American Christianity faces a terrible dilemma: how to affirm the faith claims of those who so grossly violated the dignity and justice due others. It’s no easy dilemma to resolve. What do you do with a Jonathan Edwards, for example? He was arguably the greatest Christian theologian America produced. Yet he owned slaves. How can one so obsessed with the glory of God be so blind to the oppression of neighbor? Can his claim to love the God he has not seen be substantiated when he failed to love his neighbor he saw everyday? (1 John 4:20)
Much of the evangelical world resolves the problem by resorting to an emphasis on justification by faith alone. They remind us (rightly) that we can never be justified before God because of our works. As they do so, however, they come perilously close to arguing we are justified by faith that is alone, a faith that does not require “performing deeds in keeping with repentance” (Acts 26:20).
On the other hand, some argue that our faith must be proven or shown by our deeds (James 2:18-20). They maintain (rightly) that a changed heart should manifest itself in a changed life. However, as they emphasize the importance of fruit, they come perilously close to a works-righteousness which also forfeits the gospel.
Neither error is superior to the other because both are errors. They divide the baby of salvation into two halves, doctrinal and ethical. But babies should be kept whole, and we should hope to see them grow up into their adult selves, robustly doctrinal and dutifully ethical. In our day of unrest, protest, injustice and suffering–when Christian witness and presence are interrogated and suspected–insist that saving faith and Christian justice remain joined. A truly converted person will increasingly become a truly just person.
Conversion and Justification
We believe that apart from Christ, all persons remain spiritually dead in trespasses and sins (Eph. 2:1-3). We believe spiritual death ends in an eternal death at the judgment of Christ (Rev. 20:11-15). We believe this already-pronounced condemnation hangs over the heads of all (Gen. 2:16-17; John 3:16, 18-19) until and unless God graciously rescues the sinner through Jesus Christ.
We believe God’s rescue of sinners requires the sinner’s conversion, wherein God raises the sinner to new life in Jesus Christ (Eph. 2:4-9). This new creation (2 Cor. 5:17; Gal. 6:15) or new birth (John 3:3; 1 Pet. 1:3, 23) includes as grace gifts to the sinner repentance from sin and saving faith in Jesus Christ as personal Lord and Savior (Mark 1:15; 6:12; Acts 11:17-18). This conversion and the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit in the believer’s life produces the obedience that comes from faith (Rom. 1:5; John 14:21; 1 John 3:4-10).
We believe that justification or right standing with God comes to the sinner by God’s grace alone through faith alone in the Person and finished work of Jesus Christ alone (Rom. 3:21-26). We believe justification is a forensic or legal verdict by God wherein God imputes or credits the righteousness of Jesus Christ to the sinner given faith (Rom. 1:17; Gal. 3:8).
We deny that any good work or act of obedience can save a person from God’s judgment and eternal condemnation (Eph. 2:8; Gal. 3:10-14). We deny that seeking justice provides any grounds or warrant for claiming God’s mercy and acceptance. Yet, we believe genuine faith and repentance toward God manifest themselves in part in restitution for wrongs done to others, as with Zachaeus (Luke 19:1-10). Those who are genuinely forgiven by God in turn forgive those who have wronged them (Luke 17:4; Eph. 5:1-2; Col. 3:3). Those who have been shown mercy must also show mercy (Dan. 4:27; Zech. 7:9; Luke 6:36; Rom. 11:30-32; Jam. 2:13). When our Lord challenges a religious person wishing to “justify himself,” He demonstrates that a justified life looks like mercy and justice to ethnic, religious and foreign “others” (Luke 10:25-37).
We believe the nature of the new birth or Christian conversion and justification require the posture and practice of biblical or Christian justice. Unrepentant practice of injustice falsifies claims to personal justification. The perpetuation of oppression and mistreatment belong to the old life, the old man, and the old creation; the opposition of injustice belongs to the new life, the new man, and the new creation. Those truly converted to Christ cannot live any longer in such sin (Rom. 6:1-2; 2 Cor. 5:14-16; Gal. 2:11-14) without conviction and chastisement from their loving Heavenly Father (Heb. 12:6).
Edwards himself was the servant of Another. God will cause him to stand or deal with him in judgment (Rom. 14:4).
The real question is: What about us? Are we any better than Edwards–either in terms of the genuineness of our profession of faith in Christ or in our love for neighbor and striving for justice? Does our faith express itself in love for neighbor, in Christian justice for all?
Other posts in this series:
Part 1: Revelation
Part 2: The Trinity
Part 3: True Humanity