In many Christian circles today the term justification is often avoided. It is thought to be too difficult or old-fashioned. Yet the word is frequently used in everyday speech. We may ask, for instance, ‘What justification do you have for saying that?’ Then, again, in the world of word processors justification is a familiar expression in reference to aligning texts. The end result is that people are computer literate but ignorant of its Christian usage and significance in the context of the gospel’s saving message.
A Neglected Doctrine
The rallying cry of the Protestant Reformation — ‘justification by faith alone’ — means nothing to the present generation. What was of great importance to many from the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries at all levels of society is now of mere academic interest. To make matters worse, preaching and teaching on this basic theme has noticeably diminished and even become non-existent in many churches. As long ago as 1952 Alan Stibbs, who was then Vice-Principal of Oak Hill Theological College, declared that the doctrine of justification by faith needed to be reinstated ‘because it is neglected, and does not hold the place that it should, either in our praise to God or in our preaching to men. A proper sense of its full glory and wonder is weak, if not lacking, among many Christians.’1 In 1986, before he became Archbishop of Canterbury, George Carey remarked that justification by faith ‘is hardly a common expression these days, even in the Church’.2
Away from the grass-roots level, the subject has been discussed at some length by theologians of various schools of thought in the interests of church unity. This has led to agreed statements being published. Yet the issues and arguments seem far removed from the experiences and situations of the people in the pew, let alone the teeming masses outside the church.
In recent decades, since Vatican II, greater freedom has existed for Roman Catholics to mix with Protestants. It is not unusual for Roman Catholics to meet with evangelicals in college Christian Union Bible study and prayer groups, in evangelistic campaigns or charismatic gatherings, and in local inter-church functions. They are often involved with evangelicals over ethical issues such as abortion and euthanasia. There are Roman Catholics who will call themselves evangelical and can be clearly distinguished from others by their moral integrity and deeply spiritual life.
To the ordinary church-goer or occasional visitor it is not so easy these days to distinguish a Protestant liturgical service from a Roman. The latter now uses English or some other vernacular language instead of Latin and includes more informal elements such as popular choruses and spiritual songs, while the former has gone back to using unreformed items of dress and furniture, and liturgies that include prayers for the dead.
In many minds, then, the old divisions have already been broken down so that there is a decided lack of interest in focusing on doctrinal differences that seem unimportant. To support this line of reasoning, reference is often made to the Scripture verse about the spirit not the letter of the law being the essential thing. As long as there is a love for the Lord Jesus Christ, a concern to make Christ known to others, and a desire to meet together in fellowship, what is the value of drawing attention to bygone wars of religion, to arguments over doctrine, many of which seem to have been caused through a misunderstanding about words?
It has been suggested that evangelicals and Roman Catholics should bury the hatchet and work together for the common good in the face of secularism, paganism and militant Islam. Both groups are apparently in agreement in affirming their acceptance of justification by faith. But is it really the case that Roman Catholics agree with Protestants, especially those of evangelical persuasion, on this item of faith which has for centuries kept them apart?
While there are those who claim not to understand the biblical and theological reasons for the great divide over this question of justification, or who may not consider it to be sufficiently significant to continue a policy of no cooperation, it is a subject being hotly debated at the present time in scholarly circles. Many articles and books on this theme have been published in recent years. It is now fashionable to denounce the Lutheran interpretation of Paul and of the Judaism of his day and to present what many feel to be a refreshingly new and simple approach to the understanding of justification.
In addition, bold attempts are being made to bring justification back into the everyday thinking and preaching of the church. Concern is expressed that the church is not presenting the truth of justification. In a sincere desire to make the matter relevant to today’s needs, the term is, unfortunately, being given meanings that are at best secondary, so that the essence of the truth is lost and it ceases to be the gospel’s cutting-edge. These are the matters which are addressed in the following pages.
The book is divided into four parts. Part one uncovers what the Bible teaches on the subject of justification including a chapter on the vocabulary associated with it. In part two attention is drawn to the traditional opposing positions on justification and the attempts that have been made recently to cross the divide. Part three discusses recent scholarly work on the subject. In the final part the crucial importance of getting it right is emphasised both for the future of the church and the eternal well-being of its individual members. An attempt is also made to show the relevance of the subject in today’s world.
A native of Wrexham, Philip Eveson obtained his initial degree in Biblical Studies at the University College of North Wales, Bangor. From there he was awarded a scholarship to read Theology at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He later gained his MTh in Hebrew and Aramaic Studies at King's College, London and is a member of the Tyndale Fellowship for Biblical Research. After a year at the Presbyterian Theological College, Aberystwyth, he served churches in South Wales before moving to London, where he has been Minister of Kensit Evangelical Church for the past twenty-three years. Since its inception in 1977, he has been Resident Tutor and Lecturer in Biblical Languages and Exegesis at the London Theological Seminary. Philip has also preached and lectured in the Far East and Ghana, is Chairman of the Red Sea Mission Team British Home Council and a Director of Go Teach. He is married to Jennifer and they have one daughter.