What the Doctrine of Justification Means for Facebook Fights Among Church Members?
Biblical doctrine isn’t just true, it’s practical. This is especially the case with the doctrine of justification by faith alone— sola fide. Sola fide may be the most politically powerful doctrine in the universe, I’ve argued elsewhere .
But let’s see if we can put that theory to work with something down to earth, like a Facebook fight between church members.
Church member Joe posts a snide remark on Facebook about the U.S. president’s immigration policies and the havoc his administration is creating at the border. Church member Jill takes offense at Joe’s remark and tells him he lacks compassion. Joe responds with another snide remark, now directed at Jill. She replies in kind. And so it goes, while every church member on Facebook watches.
If Joe and Jill are like most of us, they’re approaching the conversation with a mix of good and bad impulses. Maybe they genuinely care about what’s just, even if they’re making different judgments about what’s most just at the border. Yet they both have an ego to defend and a self-image to project.
A number of biblical doctrines might be usefully applied to this quarrel, but let’s apply sola fide. It’ll help to think about sola fide both objectively (what Christ accomplished) and subjectively (what this means for our motivations).
THE OBJECTIVE WORK OF JUSTIFICATION
God’s justification of Joe and Jill is a covenantal verdict that placed them in right standing before his throne as well as in a right standing before each other. A judge’s declaration “not guilty” doesn’t just clear you before the judge, it clears you before the prosecuting attorney, the bailiff, the courthouse janitor, the city mayor, the local grocer, indeed, the whole city. Though fundamentally vertical since it’s God’s law that we’ve broken, the impact and work of God’s justifying word is also horizontal. It acts as the “legal” grounds of our covenantal unity with each other.
So, again, God’s word of justification unites Joe and Jill objectively before God and each other. Neither is more just than the other. And neither can say to the other, “You don’t belong here among God’s kingdom citizens.”
THE SUBJECTIVE WORK
Yet that objective word of justification will also do subjective work in each of them, and it does this in two ways.
First, it removes their grounds for boasting (Rom. 3:27). Both know they are positively unjust and that their standing depends upon a vicarious righteousness. They cannot lord it over the other. They have no right to be snide with each other. Plus, they don’t need to defend their own egos or virtue posture before the whole Facebook audience. They’re freed up from those self-justifying and self-posturing worries. Now they can seek what’s truly good, including what’s good for the other person.
Which connects to the second point of subjective significance. Even as God’s objective word of justification removes their grounds for boasting, it also encourages their interest in justice, not just at the U.S. border but everywhere. God’s word of justification doesn’t do away with the value of his law. “Oh, this law doesn’t matter. We can ignore it.” Just the opposite. God’s word of justification affirms the law. It says the law’s standards must be met. The justifier is just (Rom. 3:26). Therefore, as two justified, Spirit-filled Christians, Joe and Jill understandably get their hackles up about different political issues, even if they draw different conclusions about them. Their justification taught them the value of justice. Justified people care about justice.
What, then, are the takeaway lessons that sola fide hands us for this Facebook fight? In short, it teaches us they’re having a good conversation, but they’re having it in the wrong way.
If you’re their pastor, encourage them for having a conversation about matters of justice. That’s excellent.
Yet also remind them of
- their shared indictment before God and their shared justification in Christ;
- their equality in their justification;
- their lack of grounds for boasting;
- their freedom from having to justify themselves any longer by winning an argument;
- their freedom to admit they “don’t actually know everything,” and that they might actually have something to learn from the other person;
- their freedom from proving themselves before the watching crowd;
- their call to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the body of peace, even as they work through disagreements.
Remind them they are fellow citizens of Christ’s kingdom, that it’s his kingdom they care most about, and so any good conversations about the kingdoms of this world must always be done with a view to disciple-making and citizenship-training.
See how much sola fide has to say practically?
If you’re not convinced, just imagine an alternative universe with another God who asks us to earn our justification. What could be said to the Facebook fight then? It would make sense that Joe might condemn Jill, and Jill might condemn Joe. It would be a universe where the most just Facebooker should win.