In the twenty-first century, there are many challenges to the doctrine of justification. In one sense, I envy the sixteenth century Reformers—John Calvin, Ulrich Zwingli, Martin Luther—because as challenging as it was to defend justification in their day, the challenge was still somewhat obvious and straightforward.
They were facing Rome—the church of the day—and the Council of Trent, who then responded to their theology. On the other side they were facing some sporadic attacks—perhaps from more radical reformers than themselves.
In the twenty-first century, though, we not only continue to face the challenge that the Reformers had with the Roman Catholic Church, but also a bigger task: It’s not just Rome, it’s not just a few radical reformers—there are many different groups out there that have a very different conception of what it means to be right with the holy God.
We not only have to know what Scripture says but we have to be able to think theologically.
One of them that immediately comes to mind is Protestant Liberalism, which was very influential in the first half, and even some of the second half, of the twentieth century. Breaking off from Protestant Liberalism was neo-orthodoxy, with huge figures like Karl Barth. Then in Europe there is the new Finnish School, a Lutheran school that has reinterpreted justification in light of different categories like union with Christ. Then, there’s the New Perspective on Paul, a very influential movement today and one that continues to be wrestled over with figures like N. T. Wright.
The point is that today we have to be prepared. We not only have to know what Scripture says, but we have to be able to think theologically. It’s not enough to simply quote Paul in Romans or Galatians, we have to have the skills to take what Paul has said and know how to respond to some of these challenges today.
As a word of encouragement—because I realize it could be actually very overwhelming to look at the challenges of this very apologetic scene in which we have to respond—the most important thing that has to be done is to simply stand our ground.
In other words, in the world’s eyes, and sometimes in the eyes of those who might take on the label of evangelical, the traditional—and what I would argue is the biblical—doctrine of justification is seen as foolishness. It’s thought of as out-of-date or old-fashioned To that, I would respond to stick with the biblical view because while it may be old, it’s still right. Not only is it right, but it’s capable and sufficient to answer any and all challenges to it to this day.