But Is It Relevant? If justification isn't the hit it used to be, the problem is with us.

by Dr. Michael Horton


According to George Barna, most Christians believe they obey the Ten Commandments (although most cannot name them). Furthermore, 84% of evangelicals thought "God helps those who help themselves" was either a biblical quotation or, at least, a biblical notion, a higher percentage than Roman Catholics or even the unchurched.1 Even churches of the Reformation have a hard time resisting the temptation to abandon the riches of the past in order the keep in step with an ever-changing culture.

In every period, the church is tested for its faithfulness to the apostolic witness to Christ and him crucified. The great Liberal theologians of the last century viewed the doctrine of justification as one of those Jewish ideas out of which the church had not grown until the dawn of the Enlightenment. Sacrifice and satisfaction: a God of wrath and love simultaneously requiring and satisfying justice in one act of blood atonement, it was just more than the sophisticated Greeks of modern culture could bear. After all, God is love and exists simply to make sure everyone is happy and being looked after. The God of the Reformation was at the center of the universe, both in creation and redemption. Human beings were helpless, but "God, who is rich in mercy, while we were still dead made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved)" (Eph.2:5). The god of Enlightenment Deism, however, was a bit like an English butler who assisted and served, but never got in the way. The self-sufficient, enlightened, modern man or woman from now on would no longer suffer the indignity of regarding himself or herself as a "miserable sinner" who was at the mercy of a higher being. Why religion, then? Easy: To promote morality and the religious sentiment that produces it. We are living on this, rather than the Reformation, inheritance in modern evangelicalism. The god of the Enlightenment existed to protect our "right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." Alister McGrath, in his monumental Iustitia Dei, observes:

The application of such insights leads to an empirically derived concept of God modeled on the state as the philanthropic preserver of mankind, and the rejection of theological notions (such as that of eternal punishment) which cannot be justified on the basis of this criterion of preservation....God's commands are given purely in order to benefit mankind.2

Thus, Tindal, a deistic theologian, could write, "As God can require nothing of us but what makes for our Happiness; so he...can forbid us the Things only which tend to our Hurt." Thus, the work of Christ can serve, in this scheme, merely to show us how much God loves us and to thereby move us to imitate his self-giving.

Every doctrine was ruthlessly combed for its value in terms of in moral or experiential self-fulfillment. Justification was one of the chief enemies of the moral sentiment, deists insisted, since it was based on the objective work of Christ for sinners rather than on the subjective work of Christ or the Spirit within the enlightened. Moralism and rationalism refused any credibility to the notion that salvation comes by the imputation of the God-Man's righteousness. For Enlightenment moralists like John Locke, Christianity served a moral and, therefore, political purpose. The importance of Christ's work was measured in terms of "the great encouragement he brought to a virtuous and pious life," said Locke. The difference, according to Locke, between salvation by works and salvation by faith is that in the former, there is "no allowance for failing on any occasion...But by the law of faith, faith is allowed to supply the defect of full obedience: and so the believers are admitted to life and immortality, as if they were righteous." In other words, where the Reformation recovered the biblical emphasis on justification on account of Christ, through faith, Locke had embraced the Arminian doctrine of justification on account of faith, as though faith were the easier work man had to perform in order to earn eternal life. It was easy, painless, and yet the enlightened did not have to give up their claim to having saved themselves with God's help.

Then, with the able assistance of Friederich Schleiermacher, father of modern liberalism, the value of Christianity was measured, not in terms of how much sense it made or morality it produced, but primarily in terms of how much feeling it inspired. Merging the growing Romanticism, which emphasized feeling, with his own Pietistic upbringing, Schleiermacher sought to defend Christianity before its "cultured despisers." So he gutted religion of every notion that offended his sensitive audience of literati, leaving only those moving ideas which inspired religious feeling and romantic sentiment. We saw this influence in the hymnody from the last century, where we walk and talk with Jesus in the garden "while the dew is still on the roses," or where "He Touched Me," or in the line from "He Lives," "You ask me how I know he lives? He lives within my heart." This sentiment seems to have only increased in our own time, with the "God is my girlfriend" genre of Christian music.

Finally, William James, father of the American philosophical school known as "pragmatism," told us that Christianity ought to be measured in terms of its "cash-value in experiential terms." Whatever "worked" replaced whatever was "true." The son of a theologian, James was the first to try to blend Christianity and psychology and in the process he ended up defining the purpose of religion in terms of how much happiness it brought to the one who embraced it.

So, for over two centuries, Christianity has been literally inundated with the settling dust of the Enlightenment. In the fall-out, one loss has been the sense in the popular imagination that humanity's greatest need is to be justified before a holy God. Due to the divine sense stamped on every person's conscience, there is always, in every age, some faint realization that the holy Creator is offended and requires justice, accompanied by the fear that one's own life falls far short of that mark. But, as Paul says, we suppress that knowledge (Ro.1-2). And what we have seen in the modern age is a consistent, full-scale, well-organized, orchestrated attempt to do just that: to obliterate the knowledge of sin and guilt, grace and redemption, heaven and hell from the human conscience and, hence, from the collective cultural imagination.

And, as Nietzsche so well observed, "the priests have pliantly lent their aid" in this "gelding of God."

For over two centuries, religious leaders--pastors, theologians, missionaries, youth workers, evangelists, have accommodated the gospel message to this cultural suppression. Because doctrines like justification do not appear to effect moral self-improvement, emotional self-fulfillment, practical self-help, or psychological self-esteem, they are at least pushed to the periphery and often abandoned altogether. How can it make me happy? How can it make me a better person? How can it give me a closer walk with Jesus? These questions seem to have erased any consciousness of the older obsession, "How can I be right with God?" One of the callers during the interview with Robert Schuller asked, "If I'm happy with my life and feel pretty good about myself as a non-Christian, why should I become a Christian?", to which our guest simply replied, "I don't know. I can't identify with that."

We live at a time when "the pursuit of happiness" has finally led to a culture that is, as Neil Postman puts it, "amusing itself to death." "Fun" isn't really all that fun any more and the hedonistic paradox seems now to be finally playing itself out in front of our eyes: The search for pleasure and happiness, as an end in itself, ends only in frustration and resentment. The illustrations from the pen of 19th century Anglican Bishop J. C. Ryle are just as current today:

Go with me in imagination to some of our great London hospitals. Stand with me there by the bedside of some poor creature in the last stage of an incurable disease. He lies quiet perhaps, and makes no struggle. He does not complain of pain perhaps, and does not appear to feel it. He sleeps, and is still. His eyes are closed. His head reclines on his pillow. He smiles faintly, and mutters something. He is dreaming of home, and his mother, and his youth. His thoughts are far away.--But is this health? Oh, no: no! It is only the effect of drugs. Nothing can be done for him. He is dying daily. The only object is to lessen his pain. His quiet is an unnatural quiet. His sleep is an unhealthy sleep. You see in that man's case a vivid likeness of peace without justification. It is a hollow, deceptive, unhealthy thing. Its end is death.

Go with me in imagination to some lunatic asylum. Let us visit some cave of incurable delusion. We shall probably find some one who fancies that he is rich and noble, or a king. See how he will take the straw from the ground, twist it round his head, and call it a crown. Mark how he will pick up stones and gravel, and call them diamonds and pearls. Hear how he will laugh, and sing, and appear to be happy in his delusions.--But is this happiness? Oh, no! We know it is only the result of ignorant insanity. You see in that man's case another likeness of peace built on fancy, and not on justification. It is a senseless, baseless thing. It has neither root nor life. Settle it in your mind that there can be no peace with God unless we feel that we are justified. We must know what is become of our sins.3

One of the popular bumper stickers of the seventies read, "Jesus Is The Answer," to which many correctly replied, "What Is The Question?" If the question is, "How can I have the most dramatic experiences," drugs might be a better answer than Christianity. If it is, "How can I become the person I want to be?", it just might be that a new line of work or a diet plan will suffice. Mormonism has given a lot of people new meaning and fulfillment and there are plenty of people who will give testimonies as to how this self-fulfillment cult or that self-help group has improved their lives morally and made them better people. Peace of mind may be had in a good two-week vacation fishing the streams of Montana. And if the chief question that Christianity must answer is, "How can I be happy?", I've seen no better response than that of C.S. Lewis: "I didn't go to religion to make me happy. I always knew a bottle of Port would do that. If you want a religion to make you feel really comfortable, I certainly don't recommend Christianity." But the question the Christian message answers is, "How can I, a miserable sinner, be accepted by a holy God?"

The liberal theologians said that question was no longer relevant. The people just were not asking it anymore. But that was not because people stopped experiencing the feeling, when their head hit the pillow at night, that somehow there must be a God somewhere who takes account of them for their sins. Rather, it was because the movers and shapers of culture, aided by the theologians, evangelists, and moralists, mounted a crusade to suppress this knowledge by making religion answer other questions instead.

But there is an exciting movement afoot in contemporary debate. From the arts to science, philosophy, and even theology, there is a wide-scale re-evaluation of modernism and the presuppositions of the Enlightenment. Coined "Postmodernism," it is a very secular movement, but it opens the door to evangelicals to restate the timeless gospel as the alternative to a materialistic, naturalistic view of reality. The real question is whether evangelicals are going to continue to be shaped and reshaped by modernity, or whether they are going to return to the question that whole societies used to ask when the matters of the soul and of eternity were as real as today's news. For those who wonder which course to take, I suggest they give careful attention to the conclusions of someone who isn't even an evangelical Protestant, but a Roman Catholic liberation theologian. While ministers ordained in the Reformation tradition sell out for being "with it"--whether Schleiermacher in the 18th century or Schuller in the 20th, here is what at least one thinker outside the tradition says about this timeless truth without boundaries:

Many theologians writing about the Reformation assure us nowadays that Luther's famous fundamental question regarding a gracious God can scarcely be made intelligible to people today, let alone communicated as relevant to their lives. This question is said to belong to another, noncontemporary world. I do not share this position at all. The heart of the Reformation's question--How can we attain to grace?--is absolutely central to our most pressing concerns. Just look for a moment at the human person of today:...stretched between doubt and commitment, between apathy and a meager kind of love, between ruthless self-assertion and a weak form of solidarity, confused and more uncertain of himself than he was even a few generations ago....And we are asked to believe that this person cannot understand the cry for grace, the pressing question as to whether and how grace can come to us? I do not accept that for a moment....This second Reformation concerns all Christians, is coming upon all of us, upon the two great churches of our Christianity. The needs of the gospel and the world will not let us indulge ourselves much longer with our one-sided, half-lame versions of Christianity.4

Too often, we orthodox Protestants acted as though we invented this doctrine, but it is the treasure of all Christians and, indeed, all people everywhere who will but "take up and read" the clear teaching of Scripture. Furthermore, sometimes the holy become common, while it takes those outside the tradition to reawaken the supposed treasurers to the spectacle. Perhaps the future of the second Reformation lies with people like Metz, and with the Charismatic brothers and sisters who get burned out on hype; with Baptists who have a high view of the authority of Scripture, but are weary of the extrascriptural legalism and anti-intellectualism; with those from all kinds of different backgrounds and traditions who are weary and burdened under, looking for rest for their souls. As Bunyan's Pilgrim learned, only here, in this doctrine of justification on account of Christ alone, through faith alone, is the deepest question of the human conscience answered in a way that renders all other pursuits, all other goals, all other questions empty and shallow by comparison. And only here does the broken sinner discover something that is more relevant than today's latest fashions, more deeply satisfying than the world's richest treasures, and more liberating than all the shallow jingles that grown-ups fool themselves into believing.§

1. George Barna, What Americans Believe (Ventura: Regal, 1991), p. 80.
2. Alister McGrath, Iustitia Dei, Volume 2 (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press), p. 140.
3. J. C. Ryle, Old Paths (Cambridge: James Clarke, 1977), p. 217.
4. Johann Baptist Metz, The Emergent Church, trans. by Peter Mann (New York: Crossroads, 1986), pp. 49-50.


Dr. Michael Horton is the vice chairman of the Council of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals, and is associate professor of historical theology at Westminster Theological Seminary in California. Dr. Horton is a graduate of Biola University (B.A.), Westminster Theological Seminary in California (M.A.R.) and Wycliffe Hall, Oxford (Ph.D.). Some of the books he has written or edited include Putting Amazing Back Into Grace, Beyond Culture Wars, Power Religion, In the Face of God, and most recently, We Believe.

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