Martin Luther placed “the justification of the sinner” at the heart of his preaching and teaching. He did so because he believed that the bestowal of 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 the essential element at the heart of Luther’s understanding of justification. But his use of several Bible passages, especially 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 for “justification” found form in the Small Catechism. The traditional English translation of the passive participle “erworben” (“purchased”) is not wrong. Nonetheless, it is a rather narrow definition, especially in view of Luther’s immediate insistence that what Christ’s saving action has accomplished is not a “gold and silver” transaction, as Peter already had pointed out (1 Peter 1:18). The full meaning of “erworben” also embraces “acquiring possession” by other means than cash on the barrelhead. We do say how those fallen in battle “paid the price” of the cost for freedom, but this is a different kind of payment than the purchase of their equipment and weaponry by their quartermaster. Christ paid the price of the lamb of sacrifice in the Old Testament, which did not leave the altar after donating so much blood in exchange for so many sins. Blood sacrifice was sacrifice to the death, as the Law demands from sinners.
“Erworben” in the Small Catechism refers to Christ’s “acquiring possession of” us. Luther goes on to explain why acquiring possession of sinners and winning lordship over them was so important for Jesus. He intended to “make us His own” or have us “belong to Him.” This means being safely ensconced under His protective rule and the governance He provides, with joyful service that brings blessings of all kinds, even in the midst of adversity and turmoil in our lives.
This restoration of righteousness Christ accomplished for us means we have a place where the most important person, our God and Savior, knows our name and never forgets it. This place called, “being at home with God,” is the place where, as Robert Frost described home, we will be taken in when we have no place else to go. Home is indeed where our hearts come to rest under the safety and care which God’s rule provides.
Belonging to Christ means we have a place where we fit, a resting place where we are at peace because we know our Lord accepts us as His own. He has reclaimed us from Satan and places us securely among His people in the safety provided by His wings (Psalm 17:8; Matthew 23:37). For He has connected with us by becoming one of us, sharing our flesh, blood, bones, and skin, sharing our tears and hunger, our pains and agonies. He has become one with us to restore us to His family.
Fifty years ago, in the West, we sneered at the East Germans and others in Soviet-occupied lands, observing how everything in their society depended on having the proper “connections”—instead of the quality of their own work. But throughout the world much depends on the connections we have with others, for, as God Himself observed, “it is not good for human creatures to be alone” (Genesis 2:18). God wants His people to be properly connected. This means the main cable supplying the energy necessary for life runs from His love to our hearts.
Our hearers have sought homes in many strange places. Many estranged places are looking for new residents to fill the empty spaces occupied by others who seek four walls to frame their lives but do not know who alone truly supplies the only framework for fulfilling human living. These families gather around false parental figures or try to live with each sibling for him or herself, but the house must be so big for such a plan to work that it only brings loneliness inside. Our glorification of the rights of every individual for his or her own space and elbow room means we never stand shoulder to shoulder with anyone when trouble threatens. There is no one left to fold us into his or her arms when tragedy strikes. The kind of free space many U.S.-Americans seek today becomes nothing more than nothing left to lose.
God is the only truly safe house when we flee from whatever pursuers may be chasing us (Psalms 9:9, 32:7, 46:1, 91:1-2, 9-10). David longed for the dwelling place the Lord provides (Psalm 91:1-2, 9-12). Israel yearned to return to its Promised homeland (Psalm 137:1-6). All knew that in their various circumstances home is always where God is. As good as God’s earth is in the eyes of those who know their own culture is their father’s property, Paul reports that commonwealth in Heaven belongs to us, which means we belong in it already as we await the Lord’s return (Philippians 3:20).
Nonetheless, those whom God has brought into His family and gathered around His Supper table as their home, are quite content to live in a fallen world in need of their light and salt. Those who have been bruised by broken relationships and lost family and friends while seeking other homes on this earth find human life on earth is not quite so bad as they had thought because God has come as Jesus of Nazareth. He came to share our hurts and our joys, and His creative hand continues to supply in the context of this earth.
A friend of mine objects to thinking of the Church as “family” since no congregation can really perform all the functions God designed family life to provide. But for those who have craved belonging and have coveted friendships they remember from childhood or observe in neighbors or fellow workers, the practice of the Gospel among members of Christ’s body in our congregations can give an important glimpse into the Gospel itself. Our life together in the congregation affirms Christ has made Himself a friend of sinners, of those whom others have found unlovable, unacceptable, uninteresting, or even intolerable. Even though the congregation does not serve as a complete substitute for birth family or a vanished circle of friends, it can at least serve as a place where respect and concern intrude on fear and suspicion born of a need to protect oneself. Preaching can cultivate in members of the body of Christ gathered in a place a sense of how to take every other human being seriously in the midst of her or his isolation. Together, pastor and people can practice opening little cracks in hard shells of protection that people who experience rejection and rebuff construct to shield and shelter themselves.
The hearers of a typical sermon in North America today include those who have experienced alienation from family, friends, co-workers, and neighbors. Some need to hear and recognize their own fault in the breaking of relationships, but also how this fault has been claimed by Jesus Christ for a place in His tomb, hidden from both the sight of the Father and from their own sight. They, like the victims of others’ rejection and abuse, need to hear how their Heavenly Father has made a place for them at His Supper table. They long to know Christ has gone searching for them as lost, disoriented lambs who are experiencing thorns and thickets of many kinds (John 10:14-16).
He created us to live in fellowship and communion with Him, just as He enjoyed daily conversation with Adam and Eve in Eden. And it is He who recreates us by drawing us into His family. There He gives us a place to be at home with Himself, our Heavenly Father, in the company of siblings of all nations and tongues. He has destined His people to be gathered together around Him singing His praises (Revelation 7:9-17). That is His immediate offer and gift as He gathers the lonely and alienated into His congregations of those whom He has made His family. This offer remains valid and this gift belongs to all whom He calls to belong to Him.
Incorporation into God’s family through Christ’s claiming us with His promise is only one way of bringing home the good news with which our Lord changes our identities and our lives. It is an expression of the Gospel of Christ which rings true and hits home with many in our individualistic and isolating society. For we all need that place where the most important person in our lives knows our names and will take us in, even when we have other places we think we can go. Only with Him, as His possession, do we find our true home.