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Opinion

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.

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They maintain that Luther read too much of his own personal angst into Paul's epistles. The faith versus works debate was about ethnic boundary markers, not attempts to merit God's favor. Justification, therefore, is not so much about how we get saved as it is about how we know who belongs to the people of God. They say we've gotten Paul, and justification, terribly wrong. Justification, contra Luther, is based on the whole life lived and has nothing to do with having God's righteousness.

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Even some Evangelicals have questioned whether it's right to speak of Christ's righteousness being counted for the believer's righteousness. There's some evidence that the New Perspective is leading Evangelicals closer to a Catholic understanding of salvation – one that bases our final justification, in part, on what we do.

At the heart of the Protestant faith is the conviction that there is nothing we contribute to our salvation but our sin, no merit we bring but Christ's, and nothing necessary for justification except faith alone.

The center of my ministry

As a pastor in a Protestant church, my whole ministry centers on the conviction that by grace we are saved through faith. And it's not our faith that delivers us, as if believing something, anything at all were pleasing to God. It's the object of our faith – Christ's life, death, and resurrection – that saves us.

The doctrine of justification is not an esoteric wrangling about words to the people in my congregation. Justification by faith alone in Christ alone by grace alone means we can have confidence before God. There's no need to figure out venial versus mortal sins. There's no purgatory for remaining imperfections because God looks on his people and sees them clothed in the "Lord our righteousness" (Jer. 23:6; Zech. 3:1-5).

Justification means I don't have to find the god within because I have already been declared innocent by the God without. It means an end to all my futile attempts at self-justification, whether by politics, parenting, or preaching. Justification means I can sleep soundly at night, whether I wake up in the morning or not, knowing that God is for me and not against me.

The church at its best

Much of the impotence of American churches is tied to a profound ignorance and apathy about justification. Our people live in a fog of guilt. Or just as bad, they think being a better person is all God requires. Even a cursory look at church history in the past few hundred years shows that the church is at its best and most vibrant when justification through faith alone is heard from her pulpits and clearly articulated by her most prominent spokesmen.

After so much time and so many controversies, there are still plenty of Protestants – be they Lutheran, Presbyterian, Baptist, Anglican, or Pentecostal – who still believe justification is the doctrine on which the church stands or falls. I guess I'm one of them.

Kevin DeYoung is the senior pastor at University Reformed Church in East Lansing, Mich. You can read his blog here .

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