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Modern Reformation: Thinking Theologically

Is Justification Relevant for Youth Ministry?

Published Friday, April 8, 2022 By Greg Meyer

MR: At the back of this very helpful book, A Student’s Guide to Justification, Greg, you reference no less than sixteen other written resources on the topic of the doctrine of justification. Perhaps, the place to start this interview, then, is to ask: why did you decide to write this book and what were you aiming to accomplish with it?

GM (Greg Meyer):  That’s a great question.  And, unfortunately, my answer will not be that glamorous.  I am friends with John Perritt, the Series Editor for Christian Focus’ Track Series of which this book is a part.  John has been a faithful friend who has also mentored me in ministry and in writing.  He came to me with an opportunity to write for the Track Series under the “doctrine” track (they also have two other “tracks”: culture and Christian life).  Sanctification and Glorification had already been covered so he suggested Justification.  I thought to myself: “I’ve been serving in youth ministry for a decade. If I can’t write about the gospel, I don’t know what I can write about!”  So, pretty quickly, we decided on Justification and I got to work!

In terms of what I was aiming to accomplish in writing the book, I was helped by the structure of the Track series books.  This gave me some guidelines and boundaries.  These books are designed to be used by parents, youth workers, church leaders, etc., in ministry to teens and young adults in particular.  They are written to be used in one-on-one and small group discipleship contexts in addition to being read individually.  The goal is for them to be theologically rich but also accessible to those who may not have any familiarity with theological topics or language.  My hope was to present the doctrine of Justification in such a way. 

Furthermore, while it is already a challenge to present such a mammoth and essential doctrine concisely, my hope was to offer a fresh approach that emphasizes the relational aspect of Justification, while also situating the doctrine in the larger sweep of the story of redemption found throughout Scripture, and not just in the book of Romans, for instance.  God justifying sinners through person and work of Christ flows from God’s great love for sinners and it’s a part of the unfolding of His covenant with mankind.  I find this approach culturally sensitive and apologetically advantageous.

Over the years Modern Reformation has continually raised the flag for the Protestant doctrine of justification, insisting on its significance and relevance for our own day. You insist on the same in your book. But I’d like to ask: is it relevant for youth ministry? I can imagine someone arguing that with all that our youth have to contend with today, teaching them doctrines of the faith, like justification, just cannot rank high on the priority list. How would you respond?

It is absolutely relevant!  The gospel, of which the doctrine of Justification is at the core, should be the heart and life blood of youth ministry, as well as all Christian ministry.  To hijack the often quoted the C.S. Lewis line, by Justification we ought to “see everything else.”  Because it’s a (if not the) essential doctrine of the Christian gospel, teenagers (and all of us really) will have a very hard time making sense of other more pressing issues such as sexuality, social media, vocation, and politics, if we are not solid here. We should certainly address all of these other issues to be faithful in our call to pass on the faith to the next generation. We ought to do so, however, with justification by faith shaping and forming what we teach and model on these hot topics.

Personally, this is of great importance to me in my story.  I grew up in the church and in Christian schools and yet did not see that the gospel was at the heart of it all.  I missed Jesus and Justification for years.  What got in my way was not so much my “sin problem,” but rather my “righteousness problem.”  It was not until I truly believed that I wasn’t “good” that I saw my great need for Christ.  This is what Justification is all about!  We need to prioritize teaching Justification and modeling what a life of faith looks like.

JS: I have the sense that the younger generations of our secular culture have a category for evil, for missing the mark, as it were. But they understand evil primarily (perhaps only) as “out there,” generated by power plays that create oppressive hierarchies, of which they are themselves only victims. The “good news” for them, then, is something like freedom to buck those social constructions and manifest their genuinely true selves. Is that accurate, do you think? And if it is, how does one teach the doctrine of justification to generations that seem to have the categories to understand it, but also potential for deep misunderstanding.

While I think this is certainly true – there is an increasingly skewed view of what is considered sinful or evil as well as an accelerating moral desensitization going on in the younger generation—I think the bigger hurdle for them is the “goodness” they find in the true selves they have constructed in response to how messed up the world is and how incomplete they feel themselves to be.  Our perceived “goodness” is what most gets in the way to embracing Christ and His gospel.  Even so, as human beings, we all have some low-level awareness of our brokenness and deficiency, even if we wouldn’t categorize it the same way the Bible does in terms of sin or unrighteousness.  Today’s teens are like all of us in this.  That being said, I think you’re right in that it’s much easier to engage with and respond to the evil and brokenness “out there.” 

However, and to this generation’s credit, I think they’re much more willing to listen and dialogue about different perspectives than their parents and grandparents.  This is good news when trying to communicate the gospel and the doctrine of Justification to them.  They’re more open to hearing about how to make sense of what’s wrong with them and the world and the ways they tried to justify themselves without knowing it.  But, on the flip side, we do have the greater challenge of communicating these truths to a generation that is more Biblically and theologically illiterate and that struggles with reading comprehension more so than past generations—even in the Church.

In light of this, I would say that we need to start at their point of experience with the sin and brokenness of the world.  Start with what they have seen and felt personally in terms of the “bad news,” while giving them new Biblical and theological language and story context to make sense of it.  By the “bad news” I mean the fact that we are sinners destined for destruction save the grace of God, and that our world is severely fractured and harmful.  I think this is the place to start because every teenager has their own experiences of their persistent failings and of how messed up the world is.  Going further, I think communicating the “bad news” through the medium of art—music and film in particular—are highly effective ways of connecting with teens on “their turf” about gospel truths.  Once they see and embrace the “bad news,” then we can more directly and effectively communicate the “good news” answer that the doctrine of Justification gives to this bad news—that God loves sinners, forgives them, and gives them the righteousness of Christ all by grace and received through faith

Of course, we’ll have to do some redefining and clarifying of terms along the way since our culture’s conception of sin and righteousness are wildly different than that of the Bible.  We’ll need to be patient, humble, and seek to be students of our students.  Youth ministry is, as Walt Mueller of the Center for Parent/Youth Understanding (CPYU) has said, cross-cultural mission work.  While this is a challenge, it is also the privilege and glorious opportunity that each generation has to pass on the gospel to the next in terms and ways that are accessible to them—both developmentally (because the teenage years are by definition turbulent) and culturally.  As the ministry adage goes, we want to communicate timeless truths in a timely way.

One potential misunderstanding of justification that I think particularly threatens those inside the church is to think that justification simply means that God affirms “who I really am.” For youth, working through issues of identity and vulnerable to the definitions of others, understanding the doctrine of justification therapeutically almost comes naturally. How do we help them understand both God’s love of them and his work of salvation, which doesn’t simply affirm them as they are but makes them into who they are created to be?

I agree that our culture tends to cast our problems as psychological in nature and, in turn, to offer therapeutic solutions.  This way of thinking is in the air we breathe, so we need help identifying it and adopting a more Biblical perspective instead.  As Christian Smith, the folks at Barna, and many others have pointed out, Moral Therapeutic Deism (MTD) is the American folk religion. So, we’re pushing uphill when we try to communicate Justification in non-therapeutic terms—though belief in the gospel does supply great spiritual, emotional, and psychological comfort and relief to believers.

Again, I think we have the job of re-narrating the world and their experience according to the Biblical story and God’s definition of what is good, true, and beautiful.  Part of that is clarifying that our problem is not primarily psychological, but moral and relational.  We have sinned against God (a moral problem) and are now alienated from Him, ourselves, and others (a relational problem).  We have a lot of pre-evangelistic work to do here in order to help the younger generation see the gospel message for what it is.  And this makes sense due to the fact that we live in an increasingly post-Christian society!  However, it is not impossible or hopeless, because God is with us, His Word does not come back void, and the Church has navigated and bore fruit in other more thoroughly pagan cultures in the past.

Our teenagers don’t just need to “feel better.”  God has so much more in mind for them: adoption into a loving family, forgiveness, reconciliation, intimacy with God and His people, wholeness, and more!  We want to help them see, first, that our problem is much bigger than we think.  But then, in turn, we want them to see that what God has in mind for His people is much bigger and better than we could ever hope for on our own!  Justification by faith is an invitation to a holistic reorientation of life beyond short-sighted therapeutic fixes.  What we need is the love, forgiveness, and righteousness of another, not techniques and products to soothe us psychologically.  The only way to actually “feel better” is to experience the love of God in relationship with Him through Christ by the power of the Spirit and within His Body, the Church.  We want to help the younger generation reorient from looking for a psychological, emotional, or materialistic solution by clarifying that our problem is moral and relational and needs to be addressed in kind.  Thanks be to God that He has done just that through the person and work of Christ, as expressed in the doctrine of Justification!

Your final chapter is entitled: “The Gospel is Rest.” If reports are to be believed, today’s youth struggle deeply with anxiety and depression. Perhaps in closing you could make a few remarks about how the mature in the church could model for the young in the church the rest that is in Christ, helping the knowledge justification pass, as it were, from the head to the heart?

I have heard it said that the reason we have the “head/heart gap” in the Christian life is because the things we learn with our heart are those that we learn in the context of experience in relationships.  Unfortunately, much of our discipleship in our Reformed tradition has been aimed at the head and is by definition knowledge based.  As a result, we think by simply giving people the right information repeatedly that they’ll “get it.”  It’s as if we hand people a USB drive of data to plug into their brains and then expect them to be magically mature.  James K.A. Smith refers to this as conceiving of people as “heads on a stick.” However, that’s not who we are or how we work as humans.  While communicating right knowledge is essential, heart commitments are only generated in the context of relationships and through Christian formation in the context of a worshiping community.

All that being said, we have to live out Justification in our interactions with the younger generation by being gracious, forgiving, gentle, patient, and understanding people.  If we have a deep, heart understanding of Justification, we will become these kind of people—those who naturally bear the fruit of the Spirit. We can only offer them the gospel rest of being justified in Christ if we ourselves are experiencing and demonstrating it.  A restful disposition and joyful humility are intoxicating to young people, because, as you rightly indicate, they’re drowning in anxiety and depression.  If, by God’s grace, we are able to pair a Spirit-filled life with our teaching on Justification, we will be able to help shepherd our young people toward places of rest.  If you know where rest is found and are experiencing it, you can help others find it.            

But, if we are attempting to teach on Justification while remaining harsh, generally angry, and judgmental toward the young people in our lives, they’ll immediately dismiss our teaching.  Teenagers are especially good at sniffing out hypocrisy.  If we’re like this, we’re not giving them anything different than the world and, even worse, we are obscuring the person and work of Jesus through our example.  Let’s not walk this path, but instead start with self-examination and serious reflection on the way our churches are approaching discipleship.  Let’s also be encouraged: God is at work in us and is committed to drawing us all into His abundant love, peace, and rest!

Greg Meyer (MDiv from Reformed Theological Seminary) is the Assistant Pastor of Covenant Presbyterian Church in St. Louis, MO, and the author of A Student’s Guide to Justification (Christian Focus Publications, 2022). He also blogs regularly for Rooted Ministry and on his own site Moment-By-Moment. Greg and his wife, Mary Jane, have four children.

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