Theological development is largely an exercise in reaction and compensation. Theological emphases come along and respond to other, different or competing, emphases. This has happened over the last 30 years or so with the doctrine of justification among conservative Protestants. It has been known to Lutherans as the article of faith on which the church stands and falls. John Calvin said it was the principal hinge of religion. More recent theologians both within and influenced by the so-called New Perspective on Paul have correctly pointed out that the Bible doesn’t quite say this about justification. In short, they have argued that justification has been comparatively overemphasized in historic Protestantism. This assertion is correct, but to acknowledge this is not to suggest that justification is unimportant. All to the contrary: there can be no Christianity without justification. It is near the heart of the Christian Faith. Why?
The modern world and church tend to be lax about and indifferent toward justification because the holiness of God is no longer popular. Moderns tend to see God as an indulgent grandfather or as a self-help guru assisting us in our life‘s aspirations. This is far from the biblical picture of God. In fact, one characteristic that we find of God, literally from Genesis to Revelation, is that when humans come into his presence, they are awestruck by his majestic holiness. This is not quite the depiction of God popular in today’s Christianity, including much conservative Christianity, to put it mildly.
Again and again in the Old Testament we read how God established specific laws and methods by which his people were to approach him so as to cleanse themselves. The most obvious example of this was the sacrificial system in Israel. Of course, in the New Testament, we know from the book of Hebrews that this system pointed to the final, enduring sacrifice of Jesus Christ. Interestingly, many Christians seem not to stress this rationale for our Lord‘s death. They do understand that he died for our sins so that we can escape eternal judgment. They seem not to accent as much that it was necessary to die for our sin so that we could be restored to fellowship with God.
What does all this have to do with justification? Just this: God does not fellowship with an unholy people, and he makes us holy by justification. In its simplest terms, justification means being right with God. Because we are sinners, we cannot be right with God by our good works. We are made right with God by what Jesus Christ did for us on the cross and the empty tomb. The Bible teaches that his righteousness is imputed, or marked up to, our account. This is a judicial, or courtroom, way of looking at the matter, and this is just how the Bible puts it, no matter how foreign or distasteful it might be to us in the contemporary world. This is also why our union with Christ is the undergirding soteriological doctrine of the Bible. When we are united to Christ by faith (alone), we are aligned with his righteousness, which becomes ours. God does not make us righteous by first changing our lives from sinful to virtuous and accepting our virtue. Rather, he declares us righteous because of our union with the Righteous One, and on that basis changes us from sinners to righteous.
We are made right with God by Christ’s righteousness credited to our account. This is the only way in which we can approach God and God can approach us. We cannot fellowship with God if we are not right with God, and we cannot be right with God apart from justification.
This, in summary, is why justification is an indispensable truth of the Christian Faith. To marginalize justification is to marginalize the only way that we can be restored to fellowship with God.
If you want to be right with God, you must be justified. If you don’t care for justification, you can’t be right with God.
And good luck with that.