If you're listening, you've noticed that there is a LOT of confusion in the Evangelical church these days… in a LOT of areas. Many - even pastors - seem confused (at best). Certainly, the lack of practical commitment to sound doctrine lends itself to this confusion, and the Evangelical trend towards viewing doctrine as divisive has lead to increasing distain – at both the lay level and even among leadership - for precision and consistency in theology.
American Evangelicalism is increasingly a sub-culture which seems determined to distance itself from its historical roots. The bounds of orthodoxy are being stretched in every direction, churches are setting aside their own historic distinctives, and practical theological training is increasingly ignored or even ridiculed in some Evangelical circles. (I confess to not understanding the reasoning for this; after all, I don’t think any of us want to go to a dentist who didn’t go to dental school! But that’s the subject for another post.)
If what we think about God matters, it’s no wonder there is rampant confusion, even on this fundamental question: What is the Gospel?
How do you answer that question?
I’ve been astonished as I’ve listened to answers from those who claim to represent Jesus. Too often, their response is some variant around the theme of personal transformation – that is, what I have done, am doing now, or what I have experienced. It may sound something like this: “I was [bad/unhappy/unfulfilled/addicted, etc.], but I accepted Jesus and now I’m [getting better, etc.]” Said another way, the answer is “inside” us. It is the Good News about our transformation.*
If anecdotal evidence is at all indicative, the common Evangelical answer is miles away from the way the Bible defines the Gospel… which is the objective declaration of the finished, historical work of Jesus Christ, particularly in His death and resurrection (1 Corinthians 15:1-8). What happens to us (through the work of the Holy Spirit) is the result of the Gospel - not the Gospel itself... and that is an important distinction to remember.
There is a lot of confusion these days in the Evangelical church about this. Even where Biblical doctrine is affirmed in a church's statement of faith, all too often the primary focus of attention in ministry practice is on changing a person's life without addressing what they believe! These churches operate under a false dichotomy (“we’re not interested in doctrine, we’re interested in life” or “we don’t want ‘head-knowledge,’ we want to live the gospel”), as if they had never read Romans 12:1-2! This has lead to a de-emphasis on - and even more importantly, a lack of confidence in, Truth as revealed in Scripture, and an over-emphasis on one's personal experience. This is why sound doctrine is a bad word in many circles, and the focus of ministry is shifting from "mind-renewing" to the pragmatic focus on pietism and personal fulfillment.
Here's my question: Is “the Gospel” at its core the good news about Jesus or good news about us?
I’m not saying, of course, that we are not transformed by the Gospel – we are (2 Corinthians 5:17). But the shift in focus has led to a growing confusion among the rank and file in Evangelicalism between “justification” and “sanctification.”
So, What's the Difference?
The Biblical position is that justification is a legal determination which occurs on the basis of faith the finished work of Jesus Christ alone. In temporal terms it is an event, and distinguished from the process of sanctification. That is what Evangelicals have historically believed as essential.
Other positions deviate from the Biblical view. For example, the Catholic position historically (effectively) has been that “justification” is sanctification. Similarly, while claiming “Evangelical” status, N.T. Wright’s position in his variant of the “New Perspectives on Paul” is essentially the same - that we are justified (finally and definitively) at the end of our life “on the basis of the whole life lived.” Sadly, the view of the average current Evangelical is strikingly similar in practice. Because the Good News we share is about our personal transformation, the primary assurance of our salvation is also our personal transformation. Our assurance is undermined by an honest evaluation of our lives and our own current performance!
No wonder Semi-Palagianism is the default theology of the Evangelical movement** as the common thought seems to be that one can lose the salvation God has given. Some people try to ignore theological labels and, if pressed, seek to draw a distinction between “assurance” and “security” (the former being knowing that you have been converted and the latter that you will persevere). Others seek to try to carve out novel positions, like “God won’t let go of you, but you can somehow 'nullify' God's work on your behalf.” (I'm serious! I've heard both taught... and they are both are just variants of the same old Semi-Palagian thinking).
It is important to be precise in our understanding between our justification and our sanctification because it underscores the source of our confidence. So let’s draw the distinction:
Said simply, the Bible teaches that justification is being legally declared righteous by God. This happens only one time and changes our legal standing before God as a result of faith in the finished work of Jesus on our behalf (Romans 5:17-19). Sanctification is being made experientially righteous by God over time by God. This is a process, continuing through our lives, and it is both the work of God and something we are commanded to pursue (Philippians 2:12-13). They are both part of the Salvation process, but they are different. More precisely:
Justification is the legal determination made by God Himself, which addresses everyone’s “most urgent need” – that is, the need to deal with our condition by birth of being enemies of God and under His Divine wrath. We are born with a sin nature, hostile to – and enemies of - God Himself (Romans 1:18, 3:23, 5:12, etc.). We all stand guilty before Him (Romans 3:23). In other words, we have two distinct, but related problems: First, we are sinners (that is, NOT righteous), and second, we have sinned – that is, we deserve God’s wrath. The first separates us from God and the second demands punishment. And the good news is that God has dealt with this Himself on behalf of those whom He has chosen (Romans 8:29-30) in two very important ways:
First, God addressed our need for punishment by making Jesus to be a propitiation by his blood on our behalf (Romans 3:25). This means that Jesus’ death paid the penalty due to us by God’s righteous wrath for our sin. He paid our price for us and, as a result, we are forgiven… “just as if” we had never sinned. This is why the Biblical view of the work of Jesus on the cross is described as a substitionary atonement. But that by itself does not address the whole problem, because if that were it, we still would be separated from God because of our unrighteous nature and our failure to be perfect in His sight. So...
Second, to address our unrighteousness and imperfection, God imputed Jesus’ perfect righteousness to us (Romans 4). In other words, God credits the righteousness of Jesus to those of us who believe. This faith itself is, of course, itself a gift from God – not of works (Romans 4, Ephesians 2, etc.) This second point is increasingly lost in Evangelical discussion, but it is critical to understand. Wayne Grudem, in his systematic theology, says this:
"It is essential to the heart of the gospel to insist that God declares us to be just or righteous not on the basis of our actual condition of righteousness or holiness, but rather on the basis of Christ's perfect righteousness, which he thinks of as belonging to us. This was the heart of the difference between Protestantism and Roman Catholicism at the Reformation. Protestantism since the time of Martin Luther has insisted that justification does not change us internally and it is not a declaration based in any way on any goodness that we have in ourselves." (Grudem, Systematic Theology 1994, p. 727)Grudem rightly contrasts this with the Roman Catholic view, which mixes justification with sanctification, defining it (for example, from the Council of Trent) as as "the sanctifying and renewing of the inner man" (Grudem, p. 727, quoting Ludwig Ott, Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma, p.257).
So, Why Does It Matter?
The difference - and the implications - between the Protestant and Catholic view are massive. It is critically important because a misunderstanding between these two parts of salvation leads to all sorts of confusion around whether or not we can have assurance of our salvation... and what that assurance (if any) really looks like. If you believe that your assurance depends on your personal transformation – as many seem to these days, you will have a very difficult time accepting the Biblical teaching on assurance. On the other hand, if your confidence rests on what Jesus has done, you will find the comfort and encouragement that God has intended for His children (1 John 5:13).
If one sees their personal progress in holiness (that is, their sanctification) as an evidence of their legal standing before God (that is, their justification), any sin at all calls their status before God into question. But the Good News is that God has – in the past – historically and finally – justified us. Made us right with Himself… forgiven us and credited us with the righteousness of Jesus Christ himself. And here is my point: The reason that we can have confidence before God is all based on the finished work of Jesus Christ – not on our personal transformation or other "inner"experience. The Good News is an external, objective reality… not an internal, subjective experience.
Of course we are being transformed (or sanctified)… and the God will complete the work He has begun in us (Philippians 1:6). All who have been justified are being sanctified. But the two must not be confused, because all Christians continue to wrestle with sin… it is our experience in this life (Romans 7). We cry out with Paul in the struggle between who we are currently and eschatologically (Romans 7:15-25). As we grow in knowing God and understanding His character and requirements, we see ourselves falling farther and farther short and who we are to be.
The problem, of course, is that Evangelical teaching is all too frequently indistinguishable from Catholic doctrine on this point. Mike Horton touched on the growing confusion about this in the Evangelical movement - and its implications - in the October 21, 2007 edition of the White Horse Inn (“Faith and Assurance”). He said this:
"In his book Revisioning Evangelical Theology, Stanley Grenz argued that Evangelicalism is more a spirituality than a theology, more interested in individual piety than in creeds, confessions, doctrines and liturgies. Experience gives rise to, in fact determines doctrine - rather than the other way around. The main point of the Bible, he says, is how the stories can be used in daily living. He goes on to write this:
“Although some Evangelicals belong to ecclesiological traditions that understand the Church as in some ways a dispenser of grace, generally we see our congregations foremost as a fellowship of believers. We share our journeys, our testimony, of personal transformation. Thus, a fundamental shift in self-consciousness may be underway… a move from a creed-based to a spirituality-based identity that is more like medieval mysticism than protestant orthodoxy.
Consequently, spirituality is inward and ‘quietistic,’ concerned with combating the lower nature and the world in a personal commitment that becomes the ultimate focus of the believer’s affections. Therefore, the origin of faith is not to be attributed to an external gospel but arises from inner experience, because ‘spirituality is generated from within the individual, inner motivation is crucial… more important than ‘grand theological statements.’
The spiritual life is above all the imitation of Christ. In general, we eschew religious ritual, not slavish adherence to rights, but doing what Jesus would do is our concept of true discipleship. Consequently, most Evangelicals neither accept the sacramentalism of many main line churches, nor join the Quakers in completely eliminating the sacraments. We practice baptism and the Lord’s Supper, but understand the significance of these rights in a guarded manner. In any case, these rights are practiced as goads to personal experience, and out of obedience to the Divine command.
So, get on with the task! Get your life in order by practicing the ‘aids to growth’ and see if you don’t mature spiritually. In fact if a believer comes to the point where he or she senses that stagnation has set in, our counsel is to re-double one’s efforts in the task of exercising the disciplines.”
Check up on yourself, the Evangelical counselor admonishes. We go as Evangelicals to the Church, he says, but not in order to receive means of grace, but for fellowship, instruction and encouragement.
All of this emphasis, as you can see, is on what happens inside of us, what we can do by ourselves alone, and what we do – not on what God does for us and gives to us when we assemble as His people.So what is the Gospel? What is the Good News God has for us? It is an announcement of the finished work of Jesus Christ. It is external to us… because of Jesus’ perfect life, God has declared us righteous. Because of Jesus’ propitiating death, God’s justice is displayed and satisfied, and through His resurrection, we are justified (Romans 4:25).
This is a very different kind of view than you have with the spirituality generated by the doctrine of Justification. Here there is real assurance, genuine assurance. Luther says because you believe in me, God says, and your faith takes hold of Christ whom I have freely given to you as your justifier and Savior, therefore be righteous. Thus, God accepts you or counts you righteous only on account of Christ in whom you believe. Whatever other piece of good news concerning New Birth, Christ’s conquest of sin’s tyranny, the gift of the Spirit, His promise to renew us throughout our life, the resurrection of our body and the freedom from the presence of sin, much less the useful exhortations we may offer ourselves. The announcement that Luther here summarizes is the only thing that can create and sustain the faith that not only justifies but assures and sanctifies as well.
The External Gospel creates assurance. We don’t focus on something inward to create something inward… its something outward that creates inward assurance that we belong to Christ… Christians are the people who make it to the finish line; those who persevere to the end will be saved. We’re not justified by the level of our faith, by the degree of our faith, or by how strong our hold is on Christ, but by how strong his hold is on us. We will endure to the end, because he has saved us. Having been justified, we have peace with God.”” (White Horse Inn Broadcast, October 21, 2007, my emphasis added.)
The Gospel is Good News because it is OUTSIDE of us! So don’t be confused: Your confidence should rest on what has already happened (your justification), not your current status in personal transformation (your sanctification). And that confidence leads us to be encouraged in the process of our ongoing sanctification. After all, this is what John meant when he said Beloved, we are God's children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when He appears we shall be like Him, because we shall see Him as he is. And everyone who thus hopes in him purifies himself as He is pure." (I John 3:2-3).
Think about it this way: The question for our lives is NOT primarily “What Would Jesus Do?” That is consistent with our tendency to put our confidence in ourselves… if we could obey perfectly, we'd be fine - but since we don't, we would always be in trouble. The Good News is the answer to the question “What Has Jesus Done?” Our confidence is not in ourselves and our performance, but in Jesus who said:
“…I have come down from heaven not to do my will but to do the will of him who sent me. And this is the will of him who sent me, that I shall lose none of all that he has given me, but raise them up at the last day.” (John 6:38-39)And that, my friend, is good news!
* By the way, the “testimony” is typically moralistic (Jesus is making me a better person), therapeutic (God is helping me become happier, a better husband, beating my addiction, etc.) and deistic (as a practical matter, God requires very little of me… He’s not that involved, but He’s there when I need Him) – Mike Horton describes that so much better than me in his book Christless Christianity... give it a read!
**We’re always thankful for thoughtful exceptions. Please consider – and give a listen – to the ministries of solid teachers like John Piper, John MacArthur, Alistair Begg, James MacDonald – and some locals including Josh Moody, Craig Troxel, David Helm, and (thankfully) others. But be "Berean" in your hearing... (Acts 17:11).