Justification: Not A Bottom-Shelf Doctrine

Will and I have both had the privilege of studying under a godly saint of a man named John Hannah, professor of church history at Dallas Seminary. Dr. Hannah is known both for his deep love for Jesus and his sardonic sense of humor. Will relates an experience during a class discussion on Jonathan Edwards, whom Dr. Hannah has studied quite extensively. As Hannah was urging students to read The Religious Affections to get a taste of Edwards’ theology, an over-eager student raised his hand and said, “Dr. Hannah, there’s a simplified, contemporary version of that book out now. It’s called Seeing God.” Hannah paused, looked intently at the student, and said, “Son, I don’t know what to say… the cookies just aren’t on the bottom shelf.” Then, without missing a beat, he continued his lecture.

Justification, as taught in Romans 3:21-31, is definitely one of those doctrines for which “the cookies aren’t on the bottom shelf.” We scratched the surface in this morning’s sermon. For more, I recommend at least two resources. First, read and digest Chapter 11 of the Westminster Confession of Faith.

Second, ponder John Wesley’s account of his own conversion, reproduced here from the pages of his own diary (which has been preserved and reprinted by the United Methodist General Board of Discipleship… irony of ironies… but that’s another post…):

Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday I had continual sorrow and heaviness in my heart; something of which I had described, in the broken manner I was able, in the following letter to a friend:

“I see that the whole law of God is holy, just, and good. I know every thought, every temper of my soul, ought to bear God’s image and superscription. But how am I fallen from the glory of God! I feel that I am sold under sin. I know that I, too, deserve nothing but wrath, being full of all abominations; and having no good thing in me, to atone for them, or to remove the wrath of God. All my works, my righteousness, my prayers, need an atonement for themselves. So that my mouth is stopped. I have nothing to plead. God is holy; I am unholy. God is a consuming fire; I am altogether a sinner, meet to be consumed.”

…[Three of my friends had] testified of their own personal experience that a true living faith in Christ is inseparable from a sense of pardon for all past, and freedom from all present sins. They added with one mouth, that this faith was the gift, the free gift of God, and that he would surely bestow it upon every soul who earnestly and perseveringly sought it. I was not thoroughly convinced, and by the grace of God I resolved to seek it unto the end… I continued thus to seek it… till Wednesday, May 24th [1738]. [On that] evening I went very unwillingly to a society in Aldersgate-street, where one was reading Luther’s preface to the Epistle to the Romans. About a quarter before nine, while he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone, for salvation; and an assurance was given me that he had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.

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