Which Direction Should We Go? – Reflections on “Justification” and “Sanctification” in the Reformation

Editor’s note: As the Chinese house church engages the question, “What is the church?” it recognizes the all-important preceding question, “What is the gospel?” The result is that the house church finds itself contemplating what can be gleaned from the depths of church history. The following is Part 4 of a lengthy paper written by a Chinese pastor on the topic of reformed soteriology and its pastoral implications. The paper hopes to train and encourage other urban Chinese house church pastors, and as such is an interesting insight to the theology shaping portions of the house church. It was originally published in Kosmos, an online and print magazine focusing on theological and cultural issues in mainland China. If you missed them, make sure to catch up with Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3 from previous weeks.

Even though the medieval soteriology of justification is wrong on the point of man’s final salvation depending on his internal righteousness in order to obtain eternal life as promised by God, nevertheless we must affirm and imitate the church in its attempt to fully explain all scriptures relating to salvation and to construct a comprehensive soteriology over a period of more than 1000 years of church history. This is also why the Reformers parted ways with the medieval church on justification by faith – they wanted to protect the comprehensiveness of soteriology, and therefore they developed doctrines like “union with Christ,” “repentance,” “adoption,” “sanctification,” “rewards,” and “glorification.” Because of their faithfulness in their exposition of the whole of scripture, these doctrines became included in what is meant by “being saved.” 

For a simple question like “How are men saved?” the medieval answer is straightforward: “Justification by faith.” This answer basically includes the entire content of soteriology and covers the lifetime of a man. From another perspective, because the medieval institutional church participated in the lifelong process of a man’s being “justified by faith” through the seven sacraments as effectual means of grace, medieval soteriology melded with ecclesiology. Thus, there was essentially “no salvation outside of the church.”  

The Protestant doctrine of “justification by faith” pushed the time when one is decisively saved up from judgment after death to the moment when one is united to Christ by faith and “declared righteous,” which is also accompanied by a subjective “assurance of salvation.” For a simple question like “How are men saved?” the answer provided by Protestant soteriology was relatively complicated because the phrase “to be saved” has different layers of meaning in light of “justification.” If one is not careful, he may focus solely on “justification by faith” and reduce the entirety of salvation to the atoning work of Christ on the cross, thus downplaying or even neglecting sanctification. For this reason, we have continually struggled with justification and sanctification in our pastoring ever since the Reformation, even in the West. Only pastors who have been trained well and churches with a rich tradition can maintain a comprehensive soteriology in their practices. If this is true in the West, the younger Chinese churches will undoubtedly face an even greater challenge.  

The greatest impact the Protestant doctrine of justification had in replacing the Catholic doctrine of justification was that it demolished the institutional church as the means by which believers obtain salvation. This practically dissolved the unity between soteriology and ecclesiology in the Middle Ages. Ever since then, one of the greatest struggles within Protestant churches has been ecclesiology – what is the institutional church? How should we understand and apply the phrase “There is no salvation outside the church?” What authority has Christ given to the church? In China, which does not have a church tradition, these questions are especially important. But they also provide us an opportunity to try something new and to perhaps contribute something to the universal church.


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Dealing with these two problems may be an effective means by which we elevate our theology by replacing simple questions about salvation with conscious, deep reflection on soteriological questions that are consistent with the whole Bible. 

For example, we can replace the simple question “How are men saved?” with the question “How does God, after man has fallen, complete his plan of creation and cause his glorious grace to be praised?”  On the one hand, this way of asking the question attempts to construct soteriology upon theology proper, making God’s work the foundation and emphasis while pointing to God’s glory as the ultimate goal of salvation; on the other hand, it protects the unity of God’s creation and redemption, where the goal of redemption is re-creation (a new creation). This way of asking the question even implies a relationship between ecclesiology and soteriology, tying the two closer together from the perspective of anthropology. 

Another thing we may try is properly utilizing the achievements of the past five decades in the field of biblical theology to rebuild a framework for systematic theology. My preliminary thoughts are to divide systematic theology into three parts: 1) introduction, prolegomena, the doctrine of revelation, methodology – using biblical revelation to reconstruct personal epistemology and the doctrine of revelation; 2) theology proper – constructing a doctrine of the Trinity; 3) anthropology (the image of God) – from the creation of Adam to the perfection of the second Adam, and finally to the perfection of the entire church (those in Christ). We can subdivide anthropology historically into two parts: a) creation and the fall of man in Adam; b) soteriology or re-creation, which entails redemption and the perfection of man in Christ, including redemption, re-creation, and consummation. Traditional Christology, the ordo salutis, the doctrine of Holy Spirit, and ecclesiology may be integrated into the historical stages of soteriology and re-creation in 2b. 

The goal here is to construct a dynamic and comprehensive anthropology (the image of God) based on the Trinity and the creative and redemptive work of God. Adam, Christ, and those in Christ are included in this anthropological framework, leading to a comprehensive soteriology. Soteriology and ecclesiology may then be integrated and complement each other within this anthropological framework.  

Conclusion

Justification and sanctification are vital and inseparable in Protestant soteriology. Though there is great discontinuity between many aspects of Protestant and medieval soteriology, there is also significant continuity in other aspects, especially in their efforts to maintain consistency in their exegesis of all of scripture and revelation relating to salvation and in their efforts to construct a comprehensive soteriology. As we emphasize justification by faith, we must also simultaneously strive to preach and practice a comprehensive soteriology, so that God’s glorious grace might be praised.  

Theology is a response of the church toward the redemptive work of God and the revelation of scripture. All knowledge is personal, and this necessarily includes knowledge relating to the worship of God and its practical implications. Thus, the history of theology is also the history of the church. This article has attempted to sum up the questions of soteriology by looking at the unity of biblical revelation and suggesting a restructuring of systematic theology. I hope that by reconstructing the whole of anthropology through Christology, soteriology, and ecclesiology we can arrive at a comprehensive soteriology, one in which soteriology and ecclesiology are closely linked together. I also hope, together with all pastors in China, in the tradition of the universal church, to continue reforming and knowing God more, bringing glory to his name. 

 

English translation provided by Moses, Brent, and the China Partnership translation team. Please refer to our reposting guidelines for permission to share on your blog or website.

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Further Reading

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LEADERSHIP DEVELOPMENT IN CHINA

With rising pressure and persecution in China, there are two challenges imperative for church leaders. The first challenge is for current leaders to love Christ above all else, and not to stray into legalism or love of the world. The second challenge is to raise up the next generation of leaders, who will humbly model Jesus even if current leaders are arrested.

WILL YOU JOIN US IN PRAYING FOR LEADERSHIP DEVELOPMENT IN CHINA? PRAY FOR:

  1. Current leaders to grow in their daily walks with Christ
  2. Current leaders to shepherd and raise up new leaders
  3. New leaders who love Christ and will model him to the world
  4. New leaders to love and care for the church

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Shenyang is a city located in northeastern China and is the capital of Liaoning Province. It is known for its rich history and cultural heritage, including the Shenyang Imperial Palace, which is a UNESCO World Heritage site. Shenyang is also a hub for China’s heavy industry, with companies such as the China First Automobile Group and the Shenyang Aircraft Corporation having their headquarters in the city.

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Qingdao is a city located in eastern China and is famous for its beaches, beer, and seafood. The city is home to several landmarks, including the Zhanqiao Pier and the Badaguan Scenic Area. Qingdao is also a major port and has a thriving economy, with industries such as electronics, petrochemicals, and machinery.

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Xiamen is a city located in southeastern China and is a popular tourist destination known for its beautiful coastal scenery, including Gulangyu Island, which is a UNESCO World Heritage site. The city is also a hub for China’s high-tech industry, with companies such as Huawei and ZTE having research and development centers in Xiamen.

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About Guangzhou

Guangzhou, also known as Canton, is a city located in southern China and is the capital of Guangdong Province. It is one of the country’s largest and most prosperous cities, serving as a major transportation and trading hub for the region. Guangzhou is renowned for its modern architecture, including the Canton Tower and the Guangzhou Opera House, as well as its Cantonese cuisine, which is famous for its variety and bold flavors. The city also has a rich history, with landmarks such as the Chen Clan Ancestral Hall, the Sun Yat-sen Memorial Hall, and the Temple of the Six Banyan Trees. Additionally, Guangzhou hosts the annual Canton Fair, the largest trade fair in China.

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About Kunming

Kunming is a city located in southwest China and is the capital of Yunnan Province. Known as the “City of Eternal Spring” for its mild climate, Kunming is a popular tourist destination due to its natural beauty and cultural diversity. The city is home to several scenic spots, including the UNESCO World Heritage Site of the Stone Forest, Dian Lake, and the Western Hills. Kunming is also famous for its unique cuisine, which features a mix of Han, Yi, and Bai ethnic flavors. The city has a rich cultural history, with ancient temples and shrines like the Yuantong Temple and the Golden Temple, and it’s also a hub for Yunnan’s ethnic minority cultures, such as the Yi and Bai peoples.

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About Shenzhen

Shenzhen is a city located in southeastern China and is one of the country’s fastest-growing metropolises. The city is renowned for its thriving tech industry, with companies such as Huawei, Tencent, and DJI having their headquarters in Shenzhen. The city also has a vibrant cultural scene, with numerous museums, art galleries, and parks. Shenzhen is also known for its modern architecture, such as the Ping An Finance Center and the Shenzhen Bay Sports Center. Despite its modernization, Shenzhen also has a rich history and cultural heritage, with landmarks such as the Dapeng Fortress and the Chiwan Tin Hau Temple.

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About Chengdu

Chengdu is a city located in the southwestern region of China, and the capital of Sichuan province. It has a population of over 18 million people, and it is famous for its spicy Sichuan cuisine, laid-back lifestyle, and its cute and cuddly residents – the giant pandas. Chengdu is home to the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding, where visitors can observe these adorable creatures in their natural habitat. The city also boasts a rich cultural heritage, with numerous temples, museums, and historical sites scattered throughout its boundaries. Chengdu is a city of contrasts, with ancient traditions coexisting alongside modern developments, making it an intriguing and fascinating destination for visitors to China. 

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About Beijing

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About Shanghai

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