De-Emphasis on Justification by Faith:
An Instance of Theological Adaptation
It has been several years since the initiation of theological reconstruction, yet the most egregious reason why theology is not suited to socialist society remains the issue of belief vs. unbelief: how Christians look upon those who do not believe in Christ. This is an issue that touches on the relationship between believers and the rest of society, including the Communist Party. And it is a question of how Chinese believers should look at justification by faith today.1 Justification by faith has been an unchanging truth and doctrine of Christianity through the ages.2 How did it produce these issues in the Chinese Church? The answer lies in the "excessive emphasis on justification by faith in Chinese Christianity and the idea that it is the all in all of Christian faith." 3 Because of this, Bishop Ting proposed a de-emphasis on justification by faith. Such a de-emphasis is a kind of self-regulation on the part of the Church. This adjustment demonstrates the task of the current theological reconstruction in the Chinese Church, and opens an effective path for clergy and pastoral workers at the grassroots to join in theological reconstruction.
A necessity for the Chinese Church
A very pious sister, a convert, zealously evangelized her colleagues and friends. But no one was converted; quite the opposite, they would hide from her. If they heard her voice on the phone, they would not take the call. Finally she went to ask her pastor the reason why. Only then did she realize her mistake. She saw belief in the Lord as a wonderful thing, and she thought unbelievers would go to hell. She wanted to tell her friends the good news so they could escape the sufferings of hell. To do this, she urged on them some very judgmental passages which showed them as sinners and said that horrible things would happen if they did not believe. And so she scared them off.
Superficially it seems that it was her method of evangelization that led to her failure. But looking further, she was compelled to act that way out of her own sense of superiority. In fact, she was influenced by an over-emphasis on justification by faith. Justification by faith is in itself a component of our basic faith, but an over-emphasis on it increases the distance between belief and unbelief and before we know it, we have separated from society and reality, and our witness for Christ has been directly affected.
Certainly, the majority of our preachers and believers are not always going on about lifting up justification by faith. But the bad results of justification by faith can be traced in our faith and affect us deeply. Time has not faded its impact and group after group of new Christians are new bottles filled with old wine. This does not harm society, but it does very little to contribute to it.
The bad effects of over-emphasis on justification by faith are rather clearly to be seen in the Chinese Church today in individual believers themselves, who are focused only on their own salvation and gaining inner peace, and not on moral behavior. They are unwilling to have any contact with unbelievers. They fear unbelievers will pollute their holiness and influence their faith. Some believers regularly say that when they are with other believers, they feel closer than with their own brothers and sisters. But when they are with unbelievers, they always feel as if there is nothing to say, because they do not follow the same path. Without their realizing it, this sets them apart and vilifies others. Mark 9: 38-40 tells us that the heart of Jesus is broad enough to accommodate a man who, though he does not follow him, casts out demons in his name. We should take the heart of Jesus as our heart in accepting others and never forget that "he who is not against us is for us" (Mk. 9: 40). In this way we will gain the sympathy and understanding of many more people. Over-emphasis on justification by faith shows in the ministry of the church in an emphasis on the believing individual that ignores the social witness of the church. When the Chinese government banned the heretical Falun Gong, some who have not yet been converted to Christianity formed some unfriendly views which directly increased the difficulty of evangelization. The usual opinion is that these people do not understand the church. If this is the case, what do we do, besides preaching the Word inside our churches, to help those outside understand our faith? The law protects preaching within the church and does not forbid glorifying God through good deeds in society. If we think that running the church well is simply a matter of building churches, good preaching, opening up meeting points and doing a good job of self-support, this is simply not enough.
The standard for running the church well is "satisfaction on the part of Christians and having the favor of the people around us." 4 Both are important. To ignore either would affect the development of the Church. The Christ we believe in is a Cosmic Christ.5 This Christ cares for religion, spirituality, the church, and believers. But his care is not limited to such a small area. He also cares for those who have not yet come to follow him.6 People often quote: "But God shows his love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us (Rom. 5: 8). Christ did not die only for those who came to follow him during his three years on earth, but also for those who had not yet come to follow him. The death of Christ is so great, so meaningful, bringing hope to all humankind. In the same way, the Church does not exist only for believers, but also exists for those who have not yet believed. The Church must show its worth in these who have not yet believed. As a Church, we must manifest this love of Jesus in society.
The social expression of over-emphasis on justification by faith is that there is no way to recognize the truth, goodness and beauty outside the Church; the attitude is that only what the Church itself does has value. No matter how good the deeds of those outside might be, they have no value. Every person has been created by God in the image of God. Believers and unbelievers alike show forth this image in their persons, whether to a greater or lesser extent. Speaking of morality, whether one is a believer or unbeliever, moral behavior is the same, only the impetus and goal differ. This being the case, we must not link every issue, one-sidedly, to faith.
If the Church wants to put down roots in China, it cannot reject traditional Chinese culture, but rather must absorb and digest it, develop and enlarge it. The Nestorianism of the Tang dynasty absorbed the culture of the Chinese people without the least hesitation. In some two thousand words of the text on the Nestorian monument, the author used a large quantity of quotations and allusions to ancient Chinese classics: thirty from the Book of Changes and the Classic of Poetry; twenty from the Spring and Autumn Annals. Matteo Ricci, too, was a forerunner in making connections among the truth, goodness and beauty inside and outside the Church.7 And Vatican II recognized that many elements of sanctification and truth are found outside the visible structure of the Church.8 The breadth and openness of the Church are not a surrender to the secular world, but a process of absorption, renewal and adaptation in context. It is not a loss of self, but an enlargement of self.
In sum, over-emphasis on justification by faith has negatively affected the Chinese Church across the board and placed obstacles in the path of its development. Thus, de-emphasis on justification by faith is a necessity for the Chinese Church. Only by overcoming a "Jonah attitude" or an "eldest son attitude," 9 can the Chinese Church gradually downplay justification by faith and fundamentally change the way it sees those who have not yet believed.
Why the Chinese Church places such emphasis on justification by faith
"The emphasis on justification by faith that we find in China, and in the whole Third World, was initiated by missionaries from the western churches. They were the first to target the great mass of those outside the church who did not believe in Jesus by posing the issue of belief vs. unbelief. Unbelievers were all going to hell." The spread of Christianity in China was protected by and aided imperialist guns and cannon and unequal treaties. At the time the Chinese Church was entirely under the control of foreign mission boards. Those engaged in evangelization were foreigners; the believers were Chinese. When Chinese converted, they stood beside the missionaries and this imperceptibly widened the gap between belief and unbelief. The close relationship between Christianity and imperialist aggression roused the ire of most Chinese people. The foreign religion label gave expression to the abyss between the church and the great mass of the people. And the western church demanded that "Chinese who join the Church should not think of their native land; those in the Church belong to heaven and not to China." 10 The spread of the phrase "one more Christian, one less Chinese" directly harmed the feelings of the Chinese Church, the nation and the Chinese people. One and a half centuries later, the western mission board-controlled Chinese Church, having existed in such a context, had, under this imperceptible influence, formed a definite ideology.
The establishment of new China enabled the Chinese Church to cast off western church control and step onto the three-self path of self-government, self-support and self- propagation. The fifty years that followed could not entirely eliminate the shadow that had formed in the hearts of Chinese Christians. This situation arose from both faith and political factors. After nearly twenty years of development, the religious policy was implemented and freedom of belief was fully guaranteed; the political factor in the emphasis on justification by faith was basically eliminated. The initiation of the Three-Self Movement changed the self image of Christianity and gained the approval of society.
In terms of faith, because the Church was busy with restoration and rebuilding of churches, it had no surplus energy for pondering and understanding these questions. There was little change in its sense of superiority. Though it had no ill intentions toward those who did not yet believe, it was difficult to get along together. The Chinese Church has long been independent, but thinking has not entirely changed. "At present, those in Chinese pulpits are all Chinese, but there is a certain portion of what we preach that is still what western missionaries inculcated into us in the 1920s and 30s." 11 This is an important impact that one-sided emphasis on justification by faith has had and continues to have in the church.
Second Corinthians 6: 14 says: "Do not be yoked together with unbelievers." Misunderstanding of this verse has also had a direct impact on relations between believers and unbelievers. "Yoked together" suggests cooperation and unity of purpose." 12 The true intention of Paul here is not to say that believers and unbelievers cannot cooperate and work together, but rather to say that Christians must live out Christ in society, and not fall in with bad habits and elements in society.13 As Bishop Ting points out, we can square the existence of many things in the world with the cosmic role of Christ.14
To sum up, over-emphasis on justification by faith has deep historical roots and has arisen from factors in the Church itself.
De-emphasis on justification by faith in relation to biblical truth
De-emphasis is a kind of adjustment. One of the goals of theological reconstruction is to adapt to socialist society in terms of theological thinking and this includes some necessary adjustments in theological thinking.15 The doctrine of justification by faith cannot be revised and abolished at will. Someone once proposed that the church should substitute justified by love for justified by faith. Bishop Ting said we could not accept this proposal. De- emphasis on justification by faith is the only choice for resolving the justification by faith issue. In this way, justification by faith is restored to the place it should have in the Bible and faith. Then we will pay more attention to the other truths and teachings of the Bible.
Some people may think that de-emphasis on justification by faith will affect faith. This is an excess of anxiety, because to de-emphasize justification by faith is first of all to de-emphasize the one-sidedness of the doctrine, the dogmatic understanding. It is not to do away with; de-emphasis is no more than not to make justification by faith into the be all and end all of Christian faith, but rather to manifest the abundance of Christ.16 By de-emphasizing justification by faith we can better understand God, and allow others to know God, because God is love.17 Paul proposed justification by faith in response to Jewish legalism; the doctrine broke through Jewish narrowness, laying the basis for Christianity to become a world religion.
In Romans chapters 1-11, Paul specially lays out the teaching on the principle and issue of justification by faith. From Romans 12 onwards, he turns to the issue of how to be righteous before God and how to maintain such a position. Paul expounds in detail that the importance of the life of faith lies in its living out, and at the same time he raises the tasks of the new life of the Christian. The acceptance by a believer of the justice of God is a kind of inner experience, but must be expressed outwardly. Paul speaks of Christian personal morality and social morality. "Take thought for what is noble in the sight of all" (Rom. 12: 17-18). "Let every person be subject to the governing authorities" (Rom. 13: 1). These beautiful teachings show us the whole exposition Paul made of the truth. Taking Romans as evidence, to emphasize justification by faith is a one-sided understanding of the Bible.
In James, a Christian just liberated from the law, set upon another extreme course, thinking that with faith one could enjoy the abundant grace of God and that good deeds would not be necessary. James explains that true faith must be accompanied by good deeds. Faith without works is not true faith. "Paul speaks of how one becomes justified before God, true faith with works; James speaks of how to be justified before humans—how to let people know you are already justified, this comes from the true works of faith. Clearly, James and Romans are not contradictory, but give a whole picture of justification by faith. If we still take the Bible as the foundation of our faith, then we must return to the Bible for an all-round understanding of justification by faith." 18 Bishop Ting says, If people write off the perfection and balance of the whole of Christian doctrine and replace it with some other doctrine and teaching, emphasizing only justification by faith, blowing it all out of proportion, this can have bad consequences.19
Christianity is not only a religion which concentrates on faith, but even more, one that concentrates on works. There are many instances of moral works in the Bible and humans will be judged by their works. "And so, to understand and grasp the true meaning of the Bible, we must generally emphasize three factors, the Bible, tradition and reason. If one is overemphasized and the others ignored, it is far from enough and may even be dangerous." 20
De-emphasis on justification by faith shows us the importance of the balance and completion of the biblical truth. Emphasizing one part and ignoring another part of basic faith easily leads to problems. If the air and matter that sustain life get out of balance, it can be dangerous to life. In the past, the church paid special attention to the growth of the spiritual life. Now it is time for it to pay attention to life in its external environment. So the Bible is not simply a place to seek the spiritual or offer resources for personal salvation, but for clarity of direction, for the Christian to fully realize his or her vocation and responsibility in society today.21 Perfecting and balancing the biblical truth, not only allows us a correct understanding of the true meaning of the Bible, but can help us rightly understand the will of God in our own context.
De-emphasis on justification by faith is a process. Adjustments to theological thinking, exploration of the relations between Christianity and Chinese culture, shifting to a Christianity for the Chinese socialist era, all require common effort and practice on the part of all. "After the Reformation, it was 300 years before Protestantism began its evangelistic activities toward the outside world. For us to establish a Christianity adapted to socialist society will not be a matter of a few years, or even a decade." 22 We should not lose heart because results are not immediately forthcoming. We must begin with reality, with the present, with ourselves. For the development of the Church, we must plant our feet on solid ground, add to our achievements daily and strive together. In this way, we will surely reach our goal.
Nanjing Theological Review 1(2003): 133-140.
The author is a pastor in Yunchong, Sichuan.
1 K.H. Ting. "Establish a Correct View of the Bible," Foreword to Papers from the Forum on Chinese Views of the Bible. Shanghai: CCC/TSPM, 2000, 2.
2 K.H. Ting. How to Study the Bible. Shanghai: CCC, 1995, 35.
3 K.H. Ting. "Talk at th e50th Anniversary Celebrations for the TSPM, " Nanjing Theological Review 4(2000): 4.
4 K.H. Ting. Love Never Ends. Nanjing: Yilin Press, 2000, 395.
5 Ibid, 411.
7 Ibid, 412.
8 Ibid, 415.
9 K.H. Ting, Papers from the Forum on Chinese Views of the Bible, 3.
10Fiftieth Anniversary Celebrations for the Three-Self Patriotic Movement of Protestant Churches in China, 43.
11 Yan Xiyu. "From Three-Self to Three-Well." Tian Feng 11(2001): 13.