Theology Thursdays: The justification of works

While reading Michael Horton's Covenant and Salvation, I stumbled upon this provocative thought from Wihelm Niesel:

“If we enjoy union with Christ, not only we ourselves but even our works too are just in God s sight. This doctrine of the justification of works (which was developed in the Reformed Church) is of the greatest consequence for ethics. It makes clear that the man who belongs to Christ need not be the prey of continual remorse. On the contrary he can go about his daily work confidently and joyfully.” (1)

In themselves, our best works are woefully stained with sin. We try our hardest to obey, and are immediately reminded of our need for justification! In this way, Horton comments, “even the third (normative) use of the law is supposed to lead us back to Christ.” Assurance rests in the promise that our whole lives, including our imperfect acts of obedience, are received through the satisfying blood of Jesus. Scented with the holy fragrance of his substitutionary death and imputed righteousness, our weak offerings are able to rise to the Father with a pleasing aroma. Or, to put it in Petrine language, we can “offer sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ” (1 Pet 2:5). Thank God for the treasures of union.

1. Wihelm Niesel, Reformed Symbolics: A Comparison of Catholicism, Orthodoxy and Protestantism, trans. David Lewis (Edinburgh and London: Oliver & Boyd, 1962), 217, 220-21.

Reading Wednesday: Donald Fairbairn on sharing the Son's relationship with the Father

Here's an excerpt from a wonderful book by Donald Fairbairn, Life in the Trinity. As the title suggests, it's an introduction to both the doctrine and practical implications of God being eternal Father, Son, and Spirit.

“One cannot speak of love and relationship unless one is speaking of distinct persons, so the distinctions between the persons are indicative of who God has always been, from all eternity. So instead of thinking in terms of One, who is somehow also three, we need to think in terms of Three, who have always been in relationship one to another and who are united in such a way that they are a single God rather than three separate gods [...]
If the link between theology and Christian life is really theosis, and if theosis is best understood as our sharing in the Son's relationship to the Father, then there must truly be an eternal relationship between Father and Son as distinct persons in order for God to share this relationship with us when he saves us. This doctrine of the Trinity is not an abstraction whose connection with Christian life is tenuous or even nonexistent.
Rather, the doctrine of the Trinity is the gateway to understanding Christian life. A God who was completely alone would have had nothing relational to offer us in salvation; he could have offered only a right status before him or something of that sort. But because God has eternally existed as a fellowship of three persons, there is fellowship within God in which we can also share.” (49-50)

Fairbairn is helpful in recalibrating ideas of theosis to respect the Creator-creature distinction. In the Spirit, we are united to share the same relationship with the Father which the incarnate and risen Christ has. He also includes many representative quotes from the early church fathers. It's worth picking up, especially if you've wondered how the Trinity fits into everyday Christian life.

Reading level: 11th grade+ 
Theological background: minimal; average churchgoer

Room for Reverence and Awe

UPDATE: This post was featured on the Knowing the Truth radio show with pastor Kevin Boling, for the Dec. 17 episode, “What is our Worship Service Saying?” It was also reposted at Reformation Italy. Thanks for sharing, I'm glad the community found it useful.

A non-Christian reporter visited several worship services in Vermont recently. Alongside pagan, Muslim, and Unitarian services, the man attended an evangelical church. I'm a former charismatic who considers evangelicals my brothers, so I was curious to know what he would make of it.1

The reporter described the service in terms of a “rock band” with “rock star Jesus” playing on the big screen. The style reminded him of “karaoke and conga lines.” It caused me to consider how Sunday services in NAPARC member churches are perceived by visitors. If I may state the obvious, “the medium is part of the message.” This is especially true with respect to our worship. Everything about our gatherings says something about our values and beliefs, and sometimes we say more than we intend. When I reflect on my decade in evangelical churches, certain questions come to mind:

  • Do outsiders sense “reverence and awe” in our gatherings before God (Heb 11)? Not dreariness or dread, but palpable humility.
  • Does our service conform to Scripture or is worship marred beyond Biblical recognition by human inventions? 
  • Does our liturgy connect to our Christian heritage or are we historical islands? 
  • Is the atmosphere and presentation driven by popular and commercial conventions?
  • Is it packaged to appeal to worldly cravings more than to nourish faith?  

An undercover reporter visited our church some years ago, a secular Jew writing on local worship. He was stunned at the reverence with which our pastor handled the law, acknowledging God's holiness with obvious sincerity. It reminded him of Judaism. Yet he remarked further that the worship was clearly arranged around the Word and culminated in declarations of the gospel. Grace was freely offered to all who would believe. By his own account, he went away impressed at the depth and joy of the service. The Christian religion is, after all, a personal intersection with Almighty God, something to be amazed at... even if he didn't buy it.

In evangelicalism, and the charismatic wing especially, there is a fixation on practical steps and individual devotion. Novelty and pragmatism sometimes overwhelm larger, grander truths of our faith. A lack of sound teaching on the Spirit leads to generic “spirituality,” woefully disconnected from God's ordinary means of Word and sacraments. People do not hear the preached Word as the present, living word of God. They miss out on the mysterious wonder of becoming “one bread” with millions of believers worldwide, through our union with Christ in faith, as it is signified and sealed in the Lord's Supper. Worst of all, they are deprived of the sense that in the ministerial declaration of pardon, God himself declares that believers are and shall be forgiven—that they are being preserved by his power to live another week and grow in godliness.

Is there room in contemporary worship to be astonished? Not by sounds and style; nor to be wowed by convenience and consumeristic “relevance”—but truly astonished for having been called as a body before the living God? Can we be dumbstruck by the kingdom-shattering declaration that sinners are reconciled to an infinite, supra-cosmic Creator and Redeemer? Can we tremble to be loved by a “consuming fire?”

Yes, I think there is room. But it’s easy to be dazzled by the lights, cameras, and action of modern worship. We can lose touch with our rich theology and feel disconnected from two millennia of gates-of-hell-defying Christian history. Worst of all, the gospel of blood-bought salvation is sometimes taken as an afterthought, rather than the centerpiece of our gathering. 

I have no doubt that some of our worship offends God. We are idol factories, every one of us, who tend to fashion everything including our spiritual exercises into our own image. My greater point, however, is to be sensitive to how our worship is perceived by unbelievers in our midst. We do well to remind ourselves that the most inviting, compelling aspect of our faith is not how hip, intense, or artistic it is. The Triune God really does meet us and speaks to us graciously in the Word. That's truly amazing. In the end, I'm more interested in stripping distractions from Christ's cross in my own church than in turning over tables in someone else's. But if you want some help, I'll grab a corner.

  1. Vermont has been called the “godless State.” Fewer people attend worship there than almost anywhere in the U.S. I was already familiar with 19th century revivalism and its effect on the North East, turning it into a “burned over” district. As such, I was saddened but not surprised by the prevalence of atheists and alternative religions.