Celebrating the Protestant Reformation by Highlighting the Doctrine of Justification

On October 31, 1517, a German monk, named Martin Luther, posted a document for academic debate on what was effectively the local bulletin board, the castle-church door. Luther probably wanted a discussion and debate with other professors and theologians over a matter of theological concern.

Luther was only 33 years old at the time, but he was a Roman Catholic priest, a Doctor of Theology, and a professor at the university in Wittenberg. He saw himself, in that moment, as a faithful servant of the Church of Rome. But Luther had heard about a Dominican friar named Johann Tetzel, who was selling indulgences to people all over the Roman empire.

Indulgences, which are still part of Roman Catholic teaching and practice today, [1] are official letters from the Roman Church which absolve a person of some or all of their sin based a faith-infused act of some kind. Tetzel’s indulgences, authorized by the Roman Pope, were effectively absolution for sins for a financial donation. Tetzel’s jingle was, “When a coin in the coffer rings, a soul from purgatory springs.”

In 1517, Luther knew more theology than many, and he believed that indulgences were antithetical to any biblical understanding of repentance or forgiveness. So, Luther wrote 95 statements of dispute against indulgences – the document we know today as “Luther’s 95 Theses.”[2]

Some of his students translated Luther’s original document from Latin to German, and they also used the newly invented printing press to make lots of copies. Before Luther knew it, he had become the spearhead and voice of many discontents with Rome. In response, Luther also became the target of Rome’s fury, and he was the kind of man who usually added fuel to the fire.

On April 17, 1521 (not quite 4 years after he had nailed the 95 theses to the church door and probably about 2 years after he had trusted in Christ alone as Savior[3]), Luther was standing in a room with the Roman Emperor – Charles V – and several high representatives of the Roman Catholic Church. Copies of Luther’s books and tracts were piled on a desk in front of him and the full authority of the church and of the state was bearing down on him. The one question Rome asked was, “Will you recant (or retract and apologize)?”

Luther was forced to make a brief response. So, he said,

“I am bound by the Scriptures… and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not retract anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. I cannot do otherwise, here I stand, may God help me, Amen.”[4]

Everyone, including Luther, expected that he would be burned at the stake. But in God’s providence, Luther was spared a martyr’s death. He lived another 3 decades, in which he translated the Bible from the original Greek and Hebrew to German, he wrote many more books and tracts, and he pastored and taught with a keen focus on the cross and the justifying work of Jesus Christ.

In one sense, Luther was a giant among the reformers. His voice echoed throughout the western world, and it continues to do so today. My own church still sings songs Luther wrote, and I still quote him in my sermons and teaching. But, in another sense, Luther was just one reformer among many.

Zwingli and Bullinger were notable reformers in Switzerland, and, in England, Hugh Latimer and Nicholas Ridley both lived and died for their Protestantism. These two, Latimer and Ridley, were burned at the stake together in Oxford, England on October 15, 1555. As the wood was being stacked around their legs, Latimer (now famously) said, “Be of good comfort, Mr. Ridley, and play the man! We shall this day light such a candle by God’s grace, in England, as I trust never shall be put out.” And so, they did. The flame consumed them, but the gospel-fire spread wildly.

John Calvin was a French reformer who spent most of his time writing and preaching in Geneva. Calvin was nearly the opposite of Luther, a studious introvert and not the bombastic life-of-the-party. Calvin spent most of his life suffering from some chronic illness or another, but Calvin also had a precise mind and a profound ability to speak and write with clarity.

Every Christian is indebted to Calvin for his incredible work of systematic theology, a multi-volume set we know today as “Calvin’s Institutes.” He first published the text in 1536 as a “Basic instruction in the Christian Religion.” It was 6 chapters and about 200 pages long by today’s formatting. Calvin published the final version of that work in 1559, which has 80 chapters and about 1,600 pages, but Calvin still called it a “Basic instruction…”

Calvin’s preaching, which is available today in manuscript form, and his commentaries are both quality sources of deep intellectual study as well as practical/pastoral instruction. And, I believe, the Christian who throws Calvin out because of a distorted view of some truncated version of Calvin’s doctrine will inevitably suffer loss for it.

Each of these reformers, and many others like them, protested the common teaching and practice of the 16th century Roman Catholic Church. But what was it exactly that they were protesting? And should Protestants still protest today?

On the one hand, Protestants and Roman Catholics, both then and now, have a great deal in common. We believe the same things about God as trinity, about Jesus as both God and man, and about the value of human life, which is grounded in the fact that all humans were-and-are created in the image of God.

But, on the other hand, Evangelical Protestants (including Baptists, Presbyterians, Methodists, Anglicans, and even non-denominationalists) have been and continue to be at odds with Rome on some very important issues. During the time of the Protestant Reformation, we can see at least two major disagreements, which still remain today: 

One, on the doctrine of justification… “How are guilty sinners justified before God?” And two, on the place of ultimate authority… “Who has the authority to answer this question, or any other on faith and practice, definitively?”

In this essay, I will (like a good Protestant) argue from the position that the Bible is our highest authority. But the authority of Scripture is not my main focus here, so I will just have to assume that point for now. For the interested reader, I’ve written on that subject elsewhere.[5]

Primarily, I’ll focus here on the question of how sinners can be justified. And I’ll argue that justification is by faith alone in Jesus Christ. I will make my case from the Bible and then I’ll urge us to believe this gospel, as opposed to any other, by clarifying the biblical position in contrast to others – both old and new.

If you’re reading this essay with your Bible beside you, then turn now to Romans 3, and let’s try to understand the biblical answer to our desperate question: “How are guilty sinners justified before a holy God?”

THESIS

God justifies sinners through the work of Jesus Christ, and unjustified sinners should expect God’s justice; therefore, let us receive God’s righteousness by faith.

1.  GOD JUSTIFIES SINNERS THROUGH THE WORK OF JESUS CHRIST

Romans 3:9-28 is a small portion of an entire letter written by the Apostle Paul to the Christians in Rome during the first century. Though the “Roman Catholic Church” would grow to mean something far different in time, the “church in Rome” then was simply the united body of Christian believers who lived in Rome.

Paul’s letter to these Christians was and is a masterful treatise on the gospel. As a matter of fact, this letter was one of the books of the Bible which Martin Luther taught through at the seminary in Wittenberg. But he didn’t always enjoy the book of Romans as a marvelous display of God’s grace and love.

Luther initially had some trouble with chapter 1, verse 17, which says, “In it [that is, in the gospel] the righteousness [or justice] of God is revealed…” Luther said of this verse,

“I greatly longed to understand Paul’s Epistle [or letter] to the Romans and nothing stood in the way but that one expression, ‘the justice [or righteousness] of God,’ because I took it to mean that justice whereby God is just and deals justly in punishing [sinners]… My situation was that, although an impeccable monk, I stood before God as a sinner troubled in conscience, and I had no confidence that my [good work] would [satisfy] him. Therefore I did not love a just and angry God, but rather hated and murmured against him.”[6]

Luther understood that sinners are guilty before God, and Luther knew God’s righteousness demands justice. And that’s where the gospel message begins for all of us… with bad news, and not good.

In Paul’s letter to the Roman Christians, he had begun his description of the gospel by talking about the unrighteous foolishness of all sinners, who naturally reject God’s truth and choose lies and sin instead (Romans 1:18-32). The Jewish Christians might have been tempted to think that they were better off than everyone else, since they had received God’s special revelation of His law… or, as Paul calls it in chapter 3, verse 2, “the oracles of God.”

Remember, up until that point in human history, God had only revealed His law to one people-group – the descendants of Abraham. But that revelation was not sufficient to solve the problem of sin for anyone – Jew or Gentile. And that’s where I’ll pick it up in chapter 3, verse 9.

Paul asked, “What then? Are we Jews any better off?” And his answer was, “No, not at all. For we have already charged that all, both Jews and Greeks, are under sin…” The Scripture says, everyone is “under” sin… both those who know God’s law and those who haven’t received any special revelation of it. But, what does it mean to be “under” sin? 

Well, verses 10-18 describe it for us. Drawing from multiple Old Testament passages, Paul lays out a diagnosis of natural humanity – that is fallen, unregenerate, and unbelieving humanity.

Romans 3:10-18 says, “10 as it is written: ‘None is righteous, no, not one; 11 no one understands; no one seeks for God. 12 All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, noteven one.’ 13 ‘Their throat is an open grave; they use their tongues to deceive.’ ‘The venom of asps is under their lips.’ 14 ‘Their mouth is full of curses and bitterness.’ 15 ‘Their feet are swift to shed blood; 16 in their paths are ruin and misery, 17 and the way of peace they have not known.’ 18 ‘There is no fear of God before their eyes.’”

This is terrible news! The Bible tells us clearly that no human being is naturally “righteous” (v10), no one “seeks for God” (v11), no one “does good” (v12), and no one has any “fear of God” (v18). Friend, this is a diagnosis of you and me. Neither of us naturally seeks for God; neither of us naturally does what is right; and neither of us naturally has any genuine fear or reverence for God.

Why in the world, then, should God be favorable toward us?!

The short and honest answer is, He should not be! 

But it gets worse. Even the benefit of God’s law is no help to sinners like us. Look at verse 19 and following. The Bible says, “19 Now we know that whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God. 20 For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin” (Romans 3:19–20).

What does the Bible say God’s law does to us when it shows up in our lives? It “stops” our “mouths” and it shows us our “accountability” or “liability” or “guilt” before God. The law is no help to us, not because the law is bad, but because we are.

Do you feel the weight of what Luther was wrestling with when he thought the gospel revealed only “the justice” or the “wrath” of God? What does God’s “righteousness” or “justice” mean for sinners like us?

If God’s gospel only reveals the justice by which God judges sinners, then the gospel mocks us in our despair and misery by giving us wretched news. It only condemns us more profoundly.

But Luther kept on reading and he kept on thinking this through. He said,

“Night and day I pondered until I saw the connection between the justice of God and the statement that ‘the just shall live by faith’ (Romans 1:17). Then I grasped that the justice of God is thatrighteousness by which… through grace and sheer mercy… God justifies us through faith. Thereupon I felt myself to be reborn and to have gone through open doors into paradise…”[7]

What did Luther understand that brought such a change? I think he understood the heart of the gospel, which we find in Romans 3, verses 21-26. The Bible says, “21 But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it— 22 the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe.”

Friend, we see here the beginning of the good news. There is a sense in which God gives righteousness, through Jesus Christ, to those who believe. But how can this be? How can God, who is righteous and just, grant or give righteousness to dirty rotten sinners like us?

Look at the end of verse 22. It says, “For there is no distinction: 23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24 and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, 25 whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith.”

Friend, here we come right to the blazing core of the Christian gospel. The question we’re after is: “How are guilty sinners justified before a holy God?” Or, to put it the other way around, “How can God’s justice against sinners be satisfied without punishing sinners?”

The answer we see in Romans 3:22-25 is that God satisfied His own wrath by “putting forward” His own Son (Jesus Christ) as a “propitiation” …or as J. I. Packer put it, Jesus was put forward as a “wrath-quencher.”[8]

I don’t think it’s important that you be able to pronounce the word (propitiation), but your soul depends on you being able to understand the meaning of it. Propitiation is the act of appeasing or satisfying someone. In this case, the furious party is God, and the object of His wrath is the sinner (disobedient people like us). And the propitiating act was the work of Christ upon the cross.

We know Jesus offered propitiation at the cross because it was “by his blood” (v25). And we know that it was this substitutionary sacrifice that brought about “justification” because“justification” is what this whole passage is about. Those sinners who are condemned by their sin in verse 23 are “justified” by God’s grace “through” Christ’s “propitiatory” death in verses 24-25. And verse 26 continues the same thought. “It,” i.e. the propitiating work of Christ, “was to show his [God’s] righteousness at the present time, so that he [God] might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.”

Only in the wrath-quenching death of Jesus, who died as a substitute for all those who repent (turn from sin) and believe (trust in Him), can God be both the just God who judges sin and the justifying God who saves or justifies sinners.

Only in the person and work of Jesus Christ is God’s righteousness displayed, both in the punishment of some sinners and in the reward of righteousness, which God gives to other sinners through Jesus Christ.

But is this reward of righteousness something that any sinner earns or deserves? NO! It is a “gift” that comes to sinners by or because of God’s “grace” (v24). And, now, Paul’s question in verse 27 is appropriate: “Then what becomes of our boasting?” And what does he say? “It is excluded. For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law”

You bet it’s excluded! What boasting can you do if all you contribute to your justification before God is your sin?! How can you boast if all you’ve done is passively put your faith in God’s gracious gift?!

God accomplished it all! God effectively, actually, and irrevocably saves sinners!

God alone and sovereignly makes sinners righteous. He justifies them through the death of His own Son, Jesus Christ, who was put forward by the Father as a “propitiation” at the cross. This is why our hearts may rejoice as we sing: 

How deep the Father’s love for us… How vast beyond all measure…                    

That He should give His only Son… To make a wretch His treasure, 

Why should I gain from His reward… I cannot give an answer…                                  

But this I know with all my heart… His wounds have paid my ransom.

But what does this doctrine of justification by faith or trust in what God has done in Jesus mean for those sinners who do not trust in or have faith in Jesus?

2.  UNJUSTIFIED SINNERS SHOULD EXPECT GOD’S JUSTICE

This will be a relatively short point, but it’s one worth making. And it will probably be the second-most offensive point I’ll make in this essay.

If you look to verses 25-26 of our passage, you’ll read an interesting couple of lines. The Scripture says, “This [and This is referring to Christ’s propitiating work on the cross] was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. 26 It [i.e. Jesus’ propitiation, His sacrificial death] was to show his [God’s] righteousness at the present time…”

Friend, the Bible never asks, “How could a loving God send someone to hell?” The Bible, unlike self-centered rebels like us, is far more interested in God’s glory than it is in man’s comfort or in our foolish presumptions about fairness.

In verses 25 and 26, the Bible is telling us that God’s own righteousness might have been in question if He hadn’t displayed His wrath in the work of Jesus Christ. The underlying question here is: If God is a perfect judge who always delivers impartial justice, then where is it?! Sinners seem to be walking around freely right now, and God has even promised to let some sinners escape His justice!

Ah, the Bible says, God hasn’t let His waves of justice roll just yet, but there is no question that God will pour out His wrath on all sinners everywhere. We know this because we can see God’s commitment to justice in the cross of Jesus Christ. Do you think God will spare any of us if He did not spare His own Son?  

Friend, do not presume upon the riches of God’s kindness and patience!

Don’t you know that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance?

You should turn away from your sin and cling tightly to Jesus. You should plead with God to blot out your transgressions with the blood of His own Son, so that you may be spared from God’s unrelenting wrath, which is surely coming.

God will show no pity in the day of judgment. Look what He has done to His beloved Son in order to save those sinners who are recipients of His grace!

The Bible says that if you do not repent and cling to Jesus then you are “storing up wrath for yourself” which will be poured out “on the day of wrath when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed” (Romans 2:5).

Unbelieving and unrepentant sinners should expect nothing but God’s justice.

3.  GOD’S RIGHTEOUSNESS IS RECEIVED BY FAITH ALONE

With this point, which will probably be the most offensive one to some readers, I’m going to contrast the biblical gospel with other versions of the gospel, which are not really any gospel at all. My purpose here is not to be divisive or mean just for the sake of meanness. But, rather, my purpose is to hold up the true gospel, right next to some other ideas that try to pass themselves off as the gospel, so that we will know better how to tell the difference. 

Remember our primary question. We’re asking, “How are guilty sinners justified before a holy God?” I’ve answered this question already by pointing us to Romans 3, and by arguing from the Bible that God makes sinners righteous. He justifies them through the death of His Son, Jesus Christ, who was put forward by the Father as a “propitiation” at the cross.

But how does any sinner receive this gracious gift of righteousness? In real time and in the experience of our real lives, how do we move from being an object of God’s wrath to being an object of His grace and mercy? 

Well, from God’s perspective, the matter is already settled. From before the foundation of the world, He has loved and chosen a people for His name’s sake. And the Father sent the Son into the world in order to die as the substitute for those He came to save (or to justify). And God’s Spirit perfectly applies the work of Christ to all those the Father has loved and chosen.[9]

Praise God for such a marvelous salvation! He has decided it. He has planned it. And He will complete it perfectly… all the way through to the end!

But, from our perspective, the matter is still unfolding. We don’t come into this world knowing and believing the gospel of Christ. We are not naturally loving and serving our good King. Rather, we begin as guilty and rebellious sinners.

How, then, do sinners like us trade our unrighteousness for the righteousness of God in Christ? Or, to put it another way, what must we do to be saved (or justified) before God?

It will probably be helpful if I add a little clarifying note with regard to the precise language I’m using when I say “justified.” The Bible speaks of “salvation” as something that has happened, something that is happening, and something that will happen.

The Christian has been saved, is being saved, and will be saved. But this is a way of using the same word to mean slightly different things.

What we really mean when we speak this way is: The Christian has been regenerated, justified, and adopted into the family of God. The Christian is being sanctified, renewed, and spiritually matured. And the Christian will be glorified, resurrected, and made perfect in Jesus Christ.

So, to speak of “justification” is to refer to a precise aspect of the overall work and experience of Christian salvation. But justification is a critical piece of the puzzle. In fact, Martin Luther said,

“The article of justification is the master and prince, the lord, the ruler, and the judge over all kinds of doctrines; it preserves and governs all church doctrine and raises up our conscience before God. Without this article the world is utter death and darkness.”[10]

Indeed, to get justification wrong is to lose the gospel altogether. To get justification wrong is to lose salvation and to lose even the whole Christian church. So, let’s dig just a little deeper into justification here.

In the 16th century, and still today, the Roman Catholic Church taught and teaches that a sinner actively participates in his or her justification by (at minimum) observing the sacraments of the Church, of which baptism is primary.[11] In other words, justification is not only an act of God, but it is also an activity in which the sinner plays an “instrumental” role, namely the sinner contributes to the “process” of his or her justification by performing religious duties.[12]

In fact, Rome has formally condemned anyone who teaches or believes the view that justification is something only God does through Christ, which is to be received only by simple faith.[13] Simply put, Rome has officially declared eternal damnation on anyone who teaches or believes the doctrine of justification as I have explained it above.

But Rome is not the only church to teach a gospel of justification by faith plus religious obedience. Historically consistent Churches of Christ teach the same. For example, Graceton Church of Christ (located near me) affirms that baptism is “an act which is essential to salvation.”[14]  Very much like official Roman Catholicism, Churches of Christ seem to mix together faith in the Lord Jesus with other religious activities which Christians are commanded to do as a result of their faith in Jesus.

But the Bible doesn’t teach justification by faith plus anything!

The Bible teaches us that God justifies by His grace through the work of Jesus Christ. Justification is not something we do. It’s not something we can do! We don’t contribute to our justification in any way. We are passive recipients of God’s gracious and effective work, which provides perfect righteousness for us.

This is marvelous good news for sinners like us, because it means that we have a truly effective savior. Jesus didn’t just make salvation possible for sinners like us; He truly and actually died in our place. And in so doing, He quenched God’s wrath against us and made us righteous in God’s sight. We must simply believe or trust that this is true.

At 3:00 AM on February 18, 1546, Martin Luther was dying, and his friend asked him, “Reverend father, will you die steadfast in Christ and the doctrines you have preached?” Luther simply responded, “Yes.”

May God help us too, to have no guilt in life and no fear in death. May God help us all to stand in the love, in the sacrifice, and in the power of Jesus Christ.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Luther, Martin. The Large Catechism. Translated by F. Bente and W.H.T. Dan. Published in: Triglot Concordia: The Symbolical Books of the Ev. Lutheran Church. St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1921. http://www.projectwittenberg.org/pub/resources/text/wittenberg/wittenberg-boc.html

Packer, J. I., and Dever, Mark. In My Place Condemned He Stood. Crossway, 2007.

Rafferty, Oliver. P. Catholic Views of Justification. In P. R. Eddy, J. K. Beilby, & S. E. Enderlein (Eds.),Justification: Five Views. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2011.

Ratzinger, Joseph Cardinal. Catechism of the Catholic Church. Crown Publishing Group, First Image Books edition, 1995.

Sproul, R. C. Faith Alone: The Evangelical Doctrine of Justification. Baker Books, 1995.

Waterworth, J. Ed. and trans. The Council of Trent. The canons and decrees of the sacred and oecumenical Council of Trent. London: Dolman, 1848. Scanned by Hanover College students in 1995.

ENDNOTES


[1] See the official Vatican authorization of indulgences as recently as March 20 of 2020. https://www.americamagazine.org/faith/2020/03/20/pope-francis-authorizes-plenary-indulgences-and-general-absolution-coronavirus

[2] See Luther’s 95 theses: https://marcminter.com/2017/03/30/martin-luthers-95-theses/  

[3] See this article on Luther’s conversion: https://www.ligonier.org/blog/story-martin-luthers-conversion/

[4] Quote from: Reeves, Michael. The Unquenchable Flame: Discovering the Heart of the Reformation (p. 15). B&H Publishing Group. Kindle Edition

[5] Here’s a popular level article I wrote on the subject: https://marcminter.com/2017/05/10/christians-dont-need-the-bible/ and here’s a more academic article on the same: https://marcminter.com/2018/11/01/sufficiency-of-scripture/

[6] Sproul, 56-57.

[7] Sproul, 57.

[8] Packer, 23.

[9] See all of this laid out in Ephesians 1:3-14; Romans 8:27-39; 2 Timothy 1:8-12; and elsewhere.

[10] Sproul, 67.

[11] Rafferty, 280. See also chapter 7 of the sixth session of the Council of Trent, which says, “Of this Justification the causes are these: the final cause indeed is the glory of God and of Jesus Christ, and life everlasting; while the efficient cause is a merciful God who washes and sanctifies gratuitously, signing, and anointing with the holy Spirit of promise, who is the pledge of our inheritance; but the meritorious cause is His most beloved only- begotten, our Lord Jesus Christ, who, when we were enemies, for the exceeding charity wherewith he loved us, merited Justification for us by His most holy Passion on the wood of the cross, and made satisfaction for us unto God the Father; the instrumental cause is the sacrament of baptism, which is the sacrament of faith, without which (faith) no man was ever justified; lastly, the alone formal cause is the justice of God, not that whereby He Himself is just, but that whereby He maketh us just…”

[12] Rafferty, 278-280.

[13] See Waterworth, session 6, especially canons 9, 12, 24, and 30.

[14] See full content at http://www.churches-of-christ.net/tracts/job041u.htm

A Summary of “What is the Gospel?” by Greg Gilbert in 22 Quotes

Greg Gilbert does a fantastic job of addressing this question (What is the Gospel?), and the book is not lengthy at all. It is my hope that this brief summary will serve as an encouragement to buy and read this book in total. Here is an overview of Gilbert’s book in the form of 22 direct quotes.

You can see and purchase this great book on Amazon by CLICKING HERE.

  1. “It is to God’s Word that we look in order to find what he has said to us about his Son Jesus and about the good news of the gospel” (26).
  2. “Approach the task of defining the main contours of the Christian gospel not by doing a word study, but by looking at what the earliest Christians said about Jesus and the significance of his life, death, and resurrection” (27).
  3. GOD: “First, Paul tells his readers that it is God to whom they are accountable” (28).
  4. MAN: “Second, Paul tells his readers that their problem is that they rebelled against God” (29).
  5. CHRIST: “Third, Paul says that God’s solution to humanity’s sin is the sacrificial death and resurrection of Jesus Christ” (30).
  6. RESPONSE: “Finally, Paul tells his readers how they themselves can be included in this salvation” (31).
  7. “We can see that at the heart of his proclamation of the gospel are the answers to four crucial questions: 1) Who made us, and to whom are we accountable? 2) What is our problem? In other words, are we in trouble and why? 3) What is God’s solution to that problem? How has he acted to save us from it? 4) How do I – myself, right here, right now – how do I come to be included in that salvation? What makes this good news for me and not just for someone else?” (31).
  8. “Whatever else you think about the story of creation, the implications of this claim – that God created the world, and especially that God created you – are enormous” (41).
  9. “Scripture proclaims over and over that our God is a God of perfect justice and unassailable righteousness” (44).
  10. “When Adam and Eve bit into the fruit, therefore, they weren’t just violating some arbitrary command, ‘Don’t eat the fruit.’ They were doing something much sadder and much more serious. They were rejecting God’s authority over them and declaring their independence from him” (49).
  11. “Put simply, the Bible tells us that Jesus is both completely human and completely God. This is a crucial point to understand about him, for it is only the fully human, fully divine Son of God who can save us” (61).
  12. “Faith and repentance. This is what marks out those who are Christ’s people, or ‘Christians.’ In other words, a Christian is one who turns away from his sin and trusts in the Lord Jesus Christ – and nothing else – to save him from sin and the coming judgment” (73).
  13. “Putting your faith in Christ means that you utterly renounce any other hope of being counted righteous before God” (79).
  14. “To have faith in Jesus is, at its core, to believe that he really is who he says he is – the crucified and risen King who has conquered death and sin, and who has the power to save. Now how could a person believe all that, trust in it, and rely on it, and yet at the same time say, ‘But I don’t acknowledge that you [Jesus] are King over me’?” (80).
  15. “The kingdom of God, then, simply defined, is God’s redemptive rule, reign, and authority over those redeemed by Jesus” (88).
  16. “He [Jesus] was claiming that the kingdom of God had been inaugurated in him!” (88).
  17. “What this means is that many of the blessings of the kingdom are already ours” (89).
  18. “The kingdom of God is not net completed, and it will not be completed until King Jesus returns” (90).
  19. “The great hope for Christians, the thing for which we long and to which we look for strength and encouragement, is the day when our King will part the skies and return to establish his glorious kingdom, finally and forever” (91).
  20. “The way to be included in Christ’s kingdom is to come to the King, not just hailing him as a great example who shows us a better way to live, but humbly trusting him as the crucified and risen Lord who alone can release you from the sentence of death” (96).
  21. “The church is the arena in which God has chosen, above all, to showcase his wisdom and the glory of the gospel” (98).
  22. “I believe one of the greatest dangers the body of Christ faces today is the temptation to rethink and rearticulate the gospel in a way that makes its center something other than the death of Jesus on the cross in the place of sinners” (102).

May God help us all to know the Christ-centered and cross-centered gospel better, believe it truly, turn from sin adamantly, and share the gospel promiscuously.

Dying to Live: The Gospel Paradox

Jesus said, “Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life. If anyone serves me, he must follow me; and where I am, there will my servant be also. If anyone serves me, the Father will honor him. Now is my soul troubled. And what shall I say? ‘Father, save me from this hour’? But for this purpose I have come to this hour.” (Jn. 12:25-27).

There are glorious promises in the Gospel of Jesus Christ! The King of glory offers eternal life, present companionship with Himself, and honor from God the Father. What joy must fill the heart of anyone who contemplates such rewards as these! Only consider what you (and every sinner) deserve from God, and these promised blessings will become ever so sweet.

And yet, the astute reader will notice a disturbing paradox among these pleasant words. When was it that Christ earned these blessings for His followers? It was at the troubling hour of His crucifixion! Where does Christ beckon His disciples to follow Him? It is to suffering He calls! How is it that Christ’s servants become partakers of everlasting life? It is by hating and losing life in this world!

May God grant to us all the fullness of His blessed promises in the Gospel of Christ, and may He empower us to follow the Savior with selfless abandon.

Declaring War on the Messiah

[Caiaphas] did not say this of his own accord, but being high priest that year he prophesied that Jesus would die for the nation, and not for the [Jewish] nation only, but also to gather into one the children of God who are scattered abroad” (Jn. 11:51-52).

The religious leaders in Jerusalem were not happy with the effect Jesus was having on the status quo. Jesus was really becoming a nuisance, and their patience with Him was running out. Not able or willing to deny His miracles, the religious leaders simply decided that Jesus had to be stopped… no matter who He claims to be.

Their opposition was violent and resolute, but these events were the climax of a much bigger and older story. God had been at work since before the foundations of the world, and God intended that Jesus would bear the full weight of His wrath against sinners. Like the Assyrian king who marveled at his own power (Is. 10:5-11), God used the religious leaders of Jerusalem to bring about His purposes of judgment the world.

Only this time, God’s judgment fell upon His own Son. What a profound display we see in the Gospel of Christ! In and through Jesus’ suffering, God exhausted His own wrath against sinners and gathered into one the Children of God from all peoples.

The Gospel in the Local Church

I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand…” (1 Corinthians 15:1).

“Gospel” is a word frequently used in our day. Someone might speak of “gospel truth” or sing “gospel music,” and many Evangelical churches are placing a heavy emphasis on “gospel-centered” or “gospel-focused” ministries. However, it is clear that all of this talk about the “gospel” has not done much to proclaim or illuminate the actual content or implications of the Gospel.

Furthermore, even in local churches where the Gospel is still the genuine focus, there is often a misunderstanding about the application of this message. Christians are aware that Christ’s person and work has saved them from God’s ultimate judgment, but they are regularly unaware of the implications this reality has for their homes and families, their church memberships, and their engagement with the world around them.

Healthy churches are marked by Gospel clarity. This means the Christians who comprise a healthy church have heard and received the Gospel; they are turning from disbelief and disobedience toward a Christ-exalting trust and practice. And it also means that these Christians are continually standing in this Gospel of grace and being conformed to righteousness, after the example and by the power of Christ Himself.

Simply put, healthy churches are chock-full of healthy Christians who are thoroughly learning and thoughtfully embracing the Gospel.

 

If you would like to read more about the Gospel, I wrote a short and basic description of the Gospel in a previous post “Do you know the Gospel?

Dawn of Hope

God said to the serpent of old, “I will put enmity between you and the woman [Eve], and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel” (Genesis 3:15).

It is overwhelming to measure what was lost when sin entered creation through Adam and Eve. The bleakness of death, the brokenness of relationships, and the barrenness of creation itself are all results or effects of this horrific fall. In God’s poetic response to humanity’s first sin, we hear terrifying truths.

And yet… there is also a beam of hope-filled light amid that darkness! God’s first words about the future of mankind were not condemning but restorative. Before God declared the disastrous curse, He shouted the hope-giving promise of blessing!

In this ancient account of the first sin, we find the first gracious proclamation of the good news from God. He is merciful, and He promised a rescuer, a savior, a restorer. All that was lost in the fall is gained through Jesus Christ.

Jesus restores life to the dead, He restores the joy of living to the glory of God, He restores harmony in broken relationships, and He restores the heritage of an everlasting family.

In short, Jesus is Himself the dawn of hope for all who love and trust Him.

The Christ from the Father

Jesus said, “I have not come of my own accord. He who sent me is true… I know him, for I come from him, and he sent me” (John 7:28-29).

The grand narrative (or big story) of the Bible is bigger than most people realize. Additionally, the Gospel of Jesus Christ is fundamentally a Trinitarian Gospel. That is, God the Father sent God the Son to be the one through whom the work of redemption is accomplished, and God the Holy Spirit applies this work to the hearts and lives of those who enjoy the benefits of spiritual life in the triune God.

All of this was and is played out in real time and over the course of human history, but this story began even before time itself. While the Gospel (and the triune God from whom this good news comes) is timeless, we are not. We live only a short while, and then we enter an endless existence – where we will finally see with eyes wide open what we only see now through dim light in this upside-down world.

The Christ from the Father makes His appeal to all who will hear and obey it: “Come to me, for I am life and truth.” Without delay, repentance and faith (turning from sin and trusting in Christ) are the right response, because one day the offer will no longer be available to sinful rebels like us.

May God grant us faith and repentance this very moment, and may we give proper attention to the gracious gift God offers us in the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

 

Commemorating the Lord’s Death

“…proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes(1 Corinthians 11:26).

While we would likely prefer to avoid hard and uncomfortable topics, God addresses them head on. Our loving heavenly Father graciously gives us truth and wisely meets us where we are. God doesn’t pretend bad things are not really bad, and He doesn’t merely give us empty one-liners in a superficial attempt to make us feel better.

Instead, God gives us a suffering Savior who triumphs through defeat. While the whole world clamors for power, God the Son voluntarily gives Himself over to humiliation. While humanity seeks to be free from woe and grief, the God-man presents Himself as the willing sufferer. What is this?! What kind of King… what kind of Messiah… what kind of God?!

God gives us real hope for all time and a promise of victory forevermore, not by forcibly and immediately removing all suffering, but by entering the suffering Himself. One day we shall finally be free from suffering and death, but until then we commemorate the death of death in the death of Christ, our Lord.

The Gospel in a Muslim Culture

Contextualization has become a buzzword in Christian mission discussions for some time now.  There are proponents who extol the value of building bridges for people groups unfamiliar with biblical concepts and terminology, and there are others who accuse ‘contextualizers’ of syncretism[1].

Referring to terms like contextualization and syncretism, one author commented,

“As commonly used, [these terms] function on the boundary line between heresy and orthodoxy, with a strong suspicion that syncretists have crossed the line into heresy while contextualists have enabled people to experience new creativity and depth in their faith” (emphasis added).[2]

Many have understood this as a reality and have thus attempted to distinguish where the “boundary line” should be drawn.  Drawing this line has proven a difficult task indeed.

Defining our primary term of interest, one author wrote,

Contextualization is ‘taking the unchanging truth of the gospel and making it understandable in a given context.’”[3]

This essay has adopted this definition for its usefulness and clarity.  If one understands contextualization in these terms, then one can hardly accuse such of syncretism.  After all, making the Gospel understandable is the goal of any person engaged in evangelism.

The muddying of today’s contextualization water seems to have come from a particular interest in applying this principle to Muslim or Islamic people groups.  In such a context, one may rightly understand that the “goal is not to make Scripture as Islamic as possible; rather, it is to communicate the unchanging truth in a particular Islamic context so it makes sense.”[4]  Again, this seems fairly straight forward thinking for the purpose of evangelism.

In addition to the social and religious context that is the makeup of the Islamic or Muslim worldview, one question that arises is the use of non-Christian sacred texts in evangelism.  Miles explains the use of these texts in relationship with the Bible or Scripture in the following terms.

“The search for truth must begin with Scripture, must be submitted to scripture, and must honor the one to whom Scripture points.  Where non-Christian sacred texts corroborate the truth of Scripture they may be used apologetically or evangelistically.”[5]

From this view, any perceived sacred text may be used (to one degree or another) as it aligns with the biblical truth, but only as a secondary and complimentary source at best.  Representing a different view, Dutch says, “The gospel is… initially perceived as harmonious with – and to some extent supported by – Islamic scripture.”[6]  In this view, the Islamic sacred text is in some way ‘harmonious’ with the Gospel itself.

Miles, however, goes on to say, “Any non-biblical sacred text that is quoted should be ‘lifted out of its original setting and clearly reoriented within a new Christocentric setting.’”[7]  Non-biblical texts do not present themselves as “disoriented truths about the Almighty,” but they intentionally claim an entire worldview.  Therefore, contrary to the claims of Dutch, the Gospel may not be perceived as harmonious with the Islamic text; rather, the Gospel would stand in stark contrast to the whole of the Islamic text.

Another concern for those engaging Muslims for the sake of the Gospel is that of cultural and religious identification.  Some Christians have gone as far as calling themselves Muslims in order to gain acceptance by the Muslim community, but Leffel points out,

“identifying one’s self as a Muslim in only the cultural sense or in a radically reinterpreted religious sense is grossly misleading.”

He also reminds us, “Evangelicals have long deplored the semantic mysticism of liberal theologians as they import deceptive meanings to biblical terms that are utterly foreign to their context.”[8]  It does not seem honest or beneficial for Christians to attempt such a covert operation in the name of evangelism.

However, labeling Christians who evangelize Muslims does not seem to be nearly as difficult as categorizing Muslims who have converted to faith in Christ.  Dutch rightly notes,

“We should remember that the term ‘Christian’ does not come as a God-ordained label for followers of Jesus.  The name arose as a local – and probably derisive – name for Jesus disciples in Antioch (Acts 11:26).”[9]

In addition, the term “Christian” has been perceived through faulty lenses in the Muslim culture for a very long time.  It simply does not carry an accurate meaning in the mind of a Muslim.

However, it is not only the label “Christian” that seems to bother some of those attempting to evangelize Muslims.  There is also an allergy for many of the biblical distinctives and an aversion to separating from many or all Islamic religious routines and structures.  Just how much does a Muslim have to look like a Christian in order to be considered a follower of Christ?

In order to measure the progression from the look and feel of Western Christianity to what has been called Muslim-background believers, a spectrum or scale was devised known as the “C-scale.”

The C-scale begins with C1, described as “a church foreign to the community in both culture and language,” and ends with C6, described as “secret believers, may or may not be active members in the religious life of the Muslim community.”[10]

This scale is helpful in organizing the categories of Muslims who have been evangelized based on their various responses to the Gospel.  Of particular interest is the significance of a Muslim’s new identification with Jesus or Isa (the Arabic name for ‘Jesus’), and the significance of his remaining identification with Islam.

In an attempt to extract the C-scale from its primary focus (namely ‘how Muslim can a former-Muslim remain while he professes to have a new identity in Isa or Jesus Christ’), Mark Williams provides a loose analogy in the form of “Christian Music.”  Measuring his selections and placing them along the C-scale, he names hymns as C1 level “Christian Music” and changes only the instrumentality for the C2 category (still singing hymns, but using a wider variety of instruments).

For the C3 level he names “Maranatha Music” (a very eclectic and modern style of music with much less content) and for C4 he lists a wide-ranging musical style that fits under the heading of “Contemporary Christian Music.”  This style is even less substantial in content than the aforementioned hymns.  Lastly, Williams recognizes that the “music [listed under the headings of C5 and C6] might not even be considered Christian by any of the [other] four ‘C’ types;” then he proceeds to list the band “Evanescence” as an analogous the C5 level of “Christian Music” and the singer “Lenny Kravitz” as an example of C6.[11]

Unless one is personally involved with either Lenny Kravitz or any of those associated with the band Evanescence, one cannot know their personal worldview or theological positions, but I think it safe to say that none of the music put out by Evanescence or Lenny Kravitz has any distinctly Christian themes whatever.  In fact, it seems hard to imagine someone referring to either of these as “Christian” music or “Christian” artists with any real sincerity.

If Williams’ analogy is accurate, then there is no reason whatever to consider C5 and C6 as remaining under the umbrella of Christianity at all, and there should be serious reservations about what is included as such under the C4 heading.

Much of the debate over contextualization seems to stem from some disagreement about identity and obstacles that may hinder a person or group from finding their identity in Christ. 

While there is certainly value in removing obstacles, and such a goal is worthy of further conversation, it should not be overlooked or quickly dismissed that the Gospel message itself is an obstacle.  The Apostle Paul says that the Gospel of Christ is “a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles” (1 Cor. 1:23).  In other words, it is a barrier to the Jews and foolishness (another kind of obstruction) to everyone else.

While evangelism demands that we present the Gospel in understandable terms, the Gospel itself – when contextually understood – will still remain intolerable to some.

It seems that the chief goal of evangelism should not be to make the Gospel more palatable but to make it understandable

If one understands the Gospel, then he may find it wonderful or offensive, but we may not adjust the call to abandon all else for the sake of Christ simply because it is an offensive call.

 

Reference List

Dutch, Bernard. “Should Muslims Become “Christians”?” International Journal of Frontier Missions 17, no. 1 (Spring 2000).

Heideman, E. S. “Syncretism, Contextualization, Orthodoxy, and Heresy.” Missiology: An International Review Missiology: An International Review 25, no. 1 (1997): 37-49. WorldCat.

Leffel, Jim. “Contextualization: Building Bridges to the Muslim Community.” Xenos Online Journal. Accessed June 20, 2014. http://www.xenos.org/ministries/crossroads/OnlineJournal/issue1/contextu.htm.

Miles, Todd L. A God of Many Understandings? : The Gospel and a Theology of Religions. Nashville, Tenn.: B & H Academic, 2010. WorldCat.

Oksnevad, Roy. “Contextualization in the Islamic Context.” Lausanne World Pulse, April 2007, 16-19.

Williams, M. S. “Revisiting the C1-C6 Spectrum in Muslim Contextualization.” Missiology: An International Review Missiology: An International Review 39, no. 3 (2011): 335-51. Accessed June 20, 2014. WorldCat.

 

 

[1] Syncretism carries the idea of mixing Christianity with non-Christian ideas without regard for the purity of the Christian Faith.

[2] Heideman

[3] Oksnevad

[4] Oksnevad

[5] Miles

[6] Dutch

[7] Miles

[8] Leffel

[9] Dutch

[10] Williams

[11] Williams

The Wonderful Cross

Have you ever stopped to consider the meaning of the words Christians say and sing?

Oh, the Wonderful Cross” is the title and chorus of a popular church song, written by Chris Tomlin in 2001. This modern song is really an updated version of a much older song (1707) by Isaac Watts, “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross.” Both songs highlight a profound Christian paradox. This paradox is, in fact, the essence of the Gospel.

At the cross of Jesus Christ, we see the apex of God’s plan to redeem, to save, to rescue sinful people. Here we encounter the God of righteousness and mercy, justice and grace, holiness and love. While Jesus Christ was a perfectly obedient man, fulfilling every requirement of God’s law, Jesus was counted as sinfully wretched and utterly shameful.

It was my shame and sin which Christ bore on the cross, and this is why I sing.

When I survey the wondrous Cross
On which the Prince of Glory died
My richest gain, I count but loss
And pour contempt on all my pride

But why!? Why would the Prince of Glory put Himself under the wrath of God in my place? Ah, this is the matchless love of God on marvelous display… Not that I am so loveable, but that His love is so profound.

The Bible teaches us that God has loved with an unfathomable love. We read of God’s loving self-disclosure when we come across phrases like, “God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses…” (Ephesians 2:4–5). Or consider the amazing love of God here: “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8).

Since God has loved me so, and since He has demonstrated His love in such a meaningful way, I sing again.

Were the whole realm of nature mine,
that were a present far too small.
Love so amazing, so divine,
demands my soul, my life, my all.

When I survey the wondrous cross, I do indeed marvel. Such a wonderful cross it is, this monument of suffering and glory, of sorrow and love.

May God graciously grant that my soul, my life, and my all would be an acceptable offering of gratitude.