Father Booth’s Weekly Reflection

A Mere Lawyer Kept on Retainer?

Many people labor under a misunderstanding of how we will be judged by God. The first mistake is to think that the disciple of Christ will not be judged at all. In this theological error, the believer goes straight to heaven at death. The fact is that we will all be judged twice, first at the moment of our death when we are judged individually and then at the general judgment at the end of time when all of mankind is judged publicly. Both judgements render the same eternal verdict. It is either heaven or hell. Another error lies in the idea of a worldly courtroom-style judgment. That Jesus uses a legal term to refer to the Holy Spirit – Paraclete, meaning Advocate or Lawyer – leads some to think that their judgment will be like a human courtroom. If they have faith, the Holy Spirit will be their Paraclete, their Advocate, their defense lawyer. If they have faith Jesus will stand in for the accused believer and Jesus’ righteousness would be imputed (assigned or credited) to the believer. With Jesus as a substitute, with His righteousness imputed to the believer, with the Holy Spirit as a lawyer, how could the Father judge the one with faith as anything but saved?

Of course there are problems with this notion. Firstly, it separates salvation from morality. If faith alone saves, then there is no need to worry about our sins. This leads to the error of thinking that we have no requirement for personal conversion. Thus Luther could teach ‘Be a sinner and sin boldly, but believe and rejoice in Christ even more boldly.’ Serious sin and saving faith coexist? Really? This mentality also leads to the misunderstanding that there is no requirement for the virtues of hope and love. Despair or presumption, both sins against hope, can coexist with faith. Hatred or indifference, both sins against love, can also coexist with faith. With this courtroom understanding of divine judgment, a believer will be saved even if he murders others (serious sin and hatred for their brethren) and commits suicide (an act of despair against hope) either by his own hand or through suicide by cop?

The thinking that Jesus stands in the dock instead of us and that the Holy Spirit merely acts as our divine lawyer leads to a confused vision of the Trinity: Jesus will be our Judge as is evident in Matthew 25:31-46, so He can’t be on the bench and in the dock at the same time. Likewise, if the Holy Spirit is simply our lawyer present at our judgment, then there was no need for Jesus to breathe the Holy Spirit on the Apostles at Easter nor was there be any need for Pentecost at all. The Holy Spirit needs only to show up at our judgment. Really, really?

If faith alone saves, why does Jesus insist on baptism and repentance? Why does He say that we will be judged on our acts and not on our faith? Why does Jesus insist that we forgive our neighbors if we want to be forgiven? The list of errors and incongruities goes on and on and on. The better question is why do so many Christians buy into the idea of the divine courtroom where we are saved by faith that gives us the Holy Spirit as our Advocate, and by faith that supposedly gives us not actual but imputed, borrowed, righteousness? The simple answer is peace.

Luther formulated his heresy of salvation by faith alone because it brought him peace. He never felt forgiven, he never felt righteous, but he knew he had faith. It wasn’t for lack of effort on his part. Luther went to confession almost every day, sometimes spending six or more hours confessing his sins. Nevertheless, he never felt righteous or holy enough, but despite feeling unworthy he knew he had faith. What Luther fell into was a false sense of peace, a peace that was emotional more than anything else. In a certain way, it is a lack of hope that led him to seek peace in a watered-down Gospel. He trusted his feelings more than Jesus’ promises.

Indeed, Jesus promises us peace that comes from the gift of the Holy Spirit (Jn 14:26-27). That peace is promised to us as a Person, not a feeling or emotion. The world offers to give us emotional peace, but that kind of peace is quite fickle and can be taken away. Jesus gives us true peace, the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, a gift that cannot be taken away by the world. Truly, we are called to live as tabernacles of the Holy Spirit by virtue of our baptism. In other word, we should never think of the Holy Spirit as if He is like a lawyer on retainer.

—Fr Booth