During the Protestant Reformation, the church rediscovered the doctrine of justification, and the world got turned upside down. Today, I think it could be the church that is turned upside down if the application of the doctrine of justification were rediscovered.
I don’t think I have to spend much time making my case that the way Christians talk about one another—especially online—is growing increasingly uncharitable. Hardly a day goes by when I don’t read of people I love and look up to engage in verbal knife fights. People who are supposed to be united in love and mission seem to have a mission to divide. People who delighted in being right with God now simply want to be right.
I think I know part of the reason why. Many Reformed people love to study the doctrine of justification but don’t seem as keen to apply it. We could define justification as God’s legal declaration of a sinner to be righteous and forgiven in his sight because he’s credited Christ’s obedience to them.
One implication of loving the doctrine of justification by faith alone is that Christians will see (and therefore treat) other Christians the same way as God does through Christ. We should treat fellow believers as God does—and not less than he does. Why do many (not all) Reformed people tend to cling so tightly to the doctrine of justification and so loosely to its application?
If we were to ask someone where to learn about justification, they would likely direct us to the writings of Paul in general but especially the book of Romans. There we would find this doctrine explained and jealously defended.
In Romans 3, Paul shows how all of humanity, whether religious or irreligious, are deficient of righteousness. We are all quarantined in the bondage of our sin. Apart from Christ, we are alienated, hostile in mind, and engaged in evil deeds (Col. 1:21).
But the most remarkable thing happens. Christ becomes righteousness for unrighteous people (2 Cor. 5:21). All that we need we find in Jesus. By his doing and dying for helpless and hopeless sinners, we are credited with his merit and declared to be righteous in God’s sight (Rom. 5:1). This legal declaration brings rejoicing, hope, and endurance (Rom. 5:2ff).
But, while justification doesn’t change anyone internally, it does change our status. It’s part of the bigger picture of salvation where we, through the process of sanctification, begin working out the realities of our salvation (Phil. 2:12-13). Romans picks up this thread in chapter 12. Pivoting out of the gospel, Paul urges the Romans to apply it by living in a manner worthy of the gospel. He tells us not to be conformed to this world but to be transformed (Rom. 12:3). We are to appreciate the diversity and unity of the body of Christ (Rom. 12:3-7). We are also told to let love be genuine (Rom. 12:9). It’s not to be fake or hypocritical, but the genuine article. The command anticipates sinfulness on both the giver and the recipient of this love. Loving broken people is hard. But loving justified believers is non-negotiable. We’re also called to live harmony with one another (Rom. 12:16). This is a call to unity and not divisiveness. We are not to be wise in our sight (Rom. 12.16). How many sins would be abandoned if Christians lived by this maxim? How many tweets would have been unsent, blogs unwritten, or comments withheld if we applied this teaching? Finally, we are to live peaceably with all—as far as it depends on us (Rom. 12:18). We understand that there are going to be conflicts that we can’t avoid. But we also know that with earnestness and intentionality, we can work toward peace. This is especially true in the commonwealth of those declared righteous! We start with the baseline that we are all deficient in righteousness and have been graciously given Christ’s righteousness. We stand clothed in Christ’s merit. His perfection is stitched to our souls! Each of us is equal in standing before God.
In his commentary on Ephesians, writing on the need for believers to maintain unity in the church, Peter O’Brien says,
How disastrous, then, it would be if believers did not eagerly maintain the unity of the Spirit. This would be to behave as though they were not reconciled to God or to one another. It would be tantamount to saying that Jesus’s work of reconciliation had had no real effects in their lives. Such behavior would be completely inconsistent with being God’s masterpiece of reconciliation and ultimately with his purposes of summing up everything as a totality in Christ.
Imagine what would happen if we waited to tweet until we understood what they were saying? Imagine if before clicking “publish” we made sure we were representing the other party accurately? What if we were more concerned with preserving unity rather than scoring points? It should give us more joy to walk in a manner worthy of the gospel rather than in step with Fox News and CNN. The former requires humility, gentleness, patience, and loving forbearance (Eph. 4:1-3). The latter simply a hot take and clever clickbait.
I am not calling for less doctrinal precision but more. We cannot say we are clear on doctrine when we are so often unclear on the application. I pray that the church, especially the Reformed wing, would refasten her grip upon the doctrine of justification. And in so doing, God would turn the church upside down. And we’d find ourselves not only articulating the biblical doctrine of justification but also faithfully applying it.
Editor's Note: This post originally appeared at Erik's TGC blog, Ordinary Pastor, and is used with permission.