Justification by Faith: 3 Perspectives

Justification by Faith: 3 Perspectives May 16, 2011

I want to hypothesize that the basis for the opposing perspectives in the “Rob Bell debate” that has swept through evangelical Christianity lies in different understandings of the doctrine of justification by faith. The concept of justification by faith is developed throughout the Pauline epistles. The following two passages seem to capture it the best:

Romans 5:1-2
Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand.

Ephesians 2:8-9
By grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God–not the result of works, so that no one may boast.

To put in a nutshell, justification by faith means that we cannot earn “peace with God” through our efforts. Whatever the “faith” is that saves us, it is the “gift of God” rather than “the result of works.” But how can you believe something without making an effort to believe it? It would seem that there’s inherently an effort involved in having faith at least if it means making a decision of some sort. The different resolutions to this puzzle are the three major strands of evangelical Christian thought.

This is a term I would coin to describe the understanding of faith typically offered by Baptists and other proponents of human free will who think that God dishes out heaven and hell in response to whether or not we have made a “sincere personal decision” to follow Jesus. We have faith if we have responded to Christ’s atonement by “deciding” to accept His salvation. The problem with this perspective is that the “personal decision” becomes the work that “earns” salvation, which violates the principle of justification by faith.

The Calvinist resolution of the puzzle of justification by faith is to say that God predestines our ability to have faith. The reason our faith is not itself a work is because God plants it in those who have been predestined to have it. God decides to damn or bless us based upon a decision God made before the beginning of time. This way of describing God is a stumbling block for many people but it does resolve the problem of justification by faith.

The Wesleyan approach to this problem is to say that Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross has more to do with persuading us that God loves us than persuading God that He should forgive us for our sins. We are justified by faith because faith in God’s mercy is what liberates us from the prison of self-justification, a state in which we seek in vain to earn God’s approval through our works. So faith is not a work because we’re not proving anything to God with our faith; instead we’re liberated from thinking that we have something to prove to God. As a Wesleyan, I would say that self-justification itself is hell because it inherently creates an irreconcilable separation from God. The purpose of the cross’s atonement is to break us free from self-justification so that we can enter into God’s holy presence without fearing or hating God.

I don’t think that “sincere personal decision-ism” can avoid the heresy of works-righteousness. While Calvinism seems doctrinally orthodox, I worry that it creates an unnecessary stumbling block by making God look like He “unfairly” rewards or punishes us for His own behavior. Though I recognize that God’s mode of existence as Creator is not analogous to ours as creature, I don’t think most people including myself can get our heads around that reality. The other problem I have with both Calvinism and “sincere personal decision-ism” is that they aren’t guarded enough against the real dangers of self-righteousness/self-justification, which is the miserable state of being that I think Christ’s justification saves us from.

The purpose of all doctrine is discipleship. Jesus says that what matters is our fruit. As 2 Timothy 3:16 says, all scripture’s purpose is for “training in righteousness.” Paul also tells Timothy in 2 Tim 2:23 to “have nothing to do with stupid and senseless controversies.” What matters about what we believe about salvation, heaven, hell, etc, is the impact it has on our Christian discipleship. Paul writes that “knowledge puffs up but love builds up.” If our theological debates serve the purpose of puffing ourselves up, then they are of Satan. If they serve the purpose of building the church and helping people get past their stumbling blocks, then they are fruitful.

This doesn’t mean that we jettison all controversial teaching so as to accommodate worldliness. What it does mean is that we shouldn’t be controversial just for the sake of feeling more hard-core in our beliefs than other believers. The time when it’s appropriate to be controversial is when discipleship would be compromised otherwise. That’s all for now.

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  • Dan Guy

    I don’t understand the issue. It seems completely removed from my own perspective.

    You seem to be saying that there are people who believe that justification by faith precludes the mere existence of works. Like, you can be justified by faith but then, if you act upon it, you’ve committed a work and somehow invalidated that your salvation was due to faith?

    In #1, it’s still God offering salvation, we’re just choosing to accept it — how is that “earning” it? Our worthiness to be saved and our free decision to accept the unearned gift of salvation are completely different matters. It seems absurd to conflate the two.

    Even as a Protestant I found predestination abhorrent. It is, to my view, the product of small minds that hadn’t given any thought to what it means for God to exist outside of time. God has no “pre” and no “post”, just the eternal now. So #2 is right out.

    Your #3 is something that I’ve never encountered. The idea that God needed to be persuaded by the crucifixion to forgive us seems absurd, since God incarnated as His Son in order to save us. Tying this into “the prison of self-justification” seems self-centered. It diminishes the awesome power of the crucifixion to reduce it to Dr. Phil-like self-empowerment.

  • Morgan Guyton

    It’s helpful to hear your perspective. You’re Catholic, right?

    I agree with you that it’s absurd to call our decision to accept God’s grace the basis for our worth before God but that’s precisely what many conservative evangelicals proclaim even though they wouldn’t admit it as such. To many evangelicals, God makes a yea or nay decision about us based on whether we perform the gesture of “personal decision” correctly.

    I must have written perspective #3 in pretty tortured language that rendered it meaningless. All that I mean is what you said: that atonement is God’s SELF-sacrifice through Christ, not God’s demand for blood payment. The purpose of atonement is to persuade us THAT God loves and forgives us, not persuade God TO love and forgive us.

    Christ’s blood is a ransom for our sin that makes it okay for us to admit our flaws so that we can enter into the community that trusts God enough to be honest about sin and let the Holy Spirit sanctify us into one body. Without the ransom, we remain defensive and trapped in what I would call self-justification. Christ’s justification jail-breaks us from the ontological prison of our self-justification. I’m not sure why that’s Dr. Phil. It’s being liberated FROM self-centeredness, not reaffirming our self-centeredness through some kind of power of positive thinking nonsense.

  • Dan Guy

    Yes. After being a Messianic Jew, non-denominational charismatic, Methodist, Presbyterian, Zen Christian, Quaker, and a bit of a self-deluded gnostic, I found what my soul had hungered for in Catholicism and entered the Church in Easter of 2000.

    I react negatively to your #3 primarily, I think, because it echoes some things that I spent some time exploring in the summer of 1999 when I took my study of Christian mysticism into what I eventually realized was the wrong direction. That is to say, I’m reacting less to your explanation than to the Christian I once was, in retrospect.

    I completely agree when you say “that atonement is God’s SELF-sacrifice through Christ, not God’s demand for blood payment.” I’m less sure when you continue that, “The purpose of atonement is to persuade us THAT God loves and forgives us”, but I agree that its purpose is “not persuade God TO love and forgive us.”

    After discussing that middle bit with my wife, I’m more okay with it. I would say that: (1) the purpose of the crucifixion was to conquer sin and death and attain atonement and (2) the purpose of atonement is to open the door for us to salvation because God loves us and desires for us to be one with Him. Atonement is a sign that God loves us, but it’s primary purpose is not to convince us of that fact, IMHO.

    I’m not sure how to feel about your statement that “Christ’s blood is a ransom for our sin that makes it okay for us to admit our flaws”. Christ’s blood saves us; the Holy Spirit enables us to empty ourselves and let God’s love pour into us and then back out from us to the community around us. Tying Christ’s sacrifice directly to enabling us to admit our flaws, as if that was its primary effect, seems wrong to me. God’s love frees us from our defensive, self-justifying ways, but that is one of its lesser effects in my mind contrasted with eternal salvation.

    I called it self-centered because it’s taking the awesome majesty of salvation and making it sound like its primary purpose is to free us from a personality defect.

  • Morgan Guyton

    This is a very fascinating conversation because your vantage point is so different. I’ve been reading Henri de Lubac and it’s making me jealous of Catholics. It just seems like our Protestant evangelical world is such a narrow conversation.

    I’ll never forget the day that I finally made peace with the world being more than 4000 years old but that not meaning that the Bible had lost its authority. I thought it was such an enormous realization, but then I figured out that most of the people outside of my myopic little world had understood that all along.

    At the same time, if atonement is a sign, then it’s not wrong to say that we are the primary recipients of that sign. It’s true that atonement is more than just persuasion. It expresses the essential nature of God. You ever read Moltmann? I’m in the middle of Crucified God right now. Certainly atonement’s overall telos is greater than convincing me to take off the handcuffs that have been unlocked by the cross but the cross is the means by which I am set free. I don’t think it’s channeling Dr. Phil to say that.

    I appreciate your wanting to say it’s bigger than just my own little individualist personal journey and I agree. I feel like I’m polemicizing in a narrower field within evangelical discourse that precedes even talking about how atonement serves the whole of creation rather than just humanity or even the whole of humanity rather than just individual people.