Most people in evangelical Protestant-dom are disturbingly unfamiliar with the doctrine of justification by faith alone, even though we claim it as the basis for everything we do. Evangelicals of virtually all stripes have abandoned the Gospel; some in favor of strict rules and moralism, others in favor of “Biblically-based” principles of better living. The popular view is that justification is something God does on his end while sanctification is what we do on our end; in other words, the Gospel got us in the door but now we must figure out how to live this thing out.
Horton begins by taking us back all the way to the days of John Wesley and Charles Finney. Wesley was disturbed by the Calvinistic elements that remained in the Church of England of his day; he saw them as a barrier to personal piety and committed discipleship. While he accepted justification, he believed that it must take a backseat to sanctification or else it would lead to licentiousness. Meanwhile, over in America, Finney went way beyond anything that Rome ever preached back in medieval times. He taught that the church is a society of moral reformers and that each individual sinner has complete control over his/her regeneration in Christ. Finney even went so far as to deny the doctrine of original sin and to regard the idea of justification by means of an imputed righteousness as “impossible and absurd”.
But the real problem nowadays is not that anyone is denying the doctrine of justification, but rather that people are just not talking about it. Who needs justification when we stop talking about our most pressing problem in life, which is that we are “sinners in the hands of an angry God”? Who needs justification when our most pressing problems in life are how to raise good kids, how to improve the quality of our marriages (or for some of us, how to get married), how to find some fresh advice to help us get more out of life? When people see themselves not as lost sinners who are spiritually dead, but as slightly dysfunctional but well-meaning “victims” who just need empowerment and better instructions–and that is by far the prevailing view in society and even in the church–it is no wonder that no one talks about justification anymore.
Horton responds by saying that justification is not just the first step of the Christian life, rather it is the wellspring of everything we do and everything we can ever possibly hope to do as Christians. Martin Luther summarized it like this: ” ‘Because you believe in me,’ God says, ‘and your faith takes hold of Christ, whom I have freely given to you as your Justifier and Savior, therefore be righteous.’ Thus God accepts you or accounts you righteous only on account of Christ, in whom you believe.” This alone creates the kind of faith that can produce true sanctification and good works that are truly pleasing to God.