Category Archives: Justification

Four Essential Pictures

I’m currently reading Tim Challies’ book Visual Theology.  This book presents many theological basics not only with text, but also with infographics.  This kind of approach aims to help those who learn best with visual helps.  I’m appreciating the book in many respects and will probably write a review in the near future.

As good books do, this one got me to thinking, particularly about the place of pictures in Reformed theology.  While we don’t believe it’s lawful to make images of God, this doesn’t rule out diagrams or other visual helps.  In fact, embedded in our theology are several essential pictures.  Even apart from an actual picture, these doctrines come across to us via some particular image we’re to hold in our minds.  Let’s look at four important doctrines and the associated pictures.

Covenant

In Scripture, the covenant of grace is portrayed in terms of a relationship.  When you think “covenant of grace,” you should immediately picture a relationship.  In Ezekiel 16 and Hosea 1 (and elsewhere), God speaks in terms of a marriage relationship with his people.  In the New Testament, this is taken over into the relationship of Christ (the groom) and his church (the bride).  While there may be contractual elements in the covenant of grace, the essence of it is a relationship.

Regeneration

The Bible gives several pictures of regeneration and one of those is a heart transplant.   When you think “regeneration,” you can picture someone receiving a new heart.  The Holy Spirit uses this picture in Ezekiel 11:19, “…I will remove the heart of stone from their flesh and give them a heart of flesh…”  This one picture does not exhaust everything the Bible says about regeneration, but it is one helpful conceptual peg on which to hang the doctrine in your mind’s eye.

Justification

Whenever you think about justification, you need to think “courtroom.”  The courtroom image is essential to this doctrine.  One of the key ways that people often get justification wrong is by saying that it is God making us right with himself.  However, justification is, in its very nature, a judicial matter.  It involves a judge making a declaration, issuing a verdict.  This is why Romans 1-3 describes man’s condition before God as a judge.  For example, Romans 2:2, “We know that the judgment of God rightly falls on those who practice such things.”  Starting at the end of Romans 3, the Spirit explains how a negative judgment can be averted through Jesus Christ.  After all that, we get Romans 8:1, “There is therefore no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.”  Condemnation is what we would receive from the Judge if we did not have Christ.  In its essence, therefore, justification involves the picture of a courtroom.

Adoption

Adoption is a beautiful word that pictures family.  Having been purchased by Christ, having been justified by him, we are now included in God’s family as his dearly loved children.  God is no longer our Judge, but our Father and we relate to him as such.  Nowhere is this stated more explicitly than Romans 8:15, “For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, ‘Abba! Father!'”  We’ve gone from the courtroom (justification) to the family room (adoption), and that’s a wonderful place to be!

To summarize:

Covenant —> Relationship

Regeneration —> Heart transplant

Justification —> Courtroom

Adoption —> Family

Reformed theology has more pictures, but those four are crucial to understand.  When you get those, you grasp several basics of the Christian faith.


Quotable Church History: “The doctrine by which the Church stands or falls”

This is the sixth in a series on famous quotes from church history. We’re looking at who said these famous words, in what context, and whether it’s biblical.

“Justification is the doctrine by which the Church stands or falls.”  This saying is often attributed to Martin Luther.  There’s no question Luther accorded central importance to justification.  However, so did other Reformers.  For example, in his Institutes, Calvin famously insists that justification “is the main hinge on which religion turns” (Institutes 3.11.1).  However, the exact wording of today’s quote comes from neither Luther nor Calvin.  Instead, from what I can tell, these exact words come from a later Reformed theologian from Germany, Johann Heinrich Alsted (1588-1638).  In his Theologia Scholastica Didacta Alsted wrote, “The article of justification is said to be the article by which the Church stands and falls.”  From the fact that he wrote “said to be,” it would seem that he was not coining a new aphorism, but simply rehearsing and expounding an already well-known expression.

To understand why Alsted and others made such claims, it is essential to review the basics of this doctrine.  Simply put, justification is God’s declaration that a sinner is righteous.  This declaration is made solely on the basis of the imputed passive and active obedience of Christ.  In other words, it is only because Christ’s work on the cross (passive obedience) and his perfect life of law-keeping (active obedience) are credited to the sinner.  Faith, resting and trusting in Christ, is the sole instrument by which we receive this tremendous treasure.  What follows from this declaration of justification is a transformed relationship with God — no longer do we relate to him as a Judge with whom we have a relationship of hostility.  Now we relate to him as our Father with whom we have a relationship of deep filial affection.  That beautiful relationship is foundational to the Christian life.

Clarifying further, we do not confess that justification by itself is the gospel.  Nor do we believe that the doctrine of justification exhausts the goodness of the good news.  In the Heidelberg Catechism, Reformed churches maintain that the Apostles’ Creed summarizes “all that is promised us in the gospel” (QA 22).  That obviously goes far beyond justification.  The gospel promises us righteousness in Christ to deal with the curse of sin, but it also promises the sanctifying presence of the Holy Spirit to deal with the power of sin — and more.  Nevertheless, justification is the central facet of the gospel diamond.  It is of prime importance.  Without justification, nothing else in the gospel is of any value to us.  This, again, is because of its relational significance.  Apart from a relationship of fellowship with God, we are still under the deadly curse.

Is it biblical to say “justification is the article by which the Church stands or falls”?  To answer that, we need to turn to Galatians.  In the original Galatian context, the Judaizers were preaching a message which included the sinner’s great need for the righteousness of Jesus Christ.  The problem was that they added to that the sinner’s own need to perform deeds of righteousness, including following Jewish ceremonial requirements like circumcision.  Thus, it was not Christ alone as the basis for our standing with God.   This is what the Holy Spirit said through Paul in response to this:

I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel — not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ.  But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed.  As we have said before, so now I say again:  If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed.  (Galatians 1:6-9)

Those are powerful words!  If a different gospel is preached, that preacher should go to hell.  If a different gospel is received, the recipient will go to hell.  Standing or falling is indeed what’s at stake.  A church that doesn’t get justification correct is in danger of falling into the pits of hell.  On the flip side, a church that receives the biblical gospel, including a correct understanding of our righteousness before God, will stand firmly.

In my pastoral experience, I have noticed that justification is often poorly understood amongst many Reformed believers.  I have encountered widespread ignorance about the vital role of the active obedience of Christ.  I have seen a preconfession textbook (from a Reformed publisher) teaching the erroneous notion that justification is a life-long process rather than an event — a notion which is traditionally found in Roman Catholicism rather than Reformed theology.  I have heard countless believers speak of justification as God making us righteous — stripping away the crucial vision of justification as a courtroom declaration.  There’s the common misconception that justification is merely a verdict of innocence rather than righteousness.  There are those who still believe that as Christians, we relate to God as our Judge and do not see him as our loving Father.  There are those in our churches who argue that Christians are not sinners but only saints, failing to come to terms with the biblical concept of imputation.  The list could go on.  If justification is truly the doctrine by which the church stands or falls, we see ample evidence that pastors and other church leaders have to do better at teaching it.  I certainly recommit to doing my part in ensuring that the church I serve will stand with this doctrine.

 


The Reformation and Doxology

Five hundred years!  Today is the day we mark a half millennia since God brought Reformation to his church.  Over these five centuries, Reformed biblical theology has spread far and wide.  Its influence has infiltrated into various cultures and sub-cultures around the globe.  For this, we ought to praise God and vigorously.

One of the surprising sub-cultures where Reformation theology has found a home today is American hip-hop.  One of the leading voices in this development is Shai Linne.  In the spoken word intro to his album Lyrical Theology Part 2: Doxology, Shai makes this astute observation:  “If you have theology without doxology, you just have cold dead orthodoxy…If you have doxology without theology, you actually have idolatry.”  He’s right.

Theology (the study of who God is and what he’s done) should lead us right to doxology (proper praise for God).  The two belong together and must never be separated.  So when we consider the Reformation, we’re not doing it right if we’re not ending up on our knees in adoration for God.  There are all sorts of reasons why remembering the Reformation should bring us to worship — the chief being the recovery of the biblical gospel.  Without that gain, everything else is meaningless.  Praise God that he peeled away the ignorance, brought back the Bible, and brought widespread gospel preaching back to his church!

Let me mention three other reasons why we ought to be praising God today for the Reformation.

The Recovery of Certainty and Assurance

When many medieval Christians went to church, they were immediately confronted with an image of Christ.  It was not an image of Christ as Saviour, but as the coming Judge of heaven and earth.  The medieval church wanted to put the fear of Jesus into its members.  You were always supposed to be afraid and wondering whether you would be good enough for him.  You would never know the answer to that question until after you died.  For the average believer, the prospect of purgatory always loomed.  You could not be sure that you would go to God’s blessed presence the moment you died, because most likely you wouldn’t.  What a horrible distortion of the Christian faith!

The Reformation brought back the Bible’s message of justification.  If you believe in Jesus Christ, you are declared right by God.  The Judge is now your Father.  As his beloved child, you need not fear judgment.  When you die, because of God’s verdict in your justification, you can be absolutely 100% certain that you will be going to his blessed presence.  As one Reformation catechism put, “Our death is not a payment for our sins, but it puts an end to sin and is an entrance into eternal life” (Heidelberg Catechism QA 42).  Praise God that we are not left wobbly and doubting!  Praise God for the Reformation’s recovery of gospel certainty!

The Restoration of the Voice of God’s People in Worship

Prior to the Reformation, when you went to mass you mainly went as a spectator.  Almost everything was done by someone else, mainly the priest and his assistants.  Congregation members were typically passive participants.  Since much of the service was in Latin, it could not be otherwise.  The idea of congregational singing was known, but not widely practiced.

With the Reformation, this began to change dramatically.  Christian worship becomes a more active affair for congregation members.  They are not only to watch or listen, but also to participate and particularly in song.  One of John Calvin’s priorities was the preparation of a metrical Psalter in the language of the people.  This was because he understood that the congregation should be lifting up its voice in worship.  In Reformed churches today, this continues to be the practice.  We emphasize congregational singing, the priesthood of all believers melodiously lifting up the Name of God.  We don’t go to church to listen to a choir sing or listen to soloists, but to lift up our own voices in praise to God.  This is as it should be.  Let’s praise God that we can praise him each Lord’s Day from our own hearts with our own tongues and lips!

The Humanity of the Reformers and their Example

When we look closely at the men whom God used to recover the gospel in the Reformation, one of the striking things is that they were just, well…men.  They were not super saints.  They had warts and blemishes.  For example, Luther famously ran off his mouth and was known for saying some things a bit strongly, if not strangely — and even sometimes wrongly.  Yet through their weaknesses, the power of God was made strong.  God amazingly worked through weak and sinful men to bring something about that’s still having a ripple effect to this day.

They were people with families.  When they faced death or martyrdom, they wrote like regular people because that’s what they were.  If you haven’t already, you need to read the powerful last letter of Guido de Brès to his wife.  See if you can read that without praising God for the example of this Reformation pastor.  I read that letter and I can’t help but doxologize.  God worked steadfast faithfulness in his servants and it was not in vain.  The gospel for which de Brès died outlived him and spread far beyond his little corner of the world.  God worked through them, through their humanity, and he left examples for us to follow.

There are many more reasons why we can be praising God today as we remember the Reformation.  Along with the recovery of the gospel as number one, those three above certainly rank up there for me.  They lead me to this:

Oh sing to the LORD a new song,

for he has done marvelous things!

His right hand and his holy arm

have worked salvation for him…

Make a joyful noise to the LORD, all the earth;

break forth into joyous song and sing praises!

Psalm 98:1,4


Seven Terms You Need to Know

It was my first time visiting Australia.  As I sat around the dinner table with an Aussie family, the father and his sons began discussing a cricket game from the day previous.  I listened intently, but it was as though they were speaking a foreign language.  I was quite sure that it was still English, but the words were unfamiliar — and the thick Aussie accent didn’t help!  However, I’m quite sure that if these Aussie blokes were to head to Canada and sit around a dinner table with some fellows talking hockey, they would experience the same.

Last summer, my brother-in-law came to visit us from Canada and went vacationing with us around Tasmania.  We spent our evenings watching 20-20 cricket on television.  We were determined to learn this game.  With the help of some context (and occasional help from Google) by the end of our vacation we had it mostly figured out.

The Christian faith presents us with similar challenges.  Like cricket or hockey, Christianity has its own unique vocabulary that needs to be learned.  As newcomers or covenant children are discipled in the faith, there are certain terms that they need to grasp in order both to be established as a disciple and to grow as a disciple.  Today let me briefly introduce to you seven essential Christian terms.  Every disciple of Jesus needs to know these:

ELECTION — Before the creation of the universe, God the Father chose (elected) a certain number of definite individuals to salvation in Jesus Christ, purely on the basis of his grace and good pleasure.  A key Bible passage is Ephesians 1:1-14.

EFFECTUAL CALLING — This is a work of God the Holy Spirit.  It’s a process where the Holy Spirit convinces sinners of their plight and brings them to spiritual life so that they can and do believe in Jesus Christ for salvation.  A key Bible passage is John 6:44-45.

REGENERATION — Also known as the new birth — without it there is no salvation.  This is the moment when the Holy Spirit miraculously changes a heart of stone into a heart of flesh.  Regeneration is the transfer from death to life.  A key Bible passage is John 3:1-9.

JUSTIFICATION — God’s declaration as a judge that a sinner is right with him (righteous) only on the basis of what Jesus Christ has done for that sinner in his life, death, and resurrection.  This can only be received through resting and trusting in Jesus Christ.  A key Bible passage is Romans 3:21-31.

ADOPTION —  All those who are justified are received into God’s family as one of his adopted children.  He is our Father and we are his beloved children with the privilege of a promised inheritance in the future.  That inheritance is life forever in the new heavens and new earth.  A key Bible passage is Romans 8:12-17.

SANCTIFICATION — This is the process by which Christians grow in looking like Jesus Christ.  It is a life-long process of growing in hating, fighting, and overcoming the evil and rebellion in our lives.  A key Bible passage is Romans 12:1-2.

GLORIFICATION — The Christian’s hope for glory which comes either with death or the return of Jesus Christ (whichever happens first).  We shall some day be perfect and sinless, sharing in the glory of our Saviour.  A key Bible passage is 1 John 3:1-3.

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Taken together all of the above make up what is known as the Order of Salvation.  In Reformed theology, you’ll often see these things referred to with the Latin expression Ordo Salutis.  These are the logical steps which make up the rescue of a Christian from sin and deserved condemnation.  With each of these, there is far more that could and should be said, but the above provides just a basic orientation.


More than Forgiven, More than Innocent

One of the biblical themes that I never get tired of preaching and teaching is justification.  Every time I’m faced with teaching it, I know that I’m going to be personally encouraged again with the riches of the gospel.  I have no trouble at all getting pumped about justification.  It’s just so amazing what God gives to sinners like me.  This kind of theology always brings me to doxology.

Yet, sadly, I find that there are Christians for whom this just doesn’t float their boat.  It doesn’t impress them.  It doesn’t leave them in awe and wishing they could love God more than they already do.  There are various reasons for that.  In some cases, perhaps it’s because they’re not really Christians — after all, unregenerate hearts don’t get excited about the gospel.  In other cases, perhaps it’s because they haven’t been taught justification very well.  In the latter scenario, it’s more a matter of ignorance.  Believers are robbed of joy and God is robbed of glory because these believers have been somewhat short-changed in how they’ve been taught.

I want to put my finger today on one particular point where I’ve periodically found a lapse in how justification is taught in Reformed churches.  I’m doing this for the sake of joy.  I’m doing this to help brothers and sisters exult with me in the treasures we have in Christ.  I’m doing this so that we’ll all be more impressed with God and the gospel.

Justification is always described in courtroom terms.  There is a judge (God), and there are the accused (us).  We’re accused of sinning against God’s laws, never having kept any of them, and still being inclined to all evil.  We’re faced with an eternal death sentence from the Judge.  Into this picture steps Jesus Christ.  He is our advocate, our Mediator.  He intercedes for us with his work on our behalf.  There’s a verdict from the judge.  Now this is where things sometimes go off the track and we might miss something of how the rich the gospel truly is.    Some say that the judge’s verdict is “innocent.”  Because of what Christ has done, we are declared innocent, they say.

Part of the trouble may stem from the illustration.  We’re imagining a courtroom.  Our experience with courtrooms is limited to this earth.  Whether in person or on the screen, we know that generally judges issue two types of verdicts:  guilty or innocent.  You are either found guilty and punished or you are acquitted and go free.  Since we’re using this illustration of the courtroom, it’s natural to go with the positive outcome and describe it as a verdict of “innocent.”

We’re not entirely wrong in doing that.  In justification, God does forgive us all our sins because of Christ’s work on the cross.  You can say that he wipes our slates clean.  Our accounts are cleared of all our wrong-doing.  As a consequence, we are indeed innocent, acquitted.  That in itself is something quite amazing.

A non-Reformed writer once portrayed justification simply and only in these terms.  He compared it to a game of golf.  In golf, if you’re in a tournament or something like that, you can get these do-overs called “mulligans.”  This writer said that God wipes our score-card clean of all our mistakes, and now we get a mulligan.  We get to try again.  How is that good news?

There is a better way to understand all this, but it begins with going back to God’s demands.  God justly demands that all our sins be addressed through his infinite wrath.  Christ met that demand of God’s justice by being our substitute on the cross.  However, God also demands perfect obedience going forward.  He does not relax that just demand of a perfect life because we’re forgiven.  This is where a good gospel gets even better:  we have Christ’s perfect obedience throughout his life to meet that demand.  Romans 5:18-19 teaches us that Christ’s obedience is a key element of our righteousness before God.  That obedience is credited to us, it’s put on our accounts.  Therefore, in the sight of the Judge, it is as if we ourselves had always been and always will be perfect obedient.

Consequently, the verdict that’s issued is not merely “innocent” or “acquitted.”  It’s something far better:  righteous!  It’s a verdict that you won’t find in an earthly courtroom.  But in the heavenly courtroom, God declares sinners to be righteous — not only forgiven, but also seen in Christ as perfectly obedient.  Sinners are seen as Christ is seen.  This is to be seen in the very Greek word for justification:  dikaioo.   That word and its relatives all pertain to “righteousness,” which is, by definition, a far richer word than innocence.

Because God’s courtroom is so much more amazing than any earthly courtroom, what the Judge does after the verdict is even more amazing.  Since he sees the sinner as he sees his Son, he takes that sinner and brings him or her into his family. The Judge takes the sinner out of the courtroom and into the family room.  He says, “You are my child and I am your Father.”  That can happen because justification is more than being found innocent or acquitted.

That’s why I find justification so incredibly encouraging.  Not only am I innocent before God, I am positively righteous in his eyes.  This is something that cannot be undone.  I have everything I need to stand before him, both in this life and in the age to come. It all comes to me through my Saviour Jesus Christ, through his substitution.  I am God’s righteous child through a life I did not live and through a death I did not die.  Wow!  Can I love him just a little bit more?