How Our Culture Teaches Justification by Faith Alone

Sometimes we have theological phrases in our Christian sub-culture, and it is hard to imagine how to translate them to our modern culture. “Justification by faith alone” can be one of those phrases. When was the last time you heard any non-Christian say anything remotely similar to this phrase?

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It makes sense for missionaries to learn the language of a people-group when they want to share the gospel. But how reasonable is it for us to expect non-believers to learn Christian-eze before embracing a faith that they may not be interested in?

But we can’t just give up a core doctrine like “justification by faith alone.” So what are we to do? There are many approaches to this challenge, but one is to look for places where our culture is already using a similar concept and make that a bridge.

Recently, I was listening to a lecture from David Powlison on self-esteem from the CCEF conference “Guilt & Shame.” In this lecture Dr. Powlison drew very helpful parallels to self-esteem theory as a modern, secular version of justification by faith alone.

Consider the parallel for a moment. The experience of low self-esteem is the recognition that something is wrong with life, and something needs to be done to correct this problem. The theory of self-esteem says that if an individual will accept by faith they are special and live as if this belief was true, then they will realize their full potential, flourish, and enjoy life.

We can come back and contrast the gospel with self-esteem theory in a just a moment. But before we contrast, let’s not lose the value of this broadly accepted mental paradigm that closely parallels the core Christian doctrine of “justification by faith alone.”

In the gospel we are not asking people do something bizarre that is different from the dominant strategy that our culture already uses to deal with problems of meaning, insecurity, guilt, shame, and inadequacy. We want them to accept something by faith, live as if it were true, and allow it to change their life.

The gospel does provide a stark contrast to what is being accepted by faith.

  • Self-esteem believes people are inherently good and primarily need to be affirmed.
  • The gospel believes people are born sinful and primarily need to be redeemed.
  • Self-esteem believes that change is a self-improvement project in which we should take pride.
  • The gospel believes that change is a transformation we undergo through humility.
  • Self-esteem believes that the answers for life come from within.
  • The gospel believes that Christ is the answer and came into the world to show us the way.

The list could go on and the difference in “content” between self-esteem theory and the gospel is great. But, again, that is not the primary point of this post. Clinical research over the last decade has increasingly debunked self-esteem as an “answer to the human dilemma.” If you’re interested in exploring this further, I would recommend chapter one of the seminar Finding Your Confidence, Identity, and Security in Christ.

What I have wanted to emphasize in this seminar is that the “process” of embracing self-esteem theory is similar enough to embracing the gospel that it can be a useful tool for understanding what it looks like to embrace a core doctrine of the Christian faith.

Just like it can be easier to teach a tennis player how to pitch a baseball because of similarities in a tennis serve and a pitching motion, we can help non-believers understand that even in our therapeutic culture faith is essential to change and satisfaction. Change must follow a pattern of faith, no therapeutic intervention can (or even tries to change that). It is just that Christians believe we have the correct faith and we are inviting them to consider that claim.

 

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