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.

"Am I OK?"

Take a look at America's self-esteem curriculum or just watch "Oprah" once in a while and you'll see that deep down we're not so sure we are OK. At the very least, most of us need some convincing.

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.

The stakes couldn't be higher

All of this may seem like petty squabbling over a trivial issue, but Protestant consensus on justification should matter to everyone.

Christians should care because it is ultimately a matter of life and death. Others should care because it's a doctrine that defines – or at least should define – the core belief of 600 million people globally, shaping how they engage with the world around them. As justification goes, so goes the church. A muddied view of justification could muddy the Protestant fountainhead, limiting its effort to quench the thirst for acceptance that we all feel deep down.

For Martin Luther, the father of the Reformation, justification was an intensely personal question. As a monk and devout Catholic, Luther had tried everything to assuage his guilt and get right with God. But he was still tormented by feelings of unworthiness and terrified by God's righteous wrath.

Until he understood that the righteous shall live by faith (Rom. 1:16-17).

Like millions of Christians after him, Luther took solace in the good news that if we believe in Jesus Christ, God will count our faith as righteousness. We are not declared innocent and righteous in God's sight by works, not even by our best moral efforts. We are justified by faith alone.

Faith alone?

Of all the points of contention between the early Reformers and the Catholic Church, disagreement over justification was sharpest. Luther himself said that it was "the doctrine by which the Church stands or falls." The crux of the debate was this: What, if any, role do our own actions play in being justified?

The Reformers saw in the Bible that we are justified by faith alone. The Catholic Church has always acknowledged that the Christian was saved by faith; it was the alone part Catholics questioned. Do not works play some role in our justification? they asked.

Of course, Protestants insist on good works, too. But these works serve as corroborating evidence, not as any ground for our justification. Indeed, that's what the controversial second chapter of the New Testament book of James is saying: Works are how we "see" in others the kind of genuine faith that underlies justification. The gospel says, "believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you shall be saved," not "believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and cooperate with transforming grace and you shall be saved." Yet the 16th century Council of Trent condemns those who believe in justification by faith alone.

New perspective, new confusion

The 1999 Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification – signed by Catholics, Lutherans, and later by Methodists – thawed this historical ice in some quarters, but most Catholics and Protestant theologians still don't agree on justification. More recently, a number of respected Protestant scholars such as E.P. Sanders, James Dunn, and N.T. Wright have argued for a "New Perspective on Paul."

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.

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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