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Justification and Pastoral Ministry

October 5, 2017

Dennis E. Johnson

Dennis E. Johnson
Professor of Practical Theology

The biblical truth of justification—that God declares guilty lawbreakers forgiven and right in his sight by his grace alone, on the ground of Jesus’ blood and righteousness alone, as they trust Christ alone—has enormous ramifications for pastoral ministry. Martin Luther’s spiritual anguish, his relentless questioning whether his self-inflicted penance could ever satisfy God’s justice, dramatically illustrates the pastoral need for clear teaching on justification. This truth speaks good news to a variety of people for whom the pastor cares. Consider, as a sample, four groups of spiritual strugglers:

Guilty people—Some struggle with painful memories of the harm they have inflicted on others, harm that cannot be reversed. Others have sensitive consciences that relentlessly accuse them for sins that seem slight to friends but loom large in the minds of the self-indicting. Pastors have good news to share with people wracked by guilt: God’s just wrath against every Christian’s every sin—against our worst, unspeakable sins—was thoroughly, exhaustively satisfied as he poured it out on his innocent, beloved Son. “It is finished.” Jesus said so. Your record of guilt is expunged, your robe is spotlessly white in God’s sight (1 Cor. 1;30-31; 1 Tim. 1:12-16;  Rev. 7:13-14; 12:10-11).

Insecure people—Pastors meet (and sometimes are) people who stress incessantly over whether they have done enough, and done well enough, as spouses, as parents, as workers, and as Christians. Even the assurance of sins forgiven doesn’t alleviate the uneasy suspicion that, if we could glimpse God’s face, we would see a frown of disappointment, not a smile of delight. Insecurity fuels our feverish frenzy to do more, to meet everyone’s expectations in every arena of life. Pastors have good news to share with folks driven by insecurity: our Lord Jesus “who was delivered up for our trespasses” was also “raised for our justification” (Rom. 4:25). His resurrection not only certified that Jesus did all that God demands and deserved his Father’s approval. It also certified that his flawless record of righteousness is credited to us (2 Cor. 5:21; Phil. 3:9). Although we have not done enough or well enough, nevertheless for Jesus’ sake, God is pleased with us (Luke 12:32). And his is the only opinion that matters.

"The biblical truth of justification exposes the ugliness of our defiance toward God, the magnitude of our spiritual debt, and its dire consequences. (That’s uncomfortable.)"

Indifferent people—Others are comfortable “coasting” through life, neither opposing Jesus nor really following him. They may be “regulars” at church on Sunday, but their conversations, relationships, priorities, and decision-making are unaffected by whatever faith they may profess. Pastors have good (but uncomfortable) news to share with folks anesthetized by complacent indifference: The biblical truth of justification exposes the ugliness of our defiance toward God, the magnitude of our spiritual debt, and its dire consequences. (That’s uncomfortable.) But justification also declares that God the Son himself endured those consequences for all who trust him. When we grasp the hopeless depth of our debt and, simultaneously, God’s over-the-top forgiveness, freeing us from liability through Christ, that discovery shocks our listless hearts to life and to love (Luke 7:41-50).

Resentful people—Folks wounded by others’ insensitivity, betrayal, or cruelty often find it hard—harder than hard—to forgive, even when they realize that resentment poisons their own hearts. They need more than summons to a duty, “Forgive!” or a counselor’s advice, “Move on.” Pastors have good (humbling but heartening) news to share with people whose grievances enslave them: When we were God’s enemies, Christ died for us. So we are “justified by his blood” and “reconciled to God by the death of his Son” (Rom. 5:8-10). This gospel shows how costly forgiveness is—to the Forgiver. When we were enemies, God paid the highest price to justify us. This good news increases our obligation to forgive as we have been forgiven (Matt. 18:21-35), even as Christ’s Spirit gives us grace to absorb the cost and relinquish the right to “make them pay” (Eph. 4:32—5:2).