06 July 2022

Justification: How God considers us right with him.

JUSTIFY 'dʒəs.tə.faɪ verb. Show or prove to be correct.
2. Make morally right [with God].
[Justification dʒəs.tə.fə'keɪ.ʃən noun, justificatory dʒə.stə'fɪk.ə.tɔ.ri adjective.]

In our culture “justify” usually means we have an excuse for what we did. Not necessarily a good one.

Fr’instance, let’s say I took someone behind the church building and beat the daylights out of them. Ordinarily and rightly, that’d get me tossed into jail for battery. When I stand before the judge I’d better have a really solid reason for my actions. “He started it; I just finished it” sounds like a good enough explanation for most people, but legally it’s not gonna work: Outside of movies, the law doesn’t give free passes to badasses. Neither do juries. They still send plenty of these badasses to prison.

Nope; justification means I need a profound reason for why I shouldn’t be jailed or institutionalized for my behavior. One that’s either in accordance with the law (“I reasonably feared for my life if I didn’t”) or is good enough to make judges and juries actually set aside the law, declare me not guilty, and set me free.

Now when it comes to sin, I am so guilty. I have no good excuse. Neither do you. Neither does anyone.

Yeah, we all have accidental, unintentional, or omissive sins in our past. But we have way more sins which we fully, thoughtfully, deliberately meant to do. We weren’t out of our right minds; we weren’t backed into tragic moral choices; we weren’t predetermined by God to sin in order to fulfill some secret evil plan of his. We have no excuse. There’s no justification for our behavior. We’re totally guilty.

Yet God forgives us anyway, adopts us as his kids, and lets us inherit his kingdom.

Why? Why does God let us off the hook?

Well, various theologians are gonna pitch all sorts of theories as to how ritual sacrifice and Jesus’s death might actually plaster over those sins in a meaningful way. But while that’s awesome and impressive and all that, that answers how, not why. Why’d Jesus bother to apply this plaster in the first place? Why does God even bother to have a relationship with humanity and Christians, despite our obvious unworthiness?

It’s a really simple explanation: God is love, and God is gracious. He loves us too much to not find some way to restore our relationship with him. So Jesus died to totally, absolutely wipe out the sins of the whole world. 1Jn 2.2 Anybody can have a relationship with God! Our sinfulness is no barrier whatsoever. We might imagine it is, ’cause we prefer karma, in which we merit that relationship instead of getting a free pass from God. But we needn’t waste our efforts—as if we ever could wipe out our own sins. Jesus already took care of that. Sin is defeated. We don’t need to do anything more. We’re forgiven.

So if everyone’s forgiven, why are some people saved, and some people aren’t, even though God wants to save everyone? 1Ti 2.4 Why does God have relationships with some individuals and not others, even though he loves the world? Jn 3.16 Why doesn’t God just drag everyone to heaven, no matter how they kick and scream?

Well it’s not, as Calvinists insist, because God doesn’t wanna save everyone, doesn’t really love everybody, and limits his forgiveness to a select few. It’s because God figures only one thing justifies his having a relationship with us: Whether we’re gonna respond, in any way, to such a relationship. Whether we’re gonna love him back.

The apostles distilled this idea to one word: Faith. I mean, people respond to God in all sorts of ways. Pagans pick and choose what they wanna believe God’s like—and as a result they basically invent their own fictitious “God,” and sometimes then don’t even follow him. Nontheists don’t even try. But if we do try—if we trust God to love us, forgive our screw-ups, make up for our deficiencies with Christ, 1Jn 2.1-3 work with us, guide us, and glorify us Ro 8.30 —and y’know, God’ll accept faith in the tiniest of servings Lk 17.6 —we’re good. It justifies God’s interactivity in our lives: It won’t be time wasted! It’ll lead to our salvation.

So God made faith a condition of our relationship with him. No faith, no relationship. No relationship, no kingdom. Mt 7.22-23 Kinda important.

Sola fide.

There’s this story in Genesis in which the LORD pointed out the stars to Avram ben Terakh—whom we today call Abraham—and told him he’d have that many descendants. Ge 15.5 Now, don’t take this literally, ’cause I’ve known a few fools who wanna point out there are trillions of galaxies, uncountable stars, and nowhere near that many humans. The general idea was Abraham would have a massive number of descendants. As he now does.

Abraham’s response, and the LORD’s response back:

Genesis 15.6 NKJV
And he believed in the LORD, and He accounted it to him for righteousness.

In the New Testament, the apostles kept quoting this verse. To them it’s humanity’s entire basis of being right with God. It wasn’t because we earn or merit it. We totally don’t. Not even close.

But God doesn’t base our relationship on sinlessness or perfection. Yeah, you might get that idea because of the sin hangups of certain dark Christian preachers. They’ll quickly quote all the anti-sin passages in the bible, and claim sinners are so foul, so unholy, so offensive to the Almighty, God’ll actually turn away from them. Or they’ll claim he’s so holy, mere exposure to God’s purity will make ’em burst into flames. Either way, God’s depicted as dangerous to sinners.

Clearly they’ve chosen to ignore the rest of the bible. If God were too holy to interact with sinners, nobody could have a relationship with him! Jesus’s appearance in Mary’s womb would’ve blown her up. (Or, if we borrow the Roman Catholic belief that God got around this problem by making Mary sinless too, Mary’s appearance in her mother’s womb would’ve blown her mom up.)

Not to mention all the prophets in the bible who had God-encounters. I would think he’d leave a lot of exploded prophets in his wake. Samson’s mother had the sense to realize this idea makes no sense; you’d think people who claim to be so knowledgeable about the bible would’ve read what her statement.

Judges 13.22-23 NKJV
22 And Manoah said to his wife, “We shall surely die, because we have seen God!”
23 But his wife said to him, “If the LORD had desired to kill us, He would not have accepted a burnt offering and a grain offering from our hands, nor would He have shown us all these things, nor would He have told us such things as these at this time.”

The reason the apostles kept quoting Genesis 15.6 is because Abraham trusted the LORD. Put his faith in God. And to God, that’s all he wants to see in us. The foundation of our relationship is solely that we have faith in him. This, God can work with.

Romans 4.1-8 NKJV
1 What then shall we say that Abraham our father has found according to the flesh? 2 For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. 3 For what does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness.” Ge 15.6 4 Now to him who works, the wages are not counted as grace but as debt.
5 But to him who does not work but believes on Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is accounted for righteousness, 6 just as David also describes the blessedness of the man to whom God imputes righteousness apart from works:
7 “Blessed are those whose lawless deeds are forgiven,
And whose sins are covered;
8 Blessed is the man to whom the LORD shall not impute sin.” Ps 32.1-2

We don’t earn God’s forgiveness; we don’t merit it whatsoever. But we get it because God graciously forgives the people he has a relationship with, and he justifies this relationship by our faith in him.

The reverse is just as true. If we won’t trust God, a healthy relationship with him is impossible. He 11.6 It’s hard enough to establish a relationship when one party can’t trust the other. Oh it’s still doable, as businesses and governments have found: If you can predict what the untrustworthy party will always do, you can work around their untrustworthiness. In the case of untrustworthy humans, God doesn’t have to predict a thing, since he already knows all. He can work around our serious deficiencies—and help us become trustworthy. But when we won’t trust him—if we keep behaving as if God’s undependable, inevitably gonna fail us, or has probably been imaginary all along—we’re always gonna hold back a bit, just in case. How’s that a viable relationship? How’s that in any way a relationship?

It’s not. The only basis of our relationship—the only way God justifies his interaction with us, and considers us worth his time and salvation—is our faith. If we don’t trust God, we don’t have God.

This is what the Protestant reformers meant by their slogan sola fide 'soʊ.lə 'fi.deɪ, Latin for “only faith.” The only thing, and nothing else, which justifies us in God’s eyes is our faith. No faith, no justification, no God, no salvation.

Yeah, there are those Christians who mix up their solas and think sola fide has to do with salvation—that we’re saved by faith. I deal with them elsewhere. But nope; we’re justified by faith alone. Saved by grace.

It boils down to this: We gotta have faith in God if we’re gonna have a saving relationship with him. Our works suck, so obviously they can’t maintain this relationship. But our faith in God means when we screw up as usual, we can still turn to him and get forgiven. We still trust him to save us. And he will.

God’s sole condition for our election.

God reveals himself to people, and expects a faith-filled response from us. If he gets it, great!—he proceeds to save us. If he doesn’t, try try again. But the one condition, the whole basis, of our saving relationship with God, must be our faith. We gotta respond.

Calvinists have a big, big problem with this idea. See, their interpretation of God’s sovereignty insists we don’t gotta respond: When God chooses people for saving, we’re saved. We have no say in the matter. We can’t resist his grace. He wants us, he gets us. It’s a relationship, but it’s more like the relationship between Apple and my iPhone: It only does what it’s programmed to, and neither it nor I have any say in the matter.

So Calvinists insist upon unconditional election, the idea that before creation, God chooses, justifies, and saves people based on nothing but his own secret will. Has nothing to do with us, our actions, our beliefs, our merit, anything. ’Cause if it did, they’re pretty sure we can take credit for saving ourselves: “I’m saved because I have faith. It’s really my doing.”

True, it’s kinda stupid to imagine we saved ourselves by believing in God. It’s like a man claiming he saved himself because when the paramedics found him dying of a heart attack, he didn’t push ’em away. Taking credit for his own rescue makes him sound like a fool, and a bit of a jerk. He might even believe his own story, and other fools might believe him too. But nobody else with half a brain does.

Regardless of the self-delusions of certain narcissists, Calvinists are still a little antsy about the idea of justification by faith. They believe in unconditional election, but faith is a condition! If we don’t respond to God in faith, we bollix the whole deal—and there go five of Calvinism’s six main doctrines.

  • ELECTION. Can’t be unconditional: Faith’s a condition.
  • SOVEREIGNTY. Can’t be absolute: God wants to save everybody, but when we refuse to put faith in him, he doesn’t get his way.
  • GRACE. Can’t be irresistible: People choose to not have faith.
  • ATONEMENT. Can’t be limited like they imagine: If God wants to apply atonement to more people than wanna accept it, he clearly hasn’t put the limitations on it.
  • PERSEVERANCE. Can’t be absolute: If people choose to have faith, what happens when they drop this faith and leave?

So how do Calvinists deal with the idea? Simple: Redefine faith. To them, faith is no longer our trusting response to God: It’s the ability God grants us to believe in him. It’s a gift. 1Co 12.9 A fruit. Ge 5.22 Something we don’t have or do till God installs it into us—which he does once he determines to save us.

Yeah, they’re interpreting these proof texts outside of their context. I’ll explain.

When Paul and Sosthenes describe faith as a gift in 1 Corinthians, they’re writing about the Holy Spirit’s supernatural gifts. 1Co 12.4-11 The apostles weren’t writing about common faith, the human ability to trust people and things based on partial evidence. (Or sometimes, naïvely, no evidence at all.)

Common faith is most often used outside a religious context. Like when you trust the supermarket isn’t selling you tainted goods, or that your household appliances aren’t gonna give you a shock or catch fire, or that your house pets won’t eat you in your sleep. We assume it’s a special ability when we use it in religion, but nope, it’s the same ability as when we trust the supermarket, our appliances, and Mr. Whiskers. It’s only made special because of who we put our trust into: Faith in God is way more reliable than faith in anyone or anything else. But whether religious or secular, it’s all common faith.

Whereas supernatural faith, which is what we read of in 1 Corinthians 12, is the Spirit-empowered ability to take giant leaps of faith when necessary to minister to others. Ordinarily when we hear from God, we double-check that stuff, like we were taught to. 1Th 5.21, 1Jn 4.1 But when there’s a dire need, we practice supernatural faith and act upon what we’re reasonably sure the Spirit’s told us to do. And yeah, we might fail spectacularly when we don’t actually have that gift. But when we do, supernatural faith produces miracles and fruit, and spreads the gospel.

Now for fruit. Faith’s a fruit of the Spirit, which is why Calvinists like to point to that passage on fruit Ga 5.22-25 and claim it’s more proof we can’t have faith unless God first grants it. But fruit’s not a gift! Fruit’s the consequence of a gift. In this case, it’s the gift of the Holy Spirit. It’s our response to the Holy Spirit working in our lives. It’s when our character traits, as a product of following the Spirit, gradually transform into God’s.

This out-of-context defense of unconditional election has the unfortunate side effect of really mangling what faith means. It’s why so many Christians think faith is the magical power to believe in goofy rubbish: “I believe because I ‘have faith,’ and you don’t believe because you don’t.” There’s so much wrong with that statement: Belief and faith are synonyms. And we believe because we know “the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen” He 11.1 KJV —we know enough about God to know he’s trustworthy. Or we don’t; we haven’t spent enough time with him yet, but we’re gonna risk it, and see what happens. In either case faith is our response to who God is. Not a program God downloaded into our brains which grants us magic powers.

Back to Abraham. The LORD told him something profound: Abraham was gonna have tons of descendants. At the time Abraham was in a monogamous relationship with a wife who was way past her childbearing years—yet he was gonna have tons of descendants. Sounds implausible. But Abraham, based on his previous God-experiences, based on what he’d heard about God secondhand, possibly based on his own hopes (hey, he had ’em; we all do; we’d be stupid to claim we don’t), believed God. Faith was Abraham’s response to God’s initiative.

And God’s response to Abraham’s response was justification: Abraham was his guy. Forever after he’d identify himself as “Abraham’s God.” Ge 28.13, Ex 3.6, Mk 12.26 God was all right with Abraham, and Abraham was all right with God.

Yeah, sometimes faith is hard. Sometimes trusting God is a massive struggle. As struggles go, it’s way easier than sinlessness. True, God wants us to work on a high standard of morals and obedience—but he knows better than to base his relationship with us on that. Instead he bases it on whether we can trust him. Even speck-sized faith will do.

But hang around God long enough, and our faith will hardly remain speck-sized.