Pastoral Series

Reconciliation: Justification

Reconciliation: Justification

How do we make sense of the sea of stories, teaching, and wisdom in the Bible?  Theologians help us by giving us some shorthand terms to crystallize various themes.  So we wind up with “doctrine,” and theological jargon – which helps us talk about big things.

“Reconciliation,” as you are realizing by now, represents a whole complex of the ways relationships, with God and others, come to be repaired.  A closely related doctrine is “justification.”  [Ben Witherington will help us with all this on Wednesday!]  Paul says “Since all have sinned, they are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus” (Romans 3:34).  This is our belief that, through Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection, we are forgiven; our status with God is justified, made right, by God’s power and mercy, not our own doing.  No more self-justification.  It’s God’s free gift.

Justification is then what God does for us.  Sanctification then is what God does in us.  We are forgiven, we are saved by God’s grace, which we embrace by faith – but then God begins to transform us, our thoughts, words and deeds, so we might be holy.  As John Wesley used to frame it, we begin on the “porch” by realizing our brokenness and repenting, we pass through the “door” when we believe, and then life inside the “home” is holiness.

Recently, the great scholar N.T. Wright has deepened our understanding of Justification.  “Salvation is hugely important.  Knowing God for oneself, discovering that God is gracious is the good news that constantly surprises and refreshes us.  But we are not the center of the universe.  God is not circling around us; we are circling around him.  The salvation of human beings, though extremely important for those human beings, is part of a larger purpose: God is rescuing us from the shipwreck of the world, not so we can sit back and put our feet up in his company, but so that we can be part of his plan to remake the world.”

This remaking of God’s world is what we call reconciliation.  You are saved – actually, not only are you saved, but you exist – not so you can get into heaven, but so you can be an engaged participant in God’s labor to restore you, everybody else, and all of creation itself.  That’s the noblest conceivable reason for being.

One other wrinkle in these doctrines of justification, sanctification and reconciliation is worth noting.  God made us and shows us how to be righteous.  We aren’t very righteous – hence the need for forgiveness.  But then as forgiven people, we seek God’s righteousness.  It’s a miracle we ask God for; we yearn for God’s spirit to craft holiness in us we’re not capable of.

At the same time, it’s far from passive.  We strive, we cultivate better habits, we plow the ground and do our part to ready ourselves for God’s transformative grace.  We are careful about the company we keep, sticking close to those who help us lean into holiness.  We pray; we fix our attention on what will reshape our souls.

And we quite simply practice.  Do godly things; and you get better, you get the hang of it.  You expect to wobble and falter; it’s practice, not perfection.  The work of reconciliation is like that, never totally effective, with plenty of frustration – and yet we’re at peace and joyful, living in sync with what we were made for, and getting busy now with what will ultimately be achieved in eternity.

See All Pastoral Series