Holding the Line on Justification

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For the past decade or so, I have had the privilege of playing a minor role in the defense of the Protestant doctrine of justification.  Running in the circles of the anti-New Perspective resistance, I have known the passions of those of us who first raised the alarm and then sought to man the barricades.  There have been times when it seemed to us that the panzers of higher-critical and post-conservative scholarship were on the brink of breaking through into the evangelical motherland.  But more recently it has seemed that the defense is stiffening and the Maginot line of justification is holding up against the assault.

This summer has been especially encouraging.  I would hail two events as particularly significant.  The first is the PCA's overwhelming approval of the study report on the New Perspective on Paul and the Federal Vision as they pertain to justification and the recent issue of Christianity Today and its clear stand with the historic Protestant doctrine.  I would especially alert readers to the telling CT editorial and the cover story by long-time NPP critic Simon Gathercole.  Soon, our defense will covert to counter-assault, as evidenced by the soon-to-appear exegetical study by John Piper, The Future of Justification: A Response to N.T. Wright.

So what does this mean?  I think it means that while academia continues to hem and haw about justification, endlessly calling for further study, the leading institutions of the church are declaring "enough is enough -- we will not give away our precious doctrine of justification."

First, it is increasingly clear that the PCA's adoption of the NPP/FV study report was a very significant event.  Other Reformed denominations had acted similarly, but the PCA is the Reformed denomination that most strongly intersects with broader evangelicalism.  Undoubtedly, many were watching this summer's PCA General Assembly.  This is reflected in the prominence given to its action in the CT editorial.  If the PCA -- arguably the braodest of the Reformed denominations and the most open to new winds (whether a virtue or a vice, can be decided elsewhere) -- had refused to stand, there would have been a major gap in the defense.  But with the PCA standing so decidedly, the justification line of defense was greatly strengthened.

Secondly, the CT editorial is both satisfying and instructive.  It notes the broader connection between the NPP and the recent flight to Rome of such notable evangelicals as Francis Beckwith, recent president of the Evangelical Theological Society.  The connections between the NPP and the "Home to Rome" movement can be unfairly drawn.  But the connection nonetheless exists, both in the doubt cast on the virtue of faith alone and in the obvious intention of scholars like N.T. Wright to devise a way to cut the Reformation's gordian knot of justification.  As I say, while it is easy to overstate and oversimplify this connection, CT boldly notes and refutes the connection, standing firmly on the gospel "virtue" of sola fide.  CT affirms justification through faith alone as an evangelical and Protestant essential writing: "Protestants from John Calvin to John Wesley have agreed: We have peace with God by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone."  And CT ably refutes the argument that an emphasis on faith alone will undercut both sanctification and the corporate dynamics of Christian salvation.  This assault on justification, CT says, "displays a fundamental misunderstanding of what happens in justification. It is not only about getting rid of personal guilt; it is also about taking on a new corporate identity."

Thirdly, I would commend Gathercole's cover statement as an outstanding summary of the evangelical consensus against the New Perspective and for classical Protestant justification.  Having been a partisan in this debate for about a decade, I would say that his six criticisms of the New Perspective ably summarize the front line of defense as it has developed on behalf of justification.  I am quite hopeful that this line will, in fact, hold in the churches and that from this line of defense a constructive counter assault can be launched, with Piper's book leading the way.

Lastly, I am hopeful that the successful defense of justification will play a constructive role in shaping a robustly biblical consensus for the next stage of American evangelicalism.  Gathercole notes some constructive criticisms that have been made by the New Perspective advocates, namely their concerns about excessive individualism and an alarming antinomianism in late-20th century evangelicalism.  The NPP critics have long cried "Amen" to these concerns, while denying that the doctrine of justification is at fault.  Instead, as the CT editorial wonderfully argues, a true grasp of the historical Protestant doctrine of justification serves and inspires the true Christian virtue to which we are called -- individually and corporately -- in Christ.  As CT argues: "Simply put, those who are truly justified will lead lives of holiness, knowing with Paul that 'we are God's workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do' (Eph. 2:10)."  For a true grasp of the free gift of justification through faith in Christ alone "signals our understanding that Christ's virtue counts for everything, and that any good the Holy Spirit enables us to do is but a grateful response to God's gift of justification."

Amen and amen.  And may this good summer in the defense of justification lead to a season of harvest in our lives and churches as we move forward with a renewed confidence in the life-changing gospel, its message of justification for sinners through faith in the saving work of our Lord Jesus, and its mandate for the transforming power of the Kingdom of Christ.

After all, the true enemy has never been N.T. Wright or the New Perspective Advocates, to whom I will gladly impute laudable motives of concern for the state of the church.  The true enemy is the reign of darkness and the world's bondage to Satan and sin.  The sooner we can recover the sharp edge of our gospel sword, the sooner we can devote ourselves more fully to the true battle of kingdom service to Christ.

Posted August 11, 2007 @ 11:37 AM by Rick Phillips

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