About seventeen years ago, I reached a place in my faith where I began to ask questions. To make a long story short, I was becoming a little disenchanted with evangelicalism. I was homeschooling at the time, and my own intellectual curiosity stirred questions in my mind. After reading Mark Noll's The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, I began asking more questions.
I had been baptized as a Catholic, although the only real instruction I had was when my parents made me attend mass as a teen because I was planning to become a Mormon. In my desire to know truth, I thought to myself, "Am I wrong to just dismiss Catholicism?" I had come to see that evangelicalism often misrepresents Catholicism, and I wondered if I had got it wrong. I started searching. At the same time, I knew that my own attitude lacked grace and I wanted to understand more about that. Looking at a Ligonier catalogue, I ended up buying R.C. Sproul's What is Reformed Theology (at that time, it was called Grace Unknown). It was there that I was introduced to the Reformed doctrine of justification, and specifically, its relationship to sanctification.
In my study of Catholicism, I had learned that justification is progressive. One can be more or less justified, and there is a heavy emphasis on works, especially the sacraments. I was a little uneasy about this, because it just didn't seem right to me, although I could not explain exactly why. Once I began reading about justification through Sproul's book, and through more extensive searching in Scripture, it became clearer to me: justification is a positional reality, although it has wide-reaching implications. We stand before God being right in his sight through the blood of Christ. It is sanctification which is progressive, as we become more and more conformed to Christ. Roman Catholicism merges the two rather than viewing them as separate occurrences.
If we have a wrong understanding of justification, we will struggle. We will attempt to do good so that we may "feel" more justified. There is no deeper level of justification; we either stand before God justified or we don't. Sanctification, however, is a different matter. We are sanctified over our entire lifetime. And it is something done by the Holy Spirit, although we must yield to the will of the Spirit ourselves. This reality that there is nothing I can "do" to be more justified has been very helpful, and understanding the gradual process of sanctification has helped me, I hope, be more gracious about the whole process.
Of course, I'm still learning about sanctification, and even this past semester in my Systematic Theology class, I realized that there is much to learn about the balance between these two doctrines. I will always be thankful that I was directed to Sproul's book, because it answered a crucial question in my life, even if I'm still learning.
I grew up in a Christian home. I believe God saved me as child, but for decades I didn't understand what I believed or why I believed it. Because of this lack, I thought the gospel was baby stuff to get me in the door. Then the rest was up to me. This was terrifying when I began to realize how weak I was in myself. I had a dread of denying Christ if I faced persecution, but I also feared His coming because I thought I would only be received by God if I achieved a certain level of spirituality. Needless to say, I didn't have much assurance.
I had begun attending a Reformed Baptist Church 9 years ago and slowly began to understand that the gospel was much more than the truncated version I used to believe. I also began listening to lectures on theology, one of which was R.C. Sproul's series - What is Reformed Theology?. I loaded the talks on my IPod and listened to them while raking leaves in the fall of 2010 when the heavens parted, as it were, and the doctrine of imputation clicked. Sproul asked, why was it necessary for Jesus to come to earth as an infant? Why didn't He just show up as a man, die on the cross, and then go back to glory? What was the point? If Jesus only died for our sins and exited this world, our sin debt would be paid but we would still lack a perfect righteousness that was required by God. We needed both - atonement for sin and a perfect record before God. And praise God, Christ has done both. He took the record of our sins and bore their just punishment on our behalf on the cross. But that's not all. He lived a perfect, righteous, and holy life, and His record is credited or imputed to us. God can now declare us righteous in His sight because both requirements have been fulfilled. As Sproul said,
"In the final analysis, the only way that any person is ever justified before God is by works. We are saved by works, and we are saved by works alone. Don't touch that dial..."What?!
"[W]hen I say that we are justified by works and by works alone, what do I mean by it? I mean that the grounds of my justification and the grounds of your justification are the perfect works of Jesus Christ. We're saved by works but they are not our own. That's why we say we're saved by faith, and we're saved by grace, because the works that save us aren't our works, they're Somebody else's works."This is such a comfort to me because I still sin as a believer. I sometimes doubt whether God fully accepts me. But I don't need to despair because I don't look to myself or my record. I can point to the perfect work of Jesus Christ in His death and life and rest in what He has done. As Dr. Tom Ascol writes, "If justification is the heart of the gospel, then imputation is the heart of justification." And it is beautiful.
When God created the first human beings, he made them in his image—or, to put it another way, he created them to represent him in his creation. He gave them a mandate to “be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth” (Genesis 1:26-28).
These truths from the creation story stands behind the doctrine of vocation—the teaching that all human work, unless it is immoral, is a calling from God. Understanding the doctrine of vocation has transformed my thinking about the work I do, and the work others do, too. This doctrine not a first order one, I suppose, but it has influenced both my thought and my practice significantly over the past few years.
According to the doctrine of vocation, all human tasks have meaning and dignity, even the mundane ones, because when we work, we represent God. He stands hidden behind every job we do and accomplishes his providential care for his creation through us. Or, as Martin Luther put it, our tasks are “masks of God.”
For example, this past weekend I dog sat for my daughter and her husband. I took care of their dog and my own, feeding, watering, and walking them both. These are small, seemingly unimportant chores, but the doctrine of vocation teaches me that they are significant to God. I was representing him by protecting and providing for two of his creatures.
As I vacuumed the floors this morning, I also wore a “mask of God.” He maintained my home—a place where dogs, grandchildren, and others thrive—through my work. And the mail carrier who just delivered the parcel with a few boxes of noodles and a jar of pea butter imaged God by providing food for me. What's more, as my son tilled my garden this afternoon, he was representing God by preparing the soil to grow food to sustain my family and me.
The doctrine of vocation helps me do my work—the work God calls me to do, both big jobs and small ones—joyfully, and reminds me to thank God for the work he gives me—and everyone else—to do.
The Lord saved me later in life through a fairly radical conversion out of the kingdom of darkness and death. Such stark and dramatic changes wrought by the Lord in my life provided the fertile soil on which the doctrines of grace, God's sovereignty, and regeneration of the Holy Spirit took hold quickly. I can remember how learning the basics of Reformed Theology made more sense in those early years than anything I'd heard before. Yet, it took a bit longer before I'd hear about what might be the most pivotal doctrine in forming my life as a Christian: The Doctrine of Adoption.
Adoption expounds upon grace and explains how an unworthy sinner such as myself, could not only be bestowed with grace upon grace (John 1:16), but also granted full admission to the family of God (John 1:12). Having been adopted by well-meaning natural parents, I never felt that I fit in or fully belonged to my parent's legacy, my sibling's inheritance, or the genealogy of extended family. Therefore, I take the wondrous and beautiful privilege of being called a full-fledged, beloved child of God (Ephesians 5:1) to heart. As believers, we are true members of God's eternal family (Titus 3:7) and co-heirs in Christ to the glorious inheritance that He has already bought and keeps for us in heaven, to the praise of His glory (Ephesians 1:7-12).
Nick Batzig does a great job conveying the personal significance adoption by our Heavenly Father. He describes justification as how "we're taken to God's law court as guilty criminals and dismissed as pardoned and righteous." Furthermore, in adoption, Batzig explains, "We are taken from the law court to the living room." In other words: from an enemy and child of wrath to a beloved child of promise. "In love He predestined us for adoption to himself as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of His glorious grace" (Ephesians 1:5-6).
Perhaps I struggle more than most Christians with slipping into feeling and thinking like an orphan, an alien, or the outcast. And perhaps we all struggle with this mindset. The doctrine of adoption is the truth that moves us out of the bondage of fear and performance, and sets our minds on the Father's love and care for us. "For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God. For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, “Abba! Father!” By the Spirit, we have the assurance and promise that no matter what trial or suffering we endure in this life, God has promised his unfailing love to His children. "For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord."
What a glorious picture of the Lord's unfailing, loving Fatherly care!