Desiring God

The Deepest Problem of Humanity: Ephesians 4:17–24, Part 3

John Piper is founder and teacher of and chancellor of Bethlehem College & Seminary. For 33 years, he served as pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church, Minneapolis, Minnesota. He is author of more than 50 books, including Desiring God: Meditations of a Christian Hedonist and most recently Providence.

You Are and Will Be Justified: The Future Promise of a Finished Work

If you are in Christ, you have been justified — eternally, irreversibly, gloriously.

God has spoken his everlasting sentence over your soul. Through faith alone (Romans 5:1), on the basis of the death and life of Jesus Christ alone (Romans 5:9), you are not guilty, but righteous; not hell-bound, but heaven-bound; not condemned, but justified. You need no longer wonder what judgment day holds. Though men, devils, and a disordered conscience may accuse, there is therefore now no condemnation for you (Romans 8:1). Let your soul sigh with relief: you have been justified.

And yet, surprising though it may sound, you also will be justified. As the apostle of justification himself writes, “Through the Spirit, by faith, we eagerly wait for the hope of righteousness” (Galatians 5:5) — a statement that seems to suggest some future dimension to the righteousness God reckons to us in Christ. In him, we have righteousness, and we hope for righteousness; we have been justified, and we will be justified.

For many, I suspect, the future dimension of justification startles us at first, like a constellation we’d never noticed before. But rightly understood, it makes the sky of our heavenly hope burn all the brighter.

Salvation Already — and Not Yet

To say we both have been and will be justified may sound like double-talk. How can justification happen in both the past and future tense? But the New Testament authors, and Paul especially, talk this way all the time.

We have been adopted (Romans 8:14–16) — and we will be (Romans 8:23).
We have been resurrected (Ephesians 2:4–6) — and we will be (1 Corinthians 15:22).
We have been redeemed (Colossians 1:13–14) — and we will be (Ephesians 4:30).
We have been sanctified (1 Corinthians 1:2) — and we will be (1 Thessalonians 5:23).
We can even say we have been glorified (Romans 8:30; 2 Corinthians 3:18) — and we will be (Colossians 3:4).

“If you are in Christ, you have been justified — eternally, irreversibly, gloriously.”

We tend to cast the benefits of salvation in chronological order: we have been justified, we are being sanctified, and we will be glorified, for example. But as Sinclair Ferguson writes, “We cannot think of, or enjoy, the blessings of the gospel either isolated from each other or separated from the Benefactor himself” (The Holy Spirit, 102). In other words, the benefits of salvation are less like links in an abstract chain and more like spokes attached to the hub of Christ himself (see Saved by Grace, 16, for a helpful visual). “Every spiritual blessing” lives in Christ (Ephesians 1:3), and because we ourselves are in Christ, every spiritual blessing in one sense is already ours.

And in another sense, every spiritual blessing is not yet ours. “In the New Testament,” Ferguson continues, “there remains a yet-to-be consummated aspect to every facet of salvation” (102–3) — justification included.

Future Justification

Speaking of future justification calls for care, of course. So much of justification’s power lies in the past tense. “We have been justified” (Romans 5:1), Paul says — and he means it. And yet, some future dimension of justification awaits.

We have already noted, for example, Paul’s words in Galatians 5:5: “We ourselves eagerly wait for the hope of righteousness.” We might also mention Paul’s teaching (echoing Jesus) that everyone, believers included, “will stand before the judgment seat of God” (Romans 14:10; see also 2 Corinthians 5:10). If God’s justifying verdict were only past, why would Christians need to appear at God’s judgment seat? More than that, we have another biblical clue that justification is, in one sense, still future — a clue that may seem surprising: our bodies still decay and die.

In the beginning, Paul reminds us, “sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin” (Romans 5:12). Death is not the natural end to life’s natural process. Death is penalty and punishment, the unnatural end to life under sin. Every headstone stands as a silent witness to God’s judicial sentence over sinful man: “You are dust, and to dust you shall return” (Genesis 3:19).

In other words, death is the just end of the unjustified. And though, in Christ, we really have been justified, we still die as if we haven’t been, as if we were still under the same sentence of condemnation. Our bodies, “dead because of sin” (Romans 8:10), await the day when we who have received “the free gift of righteousness” will “reign in life through the one man Jesus Christ” (Romans 5:17).

Raised and Justified

The connection between death and condemnation deepens the darkness of Good Friday and Holy Saturday. Every drop of blood from the cross, and then every hour in the tomb, seemed to confirm the Pharisees’ claim that “this man is a sinner” (John 9:24). “As long as he remained in a state of death,” Richard Gaffin writes, “the righteous character of his work, the efficacy of his obedience unto death remained in question, in fact, was implicitly denied” (Resurrection and Redemption, 121). If the stone had never rolled away, Jesus would have remained slain among the unjustified.

But the stone did roll away, such that Paul can sing, “He was manifested in the flesh, vindicated by the Spirit” (1 Timothy 3:16). The word vindicated here is the same word for justified, suggesting that, in a sense, Jesus’s Spirit-wrought resurrection served to justify him — to declare to all that the so-called “sinner” on the cross was in truth “the Holy and Righteous One” (Acts 3:14). Despite his enemies’ slander, Jesus never sinned. Therefore, Peter says, “It was not possible for him to be held by [death]” (Acts 2:24). Death, unable to imprison a sinless man, was forced to bow before Christ’s resurrected feet.

Resurrection, then, testifies that the Genesis 3 death sentence no longer rests over a person, that he or she is now in the right with God, and therefore fit to dwell with him in the land of the living. In Christ, of course, we too have been resurrected (Ephesians 2:4–6) — but only in spirit, not yet in body. Which means our justification is both already and not yet. As Gaffin writes,

As believers are already raised with Christ, they have been justified; as they are not yet resurrected, they are still to be justified. . . . “The outer man,” subject to decay and wasting, mortal and destined for death, still awaits justification in some sense. (By Faith, Not by Sight, 98–99)

For now, God’s justifying verdict lies veiled beneath our bent and broken bodies. But one day, “when the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality” (1 Corinthians 15:54), our justification will become plain to all.

Our Cosmic Acquittal

The Westminster Shorter Catechism helps us picture that day: “At the resurrection, believers being raised up in glory, shall be openly acknowledged and acquitted in the day of judgment” (answer to question 38).

God has already “acknowledged and acquitted” us on the basis of Jesus’s death and resurrection. But he has not yet done so “openly.” As Dane Ortlund writes, “The open manifestation and vindication of already justified sinners is not yet placarded before a hostile world” (“Inaugurated Glorification,” 119). For now, we live in a world that opposes and denies our justification. The devil still accuses us. Conscience unfairly condemns us. Our bodies wrinkle, weaken, and eventually die under the death penalty of sin. But not so forever.

On the day of judgment, we will stand before God and all the world, our risen bodies testifying that we are no longer dust destined for dust, but glory headed for glory (1 Corinthians 15:48–49). The “accuser of our brothers” (Revelation 12:10) will have his mouth shut, finally and forever. Conscience will no longer clamor; enemies will no longer slander. And most importantly, God himself, having already claimed us in Christ, will trumpet his righteous pleasure as far as east is from the west (Matthew 25:21). Openly and publicly, he will justify us.

That future day will not serve as a second justification, as if the first were somehow tentative and uncertain. Nor will it rest on any other basis than Christ alone — though Spirit-wrought good works will play their role as public witnesses of saving faith (2 Corinthians 5:10). That day will simply consummate the justification God has already declared over us in Christ. The song ringing in our hearts will resound throughout the cosmos (Romans 5:5).

We Eagerly Wait

In the galaxy of our heavenly hope, here is a star to see and savor. We will not only be raised, saved, adopted, and welcomed home on the last day; we also will be openly justified. Oh to say with the apostle Paul, “We ourselves eagerly wait for the hope of righteousness” (Galatians 5:5).

“We will not only be raised, saved, adopted, and welcomed home on the last day; we also will be openly justified.”

Paul himself tells us how to join him in his eager waiting: “Through the Spirit, by faith, we ourselves eagerly wait . . .” Doug Moo summarizes Paul’s meaning: “It is by appropriating and living out of the power of the Spirit that believers confidently wait for the ultimate confirmation of their righteous status before God” (Galatians, 329). One day, the Spirit will raise our buried bones, sew joint and sinew back together, and present us for public justification, as the universe watches. In the meantime, the same Spirit grows our confidence for that day by slowly making us more righteous now.

We will never become perfectly righteous in this world. Far from it. But the only people who “eagerly wait for the hope of righteousness” are those who “hunger and thirst for righteousness” to fill our words and deeds, our thoughts and feelings (Matthew 5:6). And so, as long as we live here, walking in a broken body upon a broken earth, we strive for righteousness, waiting for the day when God will openly crown us with the righteousness already ours in Christ.

Would I Trust Jesus More If I Had Seen Him?

Audio Transcript

I recently attended a megaconference for Christians in media. And among the hundreds of booths, there was a huge display of costumes and props from a current TV show based on the life of Christ. It was quite fascinating. All the costumes and props and set pieces were scattered through an open walk-through display. It really pulled you into first-century Jerusalem, giving a little tangible taste of what life in the time of Christ looked like. And after walking through it, it made me wonder, and I think it makes a lot of people wonder, Wouldn’t it have been better to have lived in a generation that could have seen Christ with our own eyes — to know him face to face?

I think this is one reason why we’re attracted to television shows and movies about his life. Because for us, we’re stuck many years after his earthly ministry with just a written account of his life in the Gospels. So is that to our disadvantage? With a definitive no, Pastor John explains why believers today are not at a disadvantage, and he does it by preaching from a great text on this very topic, 1 Peter 1:8–9. Here he is, in 1993, first talking about the nature of joy. Here’s Pastor John.

You rejoice in this faith and love. You rejoice with a joy that is unable to be expressed, and which is, literally, “glorified” — or “full of glory,” as the NASB has it (1 Peter 1:8).

We Become What We Crave

Now, I think the way we have defined joy goes a long way to helping us understand why it’s inexpressible and why it is glorified. I’ll ask this question to make the connection for you: Where does joy get its moral quality — not just its intensity? We’re talking about quality here: inexpressible and glorified — not just big, not just strong. There can be a lot of strong emotions without Jesus, but we’re talking here about a joy that is not only very great, but it has a glory dimension to it. It’s got glory on it and in it somehow. So let’s just ask the general question: Where does joy, your joy, get its moral dimension? And the answer to that question, I believe, is this: your joy gets its moral quality from what you are enjoying.

So if you enjoy dirty jokes, you’ve got dirty joy and a dirty heart. If you enjoy bathroom language (that really makes you laugh) or lewd pictures (that really makes you happy), you have a dirty heart and dirty joy. Joy gets its moral quality from what you enjoy. Or if you enjoy cruelty and arrogance and revenge, that’s dirty too. And there are a lot of movies and TV programs that cultivate that kind of joy, to get you to be really happy in revenge. That’s the kind of heart you get. Your heart will be shaped that way. You become what you crave. Where you get your joy, you get your moral dimension to joy.

Or if you just love things — if you find your life, your joy, increasingly happy in more and more material things — do you know what happens inside? You die. Your heart was made for God and love and faith and joy. And if you find that this computer just so satisfies you — I have tasted that too. Wow, computers are incredible. Dan Lane got me into this new America Online thing, which connects you up with ten million billboards and stuff. It is absolutely addicting — at least for a week or two. It is.

There’s great danger from — I mean, you just name it. There are ten thousand material things in the world that can so enamor you and capture you, and you come to the end of a day, having looked at the screen of this computer, and say, “I’m dead. I’m dead — deader than I was when I started this day. I’m smaller. I’m drier. What have I done?” And some people spend their whole lives like that, and they will say that on their deathbed — unless they’re so dead that they can’t feel it.

We’re made for joy and Christ and relationship and love and the big unseen realities. So my answer to the question “Where does joy get its moral component?” is that it gets its moral component from the thing enjoyed.

Joy and Glory Streaming Back

Now Christian joy, I would argue, then, is inexpressible and glorified because the Christ who is precious to us is inexpressibly precious. And the Christ who is reliable to us is inexpressibly reliable. And even though we never attain to the maximum joy in this life that we will have someday, nevertheless our joy is hooked in, tied in, to an inexpressible treasure: Jesus. He is inexpressibly glorious. He is inexpressibly beautiful and reliable and precious. And if your joy is in him, that preciousness, that inexpressibility, comes from the thing enjoyed into you, and your joy leaps up from time to time with inexpressibility.

And the same thing is true for glory. I think Peter is saying that in the process of loving and believing and rejoicing, the goal of that — namely, salvation — is happening in part, in measure, now. The glory of the one we love is precious and reliable, and it is streaming back through our joy into our hearts. And our joy is in measure, right now, glorious. It partakes in glory because you always participate in what you enjoy. You become what you crave in large measure.

Eyes of the Heart

Final question: How can all of this happen when we don’t see him? Twice Peter says that: “Though you have not seen him, you love him. Though you do not now see him, you believe in him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory” (1 Peter 1:8). Why does he stress that twice? Evidently, some people were saying something like, “But we’ve never seen him. You saw him, Peter. Sure, you can have that kind of joy. But we’ve never seen him.”

“More important than seeing with the eyes is seeing with the heart.”

Now, how? Surely the answer is that there is a seeing with the heart that is not a seeing with the eyes. And I want to argue this morning that seeing with the heart is more important than seeing with the eyes. More important than seeing with the eyes is seeing with the heart. I will try to persuade you of that in these last few minutes.

Paul said that his mission to unreached peoples, in Romans 15:20, was this. These are people out there in the Roman empire who, like us, have never seen Jesus.

Thus I make it my ambition to preach the gospel, not where Christ has already been named, lest I build on someone else’s foundation, but as it is written,

“Those who have never been told of him will see,     and those who have never heard will understand.” (Romans 15:20–21)

The preaching of the gospel is the means by which those who have never seen Christ see Christ in the gospel. Here’s another way of saying it, which Paul says in 2 Corinthians 4:6: “God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.”

In your heart, the light of God goes on, and you see his glory in Christ’s face. What in the world is that? There were hundreds and hundreds of people who saw Jesus during his lifetime on the earth who did not see him. They didn’t see him. They were blanked out; they were totally confused; they were totally adrift. They didn’t know who this Jewish carpenter rabbi was; he made no sense to them whatsoever. And they saw him hour after hour after hour. Is that valuable? That sends to hell. Don’t exalt seeing with the eyes. Don’t begrudge that you live in the twentieth century with only a Bible.

Listen carefully now. We were at a Michael Card concert on Friday night, and he sings this song about childlikeness that captures this paradox of seeing and not seeing.

To hear with my heart, to see with my soul
To be guided by a hand I cannot hold
To trust in a way that I cannot see
That’s what faith must be.

There is a seeing with the soul, or the heart, that is not a seeing with the eyes. And it happens through the word of God in the gospel. And it happens through the reading of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. I commend the Gospels to you: read the Gospels day in and day out. They are the living Christ to you. Read them with an openness to Christ, and you will see him better than Nicodemus saw him, better than the Syrophoenician woman saw him, better than the centurion saw him, better than the widow of Nain saw him, better than the thief on the cross saw him, better than the thronging crowds who got snatches and pieces saw him.

Better Than Being There

Think about this in closing now: the Gospels are better than being there. Why? In the Gospels, you are welcomed into the inner circle with the apostles, where you never could have gone had you been there.

In the Gospels, you can go with him to Gethsemane, where you couldn’t have gone.
In the Gospels, you go to him with the trial, where you couldn’t have gone.
In the Gospels, you go all the way through the crucifixion.
In the Gospels, you go in and out of the tomb with him.
In the Gospels, you are with him, with every meeting after the resurrection.
In the Gospels, you hear whole sermons, not just little snatches and pieces because you were way back there in the back of the crowd, and there’s a baby crying beside you, and you couldn’t figure out what was going on up there, and you only heard, “Blessed are the . . .” — what was that? And you couldn’t hear it.

“The Gospels are better than being there.”

You’ve got the whole thing, and not only do you have the whole big sermons and big discourses, you’ve got them with God-inspired contexts to give them interpretations, which those poor peasants didn’t have a clue about. They didn’t know what was going on.

You see him in his freedom from anxiety, as he has no place to lay his head.
You see his courage in the face of opposition.
You see his unanswerable wisdom when he’s peppered with questions.
You see him honoring women.
And his tenderness with children.
And his compassion toward lepers.
And his meekness in suffering.
And his patience with Peter.
And his tears over Jerusalem.
And his blessing on those who cursed him.
And his heart for the nations.
And his love for the glory of God.
And his simplicity.
And his devotion.
And his power to still storms and heal sicknesses and drive out demons.

They didn’t have a clue compared to what you have. The Gospels are better than being there — if the Holy Spirit, who was needed just as much in that day as now, will simply open your eyes to see the glory on his face.

A Pandemic of Disunity: How We Drive the World Away

If an individual Christian does not show love toward other true Christians, the world has a right to judge that he or she is not a Christian.

I read Francis Schaeffer’s The Mark of the Christian shortly after it was published in 1970. Schaeffer quoted Christ’s words in John 13:35: “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” Then he cited Jesus’s prayer in John 17:21 that the disciples “may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.”

Schaeffer tied the verses together:

[In John 13:35] if an individual Christian does not show love toward other true Christians, the world has a right to judge that he or she is not a Christian. Here [in John 17:21] Jesus is stating something else that is much more cutting, much more profound: We cannot expect the world to believe that the Father sent the Son, that Jesus’s claims are true, and that Christianity is true, unless the world sees some reality of the oneness of true Christians. (26–27)

A beautiful, biblical slap in the face.

Final Apologetic

I was sixteen — a new believer studying how to defend gospel truth to friends and family. Yet Schaeffer called Christian love and unity “the final apologetic,” the ultimate defense of our faith.

Schaeffer helped me see what should have been self-evident in Christ’s words: believers’ love toward each other is the greatest proof that we truly follow Jesus. If we fail to live in loving oneness, the world — or to bring it closer to home, our family, and friends — will have less reason to believe the gospel.

In 1977, some of us who’d struggled at our churches gathered to worship and study Scripture. Before we knew it, God planted a new church. At twenty-three, as a naive co-pastor, I thought we’d found the secret to unity. But eventually, though our numbers rapidly increased, too many left our gatherings feeling unloved, not experiencing what Schaeffer called the “reality of the oneness of true Christians” (27).

Our Deep Disunity

In the 52 years I’ve known Jesus, I’ve witnessed countless conflicts between believers. But never more than in the last year. Many have angrily left churches they once loved. Believers who formerly chose churches based on Christ-centered Bible teaching and worship now choose them based on non-essential issues, including political viewpoints and COVID protocols.

Churches are experiencing a pandemic of tribalism, blame, and unforgiveness — all fatal to the love and unity Jesus spoke of. Rampant either/or thinking leaves no room for subtlety and nuance. Acknowledging occasional truth in other viewpoints is seen as compromise rather than fairness and charitability.

Sadly, evangelicals sometimes appear as little more than another special-interest group, sharing only a narrow “unity” based on mutual outrage and disdain. This acidic, eager-to-fight negativity highlights Schaeffer’s point that we have no right to expect unbelievers to be drawn to the good news when we treat brothers and sisters as enemies.

Playing into Satan’s Strategy

The increase in Christians bickering over non-essentials doesn’t seem to be a passing phase. And it injures our witness, inviting eye rolls and mockery from unbelievers and prompting believers to wonder whether church hurts more than it helps.

Satan is called the accuser of God’s family (Revelation 12:10). Too often we do his work for him. His goal is to divide churches and keep people from believing the gospel. “By this it is evident who are the children of God, and who are the children of the devil: whoever who does not practice righteousness is not of God, nor is the one who does not love his brother” (1 John 3:10). When we fail to love each other, we are acting like the devil’s children.

“When we fail to love each other, we are acting like the devil’s children.”

“Give no opportunity to the devil” (Ephesians 4:27). To resist the devil, we must love God with abandonment, and love our neighbor as ourselves. That central principle is the heart and soul of Scripture. “The whole law is fulfilled in one word: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ But if you bite and devour one another, watch out that you are not consumed by one another” (Galatians 5:14–15).

Unity of Differing Opinions

When Paul wrote to believers in Rome, he addressed the issues of what meat was considered “unclean” and which day to worship on — each certainly as controversial in the culture of their day, if not more so, as most political issues or COVID responses are today. The paradigm-shifting revelation he shared in Romans 14 is this: while true love and unity are never achieved at the expense of primary biblical truths, they are achieved at the expense of our personal preferences about secondary issues.

We are “not to quarrel over opinions” (Romans 14:1). Or as the NLT puts it, “Don’t argue with them about what they think is right or wrong.” Love doesn’t require wholesale agreement.

Let not the one who eats despise the one who abstains, and let not the one who abstains pass judgment on the one who eats, for God has welcomed him. (Romans 14:3)

Paul emphatically states that equally Christ-centered people can have different beliefs, which lead to them taking different — even opposite — actions in faith.

“One person esteems one day as better than another, while another esteems all days alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind” (Romans 14:5). We can take contradictory positions on nonessential issues but still honor God by valuing love over our opinions.

Pursue What Makes for Peace

As long as we hold our convictions with faith and a good conscience, God himself approves of people on both sides of nonessential matters. And if God can be pleased both by those who do and don’t eat certain foods that were prohibited under Old Testament law, and by those who worship on the Sabbath or on another day of the week, can’t he also be pleased with those who choose to take or not take a vaccine, or to wear or not wear a mask?

“Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another?” (Romans 14:4). God warns us not to set up our own judgment seats as if we were omniscient. Why do we imagine we can know that a brother’s or sister’s decisions, heart, and motives are wrong?

“Each of us will give an account of himself to God. Therefore let us not pass judgment on one another” (Romans 14:12–13). We will not ultimately answer to each other, but we will answer to God concerning each other.

“Raise your expectations for love and unity in your church. Lower your expectations for them coming naturally.”

“So then let us pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding. . . . The faith that you have, keep between yourself and God” (Romans 14:19, 22). Peace and edification don’t come naturally; they require Spirit-empowered work.

The call to “pursue” peace (or “make every effort,” NIV) means unless there’s a compelling reason to speak or post, and you’ve sought God’s direction and sense his leading, and you can speak graciously, then do what Scripture says and keep what you believe between yourself and God. Having a strong opinion never equals God telling us to express it. Scripture confronts us for how we have treated each other before the watching world:

“A fool takes no pleasure in understanding, but only in expressing his opinion” (Proverbs 18:2).
“When words are many, transgression is not lacking, but whoever restrains his lips is prudent” (Proverbs 10:19).
“There is one whose rash words are like sword thrusts, but the tongue of the wise brings healing” (Proverbs 12:18).

Steps Toward Love and Unity

What other practical steps might we take toward love and unity in our fractured times?

1. Practice James 1:19. If we would only “be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to anger,” this alone would foster love and unity to an astonishing degree.

2. When you disagree, if possible, meet face to face and talk. Don’t shred each other publicly.

3. Ask yourself where you are pointing. Will my words or social-media post be more or less likely to draw others to Jesus?

4. Raise your expectations for love and unity in your church. Lower your expectations for them coming naturally or easily.

5. Repent of being an agitator; commit to becoming a peacemaker.

6. Talk to your church leaders. Honestly articulate problems and ask how you can help foster love and unity.

7. Pray for those who’ve hurt you. Doing so transformed my relationship with a brother. One of my wife’s closest friends is someone she chose to intercede for decades ago, despite their conflicts.

8. Ask God to help you reject pride and develop true humility. A.W. Tozer said, “Only the humble are completely sane, for they are the only ones who see clearly their own size and limitations” (Tozer on Christian Leadership, 11). To think clearly is to think humbly. “Think of yourself with sober judgment” (Romans 12:3).

True unity is grounded on

mutually believed primary truths about Jesus,
refusal to elevate secondary beliefs over primary beliefs,
demonstrated heartfelt love for Jesus and others, and
the supernatural work of the Holy Spirit.

When I reread The Mark of the Christian fifty years later, when divisiveness is the air we breathe, it spoke to me more deeply than ever. Schaeffer’s message rings true: when we call upon God, and make concerted efforts to live in humble love and unity, people see Jesus, and some will believe in him.

What Is the Futility of the Human Mind? Ephesians 4:17–24, Part 2

A Reason to Be Vaccinated: Freedom

My aim in this article is to encourage Christians to be vaccinated, if they can do so with a good conscience and judicious medical warrant.

The people I have especially in view are those who are not vaccinated because of fear of being out of step with people they respect, and in step with people they don’t admire. My message to them is simple: You are free.

So, I am not talking directly to everybody. If the shoe fits, put it on, check your conscience, consult your doctor, and go get vaccinated. If it doesn’t, go tearfully and cheerfully on your way. Tearfully, because over 4.5 million people have died from COVID-19 worldwide (including over 700,000 Americans). And cheerfully, because Christ makes it miraculously possible to love people by being “sorrowful yet always rejoicing” (2 Corinthians 6:10).

What Fuels the Cooking Fire

Before I get to the biblical argument for radical freedom, consider a few statistics that fuel the fire over which this article was cooked.

“Nearly all COVID-19 deaths in the U.S. are now in people who weren’t vaccinated. . . . From May [2021] . . . infections in fully vaccinated people accounted for fewer than 1,200 of more than 107,000 COVID-19 hospitalizations. That’s about 1.1%. And only about 150 of the more than 18,000 COVID-19 deaths in May were in fully vaccinated people. That translates to about 0.8%” (Associated Press).
Indiana “saw 3,801 coronavirus deaths between [Jan. 18, 2021,] and Sept. 16 — 94% of them unvaccinated. . . . 97.9% of Hoosiers younger than 65 who died were unvaccinated” (Evansville Courier and Press).
In Montana, “from February 2021 to September 2021, . . . 89.5% of the cases, 88.6% of hospitalizations, and 83.5% of the deaths were among people who were not fully vaccinated, including those not yet eligible for vaccination” (KRTV — Great Falls).
“More than 95% of the 443 people under age 60 who have died from COVID-19 in Kentucky since early July were unvaccinated” (Lexington Herald-Leader).
The Pennsylvania Department of Health reports that between January 1 and October 4, 2021, “93 percent of COVID-19-related deaths were in unvaccinated or not fully vaccinated people” (FOX43).

When people respond to this increasingly clear reality by pointing to untrustworthy and disreputable government and medical leaders, I respond, “That’s a non sequitur.” The team called “vaccination” just made a first down, even if monkeys are holding the chains. For friends around the world who don’t know American football, that means a win is a win even if all the coaches and referees are incompetent.

So let’s think about Christian freedom.

Peter’s Summons to Freedom

The apostle Peter said,

This is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people. Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as slaves of God. Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor. (1 Peter 2:15–17)

“Live as people who are free.”

Peter had just said, “Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether to the emperor as supreme, or to governors” (1 Peter 2:13). So how can you “be subject” and “be free” at the same time?

Peter’s answer is that Christians are “slaves of God.” In other words, when you submit to a “human institution” (1 Peter 2:13), you don’t do it as the slave of that institution. You do it in freedom, because you are slaves of God, not man. God owns his people — by creation and redemption.

“God alone owns us. And God alone rules us. We are not ruled by any man. We are free from all human ownership and rule.”

The apostle Paul makes the same point: “You are not your own, for you were bought with a price” (1 Corinthians 6:19). God bought you by the blood of Christ. He owns you. And if God owns you, no one else can: “You were bought with a price; do not become slaves of men” (1 Corinthians 7:23).

Christians are owned by no man — no society, no company, no clan, no family, no school, no military, no government, no political interest group. God alone owns us. And God alone rules us. We are not ruled by any man. We are free from all human ownership and rule.

When we submit, we do so for the Lord’s sake. Because he said to. God’s ownership of his people strips every decisive entitlement from human authority. It turns every act of human compliance into worship. When we submit, we do so for the glory of our one Owner and Master. Life is radically Godward.

‘The Sons Are Free’

During his lifetime on earth, Jesus had taught Peter a lesson about freedom. Peter wondered about the two-drachma tax that Jewish men had to pay each year (Matthew 17:24). Jesus’s answer goes like this:

“What do you think, Simon? From whom do kings of the earth take toll or tax? From their sons or from others?” And when he said, “From others,” Jesus said to him, “Then the sons are free. However, not to give offense to them, go to the sea and cast a hook and take the first fish that comes up, and when you open its mouth you will find a shekel. Take that and give it to them for me and for yourself.” (Matthew 17:25–27)

“The sons are free.” That is, free from being controlled by any human authority. Sons obey their Father. He is their decisive authority. What they do, they do because of his will, not the will of man. The sons are free.

The King’s sons are not obliged to pay taxes to institutions created by their Father. They are obliged to obey their Father, not man. Therefore, when they pay the tax, they do so to honor their Father because he gave them the resources and the command: “Take that and give it to them” (Matthew 17:27).

Peter learned the lesson, and now he says to Christians, “Live as people who are free.” You are sons of God. You are slaves of God. Sonship implies privilege and love. Slavery implies God’s ownership and rule. And both imply freedom from man.

Liberation from Man Is Not Exaltation of Self

But woe to us Christians if this radical freedom makes us cocky. “Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil” (1 Peter 2:16). And the greatest evil is the pride of self-exaltation. Peter is clear about how God’s ownership and Fatherhood should affect his slave-like, son-like people.

Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another, for “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.” Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you, casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you. (1 Peter 5:5–7)

Christians are lowly because we are “under [God’s] mighty hand.” And we are joyful because “he cares for [us].” Our freedom does not make us brash. Bold, yes. Brash, no. There is a peculiarly Christian boldness — a brokenhearted boldness. Our freedom does not make us cocky. Courageous, yes. Cocky, no. There is a peculiarly Christian courage — a contrite courage.

Why contrite? Because our clothing is still singed with the fire of almost being condemned. We deserve condemnation. And grace alone saved us. We are utterly dependent on undeserved, unentitled mercy. And the promise of God to his children is so staggeringly great that we are, as they say, floored by it — floored. Made low by the promised heights.

So let no one boast in men. For all things are yours, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future — all are yours, and you are Christ’s, and Christ is God’s. (1 Corinthians 3:21–23)

All things are yours! So no boasting! That is the paradox of Christian freedom. Our Father owns everything. We are his heirs. We inherit everything. We are sons. And the sons are free. Therefore, no bragging, no swagger. Just joyful tears. Because we don’t deserve any of it. And we want all others to join us in it. But so many refuse. This is the freedom of love. A freedom that makes us debtors to everyone (Romans 1:14). A freedom with radical heaven-sent obligations.

Freed from the Fear of Man — Left or Right

Now, we might think that the point of this biblical reality of bold, brokenhearted Christian freedom would be this: You don’t have to be vaccinated when the government tells you to. You are free. Live as people who are free.

“Don’t be enslaved by the fear of breaking ranks with ideological allies. You are free.”

That’s true, of course. If your Father in heaven makes it clear to you, by his word and wisdom, that his glory and your neighbor’s good will be better served by not being vaccinated, you are free to risk COVID for love’s sake. No Christian is obliged to bow to unwarranted mandates.

But that’s not my main point.

My point is this: Don’t be enslaved by fear of man. Don’t be enslaved by the fear of breaking ranks with ideological allies. The old name for this is peer pressure. You are free.

You have considered the risk of COVID as you watch hundreds of thousands of people die.
You have considered the short- and long-term risks of the vaccines as you watch millions get the shots.
You have compared the frequency of hospitalizations and deaths of those with and without vaccines.
You have thought hard about the implications of fetal cell lines in the production and testing of the vaccines.
You have rejoiced at the increasing evidence that natural immunity, developed after recovering from COVID, is as effective as vaccination immunity.
You have pondered the likelihood and unlikelihood of conspiratorial conjectures.

Your conscience is increasingly clear. It says, “Get vaccinated.” But there is this niggling fear of looking left wing, or progressive, or Democratic, or compromised, or woke!

So, my message to such folks is this: “The children are free!”

Each of us stands or falls before his own Master (Romans 14:4). “Live as people who are free.” Free from the fear of man. Fear of being labeled. Fear of being called a compromiser. Fear of being doubted as not really part of the courageous resisters — especially when you know that thousands of those resisters really are courageous, wise, and thoughtful.

But fear is not freedom. “The fear of man lays a snare, but whoever trusts in the Lord is safe” (Proverbs 29:25). The fear of man lays a freedom-snatching snare. Why? Because the fearing soul is already snared. Already caught. Already bound, enslaved.

I call you to something better. “For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery” (Galatians 5:1). Not a government yoke, not an anti-government yoke. Not a left-wing yoke, not a right-wing yoke.

You are free to say with integrity, “My decision to be vaccinated is not a political decision. It is not right wing, or left wing. It is a biblically informed act of love.”

The sons are free. Tearfully, cheerfully free. Therefore, “live as people who are free.”

How Satan Undoes a Mom: Spiritual War in Motherhood

In 1914, as the storms of a “world war” began to blow across Europe, and millions of men rushed to enlist, Ivor Novello and Lena Ford wrote a patriotic anthem aimed at the women who were left behind.

Let no tears add to their hardshipAs the soldiers pass along. . . .Keep the home fires burningWhile your hearts are yearningThough your lads are far awayThey dream of home.

The public sentiment of the time assumed that women had a role to play in the war, though they would not be fighting and dying. The men went to fight on the front lines. The women ensured there was something at home worth fighting for.

We Christians are still at war. Our wartime has gone on for thousands of years and will last until Christ comes to end it. The difference is that in this war — the spiritual war — the home is located in the heat of the battle, and we mothers are in combat roles.

Why Satan Targets Mom

Our enemies in motherhood are not flesh and blood; our enemies are “the rulers, . . . the authorities, . . . the cosmic powers over this present darkness, . . . the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 6:12). Our enemy is not in Europe; he is “going to and fro on the earth” (Job 1:7). He “prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour” (1 Peter 5:8).

“Mothers are stewards of the home, where Satan hopes to do his worst work — and often sees worse defeat.”

Satan’s warfare on woman and her seed is not a side project. It is a major part of his strategy. To Satan, mothers represent the unrelenting multiplication of hated human images of the hated God-man who is coming soon to end his evil reign. Mothers are stewards of the home, superintendents of the precious time called childhood, where Satan hopes to do his worst work — and often sees worse defeat.

Innocence, flourishing, joy, productivity, gratitude, meek service, earliest wonder, and maddening physicality all have a special place in a home with children. And Satan violently opposes all of them.

How Satan Targets Mom

Satan and his ilk look for strategic places to attack, areas of vulnerability. Many of his favorites are common to all mankind, but there are some modes of attack that are particularly successful with Christian mothers.

1. Satan makes suffering an excuse for sinning.

A woman’s spiritual health during the grueling years of motherhood depends partly on her ability to see the difference between her spirit and her body. She must learn to inhabit her female, fallen body with humility and wisdom.

Sleepless exhaustion or morning sickness can bring with them confusion about what sort of malady we’re dealing with. It feels spiritual, because it affects our mood and, at times, impairs our ability to perform and serve in the ways we usually can. There is a real spiritual temptation that comes with physical suffering, but the presence of physical suffering doesn’t mean we’ve already lost a battle.

Satan, of course, can demoralize us with suffering. But he also can leverage suffering to get us to actually sin. He would rather us not know that it is, in fact, possible to suffer physically without sinning in anger, self-pity, or despair. Satan would have us believe one implies the presence of the other, or necessarily leads to the other. There are many ways to sin in our weakness, but the physical weakness itself is not the sin. We need to learn (and relearn) the difference.

The same goes for other illnesses and hormonal changes throughout life. Our bodies are female, and they are under a particular form of the curse. Motherhood will be physically hard in some unusual ways. But our physical state need not be the gauge or the steering wheel for our spiritual state. Satan would love nothing more than to keep us in confusion about what ails us.

2. He whispers, “Did God really say . . . ?”

Women, from the very beginning, have been a special target for a certain pattern of deceit. Satan still favors the question that felled Eve: “Did God really say . . . ?”

One of his favorite ways to seed this destructive question in our day is through social media and podcasts. The Internet is a new way that women, even those working at home, can regularly access a steady stream of advice, solicited and unsolicited. Our friends offer advice on how to deal with husbands and children. Images, shows, and books offer advice on what is good and beautiful, what can be expected (or demanded) out of life. Women, who love to give and seek advice, have a daily choice to make about what advice we look for, what we listen to, and what voices influence our daily decisions.

The whispers are everywhere if we listen for them: “Did God really say, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive’ (Acts 20:35)? Seems like all this giving might kill you.” “Did God really say, ‘Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord’ (Ephesians 5:22)? That seems impossible and probably unhealthy.” “Did God really say, ‘Rejoice in the Lord, O you righteous, and give thanks to his holy name’ (Psalm 97:12)? Seems obvious that to give thanks when you don’t feel thankful would be inauthentic. And what about the women around you who don’t have anything to be thankful for? How would it make them feel?”

Some of Satan’s best work is accomplished by women talking to women, in the floating world of disembodied souls on the Internet. So every Christian woman who would grow in wisdom actively pursues sound doctrine (Titus 2:1), letting the word of Christ dwell in her richly (Colossians 3:16), regularly meditating on what is true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, and commendable (Philippians 4:8).

Perhaps one of the best ways we can steward our attention and our hearts is by turning from some of the online forms of exchanged advice, and instead seeking out flesh-and-blood relationships formed on the basis of passages like Titus 2. A woman who knows she is being discipled by someone (or something) at all times is a woman who can see her need for good discipleship, and humble herself to ask for it in the local church.

Soaking in the word of God, learning from mature Christians, and praying fervently — these are all ways we oppose Satan’s devices in whispering, “Did God really say . . . ?” Waiting for truth to find us is not sufficient; we must actively resist his lies by feeding ourselves with what God has said.

3. He blinds us to our nearest enemy.

Satan often doesn’t mind our being vigilant about outside threats. Most mothers are. But he has a vested interest in keeping us from doing active battle with the threat that is closest to home — our own flesh. The world, the flesh, and the devil are all against us in this war. We can’t do effective battle with any of them unless we’re willing to do battle with all of them.

“Walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh,” Paul says. “For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do” (Galatians 5:16–17). This simply means that as we pass through the years of parenting, we should expect routine rounds of repentance: to God, to our husbands, to our children. It shouldn’t surprise or dismay us that this is part of our warfare. We should see it as a normal part of the Christian life.

We should expect growth to come over time, as our affections develop. As the years go by, our obedience should look more and more like grateful enjoyment of normal life, walked out lovingly, joyfully, peacefully, patiently, kindly, faithfully, gently, and with self-control (Galatians 5:22). These are the natural fruits of the spirit.

What Threatens Satan?

Our lives are not primarily a battle against phantom menaces out in the world who threaten to influence our children. Our children, like us, are conceived in iniquity and born in sin (Psalm 51:5). The enemy of our children’s hearts is already here; it’s already inside the camp.

“Make no mistake — our children, no matter what they hear us say, will know what our hearts truly love.”

Our children will get the most benefit, not from our public statements about what morally outrages us, but from our souls being watered by God’s word and our hearts being filled with yearning for Christ himself. Make no mistake — our children, no matter what they hear us say, will know what our hearts truly love. Satan would have it so that we never find out what our hearts love. He would have us preach a gospel to our children that never reaches our affections, our sin, our desires.

What threatens Satan? A mother’s soul overflowing with Christ — a soul feasting every day at the table he has laid for us:

Come, everyone who thirsts,     come to the waters. . . .Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread,     and your labor for that which does not satisfy?Listen diligently to me, and eat what is good,     and delight yourselves in rich food. (Isaiah 55:1–2)

Reckoning with the Message of Job

Audio Transcript

Today we have an incredibly thoughtful and detailed question from a concerned dad. It’s anonymous. Here’s the question.

“Pastor John, my 14-year-old daughter read through the book of Job for the first time this year, and she is really struggling with how God is portrayed in that book. She has heard all of her life that God is loving and just, and cannot understand why God would allow Job and his children, wife, and servants to suffer such devastation. She’s deeply disturbed by the fact that God pointed Job out to Satan intentionally, thus drawing his attention to this righteous man, allowing Satan to take away nearly everything Job had. And for what purpose? Merely to prove a point to Satan and the host of heaven that Job’s reverence for God was unshakable.

“How would you explain this to a girl who understands the gospel intellectually, but who may not have had it applied to her heart? To her it seems that God was arbitrary and almost cruel to allow Job and everyone around him to suffer to ‘prove a point,’ or to perfect a man who was already more righteous than most of us. She wonders about the collateral damage to Job’s wife — including her faith, who suffered the loss of everything Job did, with the exception of her personal health. It does not bring her much comfort to think that following God could result in such devastation.

“I’ve talked with her about the fact that death and suffering is part of our human existence since the fall, and is a direct and indirect result of sin. We’ve talked about the fact that it was Satan’s cruelty that was the actual instrument of suffering, although within the sovereign will of God. And that this life and its suffering here on this earth is nothing compared to glory in eternity. We’ve also talked about how God himself has suffered on our behalf and bore our sins on the cross, and that God takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked, although our sins grieve him. Pastor John, what else would you say?”

Well, I certainly want to commend this dad for the kinds of things he has patiently shown his daughter. That’s an amazing list of insights that he has shared with her. If he hadn’t asked me, “What else would you say?” I would have said what he said. Those are all solid biblical truths that he highlighted there at the end of his question. So what else — that’s what he’s asking — what else would I say? And keep in mind that if I knew her, I would try to take into account how to say them. But I don’t, and so I’ll do the best I can.

1. Recognize God’s superior value.

First, I would try to help her see what only a divine miracle can make her see — namely, that the value of God and his glory is infinitely greater than the value of all human beings who have or ever will exist. Until a person believes this and feels this — the superior value of God himself — much of the Bible will make no sense, including Job.

I’m thinking, for example, when I talk about this principle of the ultimate value of God, of words like Isaiah 40:15, 17. God says,

Behold, the nations are like a drop from a bucket,     and are accounted as the dust on the scales; . . .All the nations are as nothing before him,     they are accounted by him as less than nothing and emptiness.

Now stressing this infinite difference between the worth of God and the worth of all other reality is not contrary to the love of God. It is what makes the love of God amazing. If you try to enhance the love of God by reducing the distance between his value and ours, you wind up replacing reality with imagination and destroying grace.

2. Begin with God’s priorities.

Second, this means that when we make judgments in this world about good and bad, right and wrong, beautiful and ugly, just and unjust, we should never — this is what I would try to help her see — we should never start with our own sense of the good and right and beautiful and just, and then use them to judge the acts of God. Rather, we should start with the acts of God revealed in the Bible, and think our way out from there to what is truly good and right and beautiful and just.

I remember during the years 1979 and 1980, I wrestled for months with the logic of Romans 9:14–15, which goes like this:

What shall we say then? Is there injustice on God’s part? By no means! For he says to Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.”

And I just sat staring at that for months, saying, “How does that work? How does that logic work?” I wrestled month after month with biblical logic, saying, “I’ve got to get my head fixed. I’m not going to fix this text; this text is God’s word. My head is the problem, not this text.” And the second book I ever wrote, called The Justification Of God, was my answer to that one question — two hundred pages to answer that question. And it was driven home to me, “You will never grasp the truth of God, you will never understand the Bible, John Piper, if you start with yourself and judge God, instead of starting with God and judging yourself.”

3. Realize what we really deserve.

Third, hand in hand with this biblical, God-centered approach to reality goes the heartfelt conviction that human sinfulness — my sinfulness in particular — makes us all liable to God’s just judgment, or as Paul says, makes us all “children of wrath” (Ephesians 2:3). In other words, every breath that every human takes is undeserved. It is another moment, another gift, of grace, and no suffering that any human receives from God in this life is more than what we deserve —ever.

“Until we feel the depth and horror of sin, much of the Bible will simply make no sense to us at all.”

Therefore, no injustice from God is ever done to any human. On the earth, everyone is treated by God better than we deserve — everyone. On the horizontal plane, in relations between humans, there are horrific injustices, which God hates because God hates sin. But we have not yet fathomed the greatness of our offense against God if we think that any suffering from his hand is undeserved.

This is why God was perfectly right and just to drown every single human being on the planet, old and young, except for eight people, in the flood of Genesis 6. He did no one any wrong; he was perfectly just in that judgment. Until we feel the depth and horror of sin like this, much of the Bible will simply make no sense to us at all.

4. Trust your benevolent Father.

Fourth, Job is in the Bible, like all other descriptions of suffering of the righteous, to help us be ready for our own suffering with confidence that it is not ultimately owing to caprice or to nature or to sinful man or to Satan, but it is in the hands of our all-wise, all-powerful, all-good Father.

This dad says of his daughter, “It does not bring her much comfort to think that following God could result in such devastation.” And my response to that sentence is this: God doesn’t expect us to be comforted by the suffering that following him will bring. He expects us to be comforted that all the suffering he appoints for us will be for our ultimate good, for the advancement of his wise purposes, and that he will keep us for himself through them all.

But it sounds like this young lady has not made peace with the promise that if Jesus suffered, his followers are going to suffer. That’s a promise. I’ve been struck with this again recently as I’m working my way through 2 Thessalonians for Look at the Book. Paul is speaking to new Christians — baby believers, several weeks old as Christians — in 2 Thessalonians 1:5, and he says this: “This is evidence of the righteous judgment of God, that you may be considered worthy of the kingdom of God, for which you are also suffering.” Paul had said to these brand-new Christians in 1 Thessalonians 3:3 not to “be moved by these afflictions. For you yourselves know that we are destined for this.” And now it has happened, and he calls it “the righteous judgment of God” to fit us for heaven.

“All the suffering God appoints for us will be for our ultimate good.”

Oh, how pastors and youth leaders need to teach the biblical doctrine of the necessity of Christian suffering in obedience to Jesus. They need to say to young people that Christ is not calling them to an easy life but to a life of serious joy, not silly joy, and that most of the things young people live for will vanish like mist in the face of real life — especially life in the service of a crucified Messiah.

5. Pray to see as God does.

So the last thing I would ask of our young friend is that she would pray with me, and with her father, the prayer that we all need to pray every day — namely, that the Lord would enlighten the eyes of our hearts to see God and to see the world and the way God does things in the world, in order that we might make wise judgments the way he does.

Dressed in His Righteousness Alone: What Is Justification by Faith?

I’ll never forget meeting up with a mentor of mine at Starbucks shortly after becoming a Christian. We regularly met there to read and study the Bible. One day, a person walked by and was elated to find Christians. But during our conversation, my mentor began asking some pretty forthright questions, and I couldn’t quite understand why.

“Do you believe that a person is justified by faith alone?” he said. The stranger hesitantly responded, “No, I believe that a person is justified by faith and works.” My mentor graciously but strongly insisted, “Then you don’t have a biblical view of justification.” A lot of back-and-forths followed, but because I was a recent convert, I found it immensely difficult to understand what was going on. I barely understood what the term justification meant!

Eventually, I discovered the importance of this vital doctrine. Martin Luther and other Reformers considered the doctrine of justification by faith alone the article on which the church stands or falls. It is at the core of the gospel, and the church needs to embrace it as such.

What Is Justification?

So then, what is justification? This is a crucial starting point. How one defines justification will determine not only how one thinks and believes but also how one lives.

Roman Catholic dogma, for example, defines justification as synonymous with sanctification,1 and the result is detrimental. One’s standing on the final day is determined by the growth of Christ’s righteousness, which is imparted to a person through baptism and increases through participation in the sacraments.2 In a word, justification is essentially a clean slate that one needs to maintain to enjoy a favorable verdict at the final judgment.

Diametrically opposed stands the Reformed understanding of justification, which is carefully, succinctly, and biblically defined in the answer to question 33 of the Westminster Shorter Catechism:

Justification is an act of God’s free grace, wherein he pardons all our sins, and accepts us as righteous in his sight, only for the righteousness of Christ imputed to us, and received by faith alone.3

Notice that justification is an act, not a work or process.4 It is not a hopeful destination. It is God’s gracious, once-for-all verdict — his declaration of a person to be righteous in Christ, and therefore fully accepted by God.

The Greek words for justification and righteousness, along with their cognates,5 belong to the legal sphere.6 Consider, for example, Romans 8:31–34:

What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies [Greek ho dikaiōn]. Who is to condemn?

Justification language belongs to the courtroom; it is forensic. Accusations are met with God’s justifying verdict spoken over his elect (see also Romans 5:16–19) — a spoken word that melts the hardened hearts of sinners.

Whose Righteousness?

God, the holy, just, and perfect Judge, finds sinners not guilty and declares them righteous. How? On the basis of the person and work of Jesus Christ — by forgiving our sins on account of the substitutionary death of Christ in our place (Romans 3:21–26) and imputing or reckoning Christ’s righteousness to us (Romans 4:1–9; Philippians 3:9; 2 Corinthians 5:21).

What is this righteousness? His perfect obedience to God, rendered in his life and death, often referred to as the active and passive obedience of Christ. He perfectly fulfilled the law (Galatians 4:4–5; Romans 8:1–4) and also died under the curse of the law (Galatians 3:13), in love for his people (Galatians 2:20).

Nevertheless, death could not keep its prey, and so Christ tore the bars away and arose a victor from the dark domain.7 Jesus’s resurrection was not only proof that his sacrifice satisfied God’s wrath; it was also his own justification or public vindication (1 Timothy 3:16; cf. Romans 4:25). On Resurrection Sunday, God declared the verdict of righteous over his Son, and through union with him, we too receive that unchangeable righteous standing (2 Corinthians 5:21).

How Do We Receive It?

What is necessary to receive this righteous standing? Faith, works, or a combination of both? The answer is faith alone. Paul makes this clear in Galatians 2:16: “We know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified.” Justification is not a both-and matter. It’s either by faith or by works.

Paul fleshes this out in Romans 10:3–4. He speaks of his Jewish kinsmen as those who are “ignorant of the righteousness of God,” are “seeking to establish their own [righteousness],” and thereby do “not submit to God’s righteousness.” Then he provides this explanation: “For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes.” We submit to Christ’s righteousness by faith.

Just breaths later, in Romans 10:9–10, Paul writes, “If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved.” No wonder Paul, in the very next chapter, helpfully explains that “if it is by grace [that we are chosen, saved, and presumably justified (see Romans 10:10)], it is no longer on the basis of works; otherwise grace would no longer be grace” (Romans 11:6).

“Justification is not a both-and matter. It’s either by faith or by works.”

A biblically Reformed understanding of justification by faith alone is indeed comforting to the sinner. “How can I be righteous before a holy God?” is an appropriate question to ask for those outside of Christ. The only acceptable answer is found in Christ. He is the basis of our justification, and he can be received only by the empty hands of faith. And this doctrine is at the core of the gospel.

More to the Gospel than Justification?

In loving and declaring the doctrine of justification by faith alone, some can begin to think that justification is the gospel. But that is not true. Simply saying, “Jesus died for my sins so that I can receive Christ’s righteousness” does not capture the entire gospel.8 Paul doesn’t stop there when he lays out the gospel in 1 Corinthians 15:1–4. Jesus also was buried and rose from the dead. In fact, the resurrection of Christ plays a crucial role in our justification (as we’ve seen in Romans 4:25; see also Romans 1:3–4; 1 Corinthians 15:20–23, 42–49; 1 Timothy 3:16).9 The gospel also includes Jesus’s ascension, enthronement as Lord, and outpouring of the Holy Spirit (Romans 1:3–4; Acts 1:11; 2:1–21; 2:32–33). We therefore should not say that justification is the gospel.

And yet, neither should we welcome the persistent emphasis of those who downplay justification, whether by minimizing it to a “subsidiary crater” in Paul’s theology10 or, even more drastically, by insisting that “our justification by faith is not part of the gospel.”11 In the end, justification is not the gospel, but it is undeniably at its center.12 If you exclude justification from the gospel, then the gospel ceases to be “good news.”

Solely by Faith?

The Reformed tradition has consistently promoted a threefold definition of faith: (1) knowledge of the content of the gospel that we believe (Latin notitia), (2) intellectual assent to the gospel of Christ (assensus), and (3) trust in the person and work of Christ on our behalf (fiducia).

Recently some have taken aim at the third part of that definition (trust).13 They argue that faith is not primarily “interior” or “emotional” but “exterior” and “embodied.” In other words, faith is active rather than passive, and it should be seen rather than felt. So they prefer slogans such as “justification by allegiance alone,” since allegiance underscores the active nature of faith.

Those who argue for this definition of faith make a major mistake. Since they redefine faith as a more active response, they argue that Paul’s either-or of justification is actually a both-and — both faith and works. To be clear here, they do not think a person can be justified by works that stem from self-righteous efforts. They believe Romans 3:20, that “by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight.” However, they underline the phrase “works of the law” and say, “Paul was not against Spirit-wrought good works contributing to a person’s justification.”

“Christ is the basis of our justification, and he can be received only by the empty hands of faith.”

At this point, you may be feeling the way I did in the conversation at Starbucks, not really understanding the fine distinctions. But this is significant. To say that Paul wasn’t against good works with respect to justification, you have to make a drastic move theologically. You have to reject the distinction between justification and sanctification.

What do I mean by that? Put simply, justification and sanctification are inseparable yet distinct, like the heat and light of a fire.14 You cannot have one without the other; at the same time, you can distinguish one from the other.15 Good works, as Paul commends them, are done in our sanctification, but they cannot contribute to our justification. If they do, justification is no longer by faith alone.

Is Christ’s Righteousness Imputed?

After the conversation with the stranger at Starbucks, I asked my mentor, “What does imputation mean?” The word was thrown around during our discussion but never really defined.

Imputation means that the righteousness of Christ — his active and passive obedience — is counted or reckoned to believers. Christ’s righteousness is imputed, counted, reckoned to you when you are united to Christ by faith (1 Corinthians 1:30; 6:11; 2 Corinthians 5:21; Philippians 3:9). As Calvin said, “We do not . . . contemplate [Christ] outside ourselves from afar in order that this righteousness may be imputed to us but because we put on Christ and are engrafted into his body — in short, because he deigns to make us one with him. For this reason, we glory that we have fellowship of righteousness with him.”16 When we talk about receiving righteousness, union with Christ is essential.

Imputed righteousness is distinct from infused righteousness. In the Roman Catholic view, Christ merited righteousness for us, and that righteousness is then infused into believers at baptism. It’s as if Christ’s seed of righteousness should be planted into your heart. It becomes your own. And it is up to you, in dependence on the Spirit and the sacraments, to water it and grow in personal righteousness.

By contrast, the imputation view intentionally uses the words count or reckon, as Scripture does (Romans 4:1–8; 5:12–19; Galatians 3:6).17 In justification, Christ’s righteousness does not become ours as some sort of personal possession. It is counted or reckoned as ours. Why? Because we do not perform the acts of justifying righteousness. Christ, as our substitute, lived the perfect life we couldn’t and died the death we deserved. The righteousness of Christ must therefore primarily and exclusively belong to him.18 It is therefore an alien righteousness — it comes from outside of us. And it is graciously imputed, counted, or reckoned to those who have no inherent righteousness whatsoever (Romans 3:9, 23; Ephesians 2:1–3). We are indeed “dressed in his righteousness alone, faultless to stand before the throne.”19 For nothing else avails before God.

Jesus Receives Sinners

Listening to the conversation my mentor had with that fellow at Starbucks was intimidating and a bit over my head. I heard many terms and distinctions that didn’t seem, at the time, to make much of a difference in the Christian life. But the more questions I asked, the more I learned that the doctrine of justification by faith alone is not only theologically essential but thoroughly practical.

Just think of Christians who question their salvation as they struggle with sin. In those times, they easily can turn inward. “Have I done enough to please God?” “Perhaps if I serve more at church, he will accept me.” “I need to stop sinning in order to be accepted by him.” They may never say these words out loud. After all, they wouldn’t want anyone to think they were weak in faith — or even worse, an unbeliever. But their knee-jerk reaction to turn inward reveals a deeper underlying issue. They need to turn outward toward the objective realities of the gospel. They need to trust in Christ Jesus, their righteousness (1 Corinthians 1:30). They need to rest — not only in mind and mouth, but in heart and life — in the “word of surest consolation; word all sorrow to relieve, word of pardon, peace, salvation! . . . ‘Jesus sinners doth receive.’”20

Beware the Anger of Your Soul: How to Restrain Ungodly Passion

Every time we reread a great book, we inevitably get something new out of it. This isn’t because the book changes, but because we do. Meaning is stable, but we grow and mature (at least, we ought to). And as we do, we become attentive to truth in new ways; we have a broader and richer framework that enables us to see more in the books we read (and read again).

This is true even of children’s books. Perhaps especially of children’s books. My appreciation of Narnia, for instance, is no secret. I’ve read the series dozens of times. On my most recent journey through the wardrobe, an important theme in the final book lit up for me in a fresh way. And then my own Bible reading connected with that theme and brought the whole matter home.

“Passions are the impulsive, almost instinctive motions of the soul. They are good, but dangerous.”

The theme is the centrality of the passions in the early chapters of The Last Battle. Passions are the impulsive, almost instinctive motions of the soul. They are good, but dangerous. They are our immediate reactions to reality, such as fear, anxiety, desire, pity, grief, and anger. It’s this last passion that figures prominently in The Last Battle. What happens when our anger, however justified in itself, goes unchecked and becomes rash? And are there any ways to rein it in?

The Rashness of the King

The second chapter opens with King Tirian and his close friend Jewel the Unicorn in a state of reverie over the news that Aslan has returned to Narnia. Aslan’s arrival is the most wonderful news imaginable. Their joy is interrupted, however, by Roonwit the Centaur, who claims that the news of Aslan’s arrival is a lie.

“A lie!” said the King fiercely. “What creature in Narnia or all the world would dare to lie on such a matter?” And, without knowing it, he laid his hand on his sword hilt. (20)

Note the intensity of the King’s reaction. More importantly, notice where that reaction takes him. His hand goes to his sword “without knowing it.” In other words, his impulsive passion moved him to react, apart from the guidance of his mind.

We see the same rashness a few moments later when the Dryad emerges from the forest, crying out for justice over the destruction of the talking trees. When Tirian hears it, he leaps to his feet and draws his sword. There are no enemies present. Nevertheless, the sword is drawn, perhaps again without him fully realizing what he’s doing. His passions are in control.

Anger Invites More Anger

When the Dryad falls to the ground dead, Tirian is speechless in his grief and anger. He then calls Jewel and Roonwit to immediately join him in a journey to put to death the villains who have committed this murder. They are to leave “with all the speed we may.” Jewel concurs, but Roonwit cautions. “Sire, be wary in your just wrath” (22). In your anger, Roonwit says, do not sin. Do not be unwise. Let us wait to gather troops and see the strength of the enemy.

But Tirian will “not wait the tenth part of a second.” His wrath is kindled and steering the ship. He and Jewel set out, with Tirian muttering to himself and clenching his fists. He’s so angry he doesn’t even feel the coldness of the water when they ford a river. His anger has him by the throat and will not let go.

After discovering that Aslan is apparently the one who ordered the felling of the trees, Tirian and Jewel press on toward the danger. The narrator comments,

[Jewel] did not see at the moment how foolish it was for two of them to go on alone; nor did the King. They were too angry to think clearly. But much evil came of their rashness in the end. (25)

This is the issue: they are too angry to think clearly. However righteous their anger at the injustice before them, the rashness of that anger leads to folly. They are impulsively reacting, not intentionally responding, and the results will be great evil and harm.

What Can Check Anger?

We don’t have to wait long for some of that evil to manifest. When the two come upon a talking horse being beaten and whipped by Calormen soldiers, their anger reaches a fever pitch.

When Tirian knew that the Horse was one of his own Narnians, there came over him and over Jewel such a rage that they did not know what they were doing. The King’s sword went up, the Unicorn’s horn went down. They rushed forward together. Next moment, both the Calormenes lay dead, the one beheaded by Tirian’s sword and the other gored through the heart by Jewel’s horn. (27)

“If unchecked and rash anger leads to great folly, evil, and bloodshed, what can check such a passion?”

Over and over, we see the theme of this chapter — from the hand on the sword without knowing it, to being too angry to think clearly, to being so filled with rage that they don’t know what they are doing even as they kill two men. The unchecked rashness of the king has led to great bloodshed.

I’d like to bring the rashness of Tirian into conversation with a story from the Scriptures and ask, If unchecked and rash anger leads to great folly, evil, and bloodshed, what can check such a passion?

The Rashness of the Anointed

The biblical story is a familiar one from the life of David. He is dwelling in the wilderness because he is estranged from King Saul, who is in the grip of the passion of envy. David has twice spared Saul’s life and thereby earned a respite of sorts from Saul’s pursuit. Samuel is dead, and David and his men are in the wilderness of Paran, low on supplies.

David sends some messengers to Nabal, a wealthy man who lives close by. Nabal is preparing a feast, and David asks for favor and supplies. This request is not out of the blue. David and his men have been camped near Nabal’s shepherds. Not only have they refrained from plundering his flocks, but they have actually ensured that no one else does either. David and his men were a wall to Nabal’s flocks by day and night (1 Samuel 25:16). Neither thief nor beast ravaged his flock. It is in light of this protection that David makes his humble request, identifying himself as a son and servant to Nabal (1 Samuel 25:8).

Nabal responds with derision and insults. “Who is David? Who is the son of Jesse? There are many servants these days who are breaking away from their masters” (1 Samuel 25:10–11). In other words, “David, you are an unworthy outlaw, a rebel against the king. And I will not give my bread and my water and my meat to men from who knows where.”

When David hears of the insult, he responds like the last King of Narnia. “Every man strap on his sword!” (1 Samuel 25:13). In his anger, he and his men immediately set out to avenge the insult. And their intentions are clear — every male in Nabal’s house will be killed (1 Samuel 25:22). As with Tirian, here we have the impulsive passion of anger, a rage that is about to lead to great bloodshed and bloodguilt. But unlike Tirian, it’s about to be checked.

How to Appeal to Anger

The check comes in the form of Abigail, Nabal’s wise and discerning wife. Hearing of Nabal’s insult and the evil that is coming to their house, she immediately prepares a lavish gift of food and wine for David and his men. She brings the gifts and falls on her face before David and pleads for his favor.

She takes responsibility. She testifies to her husband’s folly. She gives David the gifts. But most importantly, she makes two fundamental appeals. First, she urges David to refrain from shedding innocent blood and working salvation with his own hand (1 Samuel 25:26). By doing so, he will avoid the grief and pangs of conscience that will come if he brings bloodguilt by his hand or seeks to save himself (1 Samuel 25:31). Second, she reminds David that the Lord will fight for him, that David’s life is “bound in the bundle of the living in the care of the Lord your God” (1 Samuel 25:29).

These appeals check the rashness of the king. They arrest his rage and wrath and vengeance. They enable him to tame the passion of his impulsive anger. David blesses Abigail for her discretion and courage, because she has “kept me this day from bloodguilt and from working salvation with my own hand” (1 Samuel 25:34). And he blesses the Lord who sent her to him and restrained David’s hand from doing great evil by harming Abigail and her husband’s household.

And sure enough, the Lord vindicates David. Ten days later, the Lord strikes Nabal and he dies, avenging the insult against his anointed (1 Samuel 25:39). Not only does David spare himself from working evil, he gains the hand of a wise and discerning wife.

Weapons Against Our Anger

So how might we apply wisdom like Abigail’s in checking our anger today? As we feel the temperature of our souls rising, we stop and remind ourselves — and one another — first, that ungodly anger will only add iniquity to our injury, and second, that the Lord himself has said, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay” (Romans 12:19).

These two stories — one fictional and one biblical — issue the same warning: Beware the passions of your flesh. They often wage war against your soul (1 Peter 2:11). In your anger, do not sin (Ephesians 4:26). Remember that the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God (James 1:20). Instead, entrust yourself to God (1 Peter 4:19). Look to him to fight your battles and to vindicate.

This doesn’t make us passive; the Lord also fought for and with David when he took up his sling against Goliath. That salvation, like the one with Nabal, was wrought by God’s hand, not David’s. But when we act in faith, we do so intentionally and thoughtfully, not reactively or rashly. We trust that our lives are bound in the bundle of the living in the care of our Lord, that we always live between the paws of the true Aslan.

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