Systematic theology must make sure that each doctrine it teaches is biblical.
It must also make sure that each doctrine it teaches reflects an appropriate proportion and order in relationship to other doctrines. This proportion and order is determined by the shape of biblical teaching–“the pattern of sound words” (2 Tim 1.13), not by the theologian’s architectonic sensibilities.
Justification by faith alone is the doctrine on which the church stands or falls. But justification is not a stand-alone doctrine. The doctrine of justification only makes good Christian sense when rightly ordered and related to biblical teaching about other doctrines such as God and creation, sin and the law, grace and Christology, church and eschatology. Abstracted from this broader biblical and doctrinal context, even the most pristine doctrine of justification is susceptible to distortion and misuse, much like that poor fork in Ariel’s Grotto.
Mike Allen devotes the first chapter of his fine book on justification to this precise issue. Where does the doctrine of justification fit in relation to other biblical doctrines? According to Allen, the doctrine of justification provides the legal “ground” of our sanctifying fellowship with the triune God, a fellowship enjoyed now under the ministry of the gospel within the church and not yet in the unmediated presence of the triune God within the new creation. This, in part, is what it means to say that the church “stands or falls” on the doctrine of justification. Furthermore, according to Allen, though justification is the “ground” of our sanctifying fellowship with God, this sanctifying fellowship–now in the church, not yet in the new creation–is the “goal” of justification. Within the broader economy of God’s saving works on behalf of his elect children, justification is not an ultimate end. Justification is a wonderful and indispensable means to other (more) wonderful ends.
A quick glance at Romans 5.1-11 confirms this point. According to Paul, the blessing of justification is ordered to (at least) six other blessings.
(1) As a consequence of justification, we have peace with God (Rom 5.1). The greatest consequence of sin is neither guilt nor misery. The greatest consequence of sin is that we have made ourselves “enemies” of God (Rom 5.10) and therefore that we abide under his “wrath” (Rom 1.18ff). God himself, the Holy One of Israel, is our problem. In an act of incomparable love (Rom 5.6-7), and through the obedience and death of his beloved Son (Rom 5.9, 18), God himself has addressed this problem. God has reconciled us to himself: “since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (Rom 5.1).
(2) As a consequence of justification, we stand in the state of grace (Rom 5.2). If we limit ourselves to the Book of Romans, this state of grace includes several privileges: (i) the privilege of adoption, a privilege sealed by the Holy Spirit who has been poured out into our hearts (Rom 5.5; 8.12-17); (ii) the privilege of Christ’s heavenly intercession on our behalf, wherein he preserves us in the state of grace and justification (Rom 5.10; 8.34); (iii) and the privilege of living unto God and of bearing fruit for the glory of God, i.e., the privilege of sanctification (Rom 6.1-23; 8.4-11, 29; 12.1-2).
(3) As a consequence of justification, we rejoice in hope of the glory of God (Rom 5.2). The ultimate goal of human nature, and the supreme source of human bliss, lies in the beatific vision: beholding the unmediated glory of the triune God. Sin deprived us of fulfilling our true end and thus of realizing our true happiness. Through justification, our ultimate goal and our supreme happiness have been secured. We are at peace with God. We will see God. And we will be supremely happy in God (Ps 16.11; 1 John 3.2; Rev 22.4).
(4) As a consequence of justification, our suffering is now ordered to our benefit (Rom 5.3-4). Because we have been reconciled to God through the death of his Son, all of the suffering, sorrow, and loss that God sends our way in this “vale of tears” does not come to us as punishment for our sins (see Isa 54.14-17). Instead, suffering, sorrow, and loss are divinely ordered to our endurance, character, and maturity. Suffering, sorrow, and loss are ordered to our conformity to the image of God’s beloved Son, our elder brother (Rom 8.29; Phil 3.10). Though often we cannot feel the reality of this privilege in the midst of suffering (Heb 12.11), this too is one of the blessed consequences of justification and a reason to rejoice.
(5) As a consequence of justification, we will be saved from God’s eschatological wrath(Rom 5.9). According to Hebrews 9.27, “it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment.” However, for those who belong to Jesus Christ, and therefore who are united with him in his sin-bearing death, the second coming of Jesus Christ is not a reason to expect divine wrath and judgment. For us the second coming of Jesus Christ is reason to expect full and final salvation: “Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him” (Heb 9.28).
(6) As a consequence of justification, we rejoice in God (Rom 5.11). Matthew Henry observes that the doctrine of justification causes Exodus 15.2 to be fulfilled in us: “The Lord is my strength and my song; and he has become my salvation.” Through justification, God becomes the “strength” of “weak” sinners (Rom 5.6). Through justification, God becomes the “salvation” of guilty sinners, who are the objects of his righteous wrath (Rom 5.9). And through justification, God becomes the “song” of the justified. We were made to glorify God and enjoy him forever, the catechism teaches us. Justification is a blessed means to realizing this blessed end here and now. Because of our justification, we no longer relate to God as an object of terror and fear. We relate to God as an object of love and delight: “we . . . rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation” (Rom 5.11).
Why is it important to grasp the proper order and relations of justification to other biblical doctrines? The doctrine of justification is all too easily hijacked by the American “folk religion” that sociologists and theologians have labeled “Moral Therapeutic Deism” (“MTD”) (see here and here), a folk religion that plagues many of our Reformed and evangelical churches. Within the religious universe of MTD, the self lies at the center of the solar system and the affirmation of the self is the law that maintains all planets in their orbits. One of the most common errors related to justification in popular (as opposed to academic) Christianity does not involve revising the nature of justification. It involves making an otherwise pristine doctrine of justification the satellite of the therapeutic self. There is a kind of gospel teaching and preaching that does not challenge the basic tenets of MTD but (often unwittingly) appropriates the doctrine of justification to serve MTD’s ends rather than Christian ends. In a universe where the chief end of man is his own affirmation, justification is easily employed in a manner which suggests that even God is ultimately ordered to the self’s affirmation.
I am not a sociologist. Nor am I the son of a sociologist. But I do suspect that the scenario described above is responsible in part for the high degree of moral and theological compromise and confusion that characterizes many Reformed and evangelical churches today. To the extent that this is the case, systematic theology, and particularly its office of articulating the order and interrelationship of biblical teaching, may yet have an important role to play in shaping an ecclesiastical culture in which justification makes good Christian sense: beyond the borders of Ariel’s Grotto.
This article first appeared on Reformation 21