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  • Brian Chilcote

Justification Theory

Have you ever gone along with an idea because everyone else seems to be fine with it?

The fashion industry is built on this social phenomenon. Sure the clothes in our closets are there because we think they are comfortable, but also because they meet certain criteria of acceptability when we wear them in public. In the 1970's we went along with huge collars and lime green pantsuits without protest.

History is peppered with innovators who rejected a perfectly good social norm and led us to a different and oftentimes better future. Consider your weekend, won for us by labor strikes against an unjust status quo. Elections happen here in the U.S. because a group of former British subjects decided against the "way it's always been done."

It starts with taking a hard look at a problematic assumption about ourselves and what we believe. When unexamined behaviors and beliefs are allowed to stand, and we go along with the crowd for too long, time becomes ripe for a challenge. Sometimes the effect is small, and sometimes a full-on revolution occurs.

In her article on Substack, Saved by Faith Alone! *Terms and Conditions May Apply: Why is getting “saved by faith” so much work? Dr. Laura Robinson dissects American Evangelicalism's answer to a foundational question on which its status quo is built: How does salvation work? Those who grew up in some form of the tradition will find the terminology describing salvation and justification familiar, but you may not have picked up on some of the problems with how they are expressed in the church.

The themes of her article are drawn from a recent book entitled Beyond Justification: Liberating Paul's Gospel by Douglas Campbell and Jon DePue. In it the authors discuss "Justification Theory," shorthand for the typical approach of American Evangelical churches to the mechanisms of salvation and justification. Dr. Robinson sets out the problem:

"Christians are 'saved by faith alone' (the level of detail will probably vary considerably, and also may look very different as it is expressed among people in the pews as opposed to theology textbooks). According to this idea, which is key to justification theory, Christians are not saved from the hell they deserve by doing good works. They are instead saved by putting their faith in Jesus, for which they receive absolution from God.

"It’s odd, then, that Institute for Basic Life Principals [sic] (of recent Shiny Happy People fame) both affirms this:

'We believe people are saved by grace through faith in the shed blood of the Lord Jesus Christ and without any additional human effort or works.'

"And yet also sells curricula of hundreds of minute rules that Christians ought to follow. My strong suspicion is that if you grew up in an evangelical church in the US, your church may have been more or less the same."

Here's a bit more detail about Justification theory (JT).

According to JT we find ourselves up against a big problem. Most of us are familiar with the events in the Garden of Eden in Genesis 1-3. Paul reviews our culpability in Romans 1 when he proposes that even gentiles are capable of perceiving God's power and goodness in the natural world. Here's how the argument goes:

Humans know the will of God, through

  • General revelation and an inborn conscience

  • Special revelation- the written word also embodied in God's chosen people, the Jews.

Living a life worthy of this Holy and Just God is unattainable- the bar is simply too high.

  • Sin is the term that describes failing to live God's perfect way

  • The natural result of continuing in this state of sin is eternal torment in hell, post mortem (with some negative effects in this life as well).

But God has provided a solution that is open to anyone, Jew or gentile:

Place your faith in Jesus' substitutionary atonement as the alternative to trying to obey God's will

  • When you believe, place your faith in, accept the free gift of Jesus taking on the consequences of your sin, a legal transaction is completed resulting in:

  • No condemnation for sin- the penalty is paid by Jesus

  • Assurance that you will enter heaven when you die

  • Increasing freedom from negative behaviors (that's another story: sanctification)

This legal exchange is accomplished on a psychological level that involves volition, repentance and commitment. There is often (but not always) a social component: joining with a community of fellow believers as a way to express your new devotion. Baptism is the traditional rite the church uses to signify and ratify one's decision.

But this leads to another problem:

Your relationship with God depends on an ongoing, consistent level of faith, one that is expect to "grow" over time. The difficulty arises when we probe what that really means.

  • How is "faith" defined? Can we disagree on the details of our definitions?

  • If we can arrive at a consensus on what faith is, how can we determine if we (or others) are exercising it?

  • How can one know for sure that one's own faith is of a quality as to be saving faith?

  • Can you lose faith? Opinions vary on what happens when it fades over time.

  • Is "growth" a necessary component to faith? If faith doesn't grow is it saving faith?

The church has long wrestled with these questions and evangelicalism has grabbed on to some potential solutions.

Proposed solutions to the faith problem: You know you have the right kind of faith when your behavior shows it. We might call these behaviors "works."

Genuine faith is shown by one's works. Seems reasonable. It makes sense that an interior change of allegiances should result in some better behaviors, right? Well, there are questions

  • What works, exactly are we talking about?

  • Who decides what they should be? James, in his epistle, mentions providing food and clothing to the needy, among other specifics. What if I think my works are good enough and someone else disagrees?

  • Are rituals included? In other words, if we pray the right way, sing the right songs, participate in the Eucharist correctly- how do these actions add up in the "growing faith" equation?

Churches seem to have unwritten lists of faith-based works that are expected from "saved" people, such as attending worship, reading the Bible, volunteering time, giving, and adhering to certain behavioral expectations.

What do we do with the fact that all the behaviors we normally think of in this regard can be a) done gladly by non-believers and b) counterfeited by believers that only want to impress?

"At this point, the distinction between salvation by faith and salvation by works is really just semantics. If anything, you would be better off following the Old Testament down to the last letter than trying to keep up with the demands of American Christian culture. " --Dr. Robinson

So how can anyone know if their faith is genuine? JT proponents often offer the following as proof:

"Genuine faith is shown by sincere effort led by the Holy Spirit." The brain is a tricky thing. It's been shown to be notoriously self-interested and anything but objective about reality. Yet we are quick to attribute our admirable behavior to the leading of the indwelling Spirit of God. If we aren't always sure about our level of sincerity, how can anyone else make any judgements or comparisons about it?

There's no biblical evidence that sincerity can be a deciding factor. In addition, similar to altruism, sincerity is always mixed with other motivations. Again, how can we or others determine that the quantity or quality of whatever "sincerity" is? And if it meets some unknowable criteria that indicates a passing grade?

"Simply confess with your mouth and believe in your heart that God raised Jesus from the dead."

"…because 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." According to one interpretation of Paul, the deciding factor is the actual set of propositions to which you have pledged allegiance, not the quantity or quality of an unmeasurable psychological state. Your status is detached from behaviors or attitudes, and depends only on the "truths" at which your faith is aimed.

Again, this produces a batch of new problems:

This allows for child-abusing church leadership (who have assented to the correct propositions) to access God's favor while denying it to non-believes like Oskar Schindler, Malala Yousafzai, and Albert Einstein.

"But," one might protest, "Is the child abuser really a Christian?"

That possibility brings us right back to the works / sincerity problem. If we assert that the abuser is a Christian, we concede that God doesn’t really hold anyone accountable for their behavior. JT allows for any and all behavior, however poor, as long as a person's faith is aimed at the proper content. If the abuser is not a Christian, we are forced to admit that there was an undetectable sincerity issue that finally proved to everyone that the abuser's sincerity was flawed.

It means that a Christian child abuser can repent, pledge to be more sincere and escape the wrath of God. Other heroic humanitarians, who have never harmed anyone, will find themselves in eternal torment. Does it seem fair that this zero-sum game is dependent on our slippery grasp of "sincerity?"

Furthermore, there's not a simple consensus on a precise definition of the phrases "Jesus is Lord," and "God raised him from the dead." If saving faith depends on exact definitions, we're in trouble. What if, for example:

You begin to agree with scholarship that indicates that Paul didn't buy bodily resurrection?

You also pray to Mary and several saints?

You think the Book of Mormon is also a sacred book?

You include feminine language in thinking and talking about God?

You ascribe to a theory of atonement other than Penal Substitution?

You can sincerely affirm this confession, but you're same-sex attracted?

'You have to rightly understand the propositions you believe in. In other words: salvation depends on confession, belief, and adherence to an orthodox interpretation of the data."

"A 'salvation issue' is a phrase you can find among a range of evangelical pastors and laypeople that is used to describe a belief that is so central to Christian teaching that it must be believed in order for a person to qualify as having 'saving faith.'" --Dr. Robinson

Should we probe the boundary between and essential and nonessential proposition?

One option is to circle back to focusing on obedience and let God sort it out. Is it advisable, beyond confessing and believing, to aim for straightforward obedience to everything we find in the Bible as best we can, in the plainest of senses? Here's the Reverend Peter H. Holtvluwer:

"When he reveals his will, he expects total submission and complete obedience. He doesn’t ever say in the Bible: Okay, you must believe these things but if salvation or unity is on the line, you can ignore the rest. On the contrary, everything the Lord reveals is worthy of and thus demands our attention, our acceptance, and (with respect to all his commands) our obedience! And if we fail in any point, God will be our Judge and determine what happens to us. How do we even know how God will judge a believer’s neglect, ignorance, or disobedience of any of his teachings? That’s up to the Lord, isn’t it?"

It doesn't take long to discover that there's no consensus in Protestantism on the boundary between essentials and nonessentials. What looks like a great idea to establish a simple common ground between Christian factions turns out to be a nonstarter. A very brief search on "Christian essentials and nonessentials" yields a long-ish list:

Belief in God

Belief in the deity of Christ

Belief in personal sin

Belief in Christ's death and bodily resurrection

Belief in the necessity of saving faith in Christ

Salvation by grace

The gospel


The Trinity

The atoning power of Christ's death

Bodily ascension of Christ into heaven

The virgin birth

The Bible is an accurate and trustworthy representation of God's will

Jesus gave one all-encompassing command—to love one another as He loved us

Fulfilling the "Great Commission"

Many churches depend on the ancient creeds for their essentials. It's a fair question to ask if the "essentials" outlined by the Nicene and Apostles' creeds are adequate for the church existing in a very different world than fourth century Europe.

The list of non-essentials is even longer. There have been fights over how far a believer can travel away from a non-essential before it becomes essential. Consider these:

  • Does it make a difference if you're in the Early High Christology Club or not?

  • Do your Christological notions about preexistence or adoptionism matter?

  • What about views on inerrancy? Gender roles? Your favored hermeneutic? Inclusivity? What counts as sin?

Another troubling question arising from "rightly understanding" is what to do with early Jewish Christians and the numerous "Christianities" attested to by extrabiblical documentation from the first through the third centuries. Moses didn't articulate a modern orthodox faith in Jesus; neither did any other Old Testament character. Are they heaven bound? Even if they didn't actually believe in heaven?

Are Ebionites, Marcionites, Docetists and Montanists in heaven?*

Possible responses to critically exploring Justification Theory (JT):

"I just don't think about my spiritual life in such an analytical way. I just go to church, read and believe my Bible, pray and trust God. I'll let God sort it all out later."

The apparent stakes are way too high to ignore the problems with JT. When "God sorts it all out later" it stands to reason that we should make sure we know exactly what puts us on His good side. We have been told what happens to people who don't manage to activate the right blend of faith, belief, confession and works.

"If God was willing to make a way for our salvation by torturing Jesus on the cross, but is also willing to not apply that salvation to people unless they specifically ask for that salvation, then we are not dealing with a God who is afraid to disqualify people on a technicality." --Robinson

We would also do well to pay attention to the human filters through which all this information comes to us. When we talk about "what the Bible says," we are really talking about what someone else says the Bible says. The phrase "rightly understood," or "translated correctly" requires an authoritative objective standard that no human being possesses, as attested to by the huge variety of "certainties" about vastly divergent and contradictory interpretations of biblical texts that in no way agree.

"So you're saying that Christianity is illogical and wrong."

This might be true if JT were the only way to talk about salvation. It's not. There are many other ways to understand salvation that are worth exploring. One example is understanding Paul in "apocalyptic gospel" categories.** The question then becomes, "is this the proper way to interpret Paul?" There's no way to nail that down without interviewing him, but if you're thinking that it's possible that JT doesn't hold water, here's a brief summary of an Apocalyptic Gospel:

There's a universal problem facing all of humanity: sin and death

How did we get here?

  • Adam's disobedience contaminated all his descendants' natural flesh.

  • Evil forces are arrayed against God's plan

  • Our own "free" immoral choices

  • This contamination extends to all Creation. God must pronounce judgement

God has provided a remedy for sin: Christ's death

  • Jesus assumed our position as contaminated, dying creatures

  • He carried his flesh -along with ours, if we believe- to the cross in order to terminate it

  • The flesh dies, and is buried

God then provides a remedy for death: Christ's resurrection

In resurrection, God receives the Son back from the dead and enthrones him in heaven. The Holy Spirit plays the role of life-giver to Jesus, releasing him from sin and death. Jesus now lives in the age to come, new and glorious, perfect, deathless and imperishable, like stars (stars were believed to exalted beings who never changed)

Identification with Jesus opens the way for gentiles to gain this same eternal life

Paul seems to understand that this provision sits alongside the requirements of Torah for Jews.

All this points to the onset of the eschatological Last Day. "Apocalypse" signifies a revelation of things hidden. The Greek word is a compound of apo = away from and kalypto = to cover. The Last Day has begun to break into our reality- The appearance of Jesus means the cover is being removed from the life to come.

We have now been offered participation in Jesus' death

  • This implies that our flesh can be destroyed and our destiny changed- escaping death and God's wrath

  • Baptism signifies the beginning of one's participation

  • Justification is a validated expectation of being raised to be like Jesus (He is the firstborn of all believers, and we will follow along as new family members)

  • The Holy Spirit is the agent of transformation, as with Jesus. We can access the Holy Spirit through faith

We have also been offered participation in Jesus' resurrection

The Jewish idea of physical, imminent resurrection on the last day could come at any time, but for a short time we're stuck in between, in order to give more time for gentiles to participate

  • Evidence of transformation is starting to appear in the church, with full glorification is coming later

  • Believers can possess a new mind, free from both evil powers and bad choices that make us sin

  • We can lapse, because haven't fully gained our resurrection, but we're not condemned by it

One important difference between this view and JT is that it assumes that the Age to Come is just about here- weeks or months as opposed to years or centuries. This means that long-term behavioral changes are just not as important as a marker of membership. Our time on earth is just about up- make sure you've decided to participate- worry about behaviors later. You can see Paul and the early church wrestling with this issue as new churches form and institutionalize over time and the expected imminent end still hasn't come.

Salvation depends on a personal and community response to these ideas. A decision to participate triggers ongoing consequences, beginning with the life-giving Holy Spirit grafting us into the historic events of Christ's death and resurrection. Christ's death and resurrection becomes our death and resurrection. Contamination is deleted in us as a real effect. Therefore, if one sees behaviors changing, it can be attributed to the success of one's intent to participate.

There remains some uncertainty about what it means to "participate." Is it some kind of active "work" that we do? How does it relate to faith? Is it a little of both? For Paul, he's certain that circumcision and participation in Judaism doesn't do anything for a gentile. Instead, the important matter is to break off allegiances to other gods, goddesses and their idols.

Justification, then, is the state of being freed from sin and death by means of a personal and community realignment (stopping idol worship, among other things) into a transformed existence that more closely resembles heaven.

This is open to both Jews and gentiles. Jews are already most of the way there (they already worship the one true God). Gentiles can come as they are.


These salvation theories arise from a need to determine who's in and who's out of the group, however the group defines itself. Powerful indeed is the drive to feel safer around us think the way we do; we can relax our guard against conflict or unexpected behavior when membership is settled. Deriving membership criteria from God's own word makes it that much more authoritative.

Should we wish to ameliorate these tendencies, we do well to remember that the historical winners carved out the ideological territory we now call "orthodoxy," excluding numerous other ways to understand the gospel, most of which are lost to us in the fog of centuries past. At a bare minimum, we should hold our current doctrinal theories lightly, unless we feel comfortable condemning centuries of sincere believers in Jesus to a dark eternity.

A final question: Are we closer to truth by believing that we can be certain about salvation for ourselves and others, or is it better to live merely hoping we have it right?


*For a look at the "heresies" we know about, see this Wikipedia article: List of heresies in the Catholic Church

**Here's much more detailed analysis of the Apocalyptic Gospel Also, check out The Apocalyptic Gospel Podcast


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