The Christian “club.”
Every “club” has its own unique language. I always went to church as a child. My parents made the effort to take me there. They took me to Sunday school to learn about Jesus. I was baptized around the age of ten. It was expected. I did it, but I was not in the “club.”
I never received my membership in the Christian “club” until I was born again…
I was “justified” when I was forty-seven. I have written about being born again many times on this blog. It was dramatic. Being dramatic, it is memorable. It was my initiation into the Christian “club.”
I am seventy now and I am well-versed in the language of Christianity. Over the years, I have made an effort to learn the “lingo” because I just love to learn. I like studying the Bible, reading about the Christian life, and I still teach [from full-time teaching at a college in 2014 to teaching an adult Sunday school class today]. Most of my friends are Christians so I hang around folks who speak Christian language. I am very active in a Methodist church. I have kept my faith in God these past twenty-four years. John R. W. Stott writes about “The Salvation of Sinners” in chapter 7 of his book The Cross of Christ saying “the salvation of Christ is illustrated by the vivid imagery of terms like propitiation, redemption, justification and reconciliation.”
I have commented on propitiation and redemption. Today’s post will be a discussion of Stott’s ideas and my ideas about justification.
Another word for justification among evangelical Christian circles is the word “saved.” When someone “finds Jesus” they are “made right with God.” They “come to the altar” and confess their sins. Their sins are wiped away as God extends His grace to them; they emerge from the experience as a “babe in Christ,” one who must be nurtured in their new-found faith so they will turn from the destructive nature of life [sinning] to what is good [a life in Christ].*
When I “emerged” from my justifying moment I went back to my Methodist church and I began to learn that Methodist theologians like to toss around terms like “prevenient grace,” “justifying grace” and “sanctifying grace.” Of course I did not know what those terms meant. I was a babe in Christ. I just knew that something had happened to me and I felt I was on the road to a new life but I certainly did not know the terminology of Christian living.
Justification or justifying grace was hard for me to grasp until one day I had someone explain justification as being made “right” with God, like what a computer does to the margins of writing when a writer composes on the screen. The margins are justified, or made right. Everyone has a way of understanding and that was mine. I finally had a metaphor for justification; I understood it.
But my questions about justification did not just stop there.
How did I deserve to be justified? Why would God save me? What had I done to deserve this “new life”?
Christians told me, you did nothing to deserve being saved. God saved you because He loves you; He has always loved you even though you may not have loved Him [I hadn’t]. That revelation was hard to deal with; in our world of payment upon receipt, I could not understand “free”.
Now I felt that I owed Him something. He had given me something, something I did not deserve so He must expect me to repay Him.
Ephesians 2: 8-9 “It is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast.”
I encountered Christians who did not seem to understand this Scripture. Their orientation was working to be good, working to repay God, working to earn their future spot in heaven. I encountered another term—“legalistic.” I began to try to figure out that word since more mature Christians seemed to toss it around so much regarding these “workers.” A life in Christ is not a competition, where we all try to compile as many Godly deeds as we can. When we get together, the one with the longest list of Godly deeds wins the title of Brother/Sister Super Christian. It does not work that way. It is ludicrous to think we can work to repay God for His grace. We did not deserve it; He gave it to us. We should just be thankful.
I encountered “babes in Christ” like me who were struggling with their newfound experiences. They knew that their internal life had changed but when they looked around them, the world had not changed. “Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—His good, pleasing and perfect will” [Romans 12: 2]. I felt called to live a different life, a better life, a life more dedicated to Christian values, but I found myself surrounded by people who thought I had lost my mind. I was in love with Jesus, but sadly I found myself in the minority in my world. I knew I had to change my ways but old temptations were still in my life. I felt the pull to return to the mistakes of the past. Those were the mistakes that led me to the altar, as I tried to give them to God. He forgave me and I emerged from my experience washed clean of my sins. Old habits are hard to break; new habits are not in place. New language is not in place; old words are still ingrained in one’s vocabulary.
I heard about the “old man.” That expression became a way to describe the sinful habits that still have a hold on us. They don’t go away immediately when we are saved. They are still there. One Christian mentor told me we stuff “the old man” in a bag and carry him on our backs; at times the old man escapes from the bag and we find ourselves falling back into sin. That is normal. That is to be expected. It is a common experience among babes in Christ. I needed that bit of wisdom; I needed that metaphor to help me understand what I was going through. I needed to begin to understand that if I could hold onto my faith that I was no longer in this world; I belonged to another world. Jesus told Pontius Pilate that “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not from the world” [John 18: 36].
I began to understand that when I was justified I became a member of God’s kingdom, which is “not of this world.” I began to realize that my new citizenship is in heaven. “But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ” [Philippians 3: 20]. It says in Titus 3: 7 “so that, having been justified by His grace, we might become heirs having the hope of eternal life.”
John Stott describes justification in these words “When God justifies sinners, He is not declaring bad people to be good, or saying that they are not sinners after all; He is pronouncing them legally righteous, free from the liability of the broken law, because He himself in His Son has borne the penalty of their law breaking.”
The journey of the Christian life begins with justification.
Nicodemus (the well-known Pharisee) questioned Jesus about what a man must do to be close to God and Jesus replied, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God” [John 3: 3].
Justification is the start of the Christian life, but it only begins there. There are many more things to happen in a life with Christ.
I had many more questions about justification and my new life.
(“More Questions” about justification to be continued in next week’s post)
*Asterisks denote common Christian idioms.