10 February 2009

Justification and Fear

Our tendency in our evangelical churches and our evangelical lives is to believe in and uphold and love justification by faith (i.e. justification by simply refusing to self-justify) but then to move on to other ideas and strategies when it comes to our emotional life and the daily pressures that do not lie directly in the "moral" realm.

This is a great mistake.

Take fear, for instance. Why do get anxious? Because we are afraid that our functional god will condemn us--not justify us--if we fail it. So for example, we are fearful of not succeeding in a job, or not impressing someone we respect, or failing the test, or botching the sermon, or missing the shot. We fantasize about succeeding in those real life situations and have nightmares about failing. Why do we do that? Because we have not let the radioactive nature of the doctrine of justification by faith destroy our malignant idolatries. Sensing our inadequacy we set up our career, our relationships, our studies, our public speaking, our athletic abilities as functional gods to which we are looking for justification--to know we're okay. More than any other human drive, we all want to know, simply, that we are okay. And there is a concrete security in mixing in some self-achievement to get there.

But it is an insecure security, because it rests on performance. What I'm wondering is: what if we went into the interview, the conversation, the classroom, the pulpit, the game, already okay? Already justified. Not just theologically, but emotionally. Not just in our mind but in our gut. And what if the one who had declared us okay knew our inadequacy far more deeply than we do--yet had still, not in a grumpy voice but with singing (Zeph 3:17), justified us? That would be a relief and a courage no self-achievement could ever touch.

And it can be ours. How? By simply opening ourselves up to it. Christ was the one person who ever lived who was, from the womb, "okay." "Justified." But he allowed himself to be made un-okay, he allowed himself to fail, so that you and I, failures, can be fully justified--not just declared okay in the presence of God, but also in the presence of the many idolatries that beckon our worship throughout life.

If you have been justified theologically, have you also been justified emotionally?

Luther understood this. Here's what the irritable churchman says in his Romans commentary on 9:30-10:4.

One who believes in Christ is secure in his conscience; he is righteous and, as the Scripture says, "bold as a lion (Prov 28:1). And again: "Whatever shall befall the righteous shall not cause him anxiety" (Prov 12:21). . . .

All this means: one who believes in Christ does not hasten or flee; he is not frightened, because he fears nothing; he stands quiet and secure, founded upon a firm rock, according to the teaching of the Lord in Matt 7:24. But one who will not believe in him . . . will flee, yet he will not be able to escape when tribulation and anxiety and, above all, the judgment of God assail him. (Luther: Lectures on Romans, ed. W. Pauck, 282-83)

I took a doctoral seminar on Pauline justification last year; I think it's only in recent days that I'm finally figuring out what justification means.


Eric said...

This is a great post, Dane. Thanks so much for writing this. I find I exhaust myself so quickly when I try to perform - even if just in front of myself. But when I can really live in grace, seemingly limitless pleasant calm energy carries me along.

I really enjoy reading your blog and I'm sure it's blessing many more people than you know.

Anonymous said...

Don't we also have to guard against implicitly believing in "justification by understanding and living out really well justification by faith alone", too? I only raise this because if someone like you, who has spent so much time studying and thinking and pondering these things, is only now understanding justification, what hope do the rest of us have?

Dane Ortlund said...

Thanks brothers.

Nick - thanks for the thoughtful comment. Lots of thoughts come to mind of which I'll mention 2.

One, I suppose we should, as you say, "guard against" deficient grasps of justification in the ways you mention. But even here fear is gone. We don't have to get our understanding of justification just right. The doctrine of justification frees us to be bold and free and guiltless, period--even regarding how we understand the doctrine itself! No matter where we turn, it's all taken care of.

Two, all the thinking that is done in academics about something like justification cannot leave us where we were before. It will either harden us or soften us. Some of the most brilliant monographs exegeting the biblical terminology for justification have doubtless been written by some of the most insecure people - people who do not, in fact, understand justification viscerally. My point is: the answer to your question 'What hope do the rest of us have' is: far more hope than many of us who have been studying the doctrine for years.

Anonymous said...

this is one of my favorite posts i've read on any blog, period. thank you bud.

Gavin Ortlund said...

Great post Dane! Thank you for this.

ErinOrtlund said...

A great reminder Dane! So good to be reminded of our acceptance and freedom in Christ.

Anonymous said...

To imagine how many great things fear has snuffed out in the world...your thoughts here give me some good things to ponder...'have been looking at this hesitance to realize His true and incredible calling in light of who I am in light of John 14:15-20 and Romans 8:15...most definitely we're looking for someone else to tell us we're okay when we forget both who...and whose we are.