Teaching Justification to Students

baseball coach

Join us for Rooted’s 2022 Conference in Kansas City, MO, and learn from pastor and author Greg Meyer in a workshop on teaching the doctrine of justification to teenagers. Greg has written a book called A Student’s Guide to Justification and will offer a refresher on this doctrine, along with ideas for how to apply it richly in youth ministry. You can hear more from Greg on this topic of justification on the Rooted Youth Ministry Podcast.

Teaching the gospel to teenagers can feel a little like trying to pass on the gloriously complex sport of baseball.

Here’s what I mean: As “America’s Pastime,” baseball has seeped into the fabric of this country’s culture—whether you enjoy watching it or not. And yet, it’s a strange sport. I have been reminded of this as I have been teaching my sons the finer points of the game. Often, I find myself saying things like “this happens every time, except if this happens, or if this happens, or if this person does this” to them.  As familiar as I am with the sport, there are aspects of it I still forget.[1]

As parents and youth leaders, we can find ourselves in the same predicament when we endeavor to teach the gospel to teenagers. There are parts of it we easily forget. We often struggle to clearly explain the finer points of the gospel, and specifically the doctrine of justification by faith, to the next generation. And this is not even to mention the cultural and generational roadblocks that can get in our way. (What do “yeet,” “weird flex,” and “this song is gas” mean anyway?[2])

Still, we are called by God to pass on the good news to the next generation.[3] This is our great privilege and joy, particularly as we get to impart the very core of this good news that theologians describe as justification: that God makes sinners right with himself through the person and work of His Son, Jesus Christ. Another way to put it is that justification is God’s good news answer to our bad news. God loves sinners and has accomplished their salvation through His Son—who makes forgiveness, righteousness, and adoption ours—all out of sheer grace and received by faith alone. This breathtaking, life-changing truth is central to the faith we profess as followers of Jesus and to the teachings of Scripture.

Unlike some obscure baseball rule, justification is a core truth and reality at the heart of all God has done and is doing in the world and human history.

The Struggle With Justification

The struggle is real when it comes to communicating justification to a generation that is increasingly biblically illiterate, that typically engages the teaching of Scripture with a therapeutic slant, and that is highly skeptical of institutions and individuals claiming any kind of moral authority.

Furthermore, Christian teachers often fail to communicate in clear or fresh ways. Frequently, we repeat churchy formulations rather than explaining things in relatable terms. And much of the time, we assume teenagers’ hurdles to embracing and appropriating the good news are similar to our own when we were young—which means we fail to account for the massive cultural and technological shifts that have altered young people’s approach to God, church, and the Bible.

Here are a few suggestions as we seek to meaningfully communicate the doctrine of justification to teenagers:

Emphasize the relational aspect of the doctrine.  In justification, the God of love is pursuing his lost children, reconciling us to himself. We are reunited in cosmic relationship with God and brought into intimate with others who have trusted in Jesus. This is a refreshing truth for a generation longing for intimate relationship but not knowing how to find it.

Emphasize the moral aspect of the doctrine. We must combat our cultural tendency toward a therapeutic understanding of the gospel (i.e. it’s supposed to make me “feel better.”) There is great emotional relief to be found in the forgiveness of sins and the righteousness of Christ—but let’s expand our horizons to show that God has a more holistic, substantial healing in mind for his people. What most stands in our way is our sin, rebellion, and alienation from God. Our problem is fundamentally moral, not psychological.

Situate the doctrine of justification in the larger sweep of the story of redemption in Scripture and God’s unfolding covenant of grace with human beings. Justification is one of many aspects of the gospel, one of the benefits of our union with Christ—along with adoption, sanctification, glorification, etc. Help students see that God has been about reconciling sinners to himself since the beginning.

Compare and contrast with other world religions to show the uniqueness of Christianity’s response to our human problem. Whereas other religious approaches require us to work our way to the divine or some standard of virtue, God comes to us and makes provision for us in the gospel. Grace is at the heart of justification, and it’s unique.

Be sensitive to studentsbiblical and theological illiteracy. Even churched kids are likely not familiar with the classic language used to explain justification. Define your terms as you go.  Seek to use practical, everyday language and analogies. Youth ministry is fundamentally cross-cultural mission work.[4]

Be sensitive to studentsdevelopment stage and learning styles. Consider that younger teenagers are still in the stage of concrete learning and may not yet be ready to engage in abstract concepts and descriptions. Their reading comprehension and educational capacity is affected by our highly visual, rapid-fire, and information-overloaded culture. Scale down your content and don’t just lecture.

Highlight the bad news” of human sin on the way to communicating the good news of the gospel. Otherwise, the good news won’t be that good.  We must make clear not only the bad news that we’re all sinners, but also the bad news that we’re not righteous—we fall short of God’s standard and can do nothing objectively good apart from Him. Our self-righteousness (as an act of sin in itself) alienates us from God, our own selves, and others—we need Jesus.

Share your own story. Tell of how you have and continue to experience the grace of Jesus and your joy of living as one who is justified by grace through faith. This will strike them more powerfully than theoretical teaching.

Live like you believe in justification. Your attitude and response to the teenagers you serve makes a huge difference as you communicate the gospel to them. Seeking to live consistently with the gospel we teach, we can help them overcome the “head/heart gap.” As we confess our own sins and seek forgiveness, as we reject a judgmental and critical attitude, the doctrine of justification will shine in us. We won’t do this perfectly and that’s the point! We have the opportunity to be a living example of God’s grace.

Finally, teach justification regularly. Connect to it as you teach from a variety of passages, instead of merely as a one-off doctrinal lesson. Keep on consistently messaging the idea of justification by grace through faith, like a coach. And as you do, draw encouragement from the history of the Church. This is not the first nor the last generation who needed to hear the good news of Jesus. Take heart and be hopeful because God is with you and he is at work!

[1] Such as making sure a runner it outside the base path when leading off of third base plus all these other odd ones: https://www.mlb.com/cut4/c40850544

[2] This may help you out a little: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YtrxVWf91Jo

[3] Psalm 78; Deut 6

[4] I give a hat-tip to Dr. Walt Mueller for this insight.

Greg Meyer (MDiv, Reformed Theological Seminary; BSE, Mercer University) serves as the Assistant Pastor at Trinity Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Tuscaloosa, AL. Prior to this, he served in youth ministry for over a decade at churces in Missouri, Mississippi, and Georgia. He is the author of A Student’s Guide to Justification and has served as a conference speaker with Reformed Youth Ministries. Greg has written for the Center for Parent/Youth Understanding (CPYU), Modern Reformation, and Orthodoxy Orthopraxy, Covenant Theological Seminary’s blog. He also blogs on his own site Moment-By-Moment. Greg and his wife, Mary Jane, have four children.

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