Justification by Faith Alone and Cultural Conquest
We need less navel-gazing introspection and more world-conquering extrospection.
Dear friends and supporters:
If there’s any connection between justification by faith alone and cultural conquest, it’s not self-evident. I hope to show their close association, and to encourage its widespread understanding in the church, which could lead to a great burgeoning of biblical Christianity countering the deep secularism and Neo-paganism of our time. This is a theological construct with jetpacks.
Justification by faith alone (JBFA) is the material principle of the Protestant Reformation. It’s sometimes considered the equivalent of salvation by grace, but these related expressions aren’t simply synonyms. JBFA is that essential and more specific truth of biblical soteriology (salvation doctrine) that tells how sinners can get right with God.
Soteriological Subjectivity and Objectivity
Our era is overwhelmingly subjective and existential. When adapted to Christian soteriology, this means that the really important thing is how salvation eases our existential guilt and breaks sin’s addictive stranglehold over our lives. Salvation does do this, of course, and we dare not discount its overcoming those vexations, but JBFA deals with an even deeper problem.
That deepest of problems is not subjective, but objective: man’s sin evokes God’s eternal judgment. Man is objectively guilty before God, and that guilt calls down God’s hellfire judgment (Rom. 1:18–2:16). Sin has not only temporal consequences; it has more ominous eternal consequences.
JBFA is God’s love-inspired way of getting man back into a right relationship with him to avert that judgment. Sin demands judgment (Rom. 1:18), and to ward off that judgment, God sent his Son to bear that judgment on the cross (Rom. 3:21–26).
An operative facet of JBFA is imputation (Rom. 4:5–8, 23–25). This means to credit something to another’s account. Without trivializing, we can think metaphorically of a ledger. Our sin-debt to God was transferred to Jesus Christ, who paid it on the cross. His righteousness was transferred to our side of the ledger, and we stand righteous in God’s sight (2 Cor. 5:21).
By imputation, God was able to save sinners in a righteous way (Rom. 3:26). Because God is a righteous God, he wasn’t simply free to set aside his law, his standards of justice. Out of the love of his heart, he sent his Son to suffer the penalty for our violation of his holy standard. JBFA solves our objective problem no matter what our subjective experience about it might be. Dietrich Bonhoeffer captured this truth when he movingly wrote:
[T]he Christian is the man who no longer seeks his salvation, his deliverance, his justification in himself, but in Jesus Christ alone. He knows that God’s Word in Jesus Christ pronounces him guilty, even when he does not feel his guilt, and God’s Word in Jesus Christ pronounces him not guilty and righteous, even when he does not feel that he is righteous at all.
Christ’s objective righteousness replaces our objective guilt, and our objective guilt replaces his objective righteousness on the cross.
In addition to imputation, faith is an indispensable element. Though Christ died for the world, the world is not justified. Justification requires personal appropriation (Rom. 4:1–4, 16–22). This is the function of faith. According to Protestants (and the Bible), faith wasn’t defined as it was in medieval Roman Catholicism. For Rome, faith was a highly complex concept, but one of its main meanings was assent, particularly assent to the church’s doctrine.
In striking contrast, Protestants saw faith as a wholehearted clinging for dear life to the promises of God in Jesus Christ: When we cast ourselves entirely on him, his righteousness becomes ours. In the heavenly courtroom, we are justified, declared righteous, no longer exposed to the judge’s verdict for our cosmic insurrection.
When by faith alone we’re united to Jesus Christ, his objective righteousness becomes ours. At the end of the day, JBFA is justification by union with Christ alone.
Uniqueness of Justification by Faith Alone
The uniqueness of JBFA is that it moves the final, eternal soteriological verdict back into history. In the patristic (early post-New Testament) era Christianity retreated from Paul’s teaching of JBFA by holding that man’s justification ebbs and flows. At (infant) baptism God places the seed of righteousness in the heart, and as man cooperates with the church, he becomes more righteous, more justified. At the end of his life, if he dies in the good graces of the church, being sacramentally cleansed, he will end up justified. This means that we cannot ever know for sure in this life that we are right with God. Assurance before the final judgment is impossible.
JBFA, alternatively, means that we can know we are right with God before we stand at the final tribunal. Eternal judgment was executed on Jesus Christ at Calvary, and when we are we are united to him by faith, God delivers the verdict over us: we are not guilty; we are righteous. Richard B. Gaffin’s statement makes the point:
Late medieval Roman Catholicism left the future verdict [of justification] at the final judgment the ever anxious and uncertain outcome of the Christian life. In contrast the Reformers came to understand that, in effect, the verdict, belonging at the end of history, had been brought forward and already pronounced on believers in history, and so constituted the certain and stable basis for the Christian life and unshakable confidence in the face of the final judgment.
This brings us to this newsletter’s nub. Many years ago when I read Abraham Kuyper’s Lectures on Calvinism, I was arrested by this short assertion:
… Calvinism had its rise in all the countries of Western Europe … and in every instance it exhibited the same characteristic: viz., strong Assurance of eternal Salvation, not only without the intervention of the Church, but even in opposition to the Church. The human heart had attained unto eternal peace with God: strengthened by this Divine fellowship, it discovered its high and holy calling to consecrate every department of life and every energy at its disposal to the glory of God…. (emphasis original)
Kuyper had been arguing that the unique principle of Calvinism is the sovereignty of God in all areas of life in distinguishing Calvinism from both Roman Catholicism and Lutheranism.
Roman Catholicism saw the church (their church, of course) as the center of Christian existence. The church itself is the mediator between God and man, one huge sacrament, we might say. Not the sovereignty of God in all of life but the centrality of the institutional church in all of life is the unique principle.
For Lutherans, according to Kuyper, the problem is that Christianity became anthropocentric (man-centered) rather than theocentric (God-centered). Alleviating man’s sinful condition is the great goal of salvation and the Faith. For Lutherans, JBFA is an end in itself.
Kuyper wants to contrast Calvinism by saying that JBFA is a means to an end: the glory of God in our lives. This implies restoring man to his primal calling to bring all things under Christ’s authority, the cultural mandate.
“One of the most prominent errors in the history of the church is postponing massive blessings of creation and the gospel to the eternal state. If the liberal churches wish to re-situate all the blessings in the ‘already’ (since they have no actual eternal hope, and often turn to revolutionary politics for salvation), conservative churches tend to push most of the blessings off into the ‘not yet.’”
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Introspection or Extrospection
It’s just here that Kuyper made his brief, weighty assertion. Because JBFA grants the redeemed sinner absolute assurance of his salvation, he is now free to direct his spiritual energies to the this-worldly, God-given task of earthly dominion: influencing the world for God’s glory. In the end, this means conquering culture for Jesus Christ by the power of the gospel and Holy Spirit.
If you’re constantly anxious that your salvation stands in jeopardy, that you need to avail yourself of the sacraments more frequently, that you must perform more good works to preserve God’s favor, that there might be sin in your heart that causes you to forfeit your salvation, you’ll have little time for or interest in the horizontal cultural work of exercising godly dominion for Christ the King.
Contrarily, if you enjoy full soteric assurance of your salvation because you have cast yourself by faith alone on Jesus Christ and enjoy unalloyed certitude, you won’t be distracted by suspicions of your own standing before God. When you sin, you’ll confess your sin, repent, and stand up and march boldly to influence all of life for the sovereign God. Education and music and art and science and politics and technology and entertainment and business and economics — all areas of life should be subordinated to Christ the King, and you’ll do your God-given part in influencing one or more of them or similar fields. You know that if Jesus isn’t Lord of all, he’s not Lord at all.
If you don’t understand and affirm and act on JBFA, this cultural task won’t (can’t) be your priority. Your own salvation will be your priority. You’ll spend your time in navel-gazing introspection rather than world-conquering extrospection. When Kuyper’s truism opens your eyes, you’ll be aware that your own salvation, while crucial, was never meant to be life’s final priority. The sovereignty of God is life’s priority, and that = his sovereign rule in the earth.
Misdirected JBFA defenders
Ironically, some of the most vocal defenders of JBFA are thoroughly unconcerned with the sovereignty of God in all of life, and some even consider this idea dangerous.
Take the Lutherans, for example. Because JBFA was a pivotal, perhaps the most important, biblical truth in Luther’s entire Christian experience, it became the foundational dogma for Lutheranism. In fact, conventional Lutherans believe that it is the central message of the Bible.
While giving JBFA an understandably privileged status, it doesn’t recognize that God’s sovereignty in all of life is the ultimate human responsibility that JBFA serves. To repeat: JBFA is a means, not an end. Because it shows that redeemed man is entirely right with God and can have assurance of that rightness, he is restored to his true calling.
To the Lutherans, however, cultural responsibility is at best secondary. Lutherans invented the doctrine of the “two kingdoms.” There is the explicitly Christian kingdom of the church, in which all Christians should be involved, and there is the legitimate but specifically non-Christian and neutral, commonsensical kingdom of everything outside the church. The church is ruled by Jesus Christ and the word of God, and culture outside the church is ruled by “natural” law. This view takes JBFA in precisely the wrong direction; better yet, takes it in almost no direction at all.
Similarly, even some Calvinists who should know better (see “Reductionist Christianity Gets Its Comeuppance”) embrace the two-kingdom theory; and while they defend JBFA to almost the very death against what they perceive as its theological enemies (like the so-called New Perspective on Paul) they don’t recognize the cultural enemies that, if left unconfronted by their non-confrontational two-kingdom theory (see Brian G. Mattson’s critique) will eventually gut the church — including its doctrine of JBFA.
This surely must be the one of the strangest and most counterintuitive developments in Western Christianity — sectors of the church that most exalt JBFA stunt its most obvious and logical cultural demand.
Church and ministry leaders should consistently and vocally raise their voice in articulating, defending, and propagating JBFA. Sinners must understand that they’re saved not through any cooperative effort with God (synergism), in which they contribute good works based on Jesus Christ’s death, which helps them to merit eternal life. Rather, they are saved entirely by the grace of God in Jesus Christ (monergism), whose righteousness becomes theirs entirely by faith. God is sovereign in salvation.
But not only salvation. And to limit his sovereignty to salvation and not extend it to the wider culture is to deny his sovereignty. God saved us by his matchless grace, assures us of the verdict of salvation in time and history, so that we are free from anxiety over our eternal status before God, free to follow the Second Adam where the first Adam failed, urgent to incrementally bring every aspect of life and thought under the authority of King Jesus. “Therefore, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” (1 Cor. 10:31). (See “Pessimism Is Not a Strategy”).
Boldness is a fruit of assurance, and boldness in fulfilling God’s calling in pressing the claims of Jesus Christ in this world (his world) is a fruit of the assurance of salvation.
That is precisely what justification by faith alone provides.
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I just put my finishing touches on my first lecture for the Common Slaves Conference, Saturday, April 17 at Lifespring Church in Crosby, Minnesota (Eric Anderson, pastor). The theme will be “Christ is King: The World According to the Creator.” The other speaker will be my friend Dr. Ardel Caneday. You can get more information about the conference here.
I plan next week to write on “Easter Eschatology.” Please share this e-newsletter with friends, and invite others to subscribe at the buttons below.
I am deeply thankful to all of you friends and supporters whom God uses to keep CCL growing in ways for which I prayed but could not have imagined (Isa. 64:4).
Yours for salvation assurance and cultural conquest,
Founder & President
Center for Cultural Leadership
For a masterly restatement of the old Protestant doctrine of JBFA addressing the unique presuppositions and pressures of the modern world, please read Eberhard Jüngel’s Justification.
The Palm Gospel
Here’s a brief sermon for this Palm Sunday titled “The Palm Gospel”:
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