Justification is not just a message of the Protestant Reformation. It is a foundationally Christian message. Much controversy has centered lately on whether the Reformers rightly understood justification. Some say that a ‘new look’ at justification is required by recent New Testament scholarship. Without raking over the coals of that debate, my conviction is that justification is not a Reformation doctrine, but a biblical doctrine.
Here are two reasons why justification matters, and four ways to make it matter:
1. The Bible teaches it.
Romans 4:5 “However, to the man who does not work but trusts God who justifies the wicked, his faith is credited as righteousness.” Certainly, justification can be preached incorrectly – that is, without properly emphasizing the fact that the fruit of the Spirit must also come because of justification. (jonathan edwards called this “evangelical obedience.”)
But disagreeing with a thing because it can be misused is like avoiding cars because some people speed. Justification can not only be preached incorrectly, it can also be preached downright poorly – mistaking a formulation of ‘sound’ words for the actual message, or feeling as if you have to communicate certain technical ideas rather than the life and soul of the message. In essence, preaching justification means preaching Jesus, neither more nor less.
Preaching justification means explaining from the Bible how the atonement works so that we understand that we are saved by Jesus, and nothing and no one else. What matters with regard to justification are not technical debates about exactly how it works, but who works: you, me, or Christ? The song of justification is “in christ alone.”
2. Experience confirms it.
Our practice is not to be governed by experience, but by our Bibles. However, experience is a useful confirmation of the truth of the Bible which the Bible frequently offers as a teaching tool. In this case, there is plenty of experience that suggests that life and health and power return to churches and ministries once the message of justification is placed firmly and confidently at their heart.
Our churches are not a moral improvement project. Our churches are to be places where gospel hope is offered, and for that to be the case, the foundation for it is a right understanding, grasp, and proclamation of justification.
Such historical examples as Martin Luther, John Wesley, and Jonathan Edwards are familiar enough perhaps. But we do well to remind ourselves that as Luther read and studied Galatians (his ‘Katharina von Bora’ as he called it), as Wesley heard Luther’s preface to Galatians read (and his “heart was strangely warmed”), and as Edwards preached “justification by faith alone” (and many were converted), there is a template of God using his message of the gospel – unadulterated, unperverted, unashamed – for massive revival.
In missionary work, cross cultural evangelism, and reaching the religiously nominal, justification has a track record of breaking hard hearts and mending broken hearts. It exalts God, humbles people, and keeps salvation (not culture wars, politics, or any other form of “works”) at the heart of our churches.
Here are four ways to make it matter: