The life of evangelical churches and their spiritual leaders has been portrayed in some recent films and series. Can they help us start conversations?
Any accommodation to the idea that we are ultimately capable of saving ourselves, any accommodation to the fact that salvation is not God’s gift from beginning to end is a slippery slope towards a false gospel.
A talk given to the Resolved! Conference of Acts29 Europe (Rome, April 4th, 2016). The video can be watched here.
The evangelical understanding of the gospel stands on two pillars: the authority of Scripture as God’s word written (the formal principle) and justification by grace alone through faith alone (the material principle).
Scripture is the norm of the Christian life; justification is the ground of it. Without the norm of Scripture, our lives are shaped by false standards and deceived by false narratives. Without the ground of justification, our lives are built on sinking sand and will ultimately collapse under the righteous judgment of God.
In J.I. Packer’s lucid way of condensing Biblical teaching, justification is “God’s act of remitting the sins of, and reckoning righteousness to, ungodly sinners freely, by his grace, through faith in Christ, on the ground not of their own works, but of the representative righteousness and substitutionary blood-shedding of Jesus Christ on their behalf”.
Historically, justification has been the landmark of the evangelical faith since the times of the Apostles. The Church Fathers maintained it, and while it was not their main concern, they fully endorsed it. The Reformation did not invent it. Simply it restated it in more biblical and coherent terms, in times in which it had been obscured by medieval opacity. Reformed and Lutheran orthodoxies embraced it wholeheartedly.
Giants like Jonathan Edwards and the British Puritans preached it with full conviction. German Pietism shaped its spirituality around it. Great preachers like C.H. Spurgeon made justification by faith central to their preaching and that pattern continued up to the times of John Stott and Martyn Lloyd-Jones. Even Billy Graham’s message fully stands within the parameters set by justification by faith. The sinner is saved by grace alone through faith alone, apart from good works without any merit on our part. This has been a fundamental mark of the biblical faith throughout the centuries because it lies at the heart of the biblical gospel.
Reactions Against Justification
However, there have been two strong reactions against justification. One the one hand, the Roman Catholic Church violently rejected it at the Council of Trent (1545-1562). Trent continued to use the word justification but filled it with a completely different meaning. For Trent, justification was a process rather than an act of God; a process initiated by the sacrament of baptism where the righteousness of God was thought to be infused; a process nurtured by the religious works of the faithful and sustained by the sacramental system of the church; a process needing to go through a time of purification in purgatory, before perhaps being enacted on judgment day.
Rome reframed and reconstructed justification in terms of a combination of God’s initiative and man’s efforts, grace and works joined together resulting in an on-going journey of justification, ultimately dependent on the “clay and iron” of human works and ecclesiastical sacraments. What was missing was the declarative, forensic act of justification, the exclusive grounding in divine grace, the full assurance of being justified because of what God the Father has declared, God the Son has achieved, and God the Spirit has worked out. Trent came up with a confused and confusing teaching on justification that has been misleading people since.
The other objection to the evangelical doctrine of justification by faith alone came from theological liberalism since the XIX century. In this case, too, the word justification was maintained but the meaning of it was totally undermined and eventually redefined. By rejecting the biblical doctrine of sin as a tragic separation from God and rebellion against God, liberalism objected to the need for justification. According to liberalism, our problem is not so much us being sinner in the hands of a righteous God, but our call to be righteous people as human beings. Christ is the perfect righteous man whom we need to imitate if we want to become righteous. No atonement is needed, no sin is to be forgiven, no judgment is previewed. The liberal vision is to create a world where self-defined righteous people attempt to build a would-be righteous society marked by universal human brotherhood. This culture of self-righteousness has been damaging Western churches and society to the point of making them implode under the weight of unrealistic and false illusions.
While Evangelical Protestants have always advocated for justification, making it central in their preaching, pastoral practices and missionary endeavors for centuries, there have been contrary accounts of justification that have offered alternative accounts of it. Despite their differences, both the Catholic and liberal versions of justification significantly converge in presenting an inflated view of man’s abilities to do something for one’s own salvation (whatever salvation means for them), a defective view of sin, a rejection of Christ’s substitutionary atonement, and an uneasiness towards everything related to God’s justice and judgment.
It is no surprise that in 1999 these Catholic and Protestant liberal accounts of justification merged together into the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification. They were already close enough to finally come to the point of drafting a joint statement. The non-tragic view of sin is shared by both Catholic and liberal views; the necessity of the sacramental system of the church is what the Catholic part insists on while the liberal emphasis is on the universalist scope of justification. All are and will be justified because in the end God will have mercy on all. This is the present-day common understanding of justification shared by both the Roman Catholic Church and the liberal churches.
Next year (2017), these two bodies will celebrate the fact that the Reformation is over! And if justification is what they say it is, they are right! It is over indeed.
Church Planting and Justification by Faith
How are we then to plant churches in such a context? The church will continue to be founded on the authority of Scripture and justification by faith. There is no other recipe available for a healthy gospel church. There is no other gospel than the biblically attested message of Jesus Christ that saves unworthy sinners like us on the ground of his one-and-for-all work on the cross. We may and should be creative to find new and better ways to convey justification, to preach it, to apply it, to witness its living reality, but the Bible is crystal clear that we are either justified by God’s grace or we fall into a kind a self-justification that is a tragic deception. This is a false gospel.
Any accommodation to the idea that we are ultimately capable of saving ourselves, any accommodation to the fact that salvation is not God’s gift from beginning to end is a slippery slope towards a false gospel. Do not think that justification is a theological relic of a distant past. It is indeed key to grasping the good news of Christ.
May all church planters wholeheartedly embrace what the apostle Paul wrote: “I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ—the righteousness that comes from God on the basis of faith” (Philippians 3:8-9). Let us plant churches in Europe that faithfully and passionately reflect and embody this gospel!
Leonardo de Chirico is pastor, Vatican expert and vice-President of the Italian Evangelical Alliance (AEI).
 J.I. Packer, God’s Words. Studies in Key Bible Themes, Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1988, p. 139.