Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Letters to My Non-Churchgoing Friends (#11: What is Justification?)

Dear Friend:
In my last letter, I mentioned that among the reasons people don't get connected to a church is their confusion over two words: sin and justification. The first word is misunderstood, sometimes by Christians themselves, who often use it as Gatling Gun to pound others into spiritual submission. I tried to present a Biblical understanding of sin in my last letter.

Justification is a common enough word in everyday speech. That's both a plus and a minus for people trying to understand the Christian faith. It's a plus because the word as used in the Bible is similar enough to common usage that even people who've never read the Bible have some sense of what it means when Christians use it. "Joe gave his extreme fatigue as justification for his unkind words," we might say. In other words, Joe claims his exhaustion as an excuse for being unkind.

But Biblical justification deals with the fact that sin, all sin, is a violation of God's will and that the rightful punishment for our sin is serious. Very serious. "The wages of sin is death," the first century preacher Paul writes in the New Testament book of Romans. Murdering someone--and Jesus makes clear that murder includes making another person feel small with unkind names--is punishable by death. Telling lies or half-truths about others' actions is punishable by death. So is stealing from someone else, committing adultery, coveting what others have, or failing to use God's Name for anything but prayer, praise, or thanksgiving.

Before you accuse me of guilting you, let me hasten to add: I'm a sinner who has violated everyone of God's commands, in thought if not in action. I deserve to die and I have no justfication, no excuses, to offer for all my sinning. Death, as the Bible understands it, is eternal separation from the source of life, God. So, like Paul writing in another place, I might readily ask, "Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?" (Romans 7:24)

That's where justification comes in. Although we deserve to be separated from God forever and God will respect our decision to go our own ways without Him, God loves us too much to give up on us without a fight. And so, God has taken action, sending His Son Jesus Christ into the world. Though sinless, Jesus took the punishment for sin you and I deserve and gives justification to all who give their lives to Him. Jesus explains it this way in the Bible's most famous passage, a verse that Martin Luther called "the gospel--the good news--in a nutshell":
“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life." (John 3:16)
When we renounce our sin and let Jesus Christ be the Lord of our lives, we are justified. As a homely old saying puts it, "I enter God's kingdom 'just' as 'if I'd' never sinned." Through Christ, we are reconciled with God and the power of sin over our lives--including separation from God--is canceled.

Justification is the most important teaching of the Bible. In Christ, God excuses us of our sins and gives us the free gift of life with Him forever. No wonder that Paul writes at another place in the New Testament:
"For I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith..." (Romans 1:16)

[Here are links to the first ten installments in this series:
Letters to My Non-Churchgoing Friends (#1: Can You Be Christian without the Church?)
Letters to My Non-Churchgoing Friends (#2: Worship is Boring)
Letters to My Non-Churchgoing Friends (#3: Is the Church Filled with Hypocrites?)
Letters to My Non-Churchgoing Friends (#4: The Church Only Wants My Money)
Letters to My Non-Churchgoing Friends (#5: "I'm Not Good Enough")
Letters to My Non-Churchgoing Friends (#6: Finding Community, Meeting God)
Letters to My Non-Churchgoing Friends (#7: Why Can't I Find a Church That Believes What I Want It to Believe?)
Letters to My Non-Churchgoing Friends (#8: Disappointed with the Church?)
Letters to My Non-Churchgoing Friends (#9: My Spouse Isn't Supportive)
Letters to My Non-Churchgoing Friends (#10: Confusion About Sin)]

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