When Evangelicals Object to Free Justification
It is a sad day when those who bear the name "evangelical" betray the very meaning of that name by objecting, either en toto or in part, to the free justification of sinners by our Holy and gracious God on the sole grounds of the finished work of Jesus Christ. In the past few years, I have been shocked on more than one occassion by the resistance of more than a few friends who come from "evangelical" churches to this doctrine. They will object immediately when I say that God justifies us, counts us righteous, accepts us fully, wholly because of what Christ did. They will say, "But then you can live however you want! What about trying to be holy?"
I realize these friends probably don't mean to be rejecting the core of the Gospel itself. They are repeating things they have heard and are bound to the emphasis and spirit that is spread from our pulpits. This is why many who do believe in the free justification of God prefer to rename "evangelical" to "post-evangelical" -the true "evangelical movement" either passed long ago or has fallen in between the cracks and been swallowed whole. Nonetheless, these friends, who are probably true Christians (though misled and confused on these critical things), need our ministry. And even if they are not truly born of God, then they need the truth proclaimed to them all the more!
So, why does the complete free-ness of justification, of the righteousness God gives to sinners, not mean that we become accepted and then can live just how we did before? There is obviously a clear mention in Scripture that those who do not produce fruit shall not be saved. This was one of the issues during the Protestant Reformation. When Luther claimed "faith alone", many would object and say he was disregarding the need for a holy life. This is why the phrase was coined, "faith alone, but not a faith that is alone." See, there is a difference between the "faith" of the world and true saving faith. True faith, as all the Reformers affirmed, is a gift of God. When we are converted by the Holy Spirit we are rescued from our blindness and rebellion and a seed is planted in the barren soil. God, who placed this seed, also waters it and causes it to grow. and preserves it to the end so that it blooms into a beautiful, sturdy oak for His glory.
Thus, if there is true conversion by the Spirit of God there is also true faith and hence true justification, and if there is true justification there is also true sanctification, God working in us "to will and to do for His good pleasure" and conforming us to the "image of His Son" (Rom 8). The one called is justified, and the one justified is glorified. It seems strange, in our day, to say this which such certainty. How can we say that? How can we guarantee this? We don't. God does. Salvation is wholly and completely God's work -something the Reformers also stressed. So far from living just how we want, if we were converted by the Spirit of God then what we want has changed! It is a supernatural thing. There is no such thing as a man who has faith but does not have a new heart that now loves God, loves righteousness, and truly desires to please and honor Him. They come from the same Source, the same Author. One does not exist without the other.
This is why James, in his epistle, belabors the point that a man can say he has faith, but if there are no good works, no love, then his faith is a sham. It is not real. It is because if there is no fruit then there is no new heart, and if there is no new heart then there was no conversion, and hence no faith, no justification, no salvation, no true relationship with the Lord at all. The person is simply in a blind and self-deceived state, flattering himself with his religion.
The sovereign work of God is paramount. It begins in eternity past when He chose to save, by the kindness of His will, a multitude of men from all of humanity, and it enters time for each individual when God sovereignly changes our hearts, brings us to faith in Christ and His pure and effectual saving merits, sanctifies us by convicting us of sin, leading us to kill it, and walk in holiness, preserves us, and eventually glorifies us. God is there at every point, nurturing, saving, being gracious to those who would, if left to themselves, hate Him forever.
Here are a few possible reasons for the evangelical rejection of free justification by free grace:
1. The Law has been weakened into a self-help manual. It is not just that the Law has been diluted so that we can actually attain it, though that is true, it is that God has been ripped from the center of it. It no longer points to a holy God who is so righteous that we cannot even comprehend it. It is now just a series of instructions and tips for how to live as "good" or "victorious" Christians. It is no longer God-ward in its focus. It no longer brings us to fall on our face because of the splendor of our Mighty, Holy Creator.
2. The Gospel sounds too easy. Since the Law has taken such a hit, then it necessarily follows that the Gospel of free grace makes no sense. It has no basis and seems "wimpy" or makes salvation "too easy". We hear all the time about warning about "cheap grace". This has led many to amend the Gospel and make it more Law-like. No longer is the Gospel a proclamation of amnesty and free grace. It has become more of a set of instructions and things we must do to essentially save ourselves.
3. Christianity is no longer supernatural. We no longer believe in the wonderful, Biblical truths of God's supernatural and sovereign working in saving sinners. Being "born again" is, despite the clear teaching of Scripture, now just a decision of man or a response of God to his decision. It is no longer the sovereign changing of a man's heart from a God-hater to a God-lover. Faith is no longer a gift of God's grace. Now it is our component, our cooperation with God's thwartable, wishful plan of salvation. Sanctification is our working to keep ourselves saved and to "be good" enough to still be a Christian, it is not the sovereign leading of God, in convicting us of sin and working in us a love for righteousness by the Gospel, into more and more true love and service to Himself.
Let us consider these things well and minister to these folks. They may think their brand of Christianity "works" and has all the appearances of godliness, but its heart is defective. Let us re-aquaint them (or even aquaint them for the first time) with the Holy, Righteous, Sovereign God of the Scriptures. Let us show them the full brightness and righteousness of His Law, how horribly we measure to it -because we are actually measuring ourselves to Him, and the beauty and depth of His grace in saving sinners. Let us show them the Gospel in ways they have never seen. There is no hope or freedom in a salvation that depends on our cooperation. We know this. Therefore, let us love them and bring this to them prayerfully, gently, boldly, and truthfully.