The Relation of Good Works and Justification to God

A historical survey of the Church’s understanding of the relation between the doctrines of justification and sanctification

During the Reformation, intense debate centered on how and when people gain right legal standing before God.  The understanding of this doctrine, justification, directly affects the theological understanding of how (and for what purposes) a person is brought to Christ-likeness and sanctified over the course of the Christian life.  On one side of the debate, theologians contend that justification is contingent upon a person’s progress in sanctification.  People are motivated to (by the aid of grace) make efforts to grow in righteousness, and achieve righteous character through good works, so that, in achieving righteous character, people can by their own nature be justified before God.  At the other extreme, theologians make justification a legal matter in which sanctification becomes an unnecessary redundancy and an afterthought to God’s clearing of legal guilt.  In this case, Christians rest in the belief that, because God has given them pardon and made them positionally justified, the pursuit of holiness is not requisite to salvation, and sanctification depends primarily on the Spirit’s work and requires little of their own effort.  This paper will broadly survey the history and development of the doctrines of justification and sanctification by key historical theologians, surveying the theological thought of Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, John Calvin, and Francis Turretin.  While there are many notable heirs to the Reformed tradition, Francis Turretin has been chosen because he is considered by many as the most precise theologian in the Protestant tradition.  The comparison of these surveys will help to show how the Church has come to understand the doctrine of justification, and demonstrate that, while Calvin’s understandings of justification and sanctification are iconic representations of Reformation thought, they are fairly unique among historical theology.

Pre-Reformation – Augustine and Aquinas

Because it is sometimes asserted that Augustine changed theological course midway through his life, this paper will work exclusively from Augustine’s Retractions, collected and edited in his final four years.  It is common to hear Augustine referred to as the first of the Reformers (because of his doctrine of predestination), but this survey will clearly demonstrate that despite any consistencies with the Reformation tradition, Augustine’s temporal ordering and  understanding of the relationship between justification and sanctification are more closely echoed by Aquinas than by Luther, Calvin, or the Protestant tradition.

A prime motive of Augustine’s work on the doctrine of justification was to address concerns raised by the teaching of his heretical contemporary Pelagius.  A vehement opponent of predestination, denier of the doctrine of depravity, and ardent moralist, Pelagian was accused by Augustine of denying the necessity of God’s grace for the performance of righteous works or the attaining of salvation. Conversely, Augustine contended that it is only when the will has received grace that man can freely will good rather than evil.  Thus, salvation can only be achieved by the grace of God.  Referring to the Pelagians, Augustine said, “They, however, must be resisted with the utmost ardor and vigor who suppose that without God’s help, the mere power of the human will in itself; can either perfect righteousness, or advance steadily towards it,” [1] and, “The works of righteousness [man] never does, except as he receives ability from that fountain [of grace].” [2]  It was not, however, Augustine’s contention that God’s grace necessitates man’s certain response.  Saint Augustine wrote in his Retractions, “There are some persons who so defend God’s grace as to deny man’s free will, or who suppose that free will is denied when grace is defended,” [3] but it is the “free will of man [Paul] appeals to . . . when he says . . ‘We beseech you that you receive not the grace of God in vain’” (2 Cor 6:1), suggesting that God’s grace could have been in vain, but “neither was it the grace of God alone, nor was it [Paul] alone, but it was the grace of God with Paul.” [4]  Hence, upon the receiving of God’s grace, the power of decision becomes truly free with respect to all possible choices (good and evil) that the circumstance allows.  For Augustine, Man does not attain the power to will good apart from grace, and grace opens the freedom of man to will to good, but Augustine is clear in stating, “Nowhere . . . in Holy Scripture do we find such an assertion as, There is no volition but comes from God, And rightly is it not so written, because it is not true. . . . [Christ says,] ‘Thou couldest have no power at all against me, except it were given thee from above’ (John 19:11).  But still, when the ability is given, surely no necessity is imposed.” [5]  Thus, for Augustine, good works require volitional agreement between God’s grace and the will of man.

Augustine’s “view was not Pelagian because the Spirit is the effectual cause of this renewal.  Yet, in his schema, God declares believers righteous because they are, in fact, being made righteous through the holiness [gradually] imparted and infused by the Spirit.” [6]  Augustine’s further contention is that while justification precedes the justified as doers of the law, it is still the believers’ grace wrought good works that accrue to their realized justification. [7]  “It is well known that Augustine does not distinguish between justification and sanctification,” but Augustine instead “emphasizes the necessity and priority of God’s grace as an antecedent condition to a person’s justification.” [8]  For Augustine, God, in his election, determines to justify those he chooses.  God then extends grace to his chosen, allowing them to perform the meritorious works which bring them progressively (by a lifelong process) to a regenerate state, and consequently renders them finally justified before God.  Augustine corrects those who afford themselves too much credit in obtaining their salvation, saying, “You did not obtain favor by yourself so that anything should be owed to you.  Therefore, in giving the reward of immortality, God crowns his own gifts, not your merits.” [9]  Thus, for Augustine, the righteous nature which justifies the elect is not imputed, nor is justification a heavenly change in legal status. For Augustine, justification is wrought within the individual by the gift of imparted grace.  Succinctly, Augustine suggests, “Whosoever shall put his trust in [Christ] . . . shall have good works by [God’s] grace; and by them he shall be even in his body redeemed from the corruption of death . . . not temporal but eternal.” [10]  Unlike the Reformers, Augustine’s thought is colored by realism, and Augustine does not treat justification as a forensic declaration. [11]  Commenting more extensively on the means by which God works to sanctify the believer, Augustine suggests that “God acts upon us by the incentives of our perceptions . . . either externally by evangelical exhortations . . . the commands of the law . . . or internally, where no man has in his own control what shall enter into his thoughts.” [12]  “God acts upon the reasonable soul in order that it may believe in Him,” and “to yield or consent . . . to God’s summons is the function of our own will.”[13]  Hence, for Augustine, a person aided by God’s grace, must by his contrary free volition, become truly righteous by his own merit, before he can be declared righteous by God.  Justification thus hinges upon the precedent sanctification of the believer.

Working from the view of justification inherited from Augustine, theologians of the middle ages continued in a tradition that saw “righteousness not as a state, but as a continuous process.” [14]  Boniface explained that Medieval Christians “never suppose that we are righteous enough, but constantly beseech God to increase our merits.”[15]  “Like Augustine . . . Aquinas does not distinguish between justification and sanctification.  For Aquinas, justification is a process by which man grows in his sanctification.”[16]  Reflecting the prevailing thought of the middle ages, Thomas Aquinas used Aristotelian language to pen the theology that would become the Roman Catholic understanding for several hundred years.  Aquinas explained justification as a movement initiated by a prime mover that is “brought about in man by a movement from one contrary to the other.” [17]  In this movement, man travels from the state of sin to the state of justice.   Rejecting full-scale Pelagianism, Aquinas explains the necessity of grace as follows:  “Eternal life is an end exceeding the proportion of human nature. . . . Hence man, by his natural gifts, cannot produce meritorious works proportionate to eternal life; and for this, a higher force is needed.” [18]  Aquinas continues, “Without grace man cannot merit eternal life; yet he can perform works conducting to a good which is natural to man.” [19]  Thus, for Aquinas, a person can perform good acts apart from grace, but without the infusion of grace man cannot perform the quality of good works that accrue to righteousness and render him justified.

Sharing similarities with Augustine, Aquinas stated, “That which flows from free will is also of predestination,”[20] and further agreed that justification was preceded by sanctification.  Where Aquinas ventured beyond Augustine was in more clearly defining the metaphysic that prescribes to man the important role of cooperation in obtaining salvation, ascribing to man the necessity of achieving remission for sin, and carrying these efforts beyond death into purgatory.  In Aquinas model, God moves the person by his initiating grace, and correspondingly the person moves toward God and away from sin and into forgiveness.  God “so infuses the gift of justifying grace that at the same time he moves free choice to accept the gift of grace.”[21]  This cooperative effort is clearly a synergistic work between God and man in a life-long process (and into purgatory if necessary) of moving toward justification. [22]    For Aquinas, justification (into which sanctification is collapsed) can be understood as a four-stage movement from sin to righteousness.  This process requires (1) the infusion of grace, (2) the movement of the free will directed towards God through faith, (3) the movement of the free will directed against sin, and (4) the remission, or forgiveness, of sin. [23]  By this understanding, justification is in no way the product of an imputed alien righteousness, but is the product of an infused grace that actually brings about the righteous nature of the person, whose subsequent actions and nature, qualify his justification.  Aquinas says, “Grace is given to us that we may do good and keep from sin.” [24]  For Aquinas, it is by the infusion of grace that the will is moved away from sin and toward God by faith; and the recipient of grace is ultimately declared righteous based on the person’s own merit, having achieved remission for sin and having been made righteous both in nature and deeds.


Where the Reformation was in many ways a revival of Augustinianism, and more specifically the Augustinian doctrines of depravity, grace, and predestination, the Reformers saw themselves as providing a corrective to Augustine’s formulations of justification and sanctification.  Where Augustine explains justification as being contingent upon the life-long internal regeneration of the believer by grace, Luther argues that justification refers to a change in God’s judgment toward believers based not on the result of the individual’s internal transformation, but on a change in legal status afforded them by the external alien righteousness of Christ, and accounted to believers by faith. [25]  Rather than the temporal impartation of grace seen in the Augustinian and medieval tradition, this alien righteousness is, in a single moment, imputed to the believer via union with Christ.  “The language of imputation moves from the imagery of medicine to that of the law court.  God accepts the righteousness of Christ, which is alien to our nature proper, as our own.  Though our sins are not actually removed, they cease to be counted against us.”[26]  Further, where Augustine espoused that, “when the ability is given, surely no necessity is imposed,” [27]  the Reformers suggest that the justified, while not justified by their works, do necessarily grow in sanctification.

Calvin, a second-generation member of the Reformation movement, inherited the doctrine of justification by faith through grace alone, as well as the basic conviction that justification is “God’s declaration of Christ’s external righteousness upon the believer, making the internal process of [sanctification] notionally distinct from justification.” [28]  Calvin follows Luther’s lead in abandoning Augustine’s definition of justification as an internal transformation and instead sees justification as a change in status before God owed to the alien righteousness of Christ.  Calvin is particularly notable among the Reformers, however, for his broad application and heavy emphasis on the doctrine of union with Christ. Calvin calls the multivalent sum of the gospel the double grace of justification and sanctification and locates the source of this double grace in the believer’s union with Christ via the Holy Spirit.    For Calvin, justification incorporates forensic and transformation images of salvation together, with no temporal gap, holding justification and sanctification as inseparable yet distinct, “not because one necessarily causes or motivates the other, but because the benefits cohere” in Christ.[29]  Thus, Calvin states, “Although we may distinguish them, Christ contains both of them inseparably in himself. . . . He cannot be divided into pieces. . . . [Christ] bestows both of them at the same time. . . . Thus it is clear how true it is that we are justified not without works yet not through works.” [30]  Thus, because Christ cannot be divided into pieces, there is no salvation without justification, and there is no salvation without sanctification.  The Christian’s legal pardon is of grace in the same way that his good works and obedience are.  Calvin says, “In this way [God] sometimes derives eternal life from works, not intending it to be ascribed to them . . . but he makes the prior grace [justification], which is a step to that which follows.” [31]   Unlike other Reformed thinkers, who see sanctification as subsequent to justification, and good works flowing from gratitude and gradual healing by the Spirit, Calvin does not place the elements of salvation in a temporal chain, but as united and hierarchically ordered in the aforementioned union with Christ.

Being that Calvin was an exegetical theologian, rather than a systematic theologian, “there is a sense in which Calvin did not have a sharply defined ‘theology’ of ‘union of Christ’ as a distinct doctrinal locus.” [32]  There is, however, a definite emphasis on union that runs throughout Calvin’s theology, and the terms “adoption, engrafting, and participation in Christ” are among many terms he uses to image justification.  For Calvin, there is a “distinctly communal accent to these images for salvation (incorporated into Christ means being incorporated into Christ’s communal body, the church).” [33]  Thus, union with Christ is not merely an individualistic faith relationship with the person of Christ, but the incorporation of the Christian in God’s covenant community.  Calvin emphasizes that justification belongs to God alone, but is adamant to emphasize that there is no salvation apart from sanctification.  For Calvin, salvation consists of a fourfold causality.  In this fourfold metaphysical distinction, Calvin explains (1) the efficient cause is God’s love and mercy, (2) the material cause is Christ’s work and obedience, (3) the instrumental cause is faith, the instrument by which man receives the Spirit’s illumination, and (4) the final cause is God’s divine justice for the praise of His glory.[34]   While giving justification priority (in hierarchical order) over sanctification, Calvin describes good works as an inferior cause of salvation, though salvation ultimately comes by God’s determination to save the sinner.[35]  Calvin says, “The whole value of works is derived from no other fountain than that of gratuitous acceptance. . . . Not by our own merit but by faith alone, are both our persons and works justified. . . . Justification of works depends on the justification of the person.” [36]  Therefore, on Calvin’s account, salvation is not conditioned upon works, but does not happen without the simultaneity of works.  Salvation comes by the sovereign grace of God, in which justification and sanctification concurrently and inseparably cohere in union with Christ, and are hierarchically ordered by metaphysical distinction.

A 17th-century heir of the Reformed tradition, Francis Turretin agreed with Calvin in attributing the benefits of justification and sanctification to union with Christ, and in subordinating sanctification to justification.  For Turretin, however, salvation is an unbreakable chain that he terms the catena salutis (or chain of salvation). [37]  In Turretin’s model, God’s effectual calling begins the sanctification process which brings about the faith response in the new believer.  By this faith, the believer is justified.  Turretin saw God’s effectual calling as the beginning of the Christian’s sanctification, and because justification comes by faith alone, sanctification thus begins (in part) temporally prior to justification. [38]  Where Turretin sees effectual calling as the beginning of a person’s sanctification, he sees glorification as sanctification’s conclusion.  Thus, it is Turretin’s contention that sanctification should not be included under justification, but instead under effectual calling, and also under glorification.  Consequent to justification the believer bears fruit by growing in righteousness and good works (further sanctification).  These good works are the means by which the believer continues down the path of salvation toward taking hold of final glory (sanctification in whole).   Turretin is adamant to exhort Christians to make efforts to grow in righteousness, suggesting that increasing in good works is the necessary means by which sanctification achieves its ends, glorification. [39]  In Turretin’s catena salutis, effectual calling is the means to the end, justification; justification is the means to the end, sanctification; and sanctification is the means to the end, glorification.

While not affirming that good works are necessary for justification, Turretin does clearly affirm the proposition that good works are necessary for glorification (and logically salvation).  J. V. Fesko explains that in Turretin’s model, works “are not necessary out of a need of personal merit or causality or efficiency, that is, that the believer’s good works somehow effect salvation or secure the right to salvation,” [40] but works are necessary to salvation as “the necessity of means,” or “the means and way” [41] of taking possession of the secured outcome.  Turretin precisely explains his catena salutis saying, “[Works] are related to justification not antecedently, efficiently, or meritoriously, but consequently and declaratively.  They are related to sanctification constitutively because they constitute and promote it. They are related to glorification antecedently and ordinatively because they are related to it as the means to the end.”[42]  Thus, Turretin denies the role that good works play in justification but says good works are, however, the substance of sanctification, and without sanctification, the salvation chain is broken, and glorification lacks its means.  In this sense, one cannot be certain of their justification if they do not bear the consequent fruit; one cannot be certain of final glorification if they do not bear the antecedent works; and one cannot be certain of their salvation if they are not exercising the “required means and way” by which the secured reward (salvation) is possessed.[43]  A break in the chain of salvation is cause for the questioning of one’s salvation by faith.


Unlike his pre-Reformation predecessors, and his post-Reformation successor, Francis Turretin, Calvin resists temporally indexing the process of sanctification.  Where Augustine and Aquinas make sanctification the (temporally prior) requisite concurrent work of God and man for achieving justification, the Reformed tradition fundamentally agrees that justification takes logical precedence over sanctification.  When Richard Baxter and Jacob Arminius disturbed the priority of justification, making it contingent on sanctification, they drew the ire of their contemporaries. [44]  Calvin, like his Reformed partners, subordinates sanctification to justification, but gives unique emphasis to the duplicity of the two, seeing the dual graces as flowing simultaneously to the believer by union with Christ.  While Calvin is in some ways unique in his use of metaphysical distinctions and hesitance to assign temporal order, Calvin remains one voice in a chorus of confessionally Reformed theologians who hierarchically prioritize justification ahead of sanctification for the reasons that (1) Scripture teaches it, (2) it is the Reformed desire to protect and defend Christ’s work for sinners in their justification, and (3) this issue of the justifying work of Christ is the article upon which the Church stands or falls. [45]

family photo 2017 high res

Chad W. Hussey is an average Jesus loving iconoclastic non-conformist neighborhood hope dealer from Houston Texas – a husband, father, preacher, and Master of Divinity student at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.




[1]St. Augustine, The Retractions (The Fathers of the Church) vol. 60 (Washington, DC:  CUA Press, 1968), IV.

[2]Ibid., XI.vii.

[3]St. Augustine, The Retractions vol. 60, LXVI.i.

[4]Ibid., LXVI.xii.

[5]St. Augustine, The Retractions (The Fathers of the Church) vol. 2 (Washington, DC:  CUA Press, 1968), XXXVII.liv.

[6]J. Todd Billings, “John Calvin’s Soteriology:  On the Multifaceted ‘Sum’ of the Gospel” in International Journal of Systematic Theology 11/4 (October, 2009), 430.

[7]St. Augustine, The Retractions vol. 60, XLV.

[8]J. V. Fesko, Beyond Calvin:  Union with Christ and Justification in Early Modern Reformed Theology (1517-1700) (Bristol, CT:  Vandenhoeck & Ruprect, 2012), 106.

[9]St. Augustine, Tractates on the Gospel of John 1-10 (Fathers of the Church Patristic Series) trans. John W. Rettig (Washington, DC:  CUA Press, 2000), John 1:15-18.

[10]St. Augustine, The Retractions vol. 60, LVIII.

[11]J. V. Fesko, Beyond Calvin, 106.

[12]St. Augustine, The Retractions vol. 60, LX.xxxiv.

[13]St. Augustine, The Retractions vol. 60, LX.xxxiv.

[14]Gregg R. Allison, Historical Theology:  An Introduction to Christian Doctrine (Grand Rapids, MI:  Zondervan, 2011), 505.

[15]Boniface, “Sermon 4.4,” in James Pelikan, The Christian Tradition:  A History of the Development of Doctrine vol. 3 (Chicago:  The University of Chicago Press, 1978), 28.

[16]J. V. Fesko, Beyond Calvin, 111.

[17]St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae (Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 2006), 1st pt. of pt. 2 q. 113, art. 1.

[18]Ibid., 1st pt. of pt. 2 q. 109, art. 5.

[19]St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, 1st pt. of pt. 2 q. 114, art. 5.

[20]St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa of the Summa:  The Essential Philosophical Passages of St. Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologica Edited and Explained for Beginners ed. Peter Kreeft (San Francisco:  Ignatius Press, 1990), 177.

[21]St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, 1st pt. of pt. 2 q. 113, art. 3.

[22]Gregg R. Allison, Historical Theology, 505.

[23]Ibid., 1st pt. of pt. 2 q. 113, art. 6.

[24]St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, 1st pt. of pt. 2 q. 109, art. 9.

[25]J. Todd Billings, “John Calvin’s Soteriology,” 430-431.

[26] Timothy George, Theology of the Reformers (Nashville, TN:  B&H Academics, 2013), 70.

[27]St. Augustine, The Retractions vol. 2, XXXVII.liv.

[28]J. Todd Billings, “John Calvin’s Soteriology,” 431.

[29]Chuck Colson, “Calvin:  No Salvation without Sanctification” (Mere Orthodoxy:  October 25, 2013), Retrieved May 6, 2016.

[30]John Calvin, Institute, III.xvi.1.

[31]Calvin, Institutes, III.xiv.21.

[32]J. Todd Billings, “John Calvin’s Soteriology,” 429.

[33]Ibid., 429-430.

[34]John Calvin, Calvin’s New Testament Commentaries: Romans and Thessalonians trans. Ross MacKenzie (Grand Rapids, MI:  Eerdmans, 1995), 73.

[35]J. V. Fesko, Beyond Calvin, 38.

[36]John Calvin, “Acts of the Council of Trent with the Antidote,” in Selected Works vol. 7 trans. Henry Beveridge (Grand Rapids, MI:  Baker, 1983), 3.128.

[37]J. V. Fesko, Beyond Calvin, 335.

[38]Francis Turretin, Institutio Theologiae Eclenticae (Whitefish, MT:  Kessinger Publishing, 2009), XVII.i.11.

[39]Francis Turretin, Institutio, XVII.ii.19.

[40]J. V. Fesko, Beyond Calvin, 335.

[41]Francis Turretin, Institutio, XVII.iii.3.

[42]Ibid., XVII.iii.14.

[43]Francis Turretin, Institutio, XVII.iii.3.

[44]J. V. Fesko, Beyond Calvin, 382.

[45]Ibid., 384.

A More Christian Approach to Post-Christian Culture

Part 3 of a series on the Application of Jeremiah’s ‘Letter to the Exiles’ to Christian Living and Approaching Culture Today. Part 1 Here
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The church’s recognition of its identity as the continuation of Israel, and its exilic existence, provides the context for interpreting Jeremiah 29 today. The question becomes—particularly as the Western church transitions deeper into a post-Christian culture—“How do we sing our song in a strange land?” (Ps 137). As the church journeys through the already but not yet, Jeremiah’s Letter to the Exiles serves as a prescription text for living in the world, but not of the world. In The City of God, Augustine explains that the Bible provides the history of the world as a tale of two cities. The city of man and the city of God. “Babel/Babylon becomes in the Bible a symbol of self-restraint, imperialistic secularism; control without accountability to the Creator. [. . .] Isaiah saw this spirit in the imperial ambitions of Assyria and Babylon (Isa 10:7-11; 14:4-6; 47:5-7, 10).” In Revelation 18, the Apostle John speaks of Rome and the kingdoms of the world to follow as Babylon, the great seducer of nations, and Peter too refers to Rome as Babylon in 1 Peter 5:13. In Augustine’s view, the city of God is the church—the kingdom people of heaven—living in the world. Like the diaspora in Babylon, the church is a culture within the culture working for God’s glory in the midst of a great and dark secular city scape.

Minister to the City
It remains no wonder that God, in Jeremiah 29:5, tells His exiles to settle in the metropolitan center of the Babylonian Empire. A brief survey of the missional strategy of the Apostles shows that God gave them too an affinity for the largest urban areas. Historically it is evident that culture is shaped by what happens within cities. This has become increasingly relevant to the church today. According to the 1790 U. S. census, ninety-five percent of the American population lived outside of urban areas. The percentage of people living in urban areas by 1890 had grown to thirty-five percent. By 1990 approximately sixty-five percent of Americans lived in an urban setting. The nation’s urban population increased by another 12.1 percent from 2000 to 2010. The combination of the exile to Babylon, the missional strategy enacted in the book of Acts, and the rapid urbanization of America, are strong cause for a renewed focus on urban ministry. Despite the focus of much of Christian literature, poetry, paintings, and photography, the height of Christian contentment is not intended by God to be found in sprawling natural landscapes. “The center of God’s creative delight is not a garden, but a city. [. . .] Somehow the city, the embodiment of concentrated human culture, has been transformed from the site of sin and judgment to the ultimate expression of grace, a gift coming ‘down out of heaven from God’ (Rev 21:2).” If we are to honor God’s calling as exiles, the nations are to be reached, and this must begin with the city.

Exhibit Exile Posture
Jeremiah 29:5-7 is clear that exiles are to become citizens and contributors to the city. To be civil is to know how to act in the city. Aristotle said that the first type of bonding a person experiences in terms of kinship is with family. Kinship then extends to extended family, to friendship, and then the culmination of civility comes when a person learns to extend the bond of kinship to strangers. When a person can learn to love the stranger as family, they become a person of civility. Aristotle also said that a man without a city is not a man. He is either superhuman, or a beast. This is not a calling to accommodate the secular world, but a call to engage in what Richard Mouw calls, “convicted civility.” Mouw’s simple premise is that convictions and civility are not at odds. Christians require, not a change in calling, but a reevaluation of their approach to their calling. Further, Christians require a new view of their non-believing neighbors whom they are called to love. “Jeremiah’s life and prophesy is based on faithfulness and sacrificial love, which is a reflection of Jesus. God says, ‘I’m giving you over to them, put your faith and hope in me, and there will be life. This is not your home, but seek the peace and prosperity of your pagan neighbors and in it you will prosper.’”

Many theological views see the “post-exilic Hebrew history and literature as representing the period of sad decline and loss.” Daniel L. Smith-Christopher contends that “the Jewish people is deserving of attention not only in the time when it displayed its power and enjoyed its independence, but as well in the period of its weakness and oppression during which it was compelled to purchase spiritual development by constant sacrifice of self.” An exegetical view that sees the exile as more than merely a regrettable fate for Israel acknowledges that the exile forced the Israelites into the very positive formative act of learning what faithfulness to Yahweh looks like outside the borders of a theocracy. In the diaspora the exiles demonstrated that it is possible to be a faithful people outside a nation-state model, and outside a culture in which God’s people maintain political control. “For American Christians, the task will be the painful process of disengaging from the myths of the dominant ‘Christian nation’ that has so deeply corrupted a radical Christian witness in the world.”

Breaking false American conceptions: Christianity is neither politically theocratic, nor is Christ’s kingdom of this world.


Today, it is becoming increasingly clear that the Christian majority that has stood in the West as the socio-political order for nearly two millennia will not be the environment in which future Christians will live. Christians will draw increasingly closer to feeling the reality of exile. In an “attempted reassertion of political and social authority,” well-meaning but misguided Christians address this loss of power with a “crusading mentality,” and by “doing theology by megaphone.” The circumstance requires the consideration of a striving for a more civil virtue. Christians must learn to develop a Christ-like language that speaks with, and not at sinners. The post-exilic Scriptures hold many examples for emulation. Virtuous believers like Daniel, Mordecai, Esther, Nehemiah, Zerubbabel, and Ezra demonstrated that the proverb is true: “He who loves purity of heart, and whose speech is gracious, will have the king as his friend” (Prov 22:11). The key for the people of God is ‘purity of heart.’ In the posture of exile the Western church must do as its spiritual forefathers did before, and must submit its heart to the plow (Hos 10:12).

Exhibit Exile Action
Following the flow of Jeremiah’s prescription for the life of the exiles it can be clearly concluded in what ways God intends His people to be a blessing to the city. The first thing we understand about God is that, in the Trinity, He is communal. He pours Himself out in love and gives His life away as a gift to others—sinners, rebels, and pagans. In His image, God made man to give Himself away. In Jeremiah 29:6 it is made clear that the first step toward true civilization is family; and family starts with marriage. “When we [say] yes to marriage, we are saying yes to the life of the world. We are saying yes to the mystery ahead [. . .] new life. [. . .] Ultimately, saying yes to marriage is about living a life of offering. Marriage is a yes to your beloved, and you and your beloved saying yes to your family. Your family saying yes to the world.” Man is pointed outside himself, to his God, to his family, to his neighbor, and to his city. “Christian culture making [. . .] is a matter of community—a relatively small group of people whose common life is ordered by love. [. . .] It seems small besides the towers of Babel and Babylon. It is like a mustard seed, tiny and seemingly vulnerable. But it is the unseen truth of the universe, the key to the whole story.” Like the Jews in Babylon it remains crucial that Christians not lose their faith identity in pursuing the love of neighbor. This begins with, and is not limited to, honoring the Bible’s command to restrict Christian marriages to New Covenant believers. Christians must strive to introduce non-believers to the gift of Christ Jesus, but limit marriage vows to those of faith. Unity in faith is sacred, and that unity must begin in the home and work outward. Healthy family is the foundation of healthy society.

Jeremiah 29:7 could not be clearer that God’s purpose for His people is that they should give and not take. Most people live in the city because of the abundant amenities the city offers them. Spiritual Israel (the church), is God’s gift to the world. The world is not merely God’s gift to the church—Christ is God’s gift to the church. In the image of God, it is the nature of God’s people to give. Work cannot merely be about oneself, but must serve the needs and wants of others. The righteous person should give freely, and strive to take no more for themselves than what is needed. In God’s image people are makers and creators. Gifts are given by God to be shared and to be stewarded. A mentor transfers wisdom for the sake of unlocking potential in another. This is the stewardship of the gift of knowledge. When knowledge is shared, communities thrive. In like manner, discipleship transfers faith and pays forward the fruit of raising disciples who make disciples, advancing the kingdom of heaven. Work too is a God given gift to be stewarded. Through vocation a person discovers their callings, and in vocation a person creates the goods and services that benefit people for the greater good. The fruit of work is not merely the products, but relationships. The fruit of a Christian’s labor is ultimately fellowship, community, and relationship. More than just consumable products, business creates an economy of community and meets that community’s needs. This has been evidenced in society in the justice system, medical system, education system, welfare system, etc. All of these constructs are imperfect but faithful strivings to apply faith, wisdom, and love, for the advancement of the city’s people, for the glory of God.

A person who consistently seeks God’s will and has a concern for the things that concern God will not easily be led astray by false prosperity teachings like those in Jeremiah 29:8-9. Christians should not idolatrize ease, comfort, and material wishes in denial of the will of God for the good of their souls and the care of others. If Christians are to be about the welfare of others, they must make sacrifices and cease neglecting to love the stranger, the sojourner, the outcast, the defenseless, the poor, the orphaned, and the widowed. As a people who gives, rather than takes, Christians must make space for these people in their lives, budgets, and homes, remembering that while we were strangers, Christ died for us (Rom 5:8). Because Christ commands His followers, Christ is in His followers, and Christ is glorified by His followers. Life is not meant to be inwardly focused or to be lived for self. The life that terminates on the self is a life that truly fails to live at all because it is a life that only deeply knows one very small sampling of the many billions of beautiful creations and experiences God has made for His children’s concern and wonder.

Christ followers should live from a position of awe, beholding God’s beauty and His goodness. In Jeremiah 29:11-14 God has told the Israelites He is for their good. God makes similar promises, specifically relevant to Christ followers, in Romans 8:28-32. Living in light of God’s promises and His gifts—as kingdom heirs—God’s people will rediscover their humanity and who God has created them to be. The Christian who finds joy in the will of God will have their fortunes restored in flourishing in their own personal shalom.

What does it look like to live in the awe of God and to steward one’s life and gifts for the glory of Christ and the life of others? Gerard Manley Hopkins, who as a young man struggled with homoerotic thoughts, and suffered a lifelong affliction with what is today called bipolar disorder , paints a glorious picture. “What I do is me: for that I came. I say more, the just man justices; keeps grace: that keeps all his goings graces; acts what in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is – Christ – for Christ plays in ten thousand places, lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not His; to the Father through features of men’s faces.” This is the personified and active beauty of the Christian sojourner’s work, empowered by the grace of Christ. As Shakespeare said, “To thine own self be true.” This is by no means to say, “Be selfish,” or “Follow your heart” (Jer 17:9); but it is to say that each of God’s children is endowed, nay embedded, with unique and certain gifts for stewarding back to God in service of the Father and concern for fellow man. A Christian is to recognize their gift and honor the stewardship of that gift. Hopkins gave his life and his sin to God, and in turn was led to the priesthood and to celibacy. By God’s grace he came to understand his gift was in keeping a literary treasury of the Creator’s majesty—communicating the beauty of God in an aesthetic theology he observed in all things seen, and in the awesomeness of relationship with the Unseeable. This was his gift and his calling. Using his calling he has summed up the calling of every Christian.

Every Christian should do what the Father has gifted them to do, and they should do it with all their might, for the welfare of the city of man to the glory of God. As the Body of Christ, Christians are the hands and feet of Christ in the world. Christian lives are for His service and to His glory. If Christ be in a person, their desire to actively engage the calling to steward their God-given gifts should be no less natural than breathing.

Like the Judean exiles in Jeremiah 29:11-14, “we are called to abide in God and say, ‘Let it be to His plan for our part in His divine and wondrous mystery.’ We can be assured that God’s desire for our work is a mighty collaboration, not only with our Creator, but the entire world. In this broken world we have a responsibility to bring healing and harmony to our most immediate surroundings, and work outward. By these actions we too are healed.” Let us not deny our exile, accepting this place as home. Let us not live for the now. Let us not resist the plow. Let us not allow the potential work of our gifts to go unrealized, or our lives to terminate on self. Let us follow God where He leads us, settle there, and give every ounce of our lives. Let us be like Christ, and be poured out as a gift in the city of man – for the love of our neighbor, for the welfare of the city, and for the life of the world; so that in this all the glory may be God’s; forever. Amen.

* References are cited in the print format available for download above.

Chad W. Hussey is an average Jesus loving iconoclastic non-conformist neighborhood hope dealer – a husband, father, urban missionary, community group leader, Master of Divinity student at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, and Community Life Intern at Sojourn Community Church in Louisville, KY.

Chad W. Hussey