A blog post by Jesse Weiss
Recently, a group of young adults that are serving as camp staff this summer got into a fairly deep conversation about salvation and the question of God’s justice. Their conversation was good, but it was grounded more in cliché answers than in theological understandings. As we further explored the issue of a just God, not only for their own understandings but also for their roles in the lives of our campers, we tried to gain a better understanding of “justice.”
It seems to me that our cultural understanding of justice is based on the premise that you get what you deserve; that if you do “x,” you deserve “y” and that the punishment should fit the crime. We become so accustomed to viewing the world and our interactions with humans with this understanding that we try and understand God in the same way.
When we try to understand God in light of our human understanding, things get messy. We encounter tough questions while working with youth and young adults: how can a loving God condemn people to hell? Why did Jesus have to die? Do bad people go heaven? Why do bad things happen to good people?
Our old friend Martin Luther has some good things to say that I think form the basis for how we navigate these murky waters in his book, “Bondage of the Will.” Basically he says that we can’t think of God’s justice in the same terms as our human understanding of justice. If we understand God as divine, as “wholly incomprehensible and inaccessible to (human) understanding,” then we must understand God’s justice in the same way.
Luther goes on to give three “lights” through which we can view the murky theological waters and begin to understand our relationship with God: the light of nature, the light of grace, and the light of glory.
The light of nature shows us the reality of the world in which we live: that sometimes bad things happen to good people and that sometimes bad people prosper.
The light of grace shows us God’s response to nature: that because we are bound to sin and cannot free ourselves through our own actions, God must act on our behalf.
But, even though these are brought to light, when we apply our own human understanding of justice, God can still seem unjust.
The light of glory, therefore, is necessary to understand the future action of God: that one day God’s action will totally be revealed to us. That one day, instead of a God “to whom alone belongs a justice that is incomprehensible,” we will come to understand a God “whose justice is most righteous and evident.”
We are called to trust in the future revelation of God’s glory, knowing that then God’s justice will be fully understood. When our youth and young adults approach us with the tough questions of a seemingly unjust God instead of turning to cliché answers or trying to sweep them under the rug, we can turn to the lights of nature, grace, and glory.
We can study God’s word and reflect on our experiences to gain a better understanding of human nature and God’s grace. We can be real and honest about the fact that it doesn’t always make sense to us. But we can trust in God’s promises and know that one day these things will be revealed. In the meantime, we are called to live out our calling as those chosen and loved by God, for the sake of God and our neighbors.
Jesse Weiss is the Program Director at Luther Point Bible Camp in Grantsburg, Wisc. He graduated from Luther Seminary with a Master of Arts in Congregational Mission and Leadership in 2012. He is passionate about outdoor ministry and how this ministry can encourage people to be active in God’s mission in the world.