Archive for July, 2014

Speaking Carefully about Justification

Justification is an extremely important doctrine, and, especially as Protestants, we want to do everything we can to protect it. If you get justification wrong, you’re in danger of missing the point of the Gospel entirely, with grave consequences. Now, that being said, before we go out and start pointing the finger of accusation at others, we need to be very careful to understand our own position and take care to communicate our position as clearly as possible.

So, for example, we might say something like, “Isn’t it wonderful that our good works don’t have anything to do with our justification?” And, at first, this seems to communicate a glorious truth about our justification, namely that we cannot do anything to merit our own justification. And, yes, that is wonderfully true! However, upon closer examination, our original statement actually says far more than we intended. Is it really true that there is no way in which our good works and our justification are related? Well, at the very least, we could say that our good works are evidence of our justification, and that both are the result of our union with Christ.

Or, we could be tempted to say, “Because of our justification, we don’t need to do any good works!” And, once again, this is getting at an important truth: we are accepted as righteous in God’s sight, only for the righteousness of Christ imputed to us, and received by faith alone (WSC 33). We don’t need to do any good works in order to earn our salvation. But, do we need to do good works? Of course we do! Why? Well, the Bible tells us so! Christ commands us to do good works.

Furthermore, we might say, “We are justified, so there’s nothing we can do to make God love us any more or less!” This is a tricky one, because it is absolutely true in one sense of the word love. The tricky part comes in when we realize that love is a complex concept. It is a word with many different meanings. The sense it has in our statement is that of God’s love of benevolence, God’s electing love which he has equally for all of his people. This is the love associated with justification. However, there is also another sense in which God loves us, and this is called God’s love of complacency. In this sense, God’s love for us is that of a father who blesses us when we obey and disciplines us when we break his commands. In this sense, God does love us more or less depending on the holiness of our behavior. [For more on this topic, see Mark Jones’s recent book Antinomianism: Reformed Theology’s Unwelcome Guest?]

If we can be careful to define what we’re talking about, I think we can go a long way toward avoiding unnecessary conflict with our brothers in Christ.

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