Wednesday, December 30, 2009

How or what now?

Where should the emphasis in the gathered church be?

I started thinking about this the other day when I read something Dr. Black wrote regarding Felix Manz:

Whenever we downgrade good works, wherever we make sanctification some kind of appendage to justification, whenever we emphasize more what God does for us than what He does in us, we have become proponents of an unbalanced Christianity. The doctrine of justification by faith is taught in the Scripture, and I rejoice in it! But an emphasis on the forensic and juridical nature of our salvation can easily lead to a light emphasis on the "good works that God has foreordained that we should walk in them." In this regard, Luther's theology was decisively one-sided, and it was his disparagement of good works that caused him to collide with the letter of James.

(note: I looked up “juridical” because I didn’t think it was a real word. Turns out it is. Learned something new today)

So it has kind of been bothering me. Are we overemphasizing justification? I am treading on shaky ground here because I recognize how central the doctrine of justification by faith alone is. Reformed theology spends an awful lot of time focused on justification. It is where our great debates take places, where we write our polemics and where we find our areas of greatest emphasis. It is the subject of many (if not most) of our conferences. This is quite understandable because justification gets to the heart of how any sinner has been redeemed from an eternal hell and made right with God. Without justification, there are no Christians and there is no church. We must recognize this. That still begs the question. Can we focus so much on justification that we ignore sanctification or as Dr. Black describes it relegate sanctification to a secondary doctrine?

In other words, from a practical standpoint within the gathered church should our focus be on the doctrine of how we were saved or should we focus on how we should live now that we are saved? I fear that in our understandable concern to recover the central doctrine of justification by faith alone, we have pushed the role of sanctification into a secondary role in the church. Are we not called as Christians to live holy lives, lives unstained by the world? As I have said ad nauseum the ritualism and sacralism of the traditional church can exacerbate this by giving people a sense of religious fulfillment that is completely foreign to the Bible and that stands in marked contrast to what we are called to as Christians in the Word. We are not made more holy or sanctified by merely eating a cracker and sipping some wine at church, even if we dress it up by calling it a “means of grace”. We are sanctified by the work of the Holy Spirit working in us demonstrated by a life that is progressively and demonstrably more holy, a change that is observable in our lives.

God did not send His Son to die to save us so that we could sit around reminiscing about how swell it is to be saved. He regenerated us and left us on this earth to live out the life of a Christian and proclaim the Gospel:

For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them. (Eph 2:10, emp. added)

And again…

For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age, waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works. (Titus 2: 11-14, emp. added)

I think that passage in Titus is just stunning. It literally made my head hurt today. That passage is going to be a focal point of an upcoming blog post because I think we tend to stop at “bringing salvation for all people” and not focus on what else Paul is telling Timothy here.

The Scriptures don’t diminish the importance of good works at all. Jesus, Paul, James all speak of us living holy lives and doing good works, not to be saved but because we are saved. If we are not living lives that are progressing in holiness and lived out by our works, we are not living a balanced Christian life. So to answer my original questions, yes it is possible to overemphasize justification. I think we can spend so much time and effort thinking about, writing about and talking about how we were saved that we forget what we are to do now that we are saved. It is not so much that we need to focus on justification less, it is that we need to focus on sanctification more. If the church is indeed a gathering of redeemed sinners who go out into the world to proclaim Christ we need to emphasize justification to lost sinners but we need to emphasize sanctification within the gathered Body.

I might be way off-base here. I haven’t had time to really flesh it out. Thoughts?

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Steve Martin said...

Focus on the way we ought behave is just law preaching, plain and simple.

The Holy Spirit inspires us to good works, not the law.

"All our righteous deeds are as filty rags."

When we do them with a non self-consciousness, then they are done out of love.

When we have to think of them and do them out of some obligation, or out of guilt, or in a quest to better ourselves in the eyes of our Lord, then it is sinful. Not that it still isn't good for the recipient. But it is still a filty rag.

Steve Scott said...

I share your concern, and I think I know why justification is such a big deal to Reformed theology. It's not because it's a biblical doctrine; it is. It's because to be a Protestant means to protest against Rome.

Our culture is not dominated by Roman Catholicism, nor by a formal salvation by works religion. So, our 21st century protest against Roman doctrine is out of place in our culture. Justification by faith alone, as true as it may be, is not the heart of the gospel; it is the heart of the Reformers' argument against Rome. It's like if you ran for office today with the slogan "no taxation without representation." It's why Reformed churches don't have greater conversion rates. The typical American doesn't see a reason for the elevation of the doctrine.

I think we also need to realize that the doctrine as revealed in Scripture was largely used as protest against Judaizing by false teachers who were teaching salvation by works. Again, our culture today doesn't have quite that emphasis preached to it.

Also, Reformed people spend a lot of time on the doctrine because we want everybody to know we're right.

And the natural result is a lack of concern with sanctification.

Arthur Sido said...


So we are to be unconsciously zealous for good works? Accidently zealous? I think what you are describing comes dangerously close to a functional antinomianism.

Steve Martin said...

Antinomianism is a total disregard for the law.

The law has it's purposes. God gave it that we might live together (as best as possible), and also to show us our great need of a Savior (to convict us of sin and to kill us).

No one will be justified in the sight of the law.

God does not care one wit about our efforts to keep the law, since we fall short of His standard (perfection), everytime.

He justifies, He sanctifies.

The law is still in effect, but not for righteousness sake.

Those that place an emphasis on the law (not to kill off, but to make better)become,and create modern day Pharisees, or phonies, or they despair and throw the whole thing overboard.

This (I believe) is why Jesus re-presented the law in such a hard manner in the Sermon on the Mount.

He wanted to leave us NO wiggle room with repect to our ability to keep it. "You must be perfect as your father in heaven is perfect." "If you are angry with your brother then you are a murderer."

What do we do with those?

Then right after the S.O.M. He runs into the filty leper who says, "Heal me if you will, Lord" and the Lord says, "I will."

We ought keep the law, but never as a 'we have to'...'we want to'.

We know that this is what God intends for us, and that our lives and the lives of others around us just work better when we do.

But rightly distinguishing law from gospel and using them rightly theologically vs. in a civil sense, is not an easy thing to do.

Most people blend the two, and therin lies the problem.


Arthur Sido said...

Steve, I am not suggesting that we "have" to keep the Law. In fact, under the New Covenant we are called to do much more. Instead of 10% of our earnings, it is all. Jesus said "If you love me, keep my commandments". Over and over again we are commanded to do good works as a result and witness of our salvation, not as a condition. We see people commended because of the works that they do. Just saying "I'm saved" is an empty faith. If you are not driven to serve others, something is wrong with your heart.

Steve Martin said...

With an eye to works our works become the focus.

With an eye to Christ and the freedom He has won for us, we are free to do what's needed without having someone tell us it needs be done.