The Protestant debate over justification: Here I stand.
Ignorance about how we get right with God has weakened the church. We must reassert that we're saved by faith alone.
East Lansing, Mich.
"Am I OK?"Skip to next paragraph
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As a minister, I've witnessed the worry and doubt firsthand. A mother of young children wonders if her house is clean enough and if she'll ever measure up. A cancer patient isn't sure if he prays and loves God as much as he should. A young man struggles to feel like a good person again after his affair. At the bottom of all these fears and anxieties, they are asking the same question.
Looking for love in all the wrong places
Most of us are desperate for reassurance, yet today a large and growing number of Americans are looking for answers to their deepest questions outside the church. Churches across the country are struggling to define their purpose in this postmodern and increasingly secular age. Many are de-emphasizing the Gospel and emphasizing social issues. Others are attracting crowds with self-help messages. And some are swimming with the cultural current, embracing doubt itself as a narrative.
The problem today is that the "good news" is often replaced with good advice and good causes. Churches that should be talking about the work of Christ on the cross and the grace of God for sinners are stuck on recycled pop psychology, moral exhortation, or entertainment. But these fail to speak to the eternal question that haunts all of us: How do I know that I'm OK? We all want to know we are justified.
And for the billions of Christians around the world, the most important approval we need – really the only one that matters – is God's approval.
The theological word for this is justification. Justification is God's declaration that we, though guilty sinners, are righteous in God's eyes.
Heated debate over an old issue
Five hundred years ago, Martin Luther's view on justification – we are saved by faith alone, apart from meritorious works – divided Europe, started a century of conflict, and became the heartbeat of the Protestant Reformation. A decade ago, Lutherans and Roman Catholics signed a landmark agreement that some hoped would put the issue to rest.
It didn't. Today, the controversy over how we get right with God is as tempestuous as ever – and much of the dispute is within Protestant circles. Thankfully, no lives have been threatened this time around. But just about everything else has been. The debate over justification has spilled over into churches, schools, campus ministries, conferences, and personal relationships.
Take a casual stroll around a Christian bookstore, not to mention the hotheaded blogosphere, and you'll find Christians passionately divided over justification. Two leading figures, John Piper of Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis and N.T. Wright, the Bishop of Durham in the Church of England, have written books criticizing each other's views.