Can we talk about justification?

In “The Principles of a Methodist” John Wesley wrote about justification by faith.

I believe three things must go together for our justification: Upon God’s part, his great mercy and grace; upon Christ’s part, the satisfaction of God’s justice, by the offering his body and shedding his blood; and upon our part, true and living faith in the merits of Jesus Christ.

There is a lot packed into this short summary. Here are  few things that I observe.

First, we just don’t talk about justification much in the church today. For Wesley it was one of the central doctrines that motivated everything he did. We have some words that play in the same ballpark as “justification” — saved, born again, redeemed — but none really captures the sense of the word as Wesley understood it and our doctrinal standards discuss it.

Justification is simply the concept that we are out of line with God and we need to be brought into alignment. We are guilty before God and need to be pardoned. We cannot pay off the debt of our guilt. We can only be forgiven. This is justification, God’s gracious and merciful pardon of sinners, of us.

Perhaps you can pick up why we don’t talk about this much in the church these days. We don’t like to talk about sin. In the church, we like to talk about problems and issues. How do I cope with life when it is hard? How do I strengthen my marriage? How do I overcome anxiety? But we don’t like to talk about sin. And if we don’t know ourselves to be sinners, then we can’t have any interest in what is required for us to be justified.

I notice as well in reflecting on this short passage the emphasis on Jesus’ death as satisfaction required by God’s justice. What does that mean? It means that sin — our sin and that of the world — demands a payment. God’s justice requires that the debt and guilt piled up by our sin be paid off. We can be forgiven but balance must be restored. By his death, Jesus Christ reset the scales. He paid the price that should have been ours to pay and that we could never pay. This is part of why we say above that the mercy of the Father is necessary for our justification. What could have been required of us was not. In the words of the song, Jesus paid it all.

While it is true that the Christian church has never come down to a single understanding of the meaning of Christ’s death on the cross — what the theologians call atonement theory — it is undeniable that the people called Methodist preached from the very beginning of the necessity and power of Christ’s satisfaction.

And finally, I notice in reading Wesley’s words the necessity for not just faith, but a living faith that Jesus Christ has in fact won my pardon by the satisfaction he made on the cross. We are called to put our whole trust for peace in this world and glory in the next not in our own goodness, our own efforts, or our own observance of religious duties, but totally and solely in Jesus Christ.

If we have this faith, it will be as plain to see as it is to observe signs of life in any living thing. A living faith grows and bears fruit. It is a source of activity and energy in the life the Christian. It multiplies and reproduces. I depends on the Holy Spirit for its life just as we depend on air for ours. This is the living faith that Wesley preached and handed down to the Methodists after him.

On each of these three points, I believe the United Methodist Church today has much to learn. I know I do.

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What holds us back?

In his sermon, “The Righteousness of Faith,” John Wesley considers some ways people hold themselves back from seeking the forgiveness of God.

The first mistake is to believe that before we can be forgiven we must first do certain things. We must first conquer sin or break off from every evil work. We must do good to all our neighbors. We must first go to church or hear more sermons or take the Lord’s Supper.

To this, Wesley says, “First believe!” and then you will find the power to do.

The second mistake is to harbor the thought in our heart that we are not good enough to be accepted by God. To this Wesley responds that not one of us is good enough to deserve acceptance by God, but that should be no barrier because we are invited into the cleansing waters. “Then delay not,” Wesley says. “The fountain is open.”

The third mistake that hinders us from seeking the forgiveness of God is the idea that we are not sufficiently wracked by the pain of our own sins. We are not contrite enough, so therefore we are not ready to be pardoned.  Wesley responds that we should be more contrite than we are, more aware of our own deep sinfulness, but we should not let that delay us.

It may be, God will make thee so, not before thou believest, but by believing. It may be, thou wilt not weep much till thou lovest much because thou hast had much forgiven. In the mean time, look unto Jesus. Behold how he loveth thee! What could he have done more for thee which he hath not done?

These are all words of spiritual counsel to those who are mindful that they are in need of pardon and reconciliation with God. They are not words offered to those who blissfully go along as if all were well.

These three hindering notions — that we must do certain things, that we must achieve certain degrees of holiness, or that we must feel certain things before we can find pardon in Jesus Christ — are familiar to me. I think Wesley is perceptive about the ways we talk ourselves out of seeking what is freely offered.

Can you think of other ways people who know they need redemption hold themselves back from seeking pardon, from faith in Christ?

Simple Methodism

In our ministry in the church, I know that our task is not to recreate what has come before. The Holy Spirit is not a cookie cutter, stamping out identical churches in every place and every time. But it is either my gift or my handicap that I am drawn to look at the root of things to discern what should be our central and animating principles today. So today, in the opening days of my ministry among a people new to me, I find myself looking again over John Wesley’s “Plain Account of a People Called Methodist.”

In that letter written in 1748, Wesley lists the four particulars about true Christianity that he and his brother Charles wished to persuade any who would hear them preach.

First, that the end of religion is that we become holy, happy, peaceful, and righteous people. It is about deep transformation by the power of the Holy Spirit.

Second, that repentance and faith in Jesus Christ are the only way to that end.

Third, that Christ forgives, pardons, and frees from the power of sin and death all who have faith in him.

Fourth, that the fruits of this faith are not stored away to enjoy in heaven after we die, but are tasted even now in this moment and in this life.

What I take to be Wesley’s great target in this message is a kind of dead, formal, and cold religion that provides little comfort and little power. It was a religion that put a great emphasis on having the correct knowledge in your head about various theological topics, on being blameless in our outward conduct, and in doing all manner of good and pious things.

There is nothing wrong with orthodoxy. There is nothing bad about being good and pious people who show up to church every Sunday and the food pantry on Wednesday. Wesley did not disparage any of that, but he did not want people to confuse the means of religion with the end or purpose of it.

The purpose of it all is to restore to people the joy and peace that God intended for them from the Creation.

It seems to me, looking out over the church in America today, that we might benefit from this old idea if we can learn how to preach and teach it in a way that can be heard today.