People who take the trouble to think of themselves as “Protestant”—as heirs of the Reformation—are likely to be of the view that the doctrine of justification by faith sits right at the heart of their religious identity. But what sort of thing is “justification by faith”? What does it look like? What does it do? In an interview on the Gospel Coalition website Tom Schreiner provides a standard definition:
Justification by faith alone means that we stand in the right before God by faith instead of on the basis of our works. In the classical Protestant formulation of the doctrine, justification doesn’t mean make righteous, but rather declare righteous…. The righteousness of Christ is imputed to us by faith so that our forgiveness of sins and righteousness are gifts of God.The doctrine explains how a person is saved. It has no real application outside of this basic existential requirement. It doesn’t connect with anything else out there in the world. We may suppose, as Schreiner does, that the fruit of justification by faith is to be found in good works. But Reformed theologians generally take great care not to allow practical outcomes to intrude upon and disturb a formula which has the cosmic simplicity of e=mc2. You don’t meddle with the formula—it’s a matter of eternal life or death.
But let’s consider a very different way of using the language of “justification by faith”. We might say, for example, that the outcome of the recent Labour Party leadership election in the UK has justified the belief of Jeremy Corbyn’s supporters that his nomination was not in vain. Or that the small number of Members of Parliament who expressed confidence in him at the start of the campaign can now claim to have been in the right. This means, among other things, that they are likely to be rewarded by Corbyn—for example, they may be given a post in the shadow cabinet. Their faith has put them in a good relationship with him . . .
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