Thursday, 5 February 2009

The Reformed Doctrine of Justification and Me

So some of you who are reading this blog might be asking, "who is this angry controversialist idiot?" I thought it'd be good to give God the glory by telling a bit of my story.

I'm 32 years old at present and I teach maths in a Glasgow secondary school. I grew up in a Christian home, attending a brethren church from the age of about 4. When the Lord awakened faith in me at age 18, I set out to read everything I could lay my hands on. Up until that point I'd only been interested in watching TV, taking the odd drink, getting into the odd street brawl and doing the bare minimum work at school to get my grades, so the reading thing was kind of miraculous! I'd only ever read two or three books, and one of those had pictures.

Over the years, I continued to read, yet for all my reading, I was pretty unstable in my knowledge of the gospel. I was looking for something, although I didn't know what. It seemed like my most recent book was the formative influence in my life at the time. Over the years, I flirted with Arminianism, the 5-points of Calvinism, Open-theism, Pentecostalism, Tongues speaking, the Toronto phenomenon, Emerging/Emergent theologies, the New Perspective on Paul, the Federal Vision. You name it, I've tried it. I was like one of those whom Paul describes as "always learning, but never able to arrive at a knowledge of the truth."

I was pretty emotionally unstable as you might imagine. It took me a while to get to grips with the fact that I was suffering from depression. One day I'd be as high as a kite, the next I'd be blinded with rage or melancholy. I would start projects with a relentless fury and then abandon them as quickly as I had begun. My chickens would come home to roost.

Gradually, the Lord helped me find my vocation as a teacher. I loved the job. Finally I had something that I was motivated to do and that utilized my natural abilities. I threw myself into work with great gusto, trying to excel as far as possible. My past underachievements were eating at me, and in my insecurity, I wanted to get promoted as far as possible as young as possible.

All the while I was involved heavily in church work. In the last few months of 2007 I must have preached about 7 times at various brethren churches. I ran the Sunday evening Youth Fellowship, was on the prayer meeting committee, sang in a choir that practiced every Sunday afternoon and had regular week-night concerts and also chaired church services. On top of all this, I had a 1 year old son and a pregnant wife at work. In short, I was exhausted. After Sundays, it felt like I was returning to work for a rest.

It was February 2008 and I noticed that I had lost a little of my joy in work. "Maybe it's time to go for a promotion" I thought. And so, a job came up in another school as a departmental principal. I prayed it over, applied for the post and hey presto, got the job. It felt like God's provision. With a new baby on the way in June the pay rise was going to help a great deal. Who knows, Sharon could even quit work.

In the time leading up to the job I had been listening to Tim Keller on my iPod. I also had subscribed to podcast by the guys at the White Horse Inn. As Keller and Horton described 'justification by faith' I remember lying in my bed and praying, "God, I don't think I get it. I know it in my head, but I don't think I'm experiencing the glory of this. Help me understand it."

The time came for me to begin my new post. I should have been excited, but all I could feel was dread. As I arrived at the new school and met my department, all I could do was stare out the window. I got slaughtered by my classes (who were pretty tough but nothing I wasn't used to) and just had no emotional resilience to deal with them. After two days, I had a complete breakdown and couldn't stop crying. I was completely broken and wanted to die. If I didn't have a wife and family, who knows what I could have done?

The doctor signed me off work and I started a course of anti-depressants. I never went back to that school and remained off sick for 9 months just sleeping and recovering.

I now had time to read. I remember one day flicking about the web and remembered hearing a guy called R. Scott Clark as a guest on the White Horse Inn. I thought, "I wonder if that guy has written anything?!" After doing a search in google I came across this article. It was Clark's Reformed critique of the Federal Vision. I had long regarded them as good guys and believed that works had a place in final justification. As I read, the scales fell from my eyes. I couldn't believe it. We are justified by "receiving and resting on Christ and his righteousness through faith"! It was almost too good to be true. I felt like the heavens had opened and God had poured joy into my heart. It was better than anything I'd experienced in my charismatic wanderings.

For once, I felt the goodness of the good news. It wasn't good news before. Where is the good news in telling someone that God is going to give them power to live a good life so that they can be justified by works on judgement day?

I needed some more of this Reformed wine, so I downloaded this talk by Clark on Recovering the Reformed Confession. I remember sitting my wife down and making her listen to it. Clark went on about the piety of the Reformed Confessions. It isn't a quiet time piety. Evangelicals, he argued, have a theology of glory as they seek to gain the brownie points with God through daily devotions. The piety of the Reformed is public, it is word and sacrament. Prayer is a mere overflow of being fed with Christ on a Sunday. Wow, my chains fell off, my heart was free! Sharon remarked how providential this was for her. She'd been struggling with assurance because she believed she was unsaved due to her faltering private devotions.

To grasp that I'm righteous by resting in Christ's righteousness, to let go of the private devotion mentality and focus on corporate feeding on Christ, to embrace a solid theology of the work of the Spirit in mortification as opposed to personal 'leadings' which lead to emotional paralysis, to discover all these things saved my Christian life. Before I thought sola Scriptura meant reading the Bible alone - solo Scriptura. The Reformed taught me to read with the great tradition of the church and, in community, listen to Scripture. I don't need to be blown about by private opinions of men who have elevated their own views to confessional status.

Since my 'conversion' I managed to get a job back in my old school. God has been good. Justification has taught me to value who I am in Christ and not judge myself by how successful I am.

In short then, I love the Reformed approach. I will always be grateful to Keller, Horton and of course, R. Scott Clark. I love these guys. Yet, they would be the first to admit to being mere instruments in the mighty hand of the Lord for the good of the church. Glory to God alone.


Danny said...

What a great story... thanks for sharing it. I really identify with what you are saying... I wandered from the church for more than ten years because I was tired of feeling that I was never quite good enough... that I wan't ticking all the necessary boxes.

When I returned to the church (this time the CoS) in 1998 I went back to the basics of faith and reexamined it all as if for the first time... and I asked myself whether I really believed all this stuff about justification and grace. This time the penny dropped. I realised that it wasn't about me at all it was about Christ and what he has done... once... for all ...and always.

Keep on blogging Nick, keep asking the hard questions and be rightly cynical about all the baggage that Christianity has picked up down through 20000 years of history :-)

Danny said...

Ooops too many 0000's at the end of the previous post... should really preview before I commit myself to 'print'!

Mainline Mom said...

Hey thanks for sharing your story. I am grateful that I grew up in the reformed tradition and grasped the incredibleness of it all pretty early on, but every day it grows bigger and bigger to me.

Anonymous said...

What a great story. Praise God!

"Where is the good news in telling someone that God is going to give them power to live a good life so that they can be justified by works on judgement day?"

Very insightful. I think this sentence really shows the importance of getting the gospel right. Thanks for sharing!


Nick Mackison said...

Thanks for your kind comments folks.

Dan H. said...

I recall Rod Rosenbladt saying on a White Horse Inn broadcast some time ago that most contemporary evangelical preaching can be boiled down to two words: Try harder. That was what I heard and lived for over 20 years until I discovered, as did Nick, the liberating truth of the Reformed faith and total resting on Christ's righteousness. Thank you for sharing your story which is so similar to many of us from mainline evangelical backgrounds.