Christ Alone: Absolutely Wonderful!

“Jesus paid it all / all to Him I owe.” Some hymns have the most wonderful truths, don’t they? Jesus paid it all. We are saved by Christ alone.

In practice, we don’t always believe this. We think that the strength of our faith, the degree of our obedience, or the purity of our motives are bear some of the responsibility for our salvation. When we see stuff really wrong in ourselves, we worry that we haven’t done enough. We fear we don’t believe enough. We know the sin in our hearts and suspect we’re disqualified because of it.

And of course, these self-criticisms are all completely correct. Our faith isn’t strong enough to be saved, our obedience isn’t complete enough to be saved, and we don’t love God enough in our hearts to be saved. In and of ourselves, we have nothing good, and even with the Holy Spirit living in us we resist and quench Him far too much, following the desires of the flesh.

How then can we be saved? If we are saved by faith, but even our faith is shaped with unbelief, what grounds are there for God to save us?

We are saved by Jesus Christ alone.

Not our faith. Not our obedience. Not our love for God or for people. Jesus alone saves us. This is the Gospel: Jesus Himself is our salvation. For it is written:

But now apart from the law the righteousness of God (which is attested by the law and the prophets) has been disclosed – namely, the righteousness of God through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. But they are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.

Romans 3:21-24

We are justified by God’s free grace, namely Jesus who redeemed humanity by His faithfulness. Jesus by Himself makes our salvation. Our faith has no power simply because it is faith, but because it is in Jesus and from the Spirit. Indeed, the faith which saves us is our own, but not our own, for Paul confesses this:

I am crucified with Christ. Even so I live, yet not I, but Christ lives in me. The life that I now live in the flesh, I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.

Galatians 2:20b

It is Jesus, from beginning to end. He is the Author and Finisher, the Source and Perfecter, of our faith (Heb. 12:2). He accomplished salvation once for all (Heb. 9:12) on behalf of all (2 Cor. 5:14) even while we were still worthless sinners and enemies to God (Rom. 5:6, 8, 10). Because of this, there is absolutely no space left for us to be condemned if we are in Christ (Rom. 8:1).

What does this all add up to? Christ alone. He saves us by His grace, through His faith, with His faithfulness. There is nothing good in me, that is, in my flesh. On my own I am filled with selfishness, lust, anger, apathy, and greed. Unbelief and disobedience work behind the scenes even in my best righteousness, even when I am most in tune with the Spirit of God. But praise be to God that He has done away with all of these things, making them the old and fading reality. Through Jesus Christ, His beloved Son, He has overcome all of my sinful contradiction, all of my frailty and weakness of the flesh. By Christ alone we are saved. Even at our worst, Jesus saves us at His best. How amazing! How astounding! Hallelujah! Amen.

Christ Alone: Absolutely Wonderful!

Misconceptions about Misconceptions about the Bible

People have a lot of funky ideas about the Bible. And it’s no wonder, given that it is the worldwide bestseller, was completed 2000 years ago, and is revered as God’s word by many millions of people. Anything with that kind of place in the world is bound to find several strange receptions.

One thing which frequently happens with the Bible is the publishing of articles in print and online which claim to reveal the truth about misconceptions people have regarding the Bible. A quick Google search proves this. This is unsurprising and often necessary. After all, there’s quite a bit of nonsense the average Joe, and even the average born-and-bred Christian, believes about the Bible that is not true at all. So let those with knowledge correct the ignorant. Deal with misconceptions about the Bible.

But there is a troubling trend which is evident from even the top search results. Many of the so-called “misconceptions” the top articles correct are in fact orthodox Christian teachings, or at least something closely related. Here’s an example from one of the articles on Google’s first page of results:

The character “Yahweh” in the Hebrew Bible should not be confused with the god of western theological speculation (generally referred to as “God”). The attributes assigned to “God” by post-biblical theologians — such as omniscience and immutability — are simply not attributes possessed by the character Yahweh as drawn in biblical narratives. Indeed, on several occasions Yahweh is explicitly described as changing his mind, because when it comes to human beings his learning curve is steep. Humans have free will; they act in ways that surprise him and he must change tack and respond. One of the greatest challenges for modern readers of the Hebrew Bible is to allow the text to mean what it says, when what is says flies in the face of doctrines that emerged centuries later from philosophical debates about the abstract category “God.”

Um, is that okay? Of course there are lots of people who argue this, even some within Christianity, but is that really a misconception about the Bible, or the result of different worldviews and how they address the questions surrounding the Bible, divine revelation, and the divine nature? After all, Calvin and Bavnick handled the OT weirdness pretty handily with their theology of accommodation. But here it is asserted without consideration of debate that a traditional view is one of people’s misconceptions about the Bible.

The problem I’m seeing is how many people use the guise of “Guess what you never knew about the Bible?” to promote skeptical, anti-Christian views as the facts. This is standard fare. I could multiply the examples:

  • Lots of articles says, “Moses didn’t write the Pentateuch!” (the first five books of the Bible), “We now know that it came way later from four distinct and contradictory sources edited into one book.” This is far from settled, except in the minds of people who have ruled out a priori the possibility that the Creator God really did reveal Himself to the people of Israel in word and powerful deeds. And this isn’t merely a conservative Christian vs. the rest of the world matter, either. The popular JEDP theory touted by blogs and magazines galore has been under increasing question in recent years, partially due to the way that a robustly historical and contextual reading of the Pentateuch seems to work best if it is taken as a whole.
  • Many will say, “Guess what? The word for ‘virgin’ in Isaiah 7:10 actually meant ‘young women’ and was mistranslated into Greek, so Matthew and Luke actually invented the virgin birth to fulfill a mistranslated prophecy!” In fact, a large number of people consider this a settled fact. Yet the debate continues, even among real scholars, over the meaning of the word almah and, perhaps more importantly, the way that the NT authors cited the OT. This is not a settled matter by any means.
  • Of course, there’s also the classic “The Bible has really changed from the originals,” which is patently false as far the evidence can lead us. Every new discovery leads towards the opposite conclusion, but that doesn’t stop bloggers and journalists from reporting it as a scholarly consensus and fact that the Bible we have is totally unreliable.

I could go on, but I would risk making a fool of myself by speaking on matters above my pay grade (as if I’ve completely refrained from doing so already). My goal here certainly isn’t to prove the skeptics and secular scholars wrong. I merely want to point out the secret you won’t find in popular writings: none of these misconceptions about the Bible are as settled or certain as people on either side of the aisle would like to pretend. 

I say “either side of the aisle” for good reason, too. There’s no airtight case for most of what we believe about the Bible and history as Christians. Yes, there are rational reasons to believe, but the evidence isn’t overwhelming and demanding. But likewise, the consensus among many who aren’t orthodox Christians is far from guaranteed. There are compelling arguments, but no proof which can force the hand away from faith.

This brings me to the crux of the matter, namely the spiritual perspective. Despite what we assume about matters of facts, proofs, and evidence in today’s scientific and technological world, there is no objective and impartial judge over all these matters. Everyone stands either from a place of faith or of unbelief, either thinking as one united to the mind of Christ through the indwelling Holy Spirit or thinking according to the wisdom of this world in resistance to the One who is Truth. Therefore we have to own up to that, and in the case of sensationalist bloggers and reporters claiming to know why classical Christianity is false we must hold them accountable. They are not objective, and their claims are not settled reality. There is debate and, although it sounds awfully silly to those without the rule of faith, spiritual warfare going on.

Basically, don’t believe the common misconception that basic Christian doctrine is a misconception about the Bible. ‘Cause that’s not necessarily true.

Misconceptions about Misconceptions about the Bible

The Bible Is Not a House of Cards

What do very many Christians and very many atheists have in common? Believe it or not, they view the Bible pretty similarly. What could an atheist and a Christian both think about the Bible? Both often act as though the Bible were a house of cards.

We’ve all seen card houses. As children, we all made them. They were always a very difficult project, trying to stack each flimsy card just right to keep the whole building from falling down. And fall down they did. At the slightest disturbance, if even one card was removed or wiggled, the entire house crashed.

To far too many people, the Bible works more or less the same way. Every statement in Scripture is a card, and the whole Bible is the house. If a single statement were found false, mistaken, or even just a bit uncertain, the falling card would mean the collapse of all 66 (or 73, for my filthy papist Catholic friends) books and indeed the Christian faith as at all trustworthy.

The logic behind treating the Bible this way is usually quite straightforward. According to the Christian side, the Bible is the word of God. Since God can’t lie or even make a mistake, every word in the Bible must be certainly true. Therefore if a single word in Scripture were less than completely true, the Bible could not be God’s word. So Christianity is false.

But this is a completely wrong way to approach the Bible. Let’s say we found for sure a definite error or contradiction in Scripture. What would be the possible implications? There are, generally speaking, two options:

  1. The house of cards logic is correct, which means that because of this error, the entire Bible is not trustworthy. So Christianity is almost certainly false. This position is taken by many pop-level atheists, and is also the fear many Christians would have if they found an error.

  2. The house of cards logic is false. Even though there’s an error, the Bible can still be considered the word of God. But in this case the “word of God” does not mean every last individual word comes straight from God’s mouth. A more flexible theory of Biblical inspiration is probably true (see my post on the different theories). Christianity can still be true. This position is assumed by very many Christians outside pop-theology.

Obviously, option 2 is preferable to option 1 for multiple reasons. For one, remember that Christianity is based on Jesus first, and the Bible second. Historically, Jesus did rise from the dead, regardless of whether the Bible has errors or not, so Christianity is true. As well, remember that no other book is held up to an all-or-nothing standard. If the Bible was not the word of God, we would have to treat what the Bible says just like we treat what every other book says. In that case there would be still good reasons to believe that Scripture is at least generally reliable, that Jesus did rise from the dead, that the apostles spoke authoritatively for Christ’s church, and even that the Old Testament is a useful historical resource. Based on pure facts, evidence, and human reason all of this would be true even if the Bible wasn’t God’s word.

If that is not enough to persuade you, I would also suggest that the Bible can easily be God’s word even if there are errors. There are several theories of Biblical inspiration out there. Some allow for errors, some don’t, but most of them still call Scripture “God’s word,” say that He actually speaks using the Bible, and agree that our Bible has final authority over the faith. I wrote a post about the major theories a while back, and you can look at that list to understand what I mean if you don’t. So if the Bible did have an error, maybe verbal, plenary inspiration would be wrong, but something else like dynamic inspiration—which does say the Bible is God’s word and final authority—could be the truth.

So I propose a different analogy for the Bible. God’s word is not a house of cards, but a house of many materials built on a firm foundation. That foundation is the history of Jesus Christ, including the history of the Israel who brought Him into the world, the history of His own life, and the history of the church of His apostles. All of these things really happened, and behind them all is the work and word of God, His powerful acts and equally powerful words by which He brought Himself to humanity. Even if the Bible was never written down and passed on to us, this all still happened in our own space and time history. God through Jesus is a physical part of our human past. So with this firm of a foundation, even if there were cracks or rot in the walls or floors, the house of God’s word would still stand.

The Bible, then, is more than anything a testimony to these foundational facts of history. What God did and said in the past are now fixed realities, and the words of Scripture tell us about them. We can see the Bible as the word of God because God’s own prophets and apostles, led by the power of the Holy Spirit, wrote it as permanent witness to God’s revelation in the human world, including His greatest and final revelation of Himself in Jesus Christ.

If this is how we see the Bible, then errors become less important. The text we read in Scripture is the, to use an analogy, courtroom testimony of witnesses to what God has done and said. So even if the witnesses were to make mistakes, forget things, or interpret something wrongly, what God actually did and said remains solid and fixed. The Bible is built on a firm foundation, and so is no house of cards but the house of the wise man.

All this, by the way, is not to suggest that the Bible actually is full of errors and needs special defense. No, I think that Scripture speaks for itself (actually, the Holy Spirit speaks for, through, and with Scripture), showing us that we can trust the Bible. Yet for the sake of the faith of many people, and to keep ourselves from being ridiculous before skeptics, I do propose this understanding so that we do not have to worry about errors in the Bible even if they do exist, since our faith is focused on something, make that Someone, who is Himself the undefeatable Truth. My concern is truly a pastoral one: I want people to know their faith in Christ needn’t be shaken just because they can’t find any answer to reconcile two genealogies or Resurrection accounts.

In case this isn’t clear, by the way, I’m not actually saying there are errors in the Bible. I’m not convinced that there are, but I definitely wouldn’t stake my life that there aren’t. If we are to be faithful to the God who created the real life world, we have to judge that based on what is actually in the Bible, not by our doctrines of inspiration. What we believe about the book God gave us has to be based on what is really true about what He gave. My true attitude is this: if there are no errors in the Bible, I praise God for giving us such perfect record of who He is and what He does! If there are errors in the Bible, I praise God for even making human mistakes work towards His all-consuming purpose of redemption, just like He does in our lives all the time! Either way, God is glorified, because we have a book from the Father, about the Son, given through the Holy Spirit for our sanctification. Amen!

(P.S. To any of you more learned readers out there, you may think my explanation of the Bible sounds really Barthian. While I do find Barth a very helpful influence with his language of witnesses and testimony, I am more conservative on Scripture than he is. My theory of inspiration is not actually Barthian, and honestly I still default to verbal, plenary inspiration.)

The Bible Is Not a House of Cards

An Experimental Framework for Justification

Justified. So we are as believers. We stand before God in some kind of right relationship. We know that this is done because of Jesus’ work for us. But the Bible can be a bit unclear on the details. As I mentioned in a recent post, both Catholic and Protestant views have strengths and weaknesses (though I obviously do land notably more Protestant myself), and I think the popular understandings of justification all miss at least a little something. My best insight was that justification does not have to have a completely uniform meaning. So I went to work trying to sort out what the Bible actually says about justification for my personal study, only to decide that what I came up with should become a blog post. Here, then, are the notes I made:

For now, I’m experimenting with a 3/4 distinction framework for understanding justification. At its most basic and common, justification involves rightness, a good standing in relation to God. This broader concept encompasses four subpoints, labeled J0-J3, all of which are to some degree bound up together. I do not expect to see all Scripture references to justification as falling neatly into these categories, for they necessarily will overlap, especially J0 and J1. The broad concepts are as follows:

J0: Ground zero justification. This is the finished work of Christ on our behalf as humanity. He lived, died, rose, and ascended to accomplish our rightness with God dramatically, forensically, and ontologically. He fulfilled the covenant for man so that man could be united with God. This justification is accomplished by Christ alone. It is a work of unilateral grace for our forgiveness and reconciliation, done once for all on behalf of all. By this justification we are saved.

J1: Initiation. This is the first subjective event of justification. It refers to the one event at which point an individual is reconciled to God through Christ, becoming righteous in Him before God and man. J1 can be subdivided into two moments.

J1.1: Union. The first moment of J1 justification is union with Christ, as the Spirit works to bring His life into us and make us one with Him. This ontological union is the fount of all our goodness, whether in the form of faith or works. It comes from the life of Christ we receive in union with Him. United with Christ also means that we share in His personal justification, appropriating the reality of J0.

J1.2: Declaration. The second moment of J1 justification is declaration, specifically God’s declaration that we are among His righteous ones (or in His righteous One). This declaration is made on the basis of faith, which is the firstfruits of J1.1 justification. Our faith becomes the first mark that we have become God’s children through Christ, and so we are declared as righteous.

J2: Identification. The second part of subjective justification, which continues throughout the life of the believer on earth, is identification. This is how God identifies who are His righteous ones (believers in Christ) before men, especially for the other righteous. Unlike in the OT, they are not identified by faithfulness to the Law, but by their faith and (unlike the prior dimensions of justification) their good deeds of love. Faith, however, remains the firstfruits, and both the believer’s faith and good works are still remembered to be the result of union with Christ, the personalized actualization of His life of faith/works.

J3: Final vindication. The third and final subjective part of justification, which occurs at final judgment, is our final vindication. This is the act whereby God gives His public verdict: righteous. This judgment is made in reference to the entire post-J1 life, though it is guaranteed by the J1 event. Because Christ grounds all of our faith and works through the Spirit, we will come out justified. This sentence is the last word on our eternal destiny, though it remains infallibly in accordance with the word God declares in J1.2.

 Following are my more in depth explanations of each point.

J0 Justification

J0 justification is the first and primary dimension of justification, though not necessarily the most discussed by the Biblical authors. Instead, it lies behind all parts of justification as their base and ground.

The essence of J0 justification is the finished work of Christ on our behalf. It is a work of free grace for our redemption (Rom. 3:24), causing our life by His own faithfulness to God (Rom. 3:26, Gal. 2:16) which counts also on our behalf, both anhypostatically an enhypostatically.

J0 justification is a work God began and indeed finished while we were yet ungodly sinners (Rom. 4:5, 5:8-10), before we had anything to offer God. It is completely gratuitous (Tit. 3:7), brought about solely by God’s salvific will toward mankind (1 Tim. 2:4, 4:10). We bring nothing to the table when it comes to this justifying righteousness, only God through Christ (Phil. 3:9).

While all of Christ’s person and life was directed towards our salvation, J0 justification centers primarily on the expiation of the Cross (Rom. 5:9) and the vindication of the Resurrection (Rom. 4:25). Because of what Jesus accomplished once-for-all as the high priest for all mankind (Heb. 9:28, 10:10), we are justified before God.

This justification consists of God’s stern, uncompromising judgment of human sin (Rom. 8:3) along with His gracious, saving acquittal of human sinners (Rom. 5:6-8, Zech. 3:4) in Jesus Himself. In this God saves the unrighteous through the vindication of His own righteousness (Rom. 3:4, cf Ps. 51:4).

J1 Justification

J1 justification refers to the initial salvation event in the believer’s life, when he goes from an unjustified sinner to a justified saint. This is considered the beginning of the life of faith, the conversion and spiritual birth. “Justification” is not, in fact, applicable to all the dimensions of this event, but only to two of them. These two dimensions are the component moments of the J1 justification event. (Moments, in this case, are meant to be taken in relation to logical, not temporal, order. The two moments of J1 justification are considered chronologically simultaneous but logically sequential.)

J1.1: Union

The first moment of J1 justification is union with Christ. When we hear the Gospel word in the power of the Holy Spirit (1 Thess. 1:5), God make us alive together with Christ (Eph. 2:5). The emphasis here is on with Christ, for at this moment we are incorporated into Christ and become one with Him through the Spirit. This event itself is not J1.1 justification, but what Paul refers to as our “call” (1 Cor. 1:26, Eph. 1:18, Eph. 4:4, 2 Tim. 1:9, 2 Pet. 1:10) and John as being “born again/from above” (John 3).

At our call/new birth when we become “in Christ,” we receive all of the spiritual benefits (Eph. 1:3) He has accomplished for us, including His J0 justification. What He achieved through His death and resurrection, we receive as well (Rom. 6:3-4). We become the righteousness of God in Him (2 Cor. 5:21). In this way we participate in J0 justification, for as Christ has been justified (1 Tim. 3:16) in God’s righteousness (Rom. 1:17) we are justified by Him (Gal. 2:16-17).

J1.2: Declaration

The second moment of J1 justification I call “declaration,” in reference to God’s word of justification that we are righteous (or among His righteous, or in His righteous One). The very first effect of the union with Christ at the time of J1.1 justification is faith (1 Cor. 12:9, Gal. 5:22 KJV, Eph. 2:8, Phil. 1:29). When the Spirit gives us new life, part of which includes J1.1 justification, we exhibit faith as the firstfruits. Thus we believe, which the NT writers usually assume is the beginning of our personal salvation.

On the basis of this faith (as opposed to works of the Law, Rom. 3:20), publicly recognizing our new righteousness from Christ, God justifies us, that is, He declares us as righteous, which we now are indeed (Rom. 3:28, 3:30,4:5, 5:1, Gal. 2:16-17). Faith alone is the basis for this justification, because it is the initial result of J1.1 union. Once we go from being one of the sinners to being one of the righteous (1 Cor. 6:11, transfered from the power of darkness to the kingdom of the Son, cf. Col. 1:13), we exhibit faith as proof and so God justifies us (declares us to be those who are right with Him).

This declaration is itself somewhat paradoxical, for in declaring us as righteous in Christ God also exposes us all as utterly sinful in ourselves (Rom. 3:9-19). For only is we are bankrupt in ourselves do we have any need of transition, any need of atonement. Only the sick need a doctor (Luke 5:31). So in Christ we are made righteous along with the exposure of our utter sinfulness.

As an important qualifier, faith in this case does not merit justification of any kind; it is not a requirement of goodness which we must meet for God to reward us with a right standing with Himself. We are justified (declared as righteous) because faith demonstrates that we have been united with Christ.

J2 Justification

After J1 justification and until J3 justification, we experience J2 justification, which is primarily from God and before other people. J2 justification is not a making or setting right, as some other aspects of justification involve, but a recognition of righteousness. J2 follows from J1.1 in that it is God’s continual work of identifying us as righteous people in Christ.

For the Jews of Paul’s time, J2 justification occurred by faithfully adhering to the Jewish Law, especially in the defining rite of circumcision. How do you know who God’s people are? According to the Jews, you look to their circumcision and their faithfulness to the Law in general (this theme as a major target of Paul’s polemics can be seen throughout Romans and Galatians, see Rom. 2). This is justification by works of Law/Torah: God’s righteous people are identified by doing the Law.

Scripture teaches clearly that we cannot be justified in any way by doing the Law (Rom. 3:20, 3:28, 9:32, Gal. 2:16, 3:10). Whether we trust in the Law as the basis or as the proof of our righteous standing with God, we are left hopeless, because when the Law is our measure “everyone who does not continue doing everything written in the book of the law is cursed” (see Deut. 27:26). Therefore, as we said before, no one can be justified in any of these senses by Law (Gal. 3:11).

On the other hand, while faith is clearly the primary mark of God’s people (Hab. 2:4, Rom. 3:28, Rom. 4:5, 2 Cor. 8:7), the righteous do also show visible signs of their identity, namely good deeds of love (John 13:35, 1 Cor. 13:13,2 Cor. 8:7, Gal. 5:6, 22-23, Eph. 3:17, Col. 1:4, 1 Thess. 1:3, 1 Jn. 3:14), especially caring for those in need (Matt. 25:35-36, Luke 3:11, Jas. 2:15-16, 1 Jn. 3:17-18). These good deeds identify us as righteous (again, remembering that we are only righteous in union with Christ, and not on our own, see John 15:5, Gal. 2:20) before all people, both for the unity of believers (enabling us to fulfill injunctions such as Gal. 6:10) and for God’s glory among unbelievers (Matt. 5:16). In this way we are J2 justified, that is, our status as just before God is made known.

James clearly speaks the most strongly on this matter, for he says that any faith we claim to have is dead and useless, unable to save (even perform its role in J1.1 justification), without the accompanying good deeds (Jas. 2:14, 17, 20). A bare belief in the facts of the Gospel doesn’t prove we are in Christ any more than it proves demons are (Jas. 2:19). SinceJ2 justification deals with this-wordly identification of the righteous, James can proclaim that we are justified by faith and works (Jas. 2:21-26) without impinging on the unique and complete work of Christ for our J0 and J1 justification, and without contradicting Paul.

J3 Justification

On the day of judgment we receive J3 justification, our final vindication. Having been made right with God on the basis of Jesus’ objective work for mankind in J0 justification, having appropriated this subjectively in J1 justification, and having been identified throughout our lives as God’s people in J2 justification, we finally receive our public verdict from God and before all people: righteous.

Now, there are two points to make about J3 justification. Firstly, our justified verdict at final judgment is guaranteed at our J1 justification event (Rom. 14:4, 1 Cor. 1:8, Phil. 1:6, 2 Tim. 1:12). When God declares us as righteous, as His righteous people, in J1 justification, He promises that His last day verdict will match. Therefore we are eternally secure from the first (John 6:39-40, John 17:12, Rom. 8:29-39, 2 Cor. 4:14, Jude 1:24).

Secondly and almost paradoxically, the declaration of righteousness we receive at J3 justification is made with reference to (or, to use NT language, “according to”) our works (Matt. 16:27, 2 Cor. 11:15, 2 Tim. 4:14, 1 Pet. 1:17,Rev. 2:23, 20:12-13). While, again, it is clearly maintained that our works flow from Christ’s life in us and not any goodness we achieve on our own (Gal. 2:20, esp. KJV), it remains the case that God will give us a verdict recognizing what we do and say (Ps. 62:12, Ezek. 18:30, Matt. 12:37, Rom. 2:5-10, 2 Cor. 5:10). In a way, we could say that at the final judgment will be be judged not for our own deeds but for those of Jesus living in us!

The connection between the two points made here about J3 justification is found in the Holy Spirit bringing Christ’s own life into the believer. All believers have the Spirit (Rom. 8:9, 1 Cor. 3:16, Gal. 4:6, Eph. 1:13, 2 Tim. 1:14), and He is the one by whom we are united to Christ, for He is the Spirit of Christ (Rom. 8:9, 1 Pet. 1:11). The Spirit, bringing Christ’s faithfulness into our lives personally, produces the fruit (Gal. 5:22-23) which fulfills the law of love (Rom. 13:10) to our vindication on judgment day (John 10:29, Rom. 14:4, Jude 1:24). So we can reiterate that our J3 justification is (1) assured at J1, (2) done according to our works, and (3) ultimately grounded in Christ’s life and work for us in J0.

[As an end note, I have drawn these thoughts from several disparate sources, namely classic Reformed theology, popular level Protestant apologetics, Martin Luther, Thomas Torrance, N. T. Wright, and some really cool blog which I don’t remember the name of. All working together seem to make better sense of the actual text of the Scriptures than anything I had heard before.]

An Experimental Framework for Justification

Faith and Works, Plus a Bar Fight

The Fight

A Catholic bishop and a Presbyterian preacher walk into a bar. Seeing that they were both teachers of Scripture, they began talking theology over drinks. The discussion soon got heated when they got to the topic of justification by faith. Before anyone knew what had happened, both men lay dead on the floor, beaten and bruised.

In an instant they found themselves before God. They were told by an angel to be patient while God prepares to declare their destinies. But they couldn’t control themselves and blurted out, “Who was right, Lord? Are we justified instantly by faith alone or progressively by faith and works?”

Immediately God responded, “Neither of you are justified by either faith or works, for in your dispute you’ve both proven not to be my children! Depart from me, you workers of iniquity, for I never knew you.”

Just-As-If-I’d Never Sinned

What is the point of this little story? Well, it doesn’t have much of one, I just wanted to start with a story, especially if I could use the classic bar setup. But it is related to the topic of this post, namely the relationship between faith, works, and justification.

From an average Protestant perspective, we have the doctrine of sola fide, aka justification by faith alone. In this account, while we start legally on the hook for our sin and guilty in God’s court, when we put our faith in Christ God immediately declares us righteous, giving us a not-guilty verdict and acquitting us of the charges against us. Thus we are saved from God’s wrath. From that point on our faith naturally produces works through the Spirit.

From a Catholic perspective (which I hope I am presenting accurately), justification is a state bound up with sanctification (becoming holy). When we become Christians, we start becoming sanctified and so also justified because God infuses us with grace that creates faith and works if we are willing to make use of it. As we make use of God’s grace provided through the Holy Spirit, we become more holy and therefore find ourselves increasingly in right standing before God. In most people, though, death comes before we are completely holy and completely justified, so we must undergo cleansing in Purgatory until the process is complete.

The Part Where I Define Stuff

What both of these positions have in common is underlying grace. For the usual Protestant view of sola fide, we can only be acquitted because Jesus takes our condemnation for us out of sheer, undeserved grace. We can’t earn His sacrifice, but merely say “yes” to it. Likewise for the Catholic, we can only be sanctified and justified by grace. All of our faith and works which justify us can be traced back to God’s grace provided through the Spirit.

Of course, it is important to consider what faith and works are to discuss this issue. We can’t think of faith as just plain belief, thinking something is true. After all, even the demons have that kind of faith, and they are doomed. Saving faith, according to James especially, is an active thing which demands to be made real through works. Without works, we are taught, faith is dead and useless, totally incapable of justifying anyone.

What are works, though? That depends what we’re talking about. Works can usually refer to three things: actions which are done in order to fulfill the Law, anything good anyone does at all, or the good things we do by the power of the Holy Spirit. The first kind is the mostly blatantly ruled out as having anything to do with justification. Paul goes on and on about how following the Law can’t fix anything. All Christians must categorically deny the possibility of being justified by keeping the Law to avoid falling under Paul’s stern condemnation of the Judaizers.

The other two kinds of works are where things get less clear cut. There is a difference between works we manufacture on our own to be good and works the Spirit creates in us. The former is clearly excluded from justification when Paul rules out all boasting in our own righteousness. If we are saved, we do not get credit. No one can say that he earned or performed his own way into a right standing with God, otherwise grace would no longer be grace.

On the other hand, there are the good deeds done because of the Holy Spirit living in us. Most Protestants would still deny that these have any role in our justification, even though they come solely by God’s grace. Proponents of something called the New Perspective on Paul would generally argue that these works do play into our final justification, but that even then we are promised this end when we believe. Catholics would include all these good works in the process of becoming holy, which is what carries our justification.

Speaking Different Languages

Much of the divide between Protestants and Catholics, but not all of it, on justification can be traced back to miscommunication regarding these three kinds of works. When the average Protestant hears the Catholic say we are justified by both faith and works, he assumes the first and/or second kind of works, so they hear “We are justified by faith and keeping the Law” or “we are justified by faith and our own efforts to do good.” When Catholics hear us claim that justification comes apart from works, many hear that people who live fruitless lives of clearly dead faith will be saved as long as they agree with the facts of the Gospel.

So when we understand faith as a living, active, life-changing kind of belief, the kind of trust in Jesus which bears fruit through the Holy Spirit, there are indeed many Catholics who would more or less agree that this faith alone justifies. Likewise, if we understand the works Catholics say contribute to justification as the good we do because of the Holy Spirit in us, caused entirely by grace, then while not all Protestants would agree, most would drop the charge of a “work your way to heaven” heresy.

Neither position is without its weaknesses, though. Sola fide will never quite feel snuffly fitting with James 2 (especially verse 24), and it actually does lead and has led many people to think that fruitless “Christians” are assured of salvation, or that believing facts and praying a prayer are enough. The Catholic view I think sometimes stumbles through Paul and lends itself to many abuses, such as legalism, self-righteousness, performance-based spirituality, and even superstition in combination with any ambiguous form of their sacramental theology.

Resetting the Focus: Grace is a Person, Not a Thing

I, personally, take a step back from the standard Protestant and Catholic views to focus on what—actually who—they have in common. We all agree that Jesus is the true cause of our salvation and that we owe it all to Him. When it comes to the issue of justification, Jesus already lived a life of perfect faith and perfect works in our place. He trusted the Father, did good deeds, kept the Law, and made all around flawless performance on our behalf. When we meet Him in the Gospel through the Holy Spirit, all we do is nothing. By simply not resisting Him, we are spiritually united to Him, with His own faith coming into our hearts and His own works flowing out through our hands. Christ Himself is the grace behind all faith and works we do. Jesus’ life flows into us through faith and out of us through works.

In this way, we receive both justification and sanctification from Jesus’ own innocent status and perfect holiness. In one moment we are united to Christ in faith and so become right with God and set apart for Him, while we spend the rest of our lives being transformed to live Christ’s right life before God and become purely holy all the way through.

I think if we keep Jesus the main thing, looking at it all through the light of His own person and work instead of impersonal versions of grace, faith, justification, and holiness, then we’re in good shape. While I do think sola fide, when given proper nuance and focus, is a superior way to speak of our right standing before God over the Catholic articulation, that is secondary to saying our salvation is all of Christ. In the end what matters is if we agree that we are accepted not because we are worthy in ourselves, but because of what Christ has done and still does for us, in us, and through us. Amen?

All are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.

Romans 3:24

(I am aware, my more theologically minded readers, that I did not really interact with at least one other important view on justification, namely the New Perspective on Paul, especially as proposed by N. T. Wright. But this post is long enough as it is, and the NPP, while certainly important to this discussion, would not greatly affect what I have to say.)

Faith and Works, Plus a Bar Fight

I Don’t Believe in Hell

So, I don’t really believe in Hell. That’s right. I do not believe that Hell exists. And I sincerely doubt most of you do, either.

Now, before you scream “heretic” and start gathering a mob, I should clarify that, if you were to ask me if Hell exists, I would certainly say “yes.” If you asked me to define “Hell,” I would tell you that it’s a place of eternal suffering for those who reject Jesus.

So what on earth do I mean when I say that I don’t believe in Hell? In truth, it’s not my orthodoxy that is the issue but my lifestyle. Sure, I say that I believe there is a Hell for the unrepentant, but do I live out that belief? Do I tremble for the millions of souls to be lost? Forget love, am I even compelled by common human decency to do my part in bringing about their salvation.

All this shows my major lack: faith, not in Hell but in Christ. The only reason I even affirm Hell’s existence is that Jesus Himself seems to have taught it, and I’ve never seen a convincing interpretation otherwise. So if I really do believe in Jesus and trust what He reveals of God to be true, I ought to be consistently living a life that reflects His teaching. I should be seeing and treating people like they’re about to fall off a cliff and I have a chance to bring them to safety in the Savior.

I doubt very much that I am alone, indeed I am certain I am not. Many of you reading this probably feel what I’m saying. You know there’s a Hell, but you still act like there’s not. You see possible opportunities to tell about the Way and the Life, but make an excuse not to as if the only thing in danger were your dignity instead of a life.

Why do we do this? Why don’t we really believe in Hell? Plenty of reasons, I’m sure. Hell is so remote from our daily affairs; it’s easy to forget or ignore in the midst of everything else we can see, stuff with immediate, visible impact. Maybe on some level we don’t take Hell seriously because we subconsciously think God’s love really does mean no Hell. Maybe starting to preach during an important job interview actually would hurt not only your chances of a job but the chances of them taking your message seriously. But even a good excuse is really no excuse when lives are on the line.

So what’s the point of my rambling? Hell is hard, not just to swallow but to live in recognition of. This plagues me and probably you. What can we do? Pray for perspective, faith, and a bit of ridiculous boldness, I guess. Who knows who may be saved if we do?

I Don’t Believe in Hell