it’s controversial I know…

But that’s hardly stopped me before, has it?



In the spirit of the various ’round ups’ of College mission being posted around the place (like this or this), let me make an observation and follow it with a slightly controversial suggestion.

First, the observation: many of our gospel presentations — in Bible studies, talks and private conversations — focus on justification by faith not human effort.

Now, there’s lots going for this. We’re rightly keen to maintain that God saves us from beginning to end by his grace. But questions have been raised (and not just on mission) about whether this almost exclusive focus really reflects the biblical emphasis or whether its more indicative of debates current in Sixteenth Century Europe.

Here’s the slightly controversial suggestion: Could it be that we’re fighting the wrong battles? Are we hung up on old debates, while the questions people are asking and thus the sharp edges of the gospel of Jesus as it addresses our culture have shifted? (OK, so Geoff beat me to the punch here by a couple of days.)

Before I’m misheard — if it’s not already too late! — let me be clear about what I’m not saying: The denial of merit theology — the attempt to earn salvation through ethical performance — is definitely an implication of the gospel of salvation by grace alone.

What I’m asking is if it’s quite true that merit and achievement (and ultimately the attempt to earn salvation) is the abiding concern of everyday people today. More significantly, I wonder if it’s the sole — or even the central — concern against which the NT authors carve out the doctrine of salvation in Christ alone. Might not identity perhaps be the more central concern in both contexts?

Take Romans 4 for example — a favourite text at many a Moore College mission because of its apparent contrast between ‘do’ and ‘done’ religion, our efforts to be justified by ‘works’ and God’s gracious achievement for us in Jesus, which we appropriate by faith. Michael Bird (The Saving Righteousness of God, p 73) has some astute and nicely balanced word on this:

It is genuinely tempting to say that these “works” [mentioned towards the start of the passage] refer to acts of personal righteousness completed prior to the giving of the law, rendered plausible by the contrast of gift and debt in vv. 4-5. But that is only half the story. For in Paul’s epistles “law” and “works of the law” ordinarily signifies the Mosaic legislation. Moreover, Paul is refuting the view that Abraham was justified by keeping the law in protological form, constructing his argument along redemptive-historical lines (cf. Gal. 3.17) rather than offering an atemporal treatise [on] why good deeds cannot save.

While it would be going to far to replace ethics with ethnicity, it’s worth recognising how closely linked they are in Paul’s thinking. As Bird goes on to explain (p 74), ‘It is […] the social and soteriological function of the law (which circumcision supremely represents) that Paul confronts as demonstrative of his thesis: justification by faith alone’.

My suggestion is that the trope of identity might best accommodate both these dimensions. What’s more, it may well open up for us some exciting and incisive new ways to proclaim Christ. Isn’t it worth working on how to do this so that his universal claim as Lord — and his gracious promise as Saviour — speaks powerfully and directly into the lives of the practical atheist, the Muslim, the vaguely spiritual multicultural liberal and the angst-ridden emo kid?


  1. Nice post! I think you’re onto something. We often stick to the one biblical metaphor: justification by faith, but in speaking of salvation the Bible gives us so many others: new life (regeneration), rescue from slavery (redemption), personal change (sanctification), family (adoption) etc. When there are so many great ways to explain to the gospel available to us, why restrict ourselves to the one!

    1. Hi Nathan,

      Thanks for the thought. I think you’re bang on. But I guess I do understand why justification by faith receives such emphasis. In terms of how we Protestants have traditionally viewed salvation, justification is one point where it is unequivocally a matter of God’s gracious initiative and action (whereas sanctification, for example, tends to automatically associate in our heads with our contribution/co-operation/participation). Of course, I actually think that all of the metaphors you mention are ‘positional’ and definitive in much the same way as justification has been understood since (at least) Luther.

  2. Thanks for the thought Chris. I feel like I’ve not understood you fully and the implications here. Can you explain this for me some more?
    How does using identity as the primary category help me better explain who Christ is, what Christ has done and what it means for us?

    I’m afraid I’m ignorant of what ‘the trope of identity’ means in this context… ???

    You seem to be addressing a slightly different issue than that of the relationship of biblical metaphors raised by Nathan. Or have I misread you… (Hobby Horse alert: I’ve got 15000 words on biblical metaphors on the atonement on its way. God willing.)

    1. Very astute, Bek. I’m not sure I fully understand the implications yet either! But I think you’re right that I’m raising bigger questions than those raised by Nathan (although not certainly excluding them).

      I guess I’m wondering about what we should do with the fact that the gospel of salvation by grace in Christ alone cuts against not only human inability — or the bankruptcy of human effort when it comes to achieving/meriting salvation — but also the ‘sociological’ one of which group (ethnic or otherwise) one belongs to. This is why I’m asking whether it might be possible to organise and gather together both the ‘horizontal’ and the ‘vertical’ dimensions of this under the heading of ‘identity’ (which I labelled a trope out of caution, not wanting to claim too soon that this is reality). Does that help?

  3. Thanks Chris. I guess at this stage my question is whether identity is the best controlling category. I guess in that kind of schema the primary questions would be along the lines of, Who is Jesus? Who am I?

    Those are good questions to ask. The who question feels more holistic than noting ‘am I justified?’ But my feeling is that the who question depends on Christ’s accomplishment applied to me. So my identity is closely tied to who Jesus is and his accomplishments applied to me.

    Is the who primary and Christ’s benefits a subsequent and dependent area of thought?
    Is the matter of Christ’s benefits in some way prior to my identity?
    Are the two tied so closely together that we’re arguing over meaningless straws of ‘those who are in Christ are Justified’ and ‘those who are Justified are in Christ’?
    Is raising the who question helpful in a polemic setting where it has been forgotten but still noting that you can’t overplay it at the expense of the other?

    I feel like I’ve broadened you’re matter of ethnicity through identity to a more generic ‘who’. I’m not sure if that’s where you’d want to go or you’d like to tie it more closely to the who’s in the covenant ethnicity debates?


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s