“The ‘differentia specifica’ which distinguishes representation from substitution…[is] the perspective of time. Representation regards man from the standpoint of time. It gains time for man who is for the moment incapacitated…The chief thing which God does for us is to give us time, new and real time for living.” (“Christ the Representative”)
As our representative before God, Christ does not substitute for us: he does not take away our responsibility to fulfil the divine will to humanize humanity. “The mediation of Christ…is the restitution of man as God’s free and active agent in God’s humanizing purpose” (Jose Miguez Bonino).
Through his life, ministry, death and resurrection, Christ gains time and historical space for people to participate fully in the completion of the divine purpose. Christ inaugurates the new covenant, which does not abrogate but fulfils the divine-human partnership in the active care for the neighbour, society and history. In the passion and death of Christ, the intimate participation of God in human death sealed the renewal of the divine-human partnership, and enabled the practice of altruistic self-denial to become fully humanizing.
Justification through Christ means forgiveness of sins. The offer of forgiveness and the call to repentance, however, should be understood in close connection with the historical mission of Jesus to proclaim God’s Kingdom, preach good news to the poor, liberate the oppressed, and heal the infirm and the broken-hearted (Luke 4:18, 4:40-44, 5:17-26, 13:1-17).
In fulfilling his mission, Jesus opposed the dehumanizing legalism and greed of the religious and politico-economic authorities. He showed that the forgiveness of sins calls for the comprehensive healing of persons and the courageous transformation of ruined lives and stark historical conditions. Forgiveness is not only individual, and sin is not a private or one-person reality. Sin can be public or interpersonal but never private.
The redemptive mission of Jesus to liberate those who are oppressed reveals the non-private reality of sin. To sin is to dehumanize or, more concretely, to oppress the neighbour. To sin is indeed to hurl an insult at God, but the insult does not immediately reach God. The insult reaches God through the nearest and densest mediation of the divine presence. This nearest and densest mediation is the Son-present-in-the-persons-of-the-lowliest-children-of-God (Matthew 25:34-45).
To sin, to insult God, is to oppress anybody of our fellow sons and daughters of God, especially the poor and the lowly outsiders. The sinful condition is oppressive both to others and to oneself. At the heart of sinful oppression is a mistrust of the other’s God-given capability to offer and receive love. Through a deep mistrust of the God-given love-ability of the other(s), sinners mistrust God, and thus sin is unbelief.
The deep mistrust of both neighbour and God leads either to despair or to an excessive trust in one’s own capabilities or in the products of one’s capabilities. Thus, the sinful condition, this deep mistrust, leads often to idolatry, either self-idolatry or the idolatry of man-made effects such as money, the free market, or the national security doctrine. The forgiveness of sins through God’s Son involves the deep infusion of trust, liberation from oppression, and the downfall of idolatry.
To become God’s liberating representative among us, the Son was fully incarnated and humanized within history. His life, death and resurrection is a perfect incarnation of divine Word and Power. According to Miguez, this was not “a sort of abrupt departure from God’s ‘normal’ way of dealing with human life and reality. On the contrary, the Incarnation becomes the clue for understanding all of God’s dealings with human history and with the whole of world reality.” (“Christian Political Ethics”) The Incarnation definitively reaffirms the divine will to act through human means and to favour the meaningful autonomy of history.
This incarnational perspective challenges pastors and theologians to develop a down-to-earth sensitivity to actual human needs, struggles, and potentials. It also deepens our understanding of divine omnipotence and transcendence. According to Miguez:
“When we say that God is all-powerful, we do not mean that he substitutes for us, or prevents the existence of evil with a decree. And while he reserves the freedom to definitively save his plan from failure, he still retains the capacity and patience to continue working and to complete his plan – that is our gift – throughout the frustrations and sufferings of history.” (“Room To Be People”)
Divine omnipotence empowers but does not overpower human activity and contextual freedom. Furthermore, as in the crucifixion, divine power chooses not to magically or automatically overrule human injustice. After every human tragedy, the living Word encourages us to begin anew, for divinity is a powerful persistence that aims not only to change things but more so to form full-fledged persons, who can be humanized and personalized only in concrete struggles and contextual freedom.