Justice and the need to speak about Jesus.

The argument over the summer about Ofqual’s ill-fated use of an algorithm to help determine this year’s A level results is interesting, among other reasons, because of what it tells about our society’s commitment to justice.

If we ask what the argument was about, the answer is that that the issue as stake was how best to ensure that those who had taken A levels got the grades they deserved for the effort they had put into their studies.

The reason that Ofqual decided to use an algorithm was to try to ensure that in, the absence of A level exams as a result of the Covid 19 pandemic, reliance on the A level grades predicted by teachers did not result in higher than normal grades being awarded to pupils taking their A levels this year. This, it was argued, would be unjust because it would give these pupils an unfair advantage in relation to other pupils who took their A levels in the past, or who would take their A levels in the future. The algorithm  was designed to prevent this unjust outcome by adjusting pupils’ predicted grades so that the grades awarded to pupils from a particular school or college were in line with those achieved by pupils from that school or college in previous years.

By contrast, the reason why there were protests against the A level results was the conviction that the use of the algorithm meant that those pupils who had legitimately outperformed pupils from previous years were not being awarded the grades their efforts deserved. They were being given lower grades than they deserved because of  the historic performance of their school or college and this was regarded as unjust because in did not take the efforts of particular individuals into account.

Regardless of which side of the argument was correct, what is clear is that both sides were motivated by the belief that justice ought to be done. The argument was not about whether justice should be done, but about how justice might best be achieved in this particular case.

What this fact illustrates is that our society still believes that justice ought to be done and that it views justice in terms of ‘giving to each their due’ as the Roman writer Ulpian famously put it. Thus, A level pupils ought to be given the grades they deserve, workers ought to be given a just reward for the work they have put in, and criminals ought to be punished for the crimes they have committed.

What our society is much less clear about, however, is the justification for the belief that justice ought to be done. Most people take the correctness of this belief for granted, but its correctness is not in fact obvious. If it is the case, as the opinion formers in our society have increasingly argued for the last hundred and fifty years or so, that the material world (‘nature’) is all that there is then there is no adequate reason for thinking that we have an obligation to do justice. Nature, after all, is not in the slightest bit interested in whether we do justice or not.

The only rational basis for our belief that we should do what is just is if there is a perfectly wise and perfectly good power outside of nature who in his perfect wisdom and goodness intentionally created us to behave in a just way. Only if this is the case does our ineradicable belief that we ought to behave justly make sense. We have an obligation to behave justly because this is the way we were created to behave.

Over the centuries the Christian faith has consistently testified that this supernatural power (which it calls God) does exist. What it is has also said, however, is that God’s existence is something that should make us very afraid. The reason this is the case is because at the end of time God will ensure that justice is done to us by passing judgement on how we have behaved during the course of our lives.

The belief that God will pass final judgement on his human creatures necessarily follows once we grant that our sense of justice comes from God. If our sense that people should get what they deserve is correct, because God given, it follows that God also holds that people should get what they deserve and will therefore take action to ensure that they do. The Christian language about the last judgement simply says that God will take that action.

The reason why the prospect of the last judgement should make us very afraid is that what we all deserve to receive at the last judgement is condemnation. If God is perfectly wise he will see past the lies we tell others and ourselves and see us as we really are, and what he will see is that, in the words of the Church of England’s Book of Common Prayer, ‘We have left undone those things which we ought to have done, and we have done those things which we ought not to have done, and there is no health in us.’  As a result, if he is truly just, it appears that God must condemn us for our lack of justice. Our multiple failures to behave as we ought mean that we have not fulfilled our moral obligations either to other human beings, or to God, and if God’s final verdict on us is to be a just one it must surely reflect this fact.

In the words of C S Lewis:

‘…if there does exist an absolute goodness it must hate most of what we do . This is the terrible fix we are in . If the universe is not governed by an absolute goodness, then all our efforts are in the long run hopeless. But if it is, then we are making ourselves enemies to that goodness every day, and are not in the least likely to do any better tomorrow, and so our case is hopeless again . We cannot do without it, and we cannot do with it. God is the only comfort, He is also the supreme terror: the thing we must need and the thing we most want to hide from. He is our only possible ally, and we have made ourselves His enemies.’[1]

The question that then arises is whether there is any way out of this ‘terrible fix.’ The answer that the Christian faith gives is that there is. In the words of the apostle Paul, it tells us that God ‘is a just God and that He justifies every Man who has faith in Jesus Christ’[2]  What Paul is saying is that God himself is just, and that he also declares that everyone who has faith in Jesus is likewise just (which is what the word ‘justifies’ means).

At first sight this statement by Paul seems to make no sense. How can God be just and yet also declare that those who have faith in Jesus are just, when in reality they, like everyone else, are necessarily unjust for the reasons we have noted above?  Isn’t Paul in fact saying that God acts unjustly?

However, God can in fact be just and also declare that those who are united to Jesus Christ are likewise just because, as Paul also wrote: ‘God caused Christ, Who himself knew nothing of sin, actually to be sin for our sakes, so that in Christ we might be made good with the goodness of God.’[3] In other words, an exchange has taken place in which Christ took upon himself the sinfulness which is the result of our injustice, and we obtained God’s own goodness in its place. Through faith we participate in this exchange.

As Martin Luther explains in his treatise The Freedom of a Christian, the reason why this is the case is because faith ‘unites the soul with Christ as a bride is united with her bridegroom’ with the result that ‘everything they have they hold in common, the good as well as the evil.’[4] It follows, writes Luther, that:

‘The believing soul can boast of and glory in whatever Christ has as though it were its own, and whatever the soul has Christ claims as his own. Let us compare these and we shall see inestimable benefits. Christ is full of grace, life, and Salvation. The soul is full of sins, death, and damnation. Now let faith come between them and sins, death, and damnation will be Christ’s, while grace, life and salvation will be the soul’s; for if Christ is a bridegroom, he must take upon himself the things which are his brides and bestow upon her the things that are his. If he gives her his body and very self, how shall he not give her all that is his? And if he takes the body of the bride, how should he not take all that is hers?’[5]

According to Luther, this understanding of the relationship between Christ and the believer gives us:  

‘…. a most pleasing vision not only of communion but of a blessed struggle and victory and salvation and redemption. Christ is God and man in one person. He has neither sinned nor died, and is not condemned, and he cannot sin, die, or be condemned; his righteousness, life, and salvation are unconquerable, eternal, omnipotent. By the wedding ring of faith he shares in the sins, death, and pains of hell which are his bride’s . As a matter of fact, he makes them his own and acts as if they were his own and as if he himself had sinned; he suffered, died, and descended into hell that he might overcome them all. Now since it was such a one who did all this, and death and hell could not swallow him up, these were necessarily swallowed up by him in a mighty duel; for his righteousness is greater than the sins of all men, his life is stronger than death, his salvation more invincible than hell. Thus the believing soul by means of the pledge of his faith is free in Christ, its bridegroom, free from all sins, secure against death and hell, and is endowed with the eternal righteousness, life, and salvation of Christ its bridegroom.’ [6]

All this being the case, the believer can view the prospect of the final judgement in hope, not because of what they are like, or what they have done, but because of what Jesus Christ has done for them. They can be confident that because they possess through faith the eternal righteousness of Christ they need not feat that God will reject them on the last day. To quote Paul again:

‘If God is for who can be against us? He that did not hesitate to spare his own Son but gave Him up for us all – can we not trust such a God to give us, with Him, everything else we can need?

Who dares accuse us now? The Judge Himself has declared us free from sin. Who is in a position to condemn?’[7]

The challenge for the contemporary Church is to make the truth about the justice God has made available for us through the work of Jesus Christ better known in a society that has forgotten about it, or has never heard of it.  The Church today is strong when it comes to emphasising the need for social, economic, political and, particularly today, racial justice, and it is right that it should stress the importance of these matters. Where it less strong, however, is in warning people about where they stand before God, and their need to put their faith in Jesus Christ in order to share in his justice and so avoid condemnation by God at the last judgement.

What the Church needs to understand is that the greatest obligation anyone has towards others is the obligation to tell them about their need for Jesus and the salvation he offers. We need to speak up about matters of temporal justice, but we need to speak up about Jesus even more. The supreme justice we owe others is to enable them to attain the right relationship with God for which they were created and they can only attain this relationship if we tell them about Jesus.

M B Davie  14.9.2020

[1] C S Lewis, Mere Christianity (Glasgow: Fontana, 1984), p.37.

[2] Romans 3:26 in J B Phillips, Letters to Young Churches (Glasgow: Fontana, 1968), p.27.

[3] 2 Corinthians 5:21 in Phillips, p.100.

[4] Martin Luther, The Freedom of a Christian in Three Treatises (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1978), p. 286.

[5] Luther, p.286.

[6] Luther, pp.286-287.

[7] Romans 8:31-33 in Phillips, p. 38.