We’re all Luther now

In a brilliant episode of NBC’s hit show The Good Place (a ynonym for heaven)a superhuman being named Michael is befuddled by the fact that no one on earth has accumulated enough “good points” to avoid eternal anguish in “the bad place.” Why has no one been worthy of the good place for centuries? Upon finding that simply buying a tomato counts as negative 12.368 points, Michael finally solves the problem:

…it’s impossible for anyone to be good enough for the Good Place… these days just buying a tomato at a grocery store means that you are unwittingly supporting toxic pesticides, exploiting labor, contributing to global warming.

As condemned character Tahani laments, it “feels like a game you can’t win.”

Our ideologically charged culture finds itself in the same unwinnable game. Leftist professor Richard Day speaks of our “infinite responsibility” by which “we can never allow ourselves to think that we are ‘done,’ that we have identified all of the sites, structures, and processes of oppression ‘out there’ or ‘in here,’ inside our own individual and group identities.” As Ozlem Sensoy and Robin DiAngelo put it, we should “work from the knowledge that the societal default is oppression; there are no spaces free from it. Thus, the question becomes, ‘How is it manifesting here?’ rather than ‘Is it manifesting here?’” If everything is unjust all the time, then we end up in the chronically frazzled state of mind described well by an ex-radical:

“Infinite responsibility means infinite guilt, a kind of Christianity without salvation: to see power in every interaction is to see sin in every interaction. All that the activist can offer to absolve herself is Sisyphean effort until burnout. Eady’s summarization is simpler: ‘Everything is problematic.’”

When an ideology has no limiting principles such that “everything is problematic,” then we end up in a state of defeat and hopelessness. If you know much about Martin Luther from the 16th century, then that state of “infinite guilt” will sound familiar. Exerting “Sisyphean effort until burnout” and reaching the conclusion that “everything is problematic” are spot-on descriptions of young Luther.

In the last 500 years, Western culture has become far less concerned about our moral standing before a holy God. But that paradigm shift from Creator to creation has done nothing to curb humanity’s need for justification. Luther was not a freak of nature for his hunger to be good, clean, holy, and justified. These needs are irrepressibly human. Just ask the Hindu in the Ganges, the Catholic in the Confessional Booth, the Muslim on his face toward Mecca, or the Jew at the Wailing Wall.

Or simply picture the activist on the social media wall. Is posting our daily outrage online just a misguided quest for justification? Elizabeth Nolan Brown cites psychological research that online moral outrage “is often a function of self-interest, wielded to assuage feelings of personal culpability for societal harms or reinforce (to the self and others) one’s own status as a Very Good Person.”

Luther understood this, remembering: “Although an impeccable monk, I stood before God as a sinner troubled in conscience, and I had no confidence that my merit would assuage him.” Today, it would be “although an impeccable activist, I stood before the woke as a sinner troubled in conscience, and I had no confidence that my merit would assuage them.” Luther lashed his own back bloody, slept without a blanket in the subzero German winters, and sat in a confessional booth six hours a day, all to earn status as “a Very Good Person.” Today we virtue-signal, we hash tag our solidarity, and we self-censor lest we utter blasphemy. This is what penance looks like in the 21st century.

Luther read Romans 1:17 and “grasped that the justice of God is that righteousness by which through grace and sheer mercy God justified us through faith.” Today’s trending ideologies offer no grace, no forgiveness, no open doors to paradise. Instead of a God willing to take the nails in our place, we face a quick-to-anger mob, ready to drive digital nails to crucify you for every sin against its ever-evolving standards of righteousness.

What if, in God’s providence, this a golden moment to be alive and proclaim the gospel? Under postmodernism it was extremely difficult for people to recognize any meaningful sense of guilt. Under post-postmodernism, guilt is the world we all inhabit. The West now feels the weight of “infinite responsibility” and “infinite guilt” in a way it hasn’t in a long time.

God’s law also brings “infinite responsibility” and “infinite guilt,” but in a way that leads us to His saving grace. In Luther’s words, “God is trying us, that by His law He may bring us to a knowledge of our impotence.” Augustine echoes, “The law was given for this purpose: to make you, being great, little; to show that you do not have in yourself the strength to attain righteousness, and for you, thus helpless, unworthy, and destitute, to flee to grace.”

Yes! “Flee to grace.” Quit doing penance before sinful creatures, and take your infinite guilt to the infinite Creator who alone has the authority to declare us “not guilty” through the death and resurrection of Jesus. That is the good news we must declare to this weary generation.

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Thaddeus Williams

Thaddeus Williams is the author of the best-selling book Confronting Injustice Without Compromising Truth: 12 Questions Christians Should Ask About Social Justice (Zondervan/HarperCollins, 2020). He serves as associate professor of systematic theology for the Talbot School of Theology at Biola University and resides in Orange County, Calif., with his wife and four kids.

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