Martin Luther placed “the justification of the sinner” at the heart of his preaching and teaching because he believed 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 His 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 at 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 Christ’s act of reconciliation, the restoration of relationship between two alienated persons. We have alienated ourselves from our Creator through defiance of His person and doubt of His Word. Because our relationship of fear, love, and trust with Him is essential to our humanity and our proper sense of who we are according to the Maker’s design, we have alienated us from ourselves through this disregard for our Lord and Maker. We have become aliens in our own skin.
God took this alienation so seriously that He became one of us so He Himself could deal with it. God came in Christ to reconcile us by clearing away all that obstructed and suffocated the relationship He created us to have with Him. This reconciliation took place through Jesus’ assumption of our sinfulness. He became sin for us so we might be reconciled with our Heavenly Father (2 Corinthians 5:2 18-21). Christ tore down not only the wall between Jew and Gentile but also between God and us. The wall our sin had erected vanished as His blood was poured over it (cf. Ephesians 2:14-16). For His death on the Cross established peace and good will between those in revolt against their Maker and our God; through His blood reconciliation happened. His body had not spot or wrinkle, and so He reconciled those at enmity with each other, God and sinners, and sinners among themselves (Colossians 1:19-23).
The parable of the waiting father and the prodigal son presents a classic Biblical example of reconciliation that came totally as a gift of the father. The son felt himself unworthy of anything but the lowest place in his father’s enterprise. And he was, in fact, truly unworthy even of the lowest place in the operation and he knew it. The shame which filled him blocked his return to the homestead until sheer desperation drove him there. The father set aside the son’s guilt for abusing his generosity and the fair rules of inheritance. He responded to the young man’s shame over the person he had been and become. He accepted him as one who had been found after being lost, who had come alive for the father after being dead. The father bestowed on him the signs of honor which accompany being a child of the family: suitable clothing, a celebration with the fatted calf, a ring to replace the one the son had probably pawned, and new shoes to replace those that had worn out on the long journey back home. The son proclaimed himself unworthy of inclusion in the family, and the father overruled him. He, as father, determined such things, after all! The son who had burned all his bridges found himself confronted by a bridge plopped down on his side of the gulch he had created with his selfishness and stubbornness (Luke 15:11-24).
The Latin root of “reconcile” designates both making peace and gathering people together. The German word for reconciliation (Versöhnung) refers to restoring a child, a son, to parents. Parents often display anger when children do something stupid that threatens them with harm, especially when their actions alienate them from the family. Such a reaction is natural for parents who are seeking the best for their children and they usually know best. But God overcomes the wrath He naturally feels against the destructive turning in upon ourselves that has disrupted our relationship with Him and with other human creatures, as well as the rest of Creation. The burden of the broken relationship falls heavily upon the grieving Father, but that burden crushes and smothers the rebellious children. It deprives them of the ability to seek a path for return to the truly human life. They cannot build a bridge back home.
One of the Latin words for “priest” is “pontifex,” constructed from the words for “bridge” (pons) and the root designating a maker (from the verb facere). Priests are bridge-builders. When the writer of Hebrews describes Jesus as the mediator between God and sinners with extensive reference to His assumption of the role of the Old Testament priest, he was sketching the Savior’s function as the one who has closed the gap between God and us (Hebrews 6:19-8:8:7). We opened this gap and dug it out ever deeper and broader by our practice of sin and wallowing in the prodigal’s sense of independence from the Father.
As Simon and Garfunkel once sang, Jesus is truly a bridge over the troubled water that the turmoil of our revolt against our Creator continues to stir up, so we cannot make it on our own back to our Father. We have so crippled ourselves with our defiance of Him and His way of life we cannot imagine even wanting to return to Him until the Holy Spirit lays down the Crucified and Risen Jesus as our bridge back to Him. Simon and Garfunkel described the state of sinners well in capturing their weariness and feeling of smallness, their tears in rough times, the isolation of losing friends, feeling the pain as evening’s darkness advances, and sensing how we are out on the street with no place to go. Jesus is the bridge-builder across whom we tread as the Holy Spirit leads us out of the isolation, exhaustion, pain, and darkness that both our sins and the sins of others have brought down upon our lives.
The cross of Christ has become the plank sinners must walk to return home. “Walking the plank,” is an expression for being thrown into the sea to drown. That is precisely what happens when Jesus becomes our bridge back to the peace and joy of the company of His Father and ours. Luther taught that our, “old Adam… with all sins and evil desires is to be drowned and die through daily contrition and repentance.” This prepares the way for walking across the bridge of Jesus’ cross and resurrection, so we experience how, “daily a new person comes forth and rises up to live before God in righteousness and purity forever” (Small Catechism, Baptism, fourth question). For Christ’s cross has declared what we are worth to our Creator: we are worth the Blood of the Lamb, Jesus—we are worth the very life of the second person of the Holy Trinity.
With this sense of worth, we can live before God in righteousness and purity each day, heads held high so we can see God’s world clearly, because we are secure in the company of our Lord; the Father protects His children. His protection frees us to live the life God created us to live in service to others. Reconciliation with God affirms the worth of our persons, and it banishes the inhibitions and fears, as well as the resentments and desire for revenge, which create gulches between us and those around us. On the other hand, restoration to the Father’s presence and reconciliation with Him does not mean everything will be as it was in our disrupted human relationships. But the Father’s reconciliation of us to Himself through Christ establishes and affirms our core worth as human beings.
Righteousness—being upright again as human beings in relationship to God and then to all His creatures, the “just” in “justification”—reconciles us to our Creator. The restoration of righteousness through Christ’s death and resurrection, enables us to risk reaching out to reconcile with others. It also allows us to reconcile with ourselves, the person we are now, who Christ finds lovable and even likable. For we are those whom the Father sought by sending out the Good Shepherd to seek and save the alienated and give them new status and identity as children of God.