I (Sam) ran into a long-standing church member at the store. We had one short conversation, but it was emblematic of a much wider concern. She’d been going through a bit of a crisis, and we hadn’t seen her at church for a few weeks. So when I ran into her, I told her how much we’d missed her and how lovely it would be to see her in church again. She told me she couldn’t come until she was doing better. She didn’t want people to see her while she was feeling life’s mess: “I’m waiting until the storm passes and I’ve got things back together enough to be able to walk back into the church building.”
Those words were heartbreaking. Church should be the place we sprint to when things are at their worst, not the place we avoid until we’ve got our Instagram-worthy Christianity back in place.
I saw right away that this church member’s perspective was unhealthy. But I sensed something else was wrong too. There was a mismatch between the beauty of the truth my church proclaimed and the culture we’d cultivated. Our community had begun to embody the social dynamics of self-justification more than the social dynamics of grace-justification.
In his epistle to the Galatians, Paul presses the gospel forward at two levels: in doctrine and culture. Three theological convictions we see in the epistle make this clear.
1. We’re justified not by the law but through faith in Jesus (Gal. 2:16).
The Thirty-nine Articles summarize Paul’s doctrine clearly: “We are accounted righteous before God, only for the merit of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ by Faith, and not for our own works or deservings. Wherefore, that we are justified by Faith only, is a most wholesome Doctrine, and very full of comfort.”
We’re never justified by our own efforts. Rather, our justification is objectively exterior. It’s out there in Someone Else, namely Jesus Christ. This is for our joy, as John Bunyan reminds us in his Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners:
Paul presses the gospel forward at two levels: in doctrine and culture.
One day as I was passing into the field, and that too with some dashes on my conscience, fearing lest all was still not right, suddenly this sentence fell upon my soul, “Thy righteousness is in heaven.” And I thought I saw, with the eyes of my soul, Jesus Christ at God’s right hand, there, I say, as my righteousness; so that wherever I was or whatever I was doing, God could not say of me, “He lacks my righteousness,” for that [my righteousness] was right before Him. . . . Here therefore I lived, for some time, very sweetly at peace with God through Christ. Oh, I thought, Christ! Christ! There was nothing but Christ before my eyes.
2. Self-justification is the deepest impulse in the fallen human heart.
Paul wrote, “O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? . . . Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?” (Gal. 3:1, 3). You might sincerely agree with the biblical doctrine of justification by faith alone. But deep in our hearts, it isn’t that simple, is it? We deeply desire to save ourselves. Legalism is our native tongue. At the same time, our sin includes a hidden filter blocking out clarity about our sin.
Martyn Lloyd-Jones describes our lack of self-awareness:
You will never make yourself feel that you are a sinner, because there is a mechanism in you as a result of sin that will always be defending you against every accusation. We are all on very good terms with ourselves, and we can always put up a good case for ourselves. Even if we try to make ourselves feel that we are sinners, we will never do it. There is only one way to know that we are sinners, and that is to have some dim, glimmering conception of God.
Our mentality of blind self-justification makes Paul’s letter to the Galatians endlessly relevant. Justification by our own righteousness isn’t only a Galatian problem or a Roman Catholic problem; it’s a universal human problem. It’s our problem. You and I are always, at best, an inch away from its dark powers. It’s possible to preach and defend the doctrine of justification by grace alone but to do so with self-justifying motives—and to do so with its bitter fruit in our churches.
3. When it’s truly believed, gospel doctrine creates gospel culture.
Paul encourages the Galatians, “Walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. . . . [For] the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law” (Gal. 5:16, 22–23).
When the gospel is clearly taught and the people of a church believe it deeply, it does more than renew us personally. The doctrine of grace creates a culture of grace. The gospel is both articulated at the obvious level of doctrine and embodied at the subtle level of vibe, ethos, feel, relationships, and community. People are honest in confession, bear one another’s burdens, and seek to outdo one another in showing honor.
Our mentality of blind self-justification makes Paul’s letter to the Galatians endlessly relevant.
Our self-justifying impulses make keeping both gospel doctrine and gospel culture in a church difficult, but it’s worth fighting for. Paul wouldn’t be satisfied if the churches to which he wrote merely reasserted the Bible’s doctrine of justification by faith alone in their creeds; he expected them to establish a church culture consistent with that doctrine. We must aim for the same. The more clearly the doctrine is taught, and the more beautifully a Spirit-filled culture is nurtured, the more powerfully a church will bear prophetic witness to Jesus as the mighty Friend of sinners.