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25 August 2017

Does justification by faith still matter?

Does justification by faith still matter?

Calvin Samuel is principal of the London School of Theology.

It’s not that many Christians, particularly evangelicals, have stopped thinking that justification by faith is true. It’s rather more likely that we are in danger of no longer viewing this doctrine as vitally important. Indeed, in some parts of the Church, doctrine is all too easily perceived as the “letter that kills” rather than the Spirit which gives life. So, does this doctrine matter and, if so, why and in what ways?

First, let’s address the issue of faith. That we are justified by faith is not primarily a way of emphasising the efficacy of faith. Rather, it is a way of acknowledging that apart from the intervention of God in whom we place our faith, we could never be justified.

We cannot rescue ourselves from our fallenness. We cannot atone for our sinfulness. We cannot heal our brokenness. We cannot repay our indebtedness, or negotiate our way out of our alienation from God. We place our faith in God who alone can bring us from darkness to light, from death to life.

This utter reliance upon God is a challenge to contemporary presumptions about human autonomy and self-determination. To acknowledge that only God can redeem creation is to recognise that all is not right with the world. Our cultures and relationships, politics and identities need to be reshaped. This is far more than a course correction; they need to be rebooted.

Justification by faith expresses our conviction that only God can press the CTRL ALT DELETE command on our lives and God’s world. It acknowledges our deep need for that divine intervention which has taken place in the life, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus.

Having talked of faith, what of justification? Justification is the declaration that someone is in the right. It is a term borrowed from the law court. To be justified, therefore, is to be declared righteous.

This is not some form of divine sleight of hand, or an overlooking of human sinfulness. Rather to be justified is a declaration that through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus those who believe in him are in the right, they are righteous.

Justification therefore presupposes both sin and grace. Where there’s no sin, there’s no need for justification. Where there is no grace, there is no possibility of it. These are urgent issues with which the contemporary Church needs to re-engage.

Sin is a concept with which many parts of the Church are becoming increasingly uncomfortable. We can speak of right and wrong, or of injustice or liberation, but talk of sin sounds increasingly out of place in a liberal democracy. And yet society’s ills cannot be adequately diagnosed without a recognition of the pervasiveness of sin, whether individual, cultural, relational or systemic. 

The recognition of the pervasiveness of sin is far more than an inclination to name and shame the particular sins that matter most to us. It is problematic when the Church seems more concerned about sexual sin, for example, than about the sin of failing to care for the poor. Indeed, that one is described as sin and the other as injustice may betray our prejudice.

But if sin enables us properly to diagnose the underlying source of society’s problem, grace allows us to speak of its solution. Justification by faith is the doctrine that gives us a language by which we might declare the good news that God does not deal with us as our sins deserve, but responds to us in love and grace, despite our sinfulness because of the reconciling work of Jesus in his life, death, resurrection, and ascension.

We need to give more rather than less attention to the doctrine of justification by faith in contemporary churches. Indeed, this is a doctrine that has missional significance because of its presupposition of the problem of sin and the solution of grace which can only be attained through faith and not works. #Preach! 

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