A discussion starter and question from Peter Toon, Lent V, 2007
For Martin Luther, and not a few others in the sixteenth century, as they sought to reform medieval Christendom with its heavy doctrine of human merit in salvation, justification by faith alone became "the article of Faith by which the Church stands or falls." This doctrine is prominent in Reformation tracts, sermons, confessions of faith, liturgy and hymnody. And it was rejected by the official Roman Catholic Church in its Council of Trent.
The Anglican Way, which emerged as the Religion of the National Church of England in the sixteenth century and became the Religion of a global Communion of Churches later, has the doctrine of Justification by Faith alone written into its Formularies, specifically in The Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion (1571) and The Two Books of Homilies (1547 & 1571) but it is also implicit in "The Order for Holy Communion" in The Book of Common Prayer (1662). However, it would appear that in 2007 few Anglicans publicly and clearly speak or write about this topic and few, if any, state that it is the doctrine by which the Church stands or falls.
Now it is true that in academic circles, there remains amongst some New Testament scholars a fascination with the Letter of Paul to Rome, wherein there is much to ponder concerning God's righteousness and the justification sinners by God the Father through Jesus Christ. And thus there is much here to be read by those who have the ability and time to study academic works. This recognized, it remains true that there is very little engagement with the doctrine of justification at the congregational level. No-one seems to declare that it is a crucial or foundational doctrine. Rather, the kinds of themes which are recognized to be crucial or basic are by some—usually in evangelical circles— declared to be the inspiration and authority of Scripture and the right way to interpret the Scripture today. In contrast, others, usually from within the main-line and old-line denominations (the places where progressive liberal theology is endemic), assert that the crucial doctrines are the right answers to these questions: Who/What is God? Who is Jesus? And What is salvation? And, of course, these questions take us very much behind the doctrine of Justification to fundamentals, which need to be stated in a specific way for the doctrine of Justification to make any sense at all.
Justification by Faith alone was never meant to be a summary of what is preached as the Gospel, but rather as to what makes the Gospel the power of God unto eternal salvation in Christ. The Gospel is the Good News of the Father concerning his Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, that there is forgiveness, acceptance and eternal life in him to those who repent of their sin and believe the saving promises of God.
Justification tells how God the Father through Jesus Christ accepts a guilty sinner and treats him as a righteous son, for he reckons him to be "in Christ."
One way—and much used by Protestant theologians in the late sixteenth onwards into the seventeenth centuries—to tell this story of Justification is by the analogy of the law court, in this case, God's heavenly court. Here the guilty sinner is declared by the Judge to be righteous, not because in and of himself he is so, but because the same Judge (God the Father) accepts the righteousness of Jesus Christ, the Representative and Substitute Man, in the place of the sinner's unrighteousness. However, it would seem to be the case, that, for whatever reasons, this analogy does not seem to be very attractive to many modern Christians.
Another way—and offered primarily by New Testament scholars—is to tell the story of Justification in terms of the theme of the covenant of grace. Justification is the act whereby God the Father places the believing sinner within the covenant of grace as a forgiven sinner and as an adopted child of God. He is thereby reckoned as righteous for he is in a right relation with God the Father as he lives with other believers "in Christ," that is in the Body of Christ. This approach seems to be more acceptable today, but a real difficulty with talking in covenant terms today is that quickly it can become talk of a contract with God (as often in the ECUSA "Baptismal Covenant") and human merit and rights quickly enter the conversation!
In fact, to be where Luther the great reformer, Tyndale the great translator of the Bible, Cranmer the great liturgist and Calvin, the great Biblical expositor were, we have to have something like their sense and experience of the holy Lord God and their conviction of the depth and depravity of human sinfulness, together with a passionate desire to be in a right relation with and communion with this Divine, Holy, Majesty through Jesus Christ and by the Holy Spirit. It would seem that while they had a profound sense of the Transcendent Glory and Purity of God, we have more a profound sense of the omnipresence (immanence) of God; and thus where they bowed and prostrated themselves in reverence and awe and could not get up, we celebrate as those whom God affirms and so we sit or stand. So for our sixteenth-century predecessors to be reckoned by God as "clothed in the righteousness" of the once crucified and now exalted Christ Jesus was a miracle beyond miracles. For us the message of being accepted into the covenant ("family") of God seems to be more comforting, for while we want comfort and affirmation we do not seem to feel that we are at enmity with a transcendent Lord God and so do not feel the specific need to be reckoned as, or declared to be, righteous!
Of course, we are all familiar with such common themes in contemporary culture and therapy as self-worth, self-justification, self-affirmation, self-promotion, self-satisfaction, self-assurance, self-awareness, self-improvement and so on (not to mention the more traditional, less mentioned, self-denial, self-discipline, self-effacing and self-control). Many westerns appear to be in pursuit both of self-identity, self-worth and self-justification at the basic human level, but whether this ever becomes a quest for acceptance with and before the transcendent, holy God is another matter. Subjectivity and individualism determine so much of how we think and act today and this is hardly fertile ground for appreciating the Lutheran doctrine of Justification!
Indeed, a question facing every evangelist is how to preach the Gospel of salvation from sin and into eternal life in Christ (a Gospel that presupposes Creatio ex nihilo but in a culture where few think of God as the Creator who made the cosmos out of nothing and who keeps it in being) is a real challenge; then, also, there is a further challenge as to which are the most promising New Testament doctrinal themes to advance today as the divine explanation why the Gospel is in fact the power of God unto eternal salvation. The Pauline message of Justification, so powerful against Judaizers in his own time and against human merit doctrines later, is not easily put to similar use today for the context is so different in terms of human experience and felt needs. However, it may be possible in Christian apologetics to contrast the human search for self-worth and justification with the justification freely offered by the Father in Christ to those who believe the Gospel. To do this effectively, one will need to be both a good psychologist and a mature Biblical scholar.
Having written some years ago a reasonably successful book entitled "Justification and Sanctification" (1983, Crossway Books USA, Marshall, UK), I can testify that it is easier—at least for me—to describe the way in which Justification has been explained and used in centuries past, then to offer a viable way of presenting it forcibly and attractively today as an important topic, let alone as the article of faith by which the Church stands or falls.
I am aware of how it has been applied by such as Tillich and Niebuhr, but I would like to know of more recent attempts to present Justification by Faith alone as a necessary doctrine for the western Church today, the Church immersed in human rights, individualism, therapy and subjectivity and dominated by a sense of the immanence of God.
Are there those out there who can help me? If so send me a line, please.