Power-Off the Projector for the Doctrine of Justification

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Let us move beyond the milk and onto solid food — the meat of biblical, creedal, confessional theology in our preaching.

Recently, I reflected on the need for preachers to proclaim and explain and defend the truth of the triunity of God.[1] It is the “catholic faith,” in the words of the Athanasian Creed, without which “...there is no salvation.” The deity of Christ and the triunity of God are non-negotiable, but evangelical preachers have failed to maintain the necessity of these sacred and defining doctrines from Holy Scripture. So much so, that Christological and Trinitarian controversies have been endemic within American evangelicalism in recent decades.[2] The only remedy to this malady, I maintain, is to proclaim, explain, and defend the truth concerning God and God in Christ and to do so from the pulpit. I make an urgent plea for catechetical preaching. If preachers fail to get the doctrine of God and the deity of Christ right, then the Gospel may be assumed as lost right out of the gates.

Therefore, the same malady and remedy applies to the doctrine of justification. Minimalism will not do. Minimalist sermons have failed to deliver the goods. The results have been catastrophic with deadly implications. And it is no wonder: How does one do justice to the doctrine of justification, with its myriad of worldview implications, through a couple of slides or pitching minimalist clichés? Minimalist preaching begets minimalist belief. Both have proven to be the playground of the Devil.

David R. Anderson explores the thin content of contemporary sermons in his noteworthy book, In Defense of Christian Ritual: The Case for a Biblical Pattern of Worship.[3] Doctrines such that provide the framework and foundation of the Gospel—doctrines like the deity of Christ, the doctrine of the Trinity, and justification by grace alone through faith alone—require telling the biblical story of God in relation to Israel and the Gentiles. In other words, the Gospel requires explanatory preaching to facilitate proclamatory preaching. The proclamatory force of biblical doctrine has a context. It needs airing, too. This also requires patience and discipline on the part of hearers of the Word. But that is the very nature of being a disciple or catechumen — to learn with patience and to echo the truth of the Gospel.

+The Gospel requires explanatory preaching to facilitate proclamatory preaching.

However, Anderson notes preachers have shifted from a logocentric catechetical format to a “pictocentric” one or at least have ceded to the values of pictocentric conventions. Images have not only changed the medium for proclamation (by accommodating the sanctuary to digital technologies), but they have also minimized word-based content and, what is more, altered how congregants receive communication and, indeed, their expectation of what constitutes the “Message” even if digital media is not employed. This is what is meant by the values of pictocentric communication. During the sermon, when the auditory is accompanied by visual aid, parishioners are encouraged to orient themselves to the patterns of thinking associated with watching, not hearing, and accompanying that association they have expectations which are minimalist and entertainment oriented.

Television, movies, and most Internet platforms provide visual stimulation as the medium for information. In other words, the medium lends itself to entertainment-information. This affects the way we think about information as such. Information is now terse, cliché, and immediately accessible. Preachers accommodate the dominant expectation that such information be “user friendly” whether they employ digital media or not. Instead of thinking more deeply about, say, propitiation or imputation, the medium and the effects of dominate image-based communication unavoidably lends itself to shallow associations. Preachers themselves may inadvertently acclimate the medium’s values and conventions, “Because it is the nature of the medium to suppress ideas to accommodate the requirements of visual interest.” The content, by necessity of the medium, will be minimalist.

The results are the same: Doctrines are minimized. Justification, for example, can be meme-ified to “just as if I never sinned.” That is it. That is the doctrine of justification without complexification. Or, stated differently, that is the demise of justification as the article on which the Church stands or falls. When cliché preaching abounds and parishioners lack both vocabulary and categories for the doctrine of justification, then the Church as the community which assembles for the pure preaching of the Gospel and the Sacraments administered according to the Gospel ceases to exist. Look no further than the mainline denominations and the trajectory of American evangelicalism. Today’s doctrinal minimalists are tomorrow’s theological progressives.

Anderson adds, “In this [minimalist] environment, complex language is not to be trusted and all problems lend themselves to theatrical expression... The effects are now universal. We believe that learning is a form of entertainment; or more precisely, that anything worth learning should take the form of entertainment.”[4] Hence the presumed need for sanctuaries to be equipped with digital media which dominates the space, elicits conditioned expectations associated with minimalism and simplicity. “Bottom line is that we have embraced a medium that presents information in a simplistic, non-substantive, non-historical, and non-contextual form.”[5] It is that medium or, rather, the conditioning resultant by the medium which undermines faithful preaching.

If this is the reality of contemporary perspectives on information, then preachers must be circumspect about the use of visual aids like TV’s and PowerPoint projection onto jumbo screens because our culture associates any information conveyed in the format as entertainment and content-light. Again, even if such media are not utilized, preachers must be conscious of the prevailing modes of communication as terse, cliché, and immediately accessible. They must train their congregants to expect substance and challenge them with content that runs counter to the minimalism associated with almost any other community. In the words of Neil Postman, “Christianity is a demanding and serious religion. When it is delivered as easy and amusing, it is another kind of religion altogether.”[6] If theology is for proclamation (which it is), then preaching justification must resist all attempts to compress it into an “elevator pitch” because Christian theology itself resists cliché containment and meme-ification.

A minimalist doctrine of justification will not do. We cannot live by a meme faith. Justification must be preached as coherently connected to all points of human living. Justification, like the deity of Christ or the triunity of God suffers no triviality.

+ A minimalist doctrine of justification will not do. We cannot live by a meme faith.

Preachers and churchmen need to own the fact that the employment of such media has the contrary effect of altering the forum of salvation from royal proclamation and catechetical instruction from our Lord to mere entertainment or perpetuator of pictocentric minimalist values.

Learned men preach content rich sermons for the good of God’s people. Let us move beyond the milk and onto solid food — the meat of biblical, creedal, confessional theology in our preaching. Only such substantive preaching can be both catechetical and proclamatory.

Consider the historical antecedent regarding the doctrine of justification. While respecting the fact that Bible references to the “righteousness of God” extolled the truth that, in Christ, the promise-making God proved Himself the promise-keeping God, Martin Luther recovered an insight to this same phrase by which God renders sinners righteous on account of Christ. Romans 1:17 was determinative: “In [the Gospel] the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith; as it is written, ‘He who through faith is righteous shall live.’” Luther understood the phrase could not be read univocally. Romans 1 and Galatians chapters 2 and 3 posited a different meaning, one which pertained immediately and directly upon the justification of sinners. There was a hermeneutical difference between “passive righteousness,” that is, whereby God is righteous in Himself, and “active righteousness,” whereby God accounts sinners righteous by imputing their sin to Christ and Christ's meritorious righteousness to them. Christ, then, is the juridical and real righteousness of sinners. Just as the “righteousness of God”—Christ—was the Gospel of God Saint Paul proclaimed and defended in his epistles, so too it would be the hermeneutic by which Luther would judge the competing theologies of the sixteenth century.

The doctrine of justification was no small, self-contained doctrine. It was the gospel lynchpin upon which all theology turned. Justification was all about Christ — who He is, what He accomplished, and how He continues to act and intercede. In other words, the centrality of the doctrine of justification as a theological hermeneutic was Luther’s way of practicing “all theology as Christology.” Justification impacted everything. Luther’s preaching evidences this centrality. He is everywhere proclaiming the doctrine of “the great exchange.”

When it came time to defend evangelical beliefs following the 1530 presentation of the Augsburg Confession, Philip Melanchthon penned Article IV, “Of Justification,” as the pillar of all things true and holy in Scripture. This article opens with a marvelous summary of the Gospel of God, stating:

In the Fourth, Fifth, Sixth, and below, in the Twentieth Article they [i.e., the Pope’s theologians] condemn us, for teaching that men obtain the remission of sins not because of their own merits, but freely for Christ’s sake, through faith in Christ. For they condemn us both for denying that men obtain remission of sins because of their own merits, and for affirming that, through faith, men obtain remission of sins, and through faith in Christ are justified.

It was this doctrine—the biblical Gospel of God—Melanchthon explained and defended for scores of pages. Now, while it is impractical for preachers to do the same in the pulpit, yet the need to contextualize and historically ground the reality of God reconciling the world to Himself through Jesus Christ requires far, far more than what preachers have been providing and what parishioners have been expecting. Now is the time to recover catechetical preaching, with both its explanatory force and proclamatory efficacy. Indeed, now is the time to power-off the projector and unpack the glorious richness of the true Gospel of God declaring sinners justified for the sake of Christ.

[1] John J. Bombaro, “Preaching the Apologetic Edge of the Deity of Christ,” craftofpreaching.com.

[2] Indeed, in Sacramentarian traditions in which the actual name of God from Matthew 28:19 may never be invoked during a “worship service” or baptism ever remembered by signing the cross in recollection of the Name, it is little wonder the Holy Trinity is rarely, if ever, on the minds of evangelicals, much less constituting the substantive content of evangelical preaching.

[3] David R. Anderson, In Defense of Christian Ritual: The Case for a Biblical Pattern of Worship (Irvine, CA: New Reformation Publications, 2020).

[4] Ibid., XIV-XV.

[5] Ibid., XV.

[6] Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business (New York: Penguin Books, 1985), 123.