In our last issue of “Having This Ministry…” we introduced a new series of publications entitled Historical Evaluations of Christian Thought. The first volume in the series, Challenging the Traditional Interpretations of Justification by Faith, Part 1 (hereafter, Challenging), is now available in print and eBook formats. In this article we give readers a closer look at that first volume and the topic it evaluates.
Justification by faith—or what this ministry often refers to as objective justification—is a familiar topic in the history of Christian thought and is very much appreciated by us in the Lord’s recovery. Brother Nee and Brother Lee strongly affirmed that justification is by faith, and they credited Martin Luther for recovering this great truth at the beginning of the Protestant Reformation. As Brother Lee points out, it was God’s wisdom that justification by faith was the first item to be recovered in God’s great work of recovery:
The first item that the Lord recovered was justification by faith. To recover this item, God used Martin Luther. It was the wisdom of God that this item was recovered first, because justification is the foundation of everything. For God to have a work of recovery on this earth, He had to begin with justification by faith. Every other item of recovery that followed is founded on this first item of recovery. (CWWL, 1963, vol. 3, “The Lord’s Recovery of the Full Practice of the Church Life,” p. 572)
As the foundational item of recovery, justification by faith is indispensable to a proper understanding of God’s full salvation. But Brother Lee expressed his concern that not many saints in the Lord’s recovery were equipped to give a proper word on justification. Speaking in Taiwan in 1984, he said:
There are approximately forty-five thousand saints in Taiwan. However, of these forty-five thousand, are there even four hundred fifty who can give a clear, thorough, and logical word concerning the truth of justification that would supply light and life to others? I am afraid that not even forty-five saints can speak such a word. You may think that I am being too pessimistic and that instead we should be optimistic and appreciative of our work. If we think this, can we say that there are forty to fifty saints attending the training who can speak concerning justification? Yet we still may consider this to be too elementary and instead want to speak on something higher, such as the twelve precious stones. We need to lay a firm foundation in our education in the Lord’s recovery. We must begin with the most basic spiritual matters. (CWWL, 1984, vol. 4, “Crucial Words of Leading in the Lord’s Recovery, Book 3: The Future of the Lord’s Recovery and the Building Up of the Organic Service,” pp. 79-80)
We receive Brother Lee’s fellowship as pertinent to us today. Thus, to help readers have a clear understanding of justification by faith and its role in God’s full salvation, chapter 1 of Challenging offers a thorough presentation of the Bible’s teaching concerning this crucial truth and then demonstrates Brother Nee and Brother Lee’s exposition of it with excerpts from their published ministry. Chapter 1 presents the following overview of justification by faith:
God has given Christ as righteousness, sanctification, and redemption to the believers for their full salvation in all its aspects, and of these three, Christ has been given to them as righteousness for their justification. Through God’s infusion into them, the believers are joined to the Christ whom they believe into, and He becomes, among many other things, their righteousness before God. In themselves, apart from Christ, the believers have no righteousness that God can accept for their justification, but through the faith that God has infused into them they are one with the Christ who is righteousness in Himself as both God and man. Since they are inseparable from Christ as righteousness, God accepts the believers in their union with Him and justifies them because they have Him as their righteousness. Thus, justification is God’s accounting Christ as the believers’ righteousness because of their faith, that is, their union with Him. (Challenging, p. 12)
This understanding, which emphasizes the believers’ organic union with Christ as the righteousness of God, serves as the standard by which the teaching of justification by faith in the historic Christian traditions is evaluated. As this volume demonstrates, the teaching of justification has a long and varied history dating back to the early church, and it is much more substantial (and fascinating!) than many readers may realize.
The second chapter of Challenging gives a concise look at contemporary understandings of justification by faith in the major Christian traditions and traces the history of the doctrine from the early church to modern times. These overviews introduce readers to key debates in the teaching of justification and provide the broad historical context for the detailed evaluations that follow in subsequent chapters.
Chapter 3 evaluates the teaching of justification by faith in the patristic era, that is, the second through sixth centuries AD, commonly known as the period of the so-called church fathers. While these early writers concentrated much of their effort on solidifying and defending the truths concerning the Trinity and the person of Christ against various heresies, they devoted less attention to the largely uncontested notion of justification. That is not to say, however, that there was no discernible teaching of justification in the patristic period. The early teachers of the church had much more to say concerning justification than is commonly recognized today. A lack of clarity sometimes led to errant understandings, which this chapter addresses, but the main lines of a doctrine of justification had already taken shape in this early period.
Chapter 4 focuses on the medieval era, which saw the introduction of further error but also discernible progress in the understanding of justification. The medieval church maintained the ancient view that salvation can be lost, and over the course of the medieval period confidence in the permanence of the justified state gradually eroded. Further, particularly in the later centuries of the medieval period, many prominent theologians and preachers taught that the believers can and must merit justification by their own resources apart from the grace of God. These medieval developments put justification much more on the minds of medieval Christian teachers than it had been on the minds of teachers in the early church. But despite these and other mistakes, medieval writers made progress by seeing the connection between justification and union with Christ.
Chapter 5 comes to the pivotal figure of Martin Luther, who was raised up by the Lord to clear up much of the confusion that had been sown during the medieval period and to turn the church in a new direction in its understanding of justification by faith. Luther’s own views shifted and changed, sometimes for the better and sometimes for the worse, but he rightly heralded justification and admirably championed faith, bringing both to the attention of the Christian church and making it impossible henceforth to ignore either matter. But we must recognize that Luther’s understanding of justification, his understanding of faith, and his understanding of the relationship between justification and faith fall short. Nonetheless, in Luther we see the great beginning of the recovery of justification by faith that would continue to influence the church in the centuries to come.
An epilogue to part 1 rounds out the volume by summing up the conclusions therein and pointing to part 2 of this study, which will evaluate the teaching of justification by faith after Luther and to the modern day. As a helpful summation of the issues at stake, the epilogue highlights our stance on the history of Christian thought, which can most succinctly be stated as the steadily progressing understanding of the one, constant truth of the Scriptures. This historiographical motif, so to speak, is evident in part 1 and will be evident in the volumes to follow.
It is our earnest desire that part 1 will help the saints to gain a deeper appreciation for the wonder of justification by faith, to understand the errors and the progress that have been made in the centuries-long struggle for clarity concerning this great truth, and to help others into a proper understanding so that they can be assured of their objective justification and advance in the growth in life. We are also burdened that this work will generate profitable discussion among Christians, including theologians and Bible teachers, who do not meet with us. We are grateful for what the Lord has done to initiate this new series of publications, and we encourage you to read and benefit from this first volume. For further information, please see preciousfromworthless.com.