At a stimulating conference this week held at Eastern Baptist Theological Seminary, the traditional Reformation proclamation of justification by grace through faith took some hits. Several of the speakers at the conference, sponsored by Evangelicals for Social Action, charged that this emphasis had dulled the nerve of action and produced self-centered Christians focussed on their own spiritual deliverance to the detriment of the larger world community of God’s beloved poor.
This is a weighty accusation that requires a response. It is manifestly the case that much American “evangelicalism” is individualistic in the extreme, so that it reflects American cultural peculiarities more than any discernible Christian characteristics. Holiness of life, counter-cultural witness, and communal concerns for the transformation of oppressive systems seem to be missing from the scene. There was a good deal of genuine pain among the conference participants about this, and many suggestions about how it might be changed.
In the course of the discussion, a common misunderstanding was frequently articulated, This prevalent view was identified by one speaker as “the justification-sanctification segue.” This is a widespread, but misguided, description of Paul’s epistles as two-thirds proclamation and one-third exhortation. This is such a familiar way of understanding the letters that it often goes unchallenged; however, it does not do justice to the apostle’s radical thought. Three generations of radical Pauline interpretation (living members of generations 2 and 3 would include J. Louis Martyn and Douglas Harink) have agreed that this popular way of characterizing Paul’s gospel message not only undercuts its radicality but also nullifies its message of “the freedom we have in Christ Jesus.”
To explain further: Justification and sanctification are not two stages in a process. They are essentially simultaneous (see I Corinthians 6:11). The way to cut through all the obfuscation is to understand the whole thing from the perspective of the sovereignty of God (Romans 6:19-23). The “righteousness” that characterizes the Christian life (when it is recognizable as such) is always Christ’s righteousness, not our own. The Christian (the born-again Christian, if you will) is created precisely “for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (Ephesians 2:10). Can we see how this preserves the sense of God as the active agent throughout, yet clearly expects that the Christian will “step up to the plate” in the familiar expression? Paul puts it another way in this familiar passage, often cited without its crucial second part:
“Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for God is at work in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Philippians 2:12-13)