“The LORD is my portion,” says my soul, “therefore I will hope in him.” –Lam. 3:24
Our tendency in our evangelical universe is to articulate justification by faith alone morally, for the past (conversion) and future (entrance into heaven), without applying the soothing salve of justification emotionally and psychologically, for the present. We embrace Christ for forgiveness of sins but move on to other ideas and strategies when it comes to our emotional life and the daily pressures that do not lie directly in the “moral” realm. This is a great mistake and a recipe for worried, half-hearted Christians, dabbling their toes in an ocean of grace, thinking they’ve hit bottom.
When sinners are justified, however, two (organically linked) liberations wash into their life. The first and more obvious liberation is moral. The second liberation is emotional and psychological.
To be sure, these are two interlocking facets of a single gift. Yet it is easy to embrace the former and neglect the latter, as my own heart has been discovering over the past 22 months (under the tutelage of Martin Luther, Herman Bavinck, G. C. Berkouwer, and Paul Zahl).
The second liberation is more subjective and more slippery. Rescued sinners bring to their new life in Christ a host of latent emotional lifelines onto which their affections have latched—relationships, skills, bank accounts, sexual stimulation, a reputation, a salary, a golf swing, a sense of humor, an education, affection from children, affection from parents. These have provided psychological stability. Often one lifeline, in particular, is the lifeline of all lifelines. As long as we have this, we know we’re okay.
Transposed onto biblical categories, it is by this that we seek to be “justified.” This provided the security about which our heart of hearts has whispered to us, “If all of life unravels around you, at least you’ll still have _________.” It was a final retreat, a felt lifeline to emotional sanity. Whether familiar with the tune and words or not, every human heart fills in the first stanza of the hymn—“When ____________, it is well with my soul”—with something.
We must continue to clarify in our churches and books and preaching and conferences and blogs how alarmingly easy it is, operationally, to swallow the first liberation without the second. We embrace God’s free forgiveness of sins yet go on funneling our affections and emotions into our old felt securities—what the Bible calls idols. We rest assured of our ultimate destiny, but the internal frenetic scurrying continues in the meantime. The old lifelines lined up in the heart continue to function as psychological nicotine when life’s pressures rise.
This miserable half-liberation manifests itself in any number of ways—seminary students finding their emotional security in academic performance; businessmen finding psychological stability through profits; pastors assuring themselves of the legitimacy of their ministry through congregational favor; mothers undergirding their sense of worth with obedient children; church planters silently validating themselves through growing attendance. Each is a question of securing that elusive sense of “okayness,” of justification. More subtle than deliberate; more sub-conscious than self-conscious; more emotional than moral. But justification nonetheless.
The knife that severs these functional lifelines onto which the heart is latched is the gospel, returned to daily, tenaciously. For Jesus is the one person who ever lived who was, from the womb, “okay.” “Justified.” And on Calvary he allowed himself to be made un-okay, to be condemned so that you and I can walk into every class, every business deal, every pulpit, every parenting endeavor, every church plant, every anxiety-generating real-life situation, already justified. Not only morally, but emotionally. Not only for the past and the future but also for the present.