Thursday, July 24, 2014

Functional Justification

Preaching through the book of Galatians over the last few months has once again brought the doctrine of “Justification by Faith” to the forefront of my mind. In the broader evangelical church today this doctrine is hotly contested so as I began to plan out the sermons and dive into the commentaries I very quickly became swallowed up in the various debates. But then I remembered that as a preacher I had to stand in front of a congregation of real people and teach them not only the fact of justification by faith but the implications of it. As much as I had to make decisions about what Paul really means when he speaks of being justified by faith I also had to translate to the congregation what this reality means for their day to day lives.

So as I have prepared each message I have been asking myself this question: what tangible life change am I calling the congregation to make today that will mark them as people who have been justified by faith? In other words, what does it means to live like one who is justified by faith? I hope by God’s grace that this has been happening throughout the series and that He is shaping us to be a community who truly and practically live by faith.

However, as I have gone on this journey of examining my life and the Christian culture around me I have come to the realisation that more often than not we are lacking the most powerful practical expression of justification by faith. Daily I catch myself or see other Christians visibly living in a way that actually denies justification by faith. We have blindly embraced the cultural norm of our generation without realising it betrays that our hearts seek justification from a source other than the person and work of Jesus Christ.

In Philippians 3 Paul tells the story of his illustrious past. He outlines his privileged birth, his adherence to the cultural and religious expectations of Judaism, his studious success as a Pharisee and his passion for the cause of his people. See for Paul meeting the cultural and religious expectations placed on him was where he drew his sense of self-worth; it was how he justified himself before God and humanity. But in verse 7, as he looks back at his life, he explains what he thinks of all this privilege and effort now that he has encountered Christ,
“But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith…”
And in here is what I believe is the most powerful implication of justification by faith: If we are justified by faith in Christ then we are free from having to justify ourselves.

For Paul faith in Christ meant that his righteousness was not his own! All his cultural and religious success was, as he puts it, “rubbish” or more literally “dung”. Trying to justify himself before his fellow man and God he was running on a treadmill, constantly trying to prove himself acceptable or worthy and measure up to society's standards of success. But coming to faith in Jesus freed him from his self-justification. Instead Paul could rest in the knowledge that he did not have to prove himself to anyone because he was justified by the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Jesus had proved Himself worthy and acceptable to God through His sinless life and sacrificial death and graciously gave this justification to Paul and all who would believe.

And yet so often we are bound to run the treadmill of measuring up to the cultural expectations of our society. Theologically we claim to be justified by faith in Jesus Christ but functionally we slave our guts out to justify ourselves in the eyes of our generation. Longing to present ourselves in such a way that might lift us in the estimations of those whose opinions matter most to us, we constantly ask ourselves the question: how will this seem in the eyes of others?

My guess is that this has always been a problem but it is so much more prevalent today because we have possibly the most powerful tool in self-justification ever invented – social media! For all the good it does social media has created a context where I can express the image of myself that I want portrayed to the world. I can craft every status update, carefully choose every photo and manage my privacy settings so that only the right people can see me.  Can any of us honestly say that we have never posted something purely to impress others and then sat back and waited for the "likes" and "comments" to roll on in?

The truth is that so few of us can ever really obtain cultural success with the vast majority of us battling to keep our heads above the water.  And even if your photo, video or status of self-justification goes viral and the world gets to bask in your cultural awesomeness, it only lasts a day and you spend the rest of your life trying to reproduce the goods or trying to ride the coattails of your success. 

If we truly believe that we are justified by faith in Jesus Christ alone then surely it should free us to recognise our efforts to meet up to the expectations of our culture as dung compared to everything that Christ has achieved for us.  And so over the next few post I hope to identify some of the markers of cultural awesomeness that we are battling to attain to in the hope that we might allow the all surpassing worth of Christ free us from them.     

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