Once upon a time, the label evangelical identified those who were committed not only to historic Christianity but to the doctrine of justification by grace alone through faith alone because of Christ alone. In our day, however, that can no longer be taken for granted. Increasingly, evangelical scholarship is challenged by trends in biblical studies (especially the New Perspective on Paul) to abandon the Reformation’s understanding of justification. Recent ecumenical rapprochements (such as the Lutheran-Roman Catholic Joint Declaration on Justification and “Evangelicals and Catholics Together”) have revised and relativized this key article. (1)
Remarkably, in a new book with essays by mainline Protestants (Lutheran and Reformed) and Roman Catholics on justification, the former reject the Reformation doctrine (by appeal to the New Perspective on Paul) while leading Roman Catholic New Testament scholar Joseph Fitzmeyer demonstrates the technical accuracy of the Reformation’s exegesis of the relevant passages. In his book Is The Reformation Over?, leading evangelical scholar Mark Noll seems to be speaking for a lot of conservative Protestants in answering yes.
Outright criticism of the doctrine of justification as it is defined in our Reformed confessions and catechisms has become common even in conservative churches. Although the church courts of these sister denominations have exhibited a heartening solidarity in standing for the confessional position and prosecuting ministers who oppose it, it is tragic that controversies over this cardinal doctrine should arise in our own circles.
Most people in the pew, however, are simply not acquainted with the doctrine of justification. Often, it is not a part of the diet of preaching and church life, much less a dominant theme in the Christian subculture. With either stern rigor or happy tips for better living, “fundamentalists” and “progressives” alike smother the gospel in moralism, through constant exhortations to personal and/or social transformation that keep the sheep looking to themselves rather than looking outside of themselves to Christ. Even in many churches formally committed to Reformation teaching, people may find the doctrine of justification in the back of their hymnal (in the confessions section), but is it really taken seriously in the teaching, preaching, worship, and life of the congregation? The average feature article in Christianity Today or Christian best-seller is concerned with “good works”-trends in spirituality, social activism, church growth, and discipleship. However, it’s pretty clear that justification is simply not on the radar. Even where it is not outright rejected, it is often ignored. Perhaps the forgiveness of sins and justification are appropriate for “getting saved,” but then comes the real business of Christian living-as if there could be any genuine holiness of life that did not arise out of a perpetual confidence that “there is therefore now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 8:1).
Of course, it’s impossible to track down all the reasons for the attitude toward this doctrine that lies at the heart of the gospel itself. However, in this article I will point out a couple of the dominant sources.
Although it had been said in various other ways by the reformers, it was the early seventeenth-century Reformed theologian J. H. Alsted who identified the doctrine of justification as “the article of a standing or falling church.” Yet by the next century, Protestant denominations that had sealed this confession with martyr’s blood were gradually surrendering it to various forms of moralism that were rife in the era of the Enlightenment-and in many cases worse than the distortions that provoked the Reformation in the first place. Even in pietist circles, where a vital faith in Christ was preserved, the scales increasingly tipped in favor of subjective piety and obedience, so that justification was made subordinate to sanctification.
As Arminianism gathered strength, a new legalism (identified by Reformed critics as “neo-nomianism”) entered churches formally committed to evangelical doctrine, breeding a suspicion of the preaching of election and justification as a motivation for “antinomianism” (anti-law-ism). After reading William Law’s A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life, John Wesley became convinced that the residual Calvinism in the Church of England stood in the way of a genuine revival of inner piety and committed discipleship. Although he eventually came to embrace the doctrine of justification, he remained concerned that it would lead to license unless it was subordinated to sanctification.
In the American colonies, the Great Awakening, under the leadership of Jonathan Edwards and George Whitefield, heralded the good news of God’s justifying grace in Christ. However, by the Second Great Awakening an antithetical theology became the working theology of many Protestant bodies in the new republic. The church is a society of moral reformers, said its leading evangelist Charles Finney. How could there be any genuine transformation of society if Calvinism were true?
Finney’s critics charged him with Pelagianism-the ancient heresy that essentially taught that we are not born inherently sinful and that we are saved by following Christ’s moral example. Going well beyond Rome’s errors, Finney’s Systematic Theology explicitly denied original sin and insisted that the power of regeneration lies in the sinner’s own hands, rejects any notion of a substitionary atonement in favor of the moral influence and moral government theories, and regarded the doctrine of justification by an imputed righteousness as “impossible and absurd.” (2)
Concerning the complex of doctrines that he associated with Calvinism (including original sin, vicarious atonement, justification, and the supernatural character of the new birth), Finney concluded, “No doctrine is more dangerous than this to the prosperity of the Church, and nothing more absurd.” “A revival is not a miracle,” he declared. In fact, “There is nothing in religion beyond the ordinary powers of nature.” (3) Find the most useful methods, “excitements sufficient to induce conversion,” and there will be conversion. “A revival will decline and cease,” he warned, “unless Christians are frequently re-converted.” (4) Toward the end of his ministry, as he considered the condition of many who had experienced his revivals, Finney wondered if this endless craving for ever-greater experiences might lead to spiritual exhaustion. (5) In fact, his worries were justified. The area where Finney’s revivals were especially dominant is now referred to by historians as the “burned-over district,” a seedbed of both disillusionment and the proliferation of various cults. (6) Ever since, Evangelicalism has been characterized by a succession of enthusiastic movements hailed as “revivals” that have burned out as quickly as they spread. Paul could as easily say today of American Protestantism what he said of his brethren according to the flesh:
I can testify that they have a zeal for God, but it is not according to knowledge. For, being ignorant of the righteousness that comes from God, and seeking to establish their own, they have not submitted to God’s righteousness. For Christ is the end of the law so that there may be righteousness for everyone who believes. (Rom. 10:3-4)
There are two religions, says Paul: “the righteousness that is by works” and “the righteousness that is by faith.” While the former feverishly pursues its schemes of self-salvation, trying to bring Christ down or raise him up from the dead, as it were, the latter simply receives the word of Christ and rests in it alone (vv. 5-8). “But how are they to call on one in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him? . . . So faith comes from what is heard, and what is heard comes through the word of Christ” (v. 17).
It does not seem wide of the mark to regard Finney’s theological assumptions as Pelagian and his influence remains with us today, in both mainline and evangelical Protestantism. Dietrich Bonhoeffer saw this clearly in his visit to the United States, describing American religion as “Protestantism without the Reformation.” (7) In spite of the influence of a genuinely evangelical witness, the rapid spread of Arminian revivalism, especially in the developing West, proved more effective in producing “results.” Doctrine in general, and Calvinism in particular, just got in the way of building a Christian America. “Deeds, not creeds!” has a long pedigree in the movement’s history.
Americans are “pull-yourself-up-by-your-own-bootstraps” kind of people anyway. That is what accounts in part for the enormous vitality of American business and industry. However, it also became a religion. Those who worked their way from rags to riches could hardly be told that before God at least they were helpless sinners who needed to be rescued. In today’s climate, American Protestantism on the left and the right is committed to Finney’s legacy, whether it knows it or not. It can be recognized in the “social gospel” of the left and in the moralistic jeremiads of the right; in the “how-to” pragmatism of the church growth movement and the vast self-help literature and preaching that have become the diet in the Christian subculture; and in the therapeutic obsession with inner spirituality and social activism that one finds in the Emergent movement. Even if the gospel is formally affirmed, it becomes a tool for engineering personal and public life (salvation-by-works) rather than an announcement that God’s just wrath toward us has been satisfied and his unmerited favor has been freely bestowed in Jesus Christ.
I say all of this with deep regret at having to say it, because it is the worst thing that can ever be said of a church. Paul spoke sharply to the Corinthians concerning their immorality, but he never questioned whether it was a church. However, when the Galatian church was confusing the gospel of God’s free justification in Christ through faith alone, he warned them that they were on the verge of being cut off-excommunicated, “anathema.”
And this concern I have expressed is hardly limited to a few grumpy Calvinists and Lutherans. “Self-salvation is the goal of much of our preaching,” according to United Methodist bishop William Willimon. (8) Willimon perceives that much of contemporary preaching, whether mainline or evangelical, assumes that conversion is something that we generate through our own words and sacraments. “In this respect we are heirs of Charles G. Finney,” who thought that conversion was not a miracle but a “‘purely philosophical [i.e., scientific] result of the right use of the constituted means.'”
[W]e have forgotten that there was once a time when evangelists were forced to defend their “new measures” for revivals, that there was once a time when preachers had to defend their preoccupation with listener response to their Calvinist detractors who thought that the gospel was more important than its listeners. I am here arguing that revivals are miraculous, that the gospel is so odd, so against the grain of our natural inclinations and the infatuations of our culture, that nothing less than a miracle is required in order for there to be true hearing. My position is therefore closer to that of the Calvinist Jonathan Edwards than to the position of Finney. (9)
Nevertheless, “The homiletical future, alas, lay with Finney rather than Edwards,” leading to the evangelical church marketing guru, George Barna, who writes,
Jesus Christ was a communications specialist. He communicated His message in diverse ways, and with results that would be a credit to modern advertising and marketing agencies. . . . He promoted His product in the most efficient way possible: by communicating with the “hot prospects.” . . . He understood His product thoroughly, developed an unparalleled distribution system, advanced a method of promotion that has penetrated every continent, and offered His product at a price that is within the grasp of every consumer (without making the product so accessible that it lost its value). (10)
The question that naturally arises in the face of such remarks is whether it is possible to say that Jesus made anything new. “Alas,” adds Willimon, “most ‘evangelistic’ preaching I know about is an effort to drag people even deeper into their subjectivity rather than an attempt to rescue them from it.” (11) Our real need, whether we feel it or not, is that we systematically distort and ignore the truth. This is why we need “an external word.” (12) “So in a sense, we don’t discover the gospel, it discovers us. ‘You did not choose me but I chose you’ (John 15:16).” (13) “The story is euangelion, good news, because it is about grace. Yet it is also news because it is not common knowledge, not what nine out of ten average Americans already know. Gospel doesn’t come naturally. It comes as Jesus.” (14)
The evangelical faith and practice proclaimed in the Scriptures is always unnatural to us. Born in sin, curved in on ourselves, we natively assume that we are good people who could be better if we just had a good plan, environment, and examples. When visiting people on their death-bed, it is always disconcerting to encounter lifelong members of confessional Reformed churches express the hope that they have been good enough for God to accept them. We’re born Pelagians, trusting in ourselves rather than in God, and this is our default setting even as Christians. That’s why we can never assume the gospel; it has to be the staple diet not only for the beginning, but for the middle and the end of the Christian pilgrimage. When things fall apart in our personal or corporate faith, the direction is always the same: we fall back on works-righteousness.
Periods of genuine health and vitality are always the consequence of rediscovering the gospel of grace; eras of decline are always associated with the eclipse of the gospel of a one-sided divine rescue in the person and work of Jesus Christ. Since Satan lost the war at Golgotha and the tomb, he has turned his assault to the faith of believers in the gospel and the progress of that gospel to the ends of the earth. He knows our weak spot and he exploits it. If he cannot destroy the church by persecution, he will weaken it through heresy. And “Pelagianism”-self-salvation in all its forms-is his best-seller. After conducting numerous studies over the last several years with his team, University of North Carolina sociologist Christian Smith concluded that the religion of America’s youth can be characterized as “moralistic, therapeutic deism.” When we interviewed him for the White Horse Inn and Modern Reformation recently, he said that there was no difference between the churched and unchurched or even between the unchurched and young people raised in evangelical churches today.
God justifies the wicked. That’s pretty radical. It is more radical than the claim that God heals the morally sick or gives grace to those who are willing to cooperate with it or that he rewards those who try to do their best. We don’t even have to deny justification outright. It’s just irrelevant when we stop asking the most important question. Having trouble with the marriage or kids? Sure. Not living up to our expectations? Doesn’t everybody? Not really getting the most out of life and need some fresh advice? I’m all ears. But we don’t care about being “sinners in the hands of an angry God” if we have never encountered a holy God. And if we do not sense a great need, we do not cry out for a great Savior.
While Roman Catholics and Protestants used to debate how those born in original sin are saved by grace, these theological categories themselves are becoming replaced across the Roman Catholic-Protestant and liberal-evangelical divides with therapeutic, pragmatic, and consumerist categories that seem to render gospel-speech itself irrelevant. The question “How can I be accepted by a holy God?” is replaced with the quest for self-fulfillment, self-respect, self-esteem, and self-effort. And there are plenty of preachers who will cater to our narcissism, dressing our wound as though it were not serious and telling us how we can have our best life now.
When God is no longer a problem for humanity, but a domesticated icon of either an irrelevant transcendence or a usefully immanent source of therapeutic well-being and moral causes, justification becomes an empty symbol. No longer lost, we are more like somewhat dysfunctional but well-meaning victims who simply need “empowerment” and better instructions. Our experience is remote from that of the Israelites assembled at the foot of Mount Sinai when they heard God’s terrifying voice and begged for a mediator.
The holiness of God obscured, the sinful human condition is adjusted, first, to the level of sins-that is, to particular acts or habits that require scolding and reform. Weary of brow-beating that actually trivializes the sinful condition, the next generation takes a more positive, therapeutic approach, offering “tips for living” that will make life happier, healthier, and more fulfilling. Finally, the vertical dimension is all but lost. That which makes sin sinful is the fact that it is first of all an offence against God (Ps. 51:3-5). As a result, it is no longer conceivable that God became flesh to bear his own just wrath. The purpose of the cross is to move us to repentance by showing us how much God loves us (the moral influence theory of the atonement), to display God’s justice (the moral government theory), or to liberate the oppressed from unjust social structures (Christus Victor). But the one thing that it cannot be is the means by which “we have been justified by his blood [and] . . . saved through him from the wrath of God” (Rom. 5:9).
In fact, mainline Lutheran theologian George Lindbeck recently explored the inseparable relationship between justification and atonement, concluding that even where the former is formally affirmed, the widespread lack of interest in our outright rejection of traditional atonement language leaves it without sufficient specificity. At least in practice, Abelard’s view of salvation by following Christ’s example (and the cross as the demonstration of God’s love that motivates our repentance) now seems to have a clear edge over Anselm’s satisfaction theory of the atonement. “The atonement is not high on the contemporary agendas of either Catholics or Protestants,” Lindbeck surmises. “More specifically, the penal-substitutionary versions (and distortions) of Anselm’s satisfaction theory that have been dominant on the popular level for hundreds of years are disappearing.” (15) This is as true for evangelicals as for liberal Protestants. (16)
Those who continued to use the sola fide language assumed that they agreed with the reformers no matter how much, under the influence of conversionist pietism and revivalism, they turned the faith that saves into a meritorious good work of the free will, a voluntaristic decision to believe that Christ bore the punishment of sins on the cross for me, for each person individually. Improbable as it might seem given the metaphor (and the Johannine passage from which it comes), everyone is thus capable of being “born again” if only he or she tries hard enough. Thus with the loss of the Reformation understanding of the faith that justifies as itself God’s gift, Anselmic atonement theory became culturally associated with a self-righteousness that was both moral and religious and therefore rather nastier, its critics thought, than the primarily moral self-righteousness of the liberal Abelardians. In time, to move on in our story, the liberals increasingly ceased to be even Abelardian. (17)
“Our increasingly feel-good therapeutic culture is antithetical to talk of the cross” and our “consumerist society” has made the doctrine a pariah. (18) “A more puzzling feature of this development as it has affected professedly confessional churches is the silence that has surrounded it. There have been few audible protests.” (19) Even most contemporary theologies of the cross fit the pattern of Jesus-as-Model, but justification itself is rarely described in accordance with the Reformation pattern even by conservative evangelicals, Lindbeck suggests. Most of them, as has already been indicated, are conversionists holding to Arminian versions of the ordo salutis, which are further removed from Reformation theology than was the Council of Trent. (20) “Where the cross once stood is now a vacuum.” (21) Evangelicalism today sounds a lot more like Erasmus than Luther.
Today, a growing number of evangelical theologians and leaders repeat the charge of Pelagius against Augustine, Rome against the reformers, and Protestant liberalism against evangelicalism: namely, that, in the words of Albert Schweitzer, “There is no place for ethics in the Reformation doctrine of justification.” Following evangelical theologians like Stanley Grenz, Brian McLaren and other leaders of the “Emergent Church” movement explicitly challenge sola fide as an obstacle to the main point of Christianity: following the example of Jesus. While authentic living brings tribute to the gospel, the former is increasingly becoming the gospel.
G. C. Berkouwer’s observation is still relevant in our own day when he writes that “the problem of the renewal of life is attracting the attention of moralists.”
Amid numberless chaotic and demoralizing forces is sounded, as if for the last time, the cry for help and healing, for the re-organization of a dislocated world. The therapy prescribed perhaps varies, the call for moral and spiritual re-armament is uniformly insistent. . . . These are the questions we must answer. For implicit in them is the intent to destroy the connection between justification and sanctification, as well as the bond between faith and sanctification. (22)
Paul relates everything, including sanctification, the problems of ethics, and ecclesial harmony, to Christ’s cross and resurrection.
The other day I heard from a pastor who related to me that some of his fellow pastors expressed concern that too much preaching of grace, especially justification, was dangerous-especially if it is not immediately followed up with warnings to obedience. Knowing this pastor pretty well, I was surprised that they were pointing this concern at him. After all, he is perfectly sound in his theology. He affirms and preaches the third use of the law (as guide for Christian obedience). Sometimes we forget that Paul was accused of being an antinomian-that is, of inviting people to sin that grace may abound. But instead of retracting the doctrine of justification (Rom. 3-5) that he knew would provoke that question again, the apostle simply explained how the gospel is the answer to the tyranny of sin as well as its condemnation (Rom. 6). The gospel of free justification is the source of genuine sanctification, not its enemy. Yet that is counter-intuitive to us. It is gospel-logic, not the logic of works-righteousness.
Like its native culture, American evangelicalism is activistic. We’re used to being producers and consumers, but not receivers-at least, helpless and ungodly sinners who must acknowledge their salvation as a free gift, apart from their decision and effort (Rom. 9:16). Obsessed with what happens with us, evangelical spirituality has for a long time-at least in practice-obscured the good news of that which has happened once and for all outside of us. Justification may be relevant for avoiding God’s wrath (at least where this is still affirmed), but is it really as important for the Christian life? Wouldn’t it be more helpful and practical to learn steps for victory over sin in our lives and in our culture?
In Revisioning Evangelical Theology, Stanley Grenz argues that evangelicalism is more a “spirituality” than a “theology,” more interested in individual piety than in creeds, confessions, and liturgies. (23) Experience gives rise to-in fact, he says, “determines”-doctrine, rather than the other way around. (24) The main point of the Bible is how the stories can be used in daily living-hence, the emphasis on daily devotions. “Although some evangelicals belong to ecclesiological traditions that understand the church as in some sense a dispenser of grace, generally we see our congregations foremost as a fellowship of believers.” (25) We share our journeys (our “testimony”) of personal transformation. (26) Thus, “a fundamental shift in self-consciousness may be under way” in Evangelicalism, “a move from a creed-based to a spirituality-based identity” that is more like medieval mysticism than Protestant orthodoxy. (27) “Consequently, spirituality is inward and quietistic,” (28) concerned with combating “the lower nature and the world,” (29) in “a personal commitment that becomes the ultimate focus of the believer’s affections.” (30) Therefore the origin of faith is not to be attributed to an external gospel, but arises from an inner experience. “Because spirituality is generated from within the individual, inner motivation is crucial”-more important, in fact, than “grand theological statements.” (31)
The spiritual life is above all the imitation of Christ. . . . In general we eschew religious ritual. Not slavish adherence to rites, but doing what Jesus would do is our concept of true discipleship. Consequently, most evangelicals neither accept the sacramentalism of many mainline churches nor join the Quakers in completely eliminating the sacraments. We practice baptism and the Lord’s Supper, but understand the significance of these rites in a guarded manner. (32)
In any case, he says, these rites are practiced as goads to personal experience and out of obedience to divine command. (33)
“Get on with the task; get your life in order by practicing the aids to growth and see if you do not mature spiritually,” we exhort. In fact, if a believer comes to the point where he or she senses that stagnation has set in, evangelical counsel is to redouble one’s efforts in the task of exercising the disciplines. “Check up on yourself,” the evangelical spiritual counselor admonishes. (34)
We go to church, he says, but not in order to receive “means of grace,” but for fellowship, “instruction and encouragement.” (35) The emphasis on the individual believer is evident, he says, in the expectation to “find a ministry” within the local fellowship. (36) All of this is at odds with an emphasis on doctrine and especially, Grenz adds, an emphasis on “a material and a formal principle”-in other words, solo Christo and sola scriptura. (37)
When personal and social transformation become the main point of faith and practice, it is no wonder that the line between Roman Catholicism and Evangelicalism blurs. For Rome, of course, justification simply is sanctification: the moral transformation of the believer. Grace is offered, but we must cooperate with it if we are finally to be accepted and renewed. In fact, with its longer and more sophisticated history of cultural influence, Rome’s superiority in the arena of world-transformation is apparent. In fact, once our interest in improving ourselves and the world has rendered justification through faith alone irrelevant (or even problematic), why should evangelicals and Mormons remain divided? No longer dividing by doctrine, the “culture Protestantism” of America threatens completely to engulf Evangelicalism as it did the mainline denominations. Perhaps the only denominations left with any distinct identity will be the Republican and Democratic parties.
According to the account thus far, justification is not the first stage of the Christian life, but the constant wellspring of sanctification and good works. Luther summarizes, “‘Because you believe in me,’ God says, ‘and your faith takes hold of Christ, whom I have freely given to you as your Justifier and Savior, therefore be righteous.’ Thus God accepts you or accounts you righteous only on account of Christ, in whom you believe.” (38) Whatever other piece of good news (concerning the new birth, Christ’s conquest of sin’s tyranny and promise to renew us throughout our life, the resurrection of our body and freedom from the presence of sin), much less the useful exhortations that we may offer, the announcement that Luther here summarizes alone creates and sustains the faith that not only justifies but sanctifies as well.
Good works now may be freely performed for God and neighbors without any fear of punishment or agony over the mixed motives of each act. Because of justification in Christ, even our good works can be “saved,” not in order to improve either God’s lot or our own, but our neighbor’s. As Calvin explains,
But if, freed from this severe requirement of the law, or rather from the entire rigor of the law, they hear themselves called with fatherly gentleness by God, they will cheerfully and with great eagerness answer, and follow his leading. To sum up: Those bound by the yoke of the law are like servants assigned certain tasks for each day by their masters. These servants think they have accomplished nothing and dare not appear before their masters unless they have fulfilled the exact measure of their tasks. But sons, who are more generously and candidly treated by their fathers, do not hesitate to offer them incomplete and half-done and even defective works, trusting that their obedience and readiness of mind will be accepted by their fathers, even though they have not quite achieved what their fathers intended. Such children ought we to be, firmly trusting that our services will be approved by our most merciful Father, however small, rude, and imperfect these may be. . . . And we need this assurance in no slight degree, for without it we attempt everything in vain. (39)
“Because of justification,” adds Ames, “the defilement of good works does not prevent their being accepted and rewarded by God.” (40)
Not only does such a view properly ground works in faith, it also frees believers to love and serve their neighbors apart from the motive of gaining or fear of losing divine favor. It liberates us for a world-embracing activism that is deeply conscious that although our love and service contribute nothing to God and his evaluation of our persons, they are, however feebly, half-heartedly, and imperfectly performed, means through which God cares for creation.
Even with the medieval terminology, Reformed theology can maintain the following:
The renewal is not a mere supplement, an appendage, to the salvation given in justification. The heart of sanctification is the life which feeds on this justification. There is no contrast between justification as act of God and sanctification as act of man. The fact that Christ is our sanctification is not exclusive of, but inclusive of, a faith which clings to him alone in all of life. Faith is the pivot on which everything revolves. Faith, though not itself creative, preserves us from autonomous self-sanctification and moralism. (41)
The real question, says Berkouwer, is whether justification is sufficient to ground all of the blessings communicated in our union with Christ. “The same Catechism [Heidelberg, Lord’s Day 24] which denies us even a partial righteousness of our own mentions the earnest purpose with which believers begin to live” according to all the commandments.
It is this beginning which has its basis solely in justification by faith. . . . It is not true that sanctification simply succeeds justification. Lord’s Day 31, which discusses the keys of the kingdom, teaches that the kingdom is opened and shut by proclaiming “to believers, one and all, that, whenever they receive the promise of the gospel by a true faith, all their sins are really forgiven them.” This “whenever” illustrates the continuing relevancy of the correlation between faith and justification. . . . The purpose of preaching the ten commandments, too, is that believers may “become the more earnest in seeking remission of sins and righteousness in Christ” [Heidelberg Catechism, Question 115]. . . . Hence there is never a stretch along the way of salvation where justification drops out of sight. (42)
“Genuine sanctification-let it be repeated-stands or falls with this continued orientation toward justification and the remission of sins.” (43) When we talk about sanctification, we do not leave justification behind. “We are not here concerned with a transition from theory to practice. It is not as if we should proceed from a faith in justification to the realities of sanctification; for we might as truly speak of the reality of justification and our faith in sanctification.” (44) Paul teaches that believers are “sanctified in Christ Jesus” (1 Cor. 1:2, 30; 6:11; 1 Thess. 5:23; cf. Acts 20:32; 26:18). As Bavinck puts it, “Many indeed acknowledge that we are justified by the righteousness of Christ, but seem to think that-at least they act as if-they must be sanctified by a holiness they themselves have acquired.” (45)
“The apostle Paul,” Berkouwer writes, “preaches holiness with repetitive fervor, but in no way does he compromise his unequivocal declaration: ‘For I determined not to know anything among you, save Jesus Christ, and him crucified’ (1 Cor. 2:2).”
Not for a moment would he do violence to the implications of that confession. Hence in every exhortation he must be relating his teaching to the cross of Christ. From this center all lines radiate outward-into the life of cities and villages, of men and women, of Jews and Gentiles, into families, youth, and old age, into conflict and disaffection, into immorality and drunkenness. If we would keep this center, as well as the softer and harder lines flowing from it, in true perspective, we must be thoroughly aware that in shifting from justification to sanctification we are not withdrawing from the sphere of faith. We are not here concerned with a transition from theory to practice. It is not as if we should proceed from a faith in justification to the realities of sanctification; for we might as truly speak of the reality of justification and our faith in sanctification. (46)
Thus Berkouwer finds it “incomprehensible” that the Reformation view could have ever been criticized as having no bearing on sanctification or the life of holiness. It has everything to do with it because it brings everything back to faith in Christ. (47)
Therefore, sanctification is not a human project supplementing the divine project of justification, nor a process of negotiating the causal relations between free will and infused grace, but the impact of God’s justifying Word on every aspect of human life. It is time to get the horse before the cart again, first of all so that the church can once again be a place where God’s saving work will be known and experienced, and also for that genuine personal and corporate renewal that can only arise out of the continual wonder of the gospel: God’s free justification of the ungodly-even Christians.
Michael Horton’s two volume work on the doctrine of justification was recently awarded Christianity Today’s Book of the Year award in the Category of Theology / Ethics. To order this set from Amazon, click below: