Over the past few years I have grown increasingly concerned about the state of evangelicalism. There has been a rapid decline of doctrinal integrity, and evangelical churches throughout the country have lost their theological bearings, especially regarding the doctrine of justification. According to the sixteenth-century Protestant Reformer Martin Luther, justification is the doctrine upon which the church stands or falls. If Luther was right, and indeed he was, many churches have fallen by the wayside. No longer do such churches preach justification by grace alone through faith alone because of Christ alone; rather, they preach justification by association.
The general appeal of the evangelical church is just this: eternal salvation is granted to anyone who will associate himself with Jesus. Often, the reasoning of such evangelical pastors goes something like this: “If only we can get people into our churches by whatever means possible, then maybe we can get them to like us, especially if we run our churches like big corporations and implement all sorts of cool programs that are purpose-driven. Then maybe, if we can get them in, and if we can get them to like us, then just maybe we can get them to like Jesus.” This, in a word, is the twenty-first century doctrine of justification by association — what a novel concept.
While many evangelical churches have not rejected outrightly the historic doctrine of justification, they have deliberately put it aside. What’s the use, they say, to speak of justification in terms of God’s imputation of Christ’s righteousness to sinners and the imputation of man’s sins to Christ?
Why get so complicated about things when all we need to do is associate ourselves with Jesus?
Does this type of reasoning sound familiar? Is this not reasonable? Isn’t it a good thing to associate ourselves with Jesus? Yes, of course it is a good thing to associate ourselves with Jesus. However, association with Jesus does not clear the guilt of depraved sinners, and it does not make anyone righteous.
We are commanded not simply to associate ourselves with Jesus, we are commanded to fall down at His feet and worship Him as our Lord and our God. We have not been called merely to shake His hand and befriend Him, we have been called to love and serve Him sacrificially.
We are justified by the grace of God through faith in Jesus Christ our Lord. This is divine association: God the Father has chosen us before the foundation of the world (Eph. 1:4); God the Son has redeemed us by His perfect life and death (Heb. 9:15–22); God the Spirit has regenerated our hearts, enlightened our minds, and sealed us in Him forever (Rom. 8:1). It is by grace that we have been saved — by the divine association of our triune God.
The apostle Paul is clear about the means God uses for our salvation. In Romans 10, amidst his teaching on God’s election of His people, Paul explains that God has ordained the preaching of the Gospel as the primary means of salvation. That is to say, God sends preachers in order to proclaim the Good News of Jesus Christ, which is the power of God unto salvation for all who believe (Rom. 1:16). Therefore, we are to be intentional indeed about proclaiming the Gospel throughout the world, but we should not make the mistake in thinking that the salvation of sinners depends upon our clever gimmicks in getting people into our churches so that they might like us, and, by association, like Jesus.
God has established the means just as He has established the ends. And He is sovereignly working in His people both to will and to work for His good pleasure (Phil. 2:13).
Justification by association is a doctrine that has developed as a result of fuzzy theology. Fuzzy theology is not dogmatic, and it is not established by the unchanging Word of God; rather, it consists of theology formulated by compromise. Fuzzy theology has a fundamental principle: We can believe whatever we want to believe as long as what we believe does not offend anyone, as long as it affirms nice things about Jesus, and as long as it doesn’t divide.
Nevertheless, I admit that I am guilty by association — I am a child of Adam, and, in him, I have sinned (Rom. 5:12). By my very nature I am guilty. However, on account of the divine association of the triune God, I am no longer guilty, I have been declared righteous. I have been granted the ability to hear the Gospel; I have been given the humble meekness to fall down at the feet of Jesus Christ and worship Him alone in repentance and faith. I have been declared righteous by the omnipotent Creator of the universe, and I have been sealed forever by the Holy Spirit who lives within me sustaining my faith and pricking my conscience.
Our Lord is just, and He is the Justifier of all those for whom Jesus Christ has died. It is upon His truth that the church stands or falls, and by His grace we stand before Him forever righteous.