A Place to Stand
2017 sees the 500th anniversary of the launch of the Reformation. To mark that anniversary, Primer issue 04 is on the doctrine of justification. It’s published this weekend and we asked David Shaw to give us an introduction.
Martin Luther’s introduction to his Commentary on Romans describes it as follows:
“It can never be read or pondered on too much and the more it is dealt with, the more precious it becomes and the better it tastes.”
But it’s not all good news. As Luther laments, Paul’s letter has also been “evilly darkened by commentaries and all kinds of idle talk.”
Romans then: delicious, but disputed. And we might say the very same things about the doctrine of justification.
We chose it as a topic for Primer issue 04 because the more it is dealt with, the more precious it becomes and the better it tastes. It is a delicious doctrine, one that speaks to us of a God who justifies the ungodly, who welcomes sinners. And it is a transformative doctrine, inviting us to extend the same welcome to others that we have experienced from God.
But justification is also the subject of all kinds of idle talk and has been evilly darkened over the centuries. For that reason, one of the great slogans of the Reformation was post tenebras lux – “after the darkness, light.”
And so, in this anniversary year, celebrating 500 years since Luther launched the Protestant Reformation, we also want to help churches to understand their roots and to preserve and protect the truth of the gospel. That means understanding the context of the Reformation and it means understanding something of the ongoing debates about justification.
So with those things in mind, let me introduce you to Primer issue 04:
Matthew Barrett gives us a bird’s eye view of church history from Augustine to Luther, focussing on the ways in which grace and justification are understood. Along the way we meet some of the key figures – Pelagius, Aquinas, Gabriel Biel – who help make sense of the Reformation. What becomes clear is that the debates are really about human nature. To what extent are we able to win God’s favour or activate his blessing? These are vital issues and Matthew carefully guides us through them.
We then move forward to the 17th century with an extract from John Owen. “The Prince of Puritans” was a great champion of justification and defended it in his day against several challenges. Anyone interested in Christian theology ought to read some John Owen sometime, but he is a challenging read. As ever though, we want you to make some old friends by reading Primer and so we have Paul Gibson introducing John Owen and annotating the extract to help you navigate it. There is gold in them there hills, and Paul helps us to see how precious it is.
Next up we have Gregg Allison, a leading authority on contemporary Roman Catholicism, helping us understand whether the Reformation is still relevant to how Protestants and Catholics relate. He carefully lays out both positions and highlights a number of ongoing and significant differences.
Yet more challenges to the Reformed doctrine of justification have emerged in recent decades. There is what’s known as the New Perspective (made popular by former bishop Tom Wright) which argues that we have wrongly projected 16th century questions about individual sinners and their guilty consciences back onto the 1st century.
Within New Testament scholarship there are others wanting to argue that Paul combines Protestant and Catholic ideas, or that our whole conception of God as a God of retributive justice punishing sinners needs re-thinking.
These might seem like irrelevant debates to many of us, but these ideas filter down and are being embraced more and more widely. Of course we don’t need to know all the intricacies of the debates and that’s why we asked David Starling to sift through them, drawing out what gospel workers need to know and what we can learn. As someone who spends a lot of his time working in this area, I can tell you David’s done a great job here – it’s really worth strapping in and digesting his argument.
Finally we have two articles that help us put justification to work in the local church. I’ve written a piece trying to explore what difference justification makes to how we live and then Steve Timmis serves up some more gold, answering some of our questions about how to think about, teach and illustrate justification by faith in ways that connect and engage.
A Place to Stand is now available from The Good Book Company. Buy it now.
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