(The following is the next entry in a 31-day blog journey through John Piper’s, Brothers, We Are Not Professionals: A Plea to Pastors for a Radical Ministry [Broadman and Holman, 2002.])
“Preaching and living justification by faith alone glorifies Christ, rescues hopeless sinners, emboldens imperfect saints, and strengthens fragile churches. It is a stunning truth—that God justifies the ungodly by faith. ‘To the one who does not work but trusts him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness’ (Rom. 4:5). History bears witness: the preaching of this truth creates, reforms, and revives the church” (17-18).
It is not surprising that a chapter on the article on which the church stands or falls should be a mostly lengthy chapter toward the front of Piper’s charge to pastors, given the recent controversies surrounding justification by faith and the imputation of Christ’s righteousness. If justification by faith as a “verdict delivered by God in a moment” is lost, all of the security of our people would be demolished. For instead we would have to preach justification by our works—the keeping of the law, which is an effort doomed to failure, for the law is unable to be kept. Members of our congregations never could be sure if any one of them had done enough to merit God’s righteousness, and thus salvation. Or, worse, some could have a false assurance of righteousness and boast before God about what they have brought to their own salvation. As Calvin has said, “wherever the knowledge of [justification by faith alone] is taken away, the glory of Christ is extinguished, religion abolished, the Church destroyed, and the hope of salvation utterly overthrown” (22).
Justification by faith is the friend of the non-professional shepherd. It keeps us from preaching a message that makes good out of ungodliness and then calling it salvation. We will not have to become amateur artists who twist polished scrap metal into a figure now deemed “art,” but that is not art—at least not in the eyes of a professional artist. The Divine Sculptor has made us into a masterpiece of artwork in Christ alone (cf. Eph 2:10). Knowing this, we can offer the following message of hope to saints struggling to be righteous:
Christ offers you [justification] today as a gift. If you see him as true and precious, if you receive the gift as your greatest treasure in life and trust in it, you will have peace with God that passes all understanding. You will be a secure person. You will not need the approval of others. You will not need the ego supports of wealth or power or revenge. You will be free. You will overflow with love. You will lay down you life in the cause of Christ for the joy that is set before you. Look to Christ and trust him for your righteousness” (32).
As shepherds we have a message that will untwist the scrap that sheep have made of their lives by their own righteousness: Christ has worked for us; we are declared righteous when faith is reckoned to us.