As important as justification is for the Christian, it’s not meant to be the only prescription in our pursuit of holiness. Without a doubt, it is gloriously true that we are accepted before God because of the work of Christ alone, the benefits of which we receive through faith alone, by grace alone. That ought to be our sweet song and confession at all times. Justification is enough to make us right with God for ever, and it is certainly a major motivation for holiness. If we are accepted by God we do not have to live for the approval of others. If there is no condemnation in Christ Jesus then we do not have to fear the disappointment of others. There’s no doubt that justification is fuel for our sanctification.
But it is not the only kind of fuel we can put in the tank. If we only remind people of our acceptance before God we will flatten the contours of Scripture and wind up being poor physicians of souls.
Think of James 4:1: “What causes quarrels and fights among you?” James does not say, “You’re fighting because you have not come to grips with your acceptance in the gospel.” He says, in effect, “You’re at each others throats because you’re covetous and you’re selfish. You want things that you don’t have. You’re demanding. You’re in love with the world; You’re envious. That’s what’s going on in your heart right now.” Now, we might try to connect all that with a failure to believe the gospel, but that’s not what James says. He blames their quarrels on their love of the world.
You only have be a parent for a short time to see that people sin for all sorts of reasons. Lately we’ve been using the excellent book Long Story Short for our morning devotions with the kids. When we came to the story of Cain and Abel the book suggested a little lesson where you hand a ten dollar bill to one child but not the others. Then you ask the kids, “What would your response be if I gave your sister ten dollars because she did something very pleasing to me, and I gave you nothing?” The aim of the lesson is to relate with Cain’s envy toward Abel. So I just asked the question, and my son, in whom there is no guile, replied without hesitation, “Daddy, I’d punch you in the stomach.” Now what’s going on in his heart at that moment? Is his most pressing need to understand justification, or is there a simpler explanation? I think my son at that moment, like the people James was addressing, was ready to fight because of covetousness. He saw ten dollars, thought of Legos, and was willing to do whatever he had to get what he wanted.
The problem with much of our thinking on sanctification is that we assume people are motivated in only one way. It’s similar to the mistake some of those associated with Christian psychology fell into. They assumed a universal needs theory. They operated from the principle that everyone has a leaky love tank that needs to be patched up and filled up. If people could only be loved in the right way they’d turn around and be a loving person. Well, I don’t doubt there is some commonsense insight there. But does the theory explain everyone? Is this the problem with Al-Qaida or Hamas? They all have leaky love tanks? Or are some other issues at play?
I have no problem acknowledging that sin is always an expression of unbelief. But there are a lot of God’s promises I can disbelieve at any moment. Justification by grace alone through faith alone is not the only indicative I can doubt. I can disbelieve God’s promise to judge the wicked or his promise to come again or his promise to give me an inheritance or his promise to turn everything to my good. These are all precious promises, each one a possible remedy for indwelling sin. To remind each other of justification is never a wrong answer. It is a precious remedy, but it is not the only one.