In leading a Bible study at my church on the Westminster Confession of Faith, we spent some time examining chapter eleven which deals with justification. Before this particular study, I read from a commentary on the confession by Doug Kelly, John Gerstner, and Phil Rollinson. They argue that there are three ways we can view justification. I summarize them as religion, irreligion, and gospel.
A religious viewpoint uses the formula: Faith + Works -> Justification. Kelly and co. identify this as the Roman Catholic position (according to both Trent and Vatican II). Faith, piety, and grace are good and necessary for justification, but they are sufficient or all-pervasive. Works is not a result of justification, but the instrument (or even the grounds) of justification.
The irreligious perspective’s formula is the following: Works – Faith -> Justification. Of course, Hitler will never be justified, but most Western people can be (along with the marginalized in third-world countries). However, faith and piety play no role in justification. They are optional.
The gospel formula is radically different: Faith -> Justification +works. God’s grace and the gift of faith are sufficient for justification, apart from works. Yet, true works and servanthood follow from the initial act of God’s pardon and acceptance.
At my father’s memorial service, I spoke about this last formula of justification over the first two. Afterwards, a friend respectfully articulated his disagreement with me as he espoused the irreligious perspective on justification. According to him, all of us (including my dad) are justified and accepted based on “being a good person” and “having it all together” regardless of faith.
I love this individual, and we were able to respect each other’s viewpoint even while disagreeing. Still, I can help but wonder, Why is the irreligious option better than the gospel? How is it more hopeful? It is similar to any major world religion which sees justification as man seeking to attain the favor of the Divine rather than the Divine seeking man according to His own favor. In other words, I live a life of doubt and guilt, not knowing whether I am justified.
The gospel trumps religion and irreligion. Its justification offers true redemption and is unique among all ideologies and philosophies. Pure grace. Unmerited favor.
The question is, are we selfless and humble enough to throw off our own accomplishment and success and give God the credit for justification? In the end, it is our only hope.