared to the expectations and standards of those around us and finding ourselves wanting. Others cannot swallow what we say or do and, worse yet, who we are. We are not fit for consumption. No one would place us on their invitation list. However, we experience feelings of being unclean and defiled, these feelings compel us to wish we could be free of what stains, profanes, or pollutes us. We long for purging and purification. We ache to be decontaminated and cleansed.
The fear of risking interaction and the anxiety that others are mocking us and holding us in contempt produce the grief of loneliness as well as the regret that we have done something shameful. Such fears elicit distress over the fact that we have not been able to counteract the disdain and derision of others with a better presentation of who we would like to be. This drives us to strive through our own actions to prove ourselves or others wrong in their regard for us as shameful persons. Or it causes us to retreat into ourselves and experience the upsetting and paralyzing power of shame. Whether the shame stems from the abuse of others or one’s own sense of failure, whether its cause lies in our own failure to perform correctly and achieve or goals, or it stems from the exploitation and cruelty of others, shame slowly kills. Our identity elicits our own contempt for and rejection of ourselves. Shame cages and places us outside normal relationships. Our own feelings of impurity and grubbiness drive us to be outsiders, to observe what goes on around us with longing and apprehension.
Whether the shame stems from the abuse of others or one’s own sense of failure, whether its cause lies in our own failure to perform correctly and achieve or goals, or it stems from the exploitation and cruelty of others, shame slowly kills.
Jesus purifies His own and ends their identification as unfit to appear in His presence or in front of other people as the person we identify as our true self. He proclaims the untouchable embraceable. He enfolds His hurting, bruised, and broken children in His arms just as the waiting father in the parable did (Luke 15:11-24). No matter how sheepish His lambs feel when they have wandered or been lured off into the brambles of life, He lifts us gently and takes us home with Him to enjoy the free and open pastures of all the possibilities our Creator has fashioned for us. For the blood of Jesus cleanses us from all sin and all unrighteousness. He is utterly reliable and the dispenser of righteousness (1 John 1:7b-9).
Saint Paul capitalized on the cleansing power of water to repeat the idea that the promise of forgiveness and new life in baptism makes the impure pure and thus honors those who are trapped in shame. In writing to Titus, his mention of the bestowal of deliverance from unrighteousness and of purification for His people so they might do good works (Titus 2:14) leads to a description of how that conferral of righteousness and purity takes place: salvation has come by God’s mercy through the water of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit. Covered with Christ’s blood, we emerge from every encounter with the Word of promise as pure and innocent as we claim newborns to be (Titus 3:4-7). Individual believers, like the Church, have been cleansed by Christ’s washing them with water by the power of the Word. The result is this Bridegroom of ours has rendered us His own, human beings who now enjoy a beauty, radiance, or splendor—who appear to Him as having no spot or stain, no filth or blemish, without any flaw or fault (Ephesians 5:25-27).
Covered with Christ’s blood, we emerge from every encounter with the Word of promise as pure and innocent as we claim newborns to be (Titus 3:4-7).
Related to this concept of purity is that of being set apart from all besmirches and tarnishes us, the concept of holiness. As with the concept of righteousness, holiness in His human creatures is only at its best a pale and partial reflection of God’s holiness. Nonetheless, the Old Testament writers found it an apt expression for being human in the way God designed us to be human. The psalmist prayed for cleansing from all sinfulness and misbehavior which would result in a cleansed heart that would direct the entire life toward godliness and holiness (Psalm 51:2, 7-10).
What God has willed for His people and Christ accomplished for them is the bestowal of the honor He wanted to give those whom He created a little lower than the angels (Psalm 8:4-8). He clothes His chosen ones with Christ Himself in baptism (Galatians 3:27). Therefore, those who trust His judgment, that they are purified and cleansed, will strive to live purely and clean (Romans 13:14; Colossians 3:9-10). The Holy Spirit uses this trust in God’s assurance that Christ has cleansed us and restored us to holiness to enable us to keep washing away defilements of our bodies and of our spirits, so that we practice holiness in daily life (2 Corinthians 7:1). Christ bestows treasures unimaginable for the ashamed on His followers, on those whom He has made His heirs (Romans 8:17). His embrace of us as He lifts us from the filth, grime, and sludge that rightfully makes us feel shame destroys our feelings of unworthiness and disgrace and ends our humiliation. In like manner, the community of Christ’s people honors those who come to find relief from their indignity. The congregation shares the treasures Christ gives as it embraces those trapped in mortification and self-degradation.
With our identity as God’s children secure through the justifying action of Christ and the Holy Spirit’s restoration of our righteousness through His Word, the justified children of God know they have shed the soiled and tattered garments of which they rightly were ashamed. They live with the honor due their Savior, who has purged and purified them to appear in God’s presence and in the presence of others as a loving child of the Father, whose love flows through them into the contamination of the sinful world around them.