September 1, 2017 | by: Tony Sanelli | 0 comments
Nearly 15 years ago I installed some new sod in our backyard but before the new sod could be introduced we needed to scrape and haul away more than 20 cubic yards of soil infested with Bermuda grass. After removing as much of the undesirable grass as possible I focused upon extricating any vestige of the grass I could find.
After several months we finally installed the new sod and have been enjoying it ever since. However, it wasn’t long before I realized that my battles with Bermuda grass were far from over!
The lawn needs to be maintained in a healthy and strong condition as well as protected from future infestations. Bermuda grass is an amazing competitor. All that is needed is one or two small sprigs and the grass can begin to emerge again.
If it is not constantly watched and checked it will slowly take over the desired lawn once again. Much like false doctrines, Bermuda grass never quite goes away. It is managed and controlled but never completely eradicated.
The truth, like a new lawn, must constantly be protected from the unwanted infiltration of false doctrine. This is especially true of those doctrines that are fundamental and central to the Christian faith.
Doctrines such as those recovered during the Protestant Reformation. I am speaking of the five solas: Scripture alone, grace alone, justification by faith alone, Christ alone and to God alone be the glory.
This year is the 500th celebration of the Reformation. While these biblical truths have survived in our circles it has not been without the constant attempted infiltration or dilution by false doctrine. I want to reflect upon the modern attack upon the doctrine of justification by faith alone.
The reformers approached the doctrine of justification with the utmost seriousness. The reason for this should be obvious, justification is at the very heart of the gospel of Jesus Christ. It addresses the question - How can a sinful human being be acceptable to the perfect and holy God?
In our own day justification is being redefined and set aside as a secondary doctrine to the apostle Paul. Luther’s dictum that the doctrine of justification is the article upon which the church stands or falls has come under severe criticism. The scholar’s drums have been beating in the distance for nearly three decades but the warriors are now advancing and must be met on various fronts.
Consider some of the language utilized by N. T. Wright, one of the central proponents of what has been termed the “new perspective”:
“Justification in the first century was not about how someone might establish a relationship with God. It was about God’s eschatological definition, both future and present, of who was, in fact, a member of his people.” (What Saint Paul Really Said, page 119).
“Despite a long tradition to the contrary, the problem Paul addresses in Galatians is not the question of how precisely someone becomes a Christian, or attains to a relationship with God…On anyone’s reading, but especially within its first-century context, it has to do quite obviously with the question of how you define the people of God: are they to be defined by the badges of the Jewish race, or in some other way?” (Ibid. page 120).
These are just two examples of one proponent but what ought to be clear to us is that N. T. Wright is redefining the meaning of justification as it has been understood since the Protestant Reformation. The reformers taught that justification is about how a person is reconciled to God NOT merely a declaration that they already are. God justifies a sinner by declaring them righteous on the basis of the imputation of the merits and sacrifice of Jesus Christ.
But N. T. Wright appears to be saying that we are justified because we have been born into God’s family and come to faith and walk in obedience. In other words, according to Wright we are justified because of God’s work for us and in us rather than the Protestant formulation that we are justified by God’s work for us! For Wright justification is a “badge” that marks us as belonging to God’s family rather than a “verdict” issued at the beginning of the Christian life that is the very same verdict to be publically proclaimed on the last day! This is not a minor nuance in semantics! This is a wholesale new definition.
When people use words like “justification” to mean new or different things then it becomes difficult to have clear communication. This fogginess often allows for fundamental shifts to go undetected for some time before someone finally blows the whistle. A sprig or two, here and there, that goes unidentified or undetected can eventually result in an infestation that is difficult to halt.
That may already be the case in the circles of New Testament scholarship and academia. The view of many is that the “new perspective” appears to have firmly established itself there. But this is not the case in the local church and hence, this is why all the fuss! My lawn is one thing - the church of the Lord Jesus Christ is quite another!
Justification and sanctification are both gifts granted by God’s sovereign grace. They are components of our salvation. They are never to be separated because every justified person has also been positionally sanctified (set apart to God). This leads immediately to what is often termed progressive sanctification (the process by which a believer is slowly transformed into maturity and Christ-likeness).
However, progressive sanctification must not be collapsed into justification. Christ’s work in us is the result of Christ’s work for us. If collapsed into each other, our justification is not complete nor assured. Yet, we rejoice in the gospel’s announcement that “there is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” The verdict of the last day has been brought forward to our hearts today by the gospel. Christ’s work in us will be on going but His justifying work is complete.
As the 500th anniversary of the Reformation arrives in October we will take time to reflect more deeply upon these truths as a congregation. The church, says Paul, is “the pillar and support of the truth” and we are to “earnestly contend for the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints” and yet, we are to “correct those who are in opposition with gentleness.”
My lawn has held up pretty well but there have been some real battles and it doesn’t look all that pretty some 15 years later. I have higher hopes for the church because it has the power of Christ behind it. Yet, there we must still contend for the truth in our own generation.
Soli Deo Gloria
Tony Sanelli is a Pastor and Teacher at Grace Bible Church
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