Not an Academic Question
Which is more scandalous? The multitudes of Christians who think they need to earn their salvation by being good? Or the throng of Christians who think that holy living doesn't matter so long as they have prayed the sinner's prayer? Pastors' answers will largely indicate how they feel about the justification debate, even if they haven't fully read the newest books from two of the debate's main players: John Piper's The Future of Justification: A Response to N.T. Wright and N. T. Wright's Justification: God's Plan and Paul's Vision.
"Justification is central to what I do," said Ryan Fullerton, pastor of Immanuel Baptist Church in Louisville. "Justification is part of the air we breathe as a ministerial staff." Fullerton says the debate has strengthened his commitment to the traditional Reformed understanding, not only because of his reading of the biblical text but also because of his congregants' struggles.
"I believe that ultimately, the central problem on every human mind is guilt, and this problem is only remedied through justification by faith alone," he said. "I once sat down with our counseling pastor to discuss a number of diverse counseling situations. We found that the root problem in each was a misunderstanding or failure to apply this doctrine. I am trying to help guilty sinners know how they can have a right standing with God."
Unfortunately, "front-loading 100 percent assurance of heaven when you die based on an assent to Reformation doctrine hasn't created a vibrant, revolutionary Christian community," said John Frye, pastor of Fellowship Evangelical Covenant Church in Hudsonville, Michigan. "As a pastor, I believe Wright's perspective puts teeth in the New Testament exhortations to stay true to an authentic following of Jesus Christ and persist to the end."
The doctrine can sound like bad advice, said Kevin DeYoung, "but I look at Galatians and Romans and think, 'If people hear us talking about justification and don't almost think that we are giving them license to sin, we aren't preaching grace strong enough.' "
DeYoung, senior pastor of University Reformed Church in East Lansing, Michigan, wonders if justification as identity in a community would be seen as good news.
"I may not be doing justice to Wright's position, but I know that if I tried to explain justification as Wright does, very few people in my congregation would understand it, and few would take real comfort in it," he said. "Whenever I nail a strong justification sermon and emphasize that nothing we do provides any ground for our right standing with God, I'll get e-mails thanking me for such a freeing message."
Piper's extended focus on God's sovereignty can be very difficult to present as good news too, said Michael Spencer, campus minister at a large Christian boarding school in Oneida, Kentucky. "Wright, on the other hand, has greatly helped me be able to use the concept of the lordship of Jesus as the central point in ministry, without making the sovereignty of God a constant bar that must be met." The idea of being declared right with God is central to justification, he said. But so are the implications of a new King and a new kingdom. "Wright has helped me integrate discipleship more clearly into my presentation of the gospel offer."
Yes, both messages are central to the gospel, said Mark Driscoll, pastor of Mars Hill Church in Seattle. But that doesn't mean both are what's meant by the term justification. Discipleship is best talked about in terms of regeneration or sanctification, he said. "Together, justification and regeneration explain both our legal standing before God and lifestyle with God."