Results tagged “justification” from Reformation21 Blog

Luther, Law and Love


Life is too short not to reap the spiritual benefit of reading Martin Luther's Commentary on the Epistle to the Galatians. Archibald Alexander, the first professor at Princeton Theological Seminary, once said that this particular work was the most influential book he read during his formative years. While Luther was certainly a theologian in transition throughout much of his early years, his commentary on Galatians gives us the most robust and developed Reformational theology--the fruit of years of diligent theological study, wrestling with the text of Scripture in polemical dialogue with the medieval Catholicism from which Luther labored set the church free. 

Insisting that Martin Luther was antinomian (i.e. that he had no place for the moral Law of God in the Christian life) many have sadly misrepresented Luther's doctrine of sanctification. There are several rationales for such a mischaracterization. First, Luther made infelicitous statements about the Epistle of James, on account of the fact that he did not understand James' argument on faith and good works. Second--and in many respects related to the first--Luther spent a great deal of his time fighting against the Roman Catholic notion that love was co-instrumental with faith in our justification before God. Luther's relentless defense of justification by faith alone has often overshadowed all that he wrote on sanctification and the Christian life. Third, Luther tended to stress the role of the Holy Spirit as the agent and faith and love as the co-instruments of our sanctification more than he did the Law of God as a means of our sanctification. While Calvin often spoke of the law of God as a means of our sanctification, Luther tended to place his emphasis on the other elements of the process of sanctification. A brief perusal of Luther's treatment of the applicatory section of Galatians, however, shows how he developed his teaching on the place of love in the believer's sanctification with regard to the demands of the law of God. In short, Martin Luther did not believe that sanctification was produced in the life of a believer by a passive, inactive faith. He emphatically asserted otherwise, in his commentary on Galatians 5. 

When he came to exposit Galatians 5:6, Luther explained that there is a dual instrumentality of faith and love in our sanctification. He wrote:

"Faith must of course be sincere. It must be a faith that performs good works through love. If faith lacks love it is not true faith. Thus the Apostle bars the way of hypocrites to the kingdom of Christ on all sides. He declares on the one hand, "In Christ Jesus circumcision avails nothing," i.e., works avail nothing, but faith alone, and that without any merit whatever, avails before God. On the other hand, the Apostle declares that without fruits faith serves no purpose. To think, "If faith justifies without works, let us work nothing," is to despise the grace of God. Idle faith is not justifying faith. In this terse manner Paul presents the whole life of a Christian. Inwardly it consists in faith towards God, outwardly in love towards our fellow-men."

That being said, when he came to Galatians 5:16, Luther unequivocally denied that love plays any role in our justification:

"It is a great error to attribute justification to a love that does not exist or, if it does, is not great enough to placate God; for, as I have said, even the saints love in an imperfect and impure way in this present life, and nothing impure will enter the kingdom of God (Eph. 5:5). But meanwhile we are sustained by the trust that Christ, "who committed no sin and on whose lips no guile was found" (1 Peter 2:22), covers us with His righteousness. Shaded and protected by this covering, this heaven of the forgiveness of sins and this mercy seat, we begin to love and to keep the Law. As long as we live, we are not justified or accepted by God on account of this keeping of the Law. But "when Christ delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every authority" (1 Cor. 15:24), and when "God is everything to everyone" (1 Cor. 15:28), then faith and hope will pass away, and love will be perfect and eternal (1 Cor. 13:8)."1

And, while Luther took the strongest stand against the insistence that love plays any part in our justification, he came full circle back to defense the truth about love in the work of sanctification in his comments on the fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5:23. Luther explained his understanding of Paul's use of the phrase "against which there is no law," when he wrote, 

"One must beware of understanding him in a stupid way, as if the righteous man did not have to live a good life and do good deeds (for this is what the uninstructed understand not being under the Law to mean). But the righteous has no law, because he owes the Law nothing, since he has the love which performs and fulfills the Law."2

While this may not satisfy all the concerns one may have about a theological deficiency in Luther's doctrine of sanctification, a careful study of his commentary on Galatians is sure to put many of uniformed concerns at bay. 

1. Martin Luther, Luther's Works, vol. 27: Lectures on Galatians, 1535, Chapters 5-6; 1519, Chapters 1-6. (J. J. Pelikan, H. C. Oswald, & H. T. Lehmann, Eds.) (Vol. 27, p. 64). Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House.

2. Ibid., p. 378.

Literary Theological Imagination


The function of the literary imagination is to incarnate meaning in concrete images, characters, events, and settings rather than abstract or propositional arguments. To use the formula of Dorothy Sayers, the imagination images forth its subject, and in turn it is a commonplace that what literature preeminently "images forth" is human experience.

Literature and theology are complementary ways of putting us in possession of Christian doctrine.  Neither is complete in itself. In this post, I propose to use the doctrine of justification as a test case of what I like to call the theological imagination--not the theological intellect but the theological imagination.

On the surface, justification might seem to be so thoroughly abstract that it resists being imaged forth. But it turns out that the theological imagination has done splendidly with the doctrine of justification.

Biblical Images of Justification

The first writers to image forth a given Christian doctrine are always the authors of the Bible.  I will start my survey of selected literary portrayals of justification with the fictional vision of a high priest in a tight spot, as narrated in Zechariah 3:1-5.  The story begins in medias res, as we are ushered in our imaginations into a process that is already underway.  The first thing we notice when the curtain is pulled back is an adversarial situation involving three agents, with an implied small group of courtroom onlookers.  The angel of the Lord stands as a judge who is on the side of the accused.  On the other side of the accused, who is belatedly identified as Joshua the high priest, stands Satan as accuser.

Thus we have a courtroom scene, with an accused, a prosecutor, and a combined defender and judge.  As the action unfolds, the images of justification start to multiply.  The angel of the Lord identifies Joshua as "a brand plucked from the fire."  Thus the imagery of rescue is part of the picture of justification.  The guilty status of Joshua is imaged forth in "filthy garments."  The command by the angel of the Lord to clothe the high priest with "pure vestments" and "a clean turban" can plausibly be interpreted as imagery of justification, since the change of garments is sufficient to banish the accuser from the scene.  In other words, the changed status of Joshua is imaged forth as a change in clothing.

This famous story presents justification not as an idea but as a drama and by means of images.  It is a product of the theological imagination (and we should note the word image is always present in the word imagination).  Furthermore, the story of the rescued high priest belongs to the genre of visionary writing and is thus a product of the fictional imagination.

My second biblical example also falls into the category of fictional narrative.  Jesus presents justification concretely in the famous parable of the Pharisee and tax collector:   "But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, 'God, be merciful to me, a sinner!'  I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other" (Luke 18:13-14, ESV).)  "Went home justified:"  in a moment I will explore a famous literary example of a sinner who did not go home justified.  The ingredients in Jesus' parable are a sinner, God as judge, and divine mercy as the vehicle for the sinner's being justified.  This is nothing less than the biblical paradigm for justification.

I tell my students that the theology of the Bible is more precise in the expository parts than the literary parts, but that the compensating factor in the literary parts is the way in which literary images appeal to our imaginations and feelings and reach us at a subconscious level.  John Milton claimed that literary writing is "more simple, sensuous, and passionate" than expository writing.  Surely this is evident when we compare the vision of the justified high priest or the parable of the justified tax collector with the theological exposition that makes up the Epistle to the Romans.

As I turn to two extra-biblical examples of images of justification, I can imagine someone's asking, What can literary authors tell us about justification?   Isn't the Bible our definitive source on theology, and aren't literary authors a bit naïve as expositors of theology?  My answer is that literary authors can be useful in a manner akin to a good sermon or theological essay on justification.  In our circles we have an unjustifiable tendency to be dismissive of the theological acumen of literary authors.

Paradise Lost, Book 3

John Milton's grand design in Paradise Lost was to Christianize the motifs of classical epic.  One of those motifs was the council of the gods, in which gods and goddesses assemble to decide what will happen on earth, and then the human action follows according to this divine script.   Milton adapted this epic convention in the so-called dialogue in heaven at the beginning of Book 3 of Paradise Lost.  This dialogue is an intra-Trinitarian conversation between Father and Son to determine what will happen to the human race after Adam and Eve have succumbed to Satan's temptation in the garden.

The scene unfolds as a back-and-forth dialogue between Father and Son that assumes the nature of a weighing of the demands of justice and mercy in bringing about the salvation of the human race.  The dialogue reaches its climax when the Father says regarding Adam,

He with his whole posterity must die,
Die he or justice must; unless for him
Some other able, and as willing, pay
The rigid satisfaction, death for death.
Say heavenly powers, where shall we find such love,
Which of ye will be mortal to redeem
Man's mortal crime, and just the unjust to save,
Dwells in all heaven charity so dear?

The hinge between that challenge and the Son's offer to die for the human race is the epic narrator's comment, 

"And now without redemption all mankind / Must have been lost, . . . / had not the Son of God . . . / His dearest mediation thus renewed."  When I teach this passage in class, I quote Thomas Chalmers:  "What could I do if God ... did not justify the ungodly?"

What is Milton's angle on justification in his dialogue in Heaven?  The focus falls on the Son's substitutionary atonement as the event that enables God the Father to declare sinners just.  "Die he or justice must:"  in Christ, the sinner does die, and thereby the demands of justice are met. For readers who know Milton's dialogue in Heaven, it is a treasured literary image of justification.

The Scarlet Letter

I need to challenge a fallacy regarding Nathaniel Hawthorne.  That fallacy is that because Hawthorne was not part of the institutional Christianity of his day, and because he satirized the Puritans in his fiction, he was not a Christian writer.  In saying that I think Hawthorne is a Christian writer, I am not commenting on his state of soul.  I am commenting on his intellectual allegiance in his fiction.

Hawthorne's notebooks are filled with references to God, leading literary critic Joseph Schwartz to say that Hawthorne was "innately religious" and "more than any other writer of his time ... a God-centered writer".   Hawthorne's acquaintance with the Bible and reliance on it in his fiction was so thorough that his editor and publisher claimed that when he questioned Hawthorne about his use of a word, Hawthorne would almost always refer him to the Bible as his authority (James T. Fields).  Hawthorne's theology, claimed Austin Warren, was a "nameless and indisputatious" Calvinism or Puritanism, "arrived at by experience and insight."

The customary designation for the confession scene at the end of The Scarlet Letter is that it is a story of salvation, but I became intrigued by what would emerge if the confession scene were viewed through the more specific lens of justification.  It turns out that the terminology that Hawthorne used in composing the scene fits the criteria of justification very well.

The protagonist in the agon is surely the guiltiest sinner in the annals of American literature.  Arthur Dimmesdale is guilty on multiple counts.  He is the adulterous partner of Hester Prynne and father of the illegitimate daughter Pearl.  He is guilty of cowardice and a cover-up when he refuses to publicly acknowledge and confess the aforesaid sin.  He becomes the complete hypocrite as his congregation adulates him while he knows himself to be guilty of the sins I have named.  Dimmesdale has abandoned his daughter and her mother through seven terrible years of social ostracism for Hester and Pearl.  So we start this drama of justification with the premise of a guilty sinner.

The story, moreover, is the story of a guilty conscience and of consciousness of sin.  In fact, the great interior action that occupies the middle part of the story is consciousness of sin.  Everyone agrees that Roger Chillingworth, Hester Prynne's husband who becomes the housemate and confidante of Dimmesdale, is a satanic figure who fans the flames of Dimmesdale's guilty conscience.  In doing so, he serves the function of an accuser, and accusation against the guilty sinner is central to justification.  In the confession scene, Chillingworth is repeatedly called "old," that is, as old as Satan, and Dimmesdale also calls him his "tempter."

A dominant image of justification is the courtroom, and we find it here in the confession scene.  Just before Dimmesdale confesses his sins, the narrator tells us that "the clergyman . . . stood out from all the earth to put in his plea of guilty at the bar of Eternal Justice."  At a climactic point of the confession, Dimmesdale says, "Stand any here that question God's judgment on a sinner?  Behold!  Behold a dreadful witness of it!"

Justification is an escape from condemnation, and Chillingworth highlights this aspect of what is happening when he says to Dimmesdale, "Thou hast escaped me!" "Thou hast escaped me!"  In effect, Dimmesdale escapes the clutches of Satan.

And what is the agency of this escape from condemnation?  According to the parliament of heaven framework, God's mercy is the solution to the problem of the sinner's guilt.  That emphasis comes through in the confession scene in The Scarlet Letter. Dimmesdale says to Hester, "For thee and Pearl, be it as God shall order,...and God is merciful."  At the very beginning of the scene, Dimmesdale extends his hands and says, "Hester Prynne, the name of Him, so terrible and so merciful, who gives me grace at this last moment, to do what--for my own heavy sin and miserable agony--I withheld myself from doing seven years ago, come hither now, and twine thy strength about me!"

And in his very last speech, Dimmesdale says in reply to Hester's question whether the couple will "spend our immortal life together," "God knows, and he is merciful!  He hath proved his mercy most of all, in my afflictions.  By giving me this burning torture to bear upon my breast!  By giving me this dark and terrible old man, to keep the torture always at red-heat!  By bringing me hither, to die this death of triumphant ignominy before the people!  Had either of these agonies been wanting, I had been lost forever.  Praised be his name!  His will be done!  Farewell!"

The confession scene in The Scarlet Letter can be read as the confession of a justified sinner. Literary critic Darrel Abel writes that "the account of Dimmesdale's regeneration faithfully follows orthodox Puritan conceptions....The first event in a sinner's regeneration is 'justification.'  [Then quoting a Puritan source:] 'A change must be wrought in his status before any can be made in his nature'."  At the beginning of the confession scene, Dimmesdale says to Hester, "In the name of merciful, who gives me grace, at this last moment, to do what...I withheld myself from doing....Let [thy will] be guided by the will which God hath granted me." "Gives me grace." "The will which God hath granted me."

Why We Need the Theological Imagination

The Bible is the definitive word on justification, but it is not the only word.  If we benefit from sermons and theological articles on justification, we can benefit from literary portrayals of it.  Theological exposition enables us to know the truth about justification intellectually.  We experience that same truth when the doctrine of justification is embodied and incarnated in fictional images of justification.  After all, the biblical images of the reclothed high priest and the tax collector who goes home justified are literary and fictional images of justification, belonging to the same genre as the stories of Milton, and Hawthorne that I have surveyed.

Within the Bible itself justification is presented in the complementary modes of theological exposition and literary images.  I tell my students that it is possible to set up a profitable two-way street between the Bible and literature, with the Bible enabling me to see a lot in literature that I would otherwise miss, and literature enabling me to see and feel biblical truth better.

Ordinarily when we speak of "the Bible as literature" we mean the literary nature of the Bible itself.  My venture in this post provides another angle on the concept of "the Bible as literature."  I have explored what the biblical teaching on justification looks like when it is transmuted into works of imaginative literature--the Bible as literature, that is, as imaginative literature composed by extrabiblical authors.

Leland Ryken (PhD, University of Oregon) is Professor of English emeritus at Wheaton College. He has authored or edited several books, including The Word of God in English, The Dictionary of Biblical Imagery, and The Complete Literary Guide to the Bible. He is a frequent speaker at the Evangelical Theological Society and served as literary stylist for The Holy Bible, English Standard Version.

*This post is an adaptation of an article first published at Reformation21 in February of 2011.

Luther's Royal Marriage


Martin Luther was an outsized personality, with great faith and some great flaws. Living with this great person has a good effect on you. Let me commend his little book, The Freedom of a Christian. When he challenged the practice of indulgences in 1517, and when he debated Johann Eck a year later, Luther's concern was pastoral, what Robert Kolb calls the "consolation of sin ridden consciences."1 Luther was becoming convinced that Christ alone is the savior, he alone is the Lord of the Church and His authority is found in the Scripture alone. But between 1517 and 1520, the leadership of the Church was not buying it. What the Church heard was Luther undercutting the Pope's authority and upsetting church order.

In July 1520 Pope Leo warned Luther of 41 doctrinal errors, and threatened him with excommunication. He had 60 days to recant. In November Luther published his statement of the Christian life, The Freedom of a Christian. He dedicated it to the Pope with an open letter, asking for peace. This is his statement of justification by faith alone.

The book has two theses, or propositions. "A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none." This is true in the inner man. "A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all."2 This is true in the outer man.

Perfect freedom is the definition of the believer's relationship to God. That freedom is his in his soul, and nothing can overcome it. Why not? [Because] nothing external can either produce righteousness and freedom, or bring unrighteousness and servitude. Luther defines freedom as being in a right relation to God. The only thing that can make a person free is trusting in the Word of the gracious God. If he has this faith, nothing can hurt him. If he lacks it, nothing can help him.

What did Luther have in mind by external good works? He was thinking of two popular religious lifestyles, the practice of penance, required for all Christians, and rigorous monastic practice. Penance kept up your relationship with God; it had three parts: contrition, confession, and works of satisfaction. Luther complained that contrition for sin had become a human effort that prepared the heart for approaching God, a human merit. "If you do your very best, God will not deny his grace."3 But this left the conscience in doubt. How could anyone be certain he had done his best? Confession of sins to priest had become the occasion for tyranny, rather than the pronouncement of free forgiveness for Christ's sake. And making satisfaction through good deeds assigned by the priest in confession turned people's faith toward human works, rather than to God's free promise.4 There was no freedom there.

How then can righteousness be found? It is found in the message of the Word of God, received by faith.

Luther said faith has three powers. Its first power is in receiving the treasures of grace that God freely offers in Christ.

...the moment you begin to have faith, you learn that all things in you are altogether blameworthy, sinful and damnable. When you have learned this, you will know that you need Christ, who suffered and rose again for you, so that if you believe in him, you may, through faith become a new man, in so far as your sins are forgiven, and you are justified by the merits of another, namely of Christ alone.5

No human work can accomplish this, neither can an outward work, but only unbelief of heart, make one guilty of sin.

Luther answers an objection: then why does Scripture command so many ceremonies and laws if faith alone "justifies, frees and saves"?  Martin's answer is to draw a line between the law and the gospel. The commandments show us what we ought to do, but give no power to fulfill. God intends them to teach us our inability to do good, and lead us to despair of it. But the second part of Scripture, the promises, are "holy, true, free, peaceful words, full of goodness." Luther is saying that when we entrust ourselves to the promises of God, the power and grace of the Word of God are communicated to the soul. No good work can rely upon God. Thus there is no need for good works to justify, and the Christian is free from the law. Good works are not necessary for righteousness and salvation.

Faith's second power is that it gives God his proper glory by trusting him as truthful, righteous and good. The highest honor we can pay anyone is to trust him. Conversely, if we do not trust him, we do him the greatest disservice. "Is not such a soul most obedient to God in all things by this faith? What greater wickedness, what greater contempt of God can there be, than not believing his promise? For what is this but to make God a liar?"6 If a person does not trust God's promise, he sets up himself as an idol in his heart. Then his unbelieving doing of good works is actually sinning.

Till now he had thought of God as a harsh judge who rewards individuals according to their merits. He does not deny God's wrath against sin. But now he says that God's basic disposition toward his sinful creatures is love and mercy, his personal favor, based on nothing but his own desire to show compassion.7 "What a kind, fine God he is, nothing but sweetness and goodness, that he feeds us, preserves us, nourishes us." He also has a new understanding of grace. He no longer defines grace as an internally located gift from God; it became instead his favor, his merciful disposition toward sinners.8

Faith's third power is that it unites us to Christ as our bridegroom. Here Luther becomes lyrical.

...Christ and the soul become one flesh [Eph. 5:31-32]. And if they are one flesh, and if between them there is a true marriage... it follows that everything they have they hold in common, the good as well as the evil. Accordingly, the believing soul can boast of and glory in whatever Christ has as though it were its own, and whatever the soul has, Christ claims as his own. ... Let us compare these, and we shall see inestimable benefits. Christ is full of grace, life and salvation. The soul is full of sins, death and damnation. Now let faith come between them, and sins, death and damnation will be Christ's, while grace, life and salvation will be the soul's... By the wedding ring of faith he shares in the sins, death and pains of hell, which are his bride's.... Her sins cannot now destroy her... and she has that righteousness of Christ, her husband, ... and [can] say, "If I have sinned, yet my Christ, in whom I believe, has not sinned, and all his is mine and mine is his..."9

Luther calls this the glorious exchange, the royal marriage. By faith, then, the person can ascribe all glory to God and have no other gods. By faith he can keep all the commandments.

Finally, Luther says that by faith this perfect freedom means that we are kings and priests to God. Because Christ is king, so we are kings, (in the inner man) lords over all things. Nothing can hurt us. All things are made subject to the believer, to further his salvation. Nothing can subject him to harm, even if God ordains that he suffers and dies. The Christian is also a priest, because he can come before God, to pray to him acceptably.

How then is the Christian different from the church's priests, popes, bishops, and other "ecclesiastics"? There is no distinction, except that certain Christians are set apart to be public teachers and servants.10 But the church has turned these servants into lords.

The church should preach, not just facts about Christ, but what Christ is to be to us. "...that he might not only be Christ, but be Christ for you and me... faith is built up when we preach why Christ came, what he brought and bestowed, and what benefit it is to us to accept him."

What man is there whose heart, upon hearing these things, will not rejoice to its depth, and in receiving this comfort, will not grow tender, so that he will love Christ as he never could by means of laws or works?"11

Faith is trust in God, not a virtue. It is the rejection of all possible virtue. Faith is not an inward good work that takes the place of outward good works. Rather, it looks to Christ. It knows Christ and rests in him and his righteousness for us.

"A Christian is a totally responsible servant of all, subject to all." This defines the believer's relationship to other people. We must continue to do good works, because we are still subject to sin, and we are bound to others.

Good works are valuable to the believer, but not as an alternative righteousness. If that "Leviathan" burdens them, they are actually not good at all. This notion destroys faith.12 All teaching about good works must be grounded in faith.

Faith is active through love.

That is, it finds expression through works of freest service, cheerfully and lovingly done, with which a man willfully serves another without hope of reward; and for himself, he is satisfied with the fullness and wealth of his faith.13

His sum of the joyful service of the Christian:

Although I am an unworthy and condemned man, my God has given me in Christ all the riches of righteousness and salvation without any merit on my part, out of pure, free mercy, so that from now on I need nothing except faith which believes that this is true. Why should I not therefore, freely, joyfully, with my whole heart and with an eager will do all things which I know are pleasing and acceptable to such a Father who has overwhelmed me with his inestimable riches? I will therefore give myself as a Christ to my neighbor, since through faith I have an abundance of all good things in Christ'14

Luther concludes "By faith he is caught up beyond himself into God. By love he descends beneath himself into his neighbor."15

Luther brings us back to the Gospel. If we would follow Luther, our ministries must, above all things, seek to lead people to believe, to trust God's Word. We are to set forth Christ for us. God is good and trustworthy and he freely offers us all things, in Christ. Therefore the trustworthiness of the Word, and the necessity of faith is everything. What we want to do for everyone is to help them to believe in Christ as he is offered in the Word.

Second, Luther is not antinomian. He is clear that faith works through love (Gal. 5:3). But why do we need the moral law? Because we are still sinners, subject to temptation and to continuing unbelief. However, even as it instructs us as believers, the law has a largely negative function. Luther does not make a sound theological place for God's law as the believer's delight. But it is just the gospel that overcomes the problem of law. "If I am outside of Christ, the law is my enemy, because God is my enemy. But once I am in Christ, the law is my friend, because God is my friend."16 It is the deepest desire of my heart to obey God's law, and to do this in faith. Faith works through love.

Last, Luther's doctrine of sola fide in 1520 is closer to "union with Christ by faith alone," than to "justification by faith alone." His major metaphor is the union of the believer and the Bridegroom, the wonderful exchange between Christ and us. Luther clearly includes justification in this, an "alien righteousness," Christ's righteousness, by faith alone. But the more precise idea of his perfect, finished and final righteousness, counted ours once for all, is not here yet, because Luther speaks about our righteousness growing over our lifetime.

Later biblical reflection would clarify this, and Luther would be clearer about it too. God in free grace, reckons the righteousness of Christ to us, when we simply entrust ourselves to him. It is not faith, considered in itself, that grounds God's pronouncement. Christ's sacrifice for us, alone, is the basis of our being forgiven, fully and perfectly and once for all. In 1520 the brownies were still a little chewy. It took some time for this fully biblical idea of justification to bake completely. However, having said this, I think Luther's idea of the glorious exchange by union with Christ is sound and biblical. Union with Christ by faith alone truly is the "freedom of a Christian." When we receive Christ by faith alone, we receive both his righteousness as a completed gift, and are thus accounted righteous by God, once for all. And it is also true that our hearts are cleansed, what we term "sanctification," by this union. What Luther calls the good works of a good man, notice, a changed man, are the fruit of this union. John Calvin would later put it like this:

We do not contemplate him outside ourselves from afar, in order that his righteousness may be imputed to us, but because we put on Christ, and are engrafted into his body--in short, because he deigns to make us one with him. For this reason, we glory that we have fellowship of righteousness with him.17

I close with these beautiful words of Luther:

Who then, can appreciate what this royal marriage means? Who can understand the riches of the glory of this grace? Here this rich and divine bridegroom Christ marries this poor, wicked harlot, redeems her from all her evil, and adorns her with all his goodness. Her sins cannot now destroy her, since they are laid upon Christ and swallowed up by the bride in the Song of Solomon says [2:16], "My beloved is mine, and I am his."18


1. Robert Kolb, Martin Luther, Confessor of the Faith (Oxford University Press, 2009), 72.

2. J. Dillenberger, ed., Martin Luther, selections from his writings (New York: Anchor, 1962), 53.

3. See Heiko A. Oberman, The Harvest of Medieval Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2000).

4. Kolb, 86.

5. Dillenberger, 55f.

6. Dillenberger, 59.

7. Kolb, 60.

8. Kolb, 34.

9. Dillenberger, 60f.

10. Dillenberger, 65.

11. Dillenberger, 66.

12. Dillenberger, 72.

13. Dillenberger, 74.

14. Dillenberger, 75f.

15. Dillenberger, 80.

16. Richard B. Gaffin, Jr.

17. Institutes 3.11.10. 18. Dillenberger, 80f.

*This lecture was part of RTS' "Luther's (Re)Formative Years: Engaging the Reformation at 500" Conference. The audio can be found here

Francis Turretin on Justification


Francis Turretin was the grandson of a Protestant Italian merchant who had emigrated to Beza's Geneva. When Turretin died in Geneva in September 1687, nearly 170 years had passed since Martin Luther had sparked the Protestant Reformation by posting the Ninety-Five Theses. During that period of time, Lutheran and Reformed churches emerged, while the Council of Trent birthed what we now know as the Roman Catholic Church. Luther's hope of reforming the church had been dashed against the rocks of papal intransigence. The doctrine of justification by faith alone in particular fell under Trent's "anathemas" or curses.

The Protestant churches understood justification to be a biblical doctrine. They could not, therefore, conscientiously repudiate it. As Rome applied increasing intellectual pressure against the Lutheran and the Reformed in the sixteenth and sevenqteenth centuries, it became clear that the Protestants were going to have to mount a formidable, biblical defense of justification.

In God's providence, a succession of faithful men did just that. In that succession was Francis Turretin, who arguably represents the high water mark of the post-Reformational Reformed response to Rome. Described by a biographer as "the last of the great Reformed epigones of Calvin's city." Turretin taught theology in Geneva from 1653 to 1687.1 He is best known for his massive Institutes of Elenctic Theology, published between 1679-1685, and recently translated in its entirety into English. This work has had deserved influence within both the Scottish and American Presbyterian churches. It stands as a monument to the intellectual achievements and biblical fidelity of the Reformed wing of the Protestant Reformation.

In his preface to the Institutes, Turretin clarifies for the reader his intentions. He did not propose to draft "a full and accurate system of theology" but to "explain the importance of the principal controversies which lie between us and our adversaries (ancient and modern) and supply to the young the thread of Ariadne, by the help of which they may more easily extricate themselves from their labyrinth."2 To anyone familiar with the Institutes, Turretin's comparison of his labors with those of the Greek mythical figure, Ariadne rings true. According to legend, Ariadne provided the string that allowed her beloved Theseus to find his way out of King Minos' Labyrinth after Theseus had slain the Minotaur in the heart of the Labyrinth. Turretin understood that these theological controversies were intricate and sometimes labyrinthine, but he also knew that their biblical resolution was necessary to the vitality and integrity of the Protestant churches.

Turretin's abilities particularly shine in his discussion of justification. This discussion follows the pattern that he employs throughout the Institutes. Turretin first states the question, clarifying where the true differences between Reformed and non-Reformed theologies lie. He then answers the question, providing biblical and theological support for that answer. Then follow the "sources of explanation," in which Turretin offers further elaboration of, handles objections to, and resolves difficulties that arise from the Reformed doctrine under consideration.

Turretin's prose is elaborate and ponderous, studded with technical philosophical and theological terminology. What reward is held out to the modern reader who perseveres through the Institutes, and especially his discussion of justification? We may look briefly at his defense of the imputation of Christ's righteousness to the believer for justification. From this defense surface at least two benefits that Turretin offers his twenty-first century readership.

The first benefit is a robust biblical and theological exposition and defense of the Reformed doctrine of justification by faith alone. Turretin's discussion of imputed righteousness consists of thirty-one paragraphs. The first ten paragraphs are all preparatory to setting up the question. In these paragraphs, Turretin rehearses elements of the doctrine of justification crucial to this question - that justification is a strictly legal or forensic grace; that God requires perfect righteousness in order to justify a person; that only the God-man, Christ, can supply this righteousness; that we must be united to Christ if we are to have any share in this righteousness; that Christ imputes righteousness to us for justification, and that he infuses righteousness to us for sanctification; that "imputation" denotes accounting to someone a reward or punishment either for something that they have done or for what another has done for them (the latter is in view in justification); that imputed righteousness is not a legal fiction; that the active and passive obedience of Christ constitute a sufficient righteousness for a person's justification; that, while justification and sanctification must never be confused, they may never be separated.

Turretin then proposes the question - "is the righteousness and obedience of Christ imputed to us the meritorious cause and foundation of our justification with God?" In four paragraphs, he answers in the affirmative against two parties, Rome and the Socinians (a rationalistic movement that emerged within the Reformation churches). In the next seven paragraphs, he proves the question by advancing a detailed exegesis of Rom 5:18,19; Rom 4:3; 1 Cor 1:30; 2 Cor 5:21; Rom 8:3; and Rom 4:5; by reflecting on the nature of Christ's suretyship; and by offering corroborative testimony from the early Church Fathers.

Turretin then turns to "sources of explanation" in the final ten paragraphs. In this section, Turretin points out that the imputation of Christ's righteousness does not mean that "we are no less righteous than Christ and are thus considered like Christ, saviors and redeemers of the world." He also shows how it is that God's declaration in justification is not fictive but "according to truth."3

Turretin's treatment of imputed righteousness demonstrates how concerned he is to ground the doctrine in the testimony of Scripture. Much of the explanation of the doctrine is taken up with biblical exegesis. Many of the objections raised against imputed righteousness in the seventeenth century remain in circulation in the twenty-first century. Turretin's exegetical responses to these objections deftly and effectively serve us today in defending the doctrine against its detractors.

The second benefit that Turretin's discussion offers is a model of theological moderation. He does not run to extremes in formulating Christian doctrine. He vigorously opposes Rome's opposition to imputed righteousness. But Turretin is well aware that there are errors that lie in the other direction. For this reason, he will not allow himself to be identified with the antinomian error that justification may be separated from sanctification. He will not countenance the view that the sinner's righteousness in Christ for justification renders him righteous in precisely the same sense that Christ is righteous. The truth, Turretin argues here (and frequently elsewhere), does not lie at the fringes but in the center. In this respect, Turretin is a theologian of the middle way.

Turretin is valuable, then, for what he says about justification - his a robust biblical and theological defense and explanation of the doctrine. But he is equally valuable for how he says what he says. His method promotes both precision and balance. In our day, we need both at least as much as Turretin's readers did in the seventeenth century. Reformed Christians in the generations following Turretin saw him not as an antiquated relic but a reliable guide to biblical truth. Sadly, justification by faith alone still lies under Rome's anathema. Thankfully, Turretin's magisterial work remains with us today. Will we take the "thread of Ariadne" from his hand?

1. James T. Dennison, Jr., "The Life and Career of Francis Turretin," in Francis Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, ed. James T. Dennison, Jr., trans. George M. Giger (3 vols.; Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 1992-1997), 3.645.

2. Turretin, Institutes, 1.xl.

3. Ibid., 2.655.

James, Justification and the Human Court


I have often taken comfort in the fact that the Apostle Peter said that Apostle Paul wrote "some things hard to understand, which untaught and unstable people twist to their own destruction, as they do also the rest of the Scriptures" (2 Peter 3:15-16).  I don't take comfort in this as a license for misinterpreting Scripture; rather, I take comfort in the fact that an Apostle did not find everything in Scripture easy to interpret or understand. The Westminster Confession of Faith, picking up on Peter's statement, suggests: "All things in Scripture are not alike plain in themselves, nor alike clear unto all..." (WCF 1.7). It may just as rightly be said that James, the brother of our Lord, wrote some things that are hard to understand, which untaught and unstable people twist to their own destruction. Not the least of these is the "less clear" passage found in James 2:14-26--with a specific focus on verse 21. What does James mean when he says, "Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered Isaac his son on the altar?" How do we understand this in light of what the Apostle Paul says about justification in Romans 4:2-5, where we read:   

"For if Abraham was justified by works he has something to boast about--but not before God. For what does the Scripture say? 'Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness.' Now to him who works, the wages are not counted as grace but as debt. But to him who does not work but believes on Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is accounted for righteousness (Rom. 4:2-5)."

There are essentially four ways interpreters have sought to interpret James 2:14-26. Either (1) James and Paul are contradicting one another, or (2) James and Paul are teaching that our faith in Christ together with our Spirit-wrought good works form the basis of a final justification (i.e. the Roman Catholic position) or (3) James is speaking about an eschatological dimension of justification--in so much as believers are openly vindicated in accord with their good works, or (4) Paul is talking about our justification before God and James is talking about our justification before men. It is this fourth view that seems to fit in the exegetical context the best. According to this interpretation, Paul is talking about justifying faith in the Divine court and James is talking about saving faith as being evidenced in the human court. The following considerations serve to defend this position as the biblical position.

As with everything in the Bible, context is king. Just as the three laws of realty are "location, location, location," the three laws of biblical interpretation are "context, context, context." Related to this principles is the Reformation principle of  scriptura sui ipsius interpres (i.e. Scripture is its own interpreter). We will only and ever come to a right understanding of James 2:21 when we have first carefully considered it's immediate context and then the OT context from which James is drawing.

At the beginning of his epistle, James introduces the subject of testing in the life of believers. In chapter 2, the sincerity of faith is in view. Chapter 1 ends with James saying, "Whoever thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue, this one's religion is useless." As chapter 2 develops, the idea of evidencing whether or not one has saving faith comes to the forefront. In order for someone to show whether or not they have saving faith, he or she must be tested. 

Related to the idea of testing, the context of James 2:21 also carries with it the idea of sincerity with regard to saving faith. This is the flip side of the coin. The pastoral question that James is dealing with is whether or not someone has saving faith vs. a mere intellectual profession of faith (which he essentially calls a demon-faith and a dead-faith). James Gidley helps us better understand the context of James' use of the word "justified" in 2:21 when he writes:

Some of James' hearers were using the doctrine of justification by faith alone as a pretext for being complacent about ungodly living. What better way to awaken them than by using words that at first glance seem to be a shocking departure from what they have been taught? James 2 is a bombshell that explodes carnal confidence at its foundation. The complacent can scarcely be moved by anything less.1

All of this leads naturally into the testing and faith-demonstrating of Abraham and Rahab. When we give consideration to James' statements about Abraham and Rahab, we must first understand something of his rationale for singling out these two figures. Both Abraham and Rahab are singled out to serve as examples of diverse individuals who possessed saving faith. Abraham was a man and Rahab was a woman. In Christ Jesus, there is neither male nor female. Abraham was a Jew and Rahab was a Gentile. There is no distinction between Jew and Gentile in Christ.

In the second place, both Abraham and Rahab were tested before a watching world--their test is revealed in Scripture to serve as an example to us who are seeking to walk in their steps. For Abraham, the test to which he was put came 25-30 years after he first believed the promises of God. He believed the promises of God about Christ and was therefore justified once-and-for-ever in Gen. 12:1-3 and 15:6; then he offered Isaac (i.e. the one through whom the seed promises were to be initially fulfilled) in Genesis 22:1-19. This was the one-time test upon which James fixates our attention. There is nothing in the context that would suggest that James is speaking of an entire life of law-keeping (as some have mistakenly suggested). The law was not even given to God's people until 400 years after Abraham lived. The Scriptures are clear that "Abraham believed God," and--in one, definitive moment--"it was accounted it to him for righteousness" (Gen. 15:6). James is telling us that the declaration made in Genesis 15:6 was demonstrated to be true of Abraham in that he endured the test by faith (James 2:21-23). Abraham evidenced his saving and justifying faith by his act of obedience.

Rahab also heard the word of the Gospel. She heard about the exodus (i.e. the typical redemption that pointed to the spiritual redemption that God would provide in Christ), and she believed in the Covenant God of promise (Joshua 2:9-11). She, like Abraham, believed the Gospel (John 8:58; Gal. 3:8). She then acted in obedience because of the faith that she had in the Redeeming God of Israel. She demonstrated that she had saving faith by her reception and defense of the Lord's spies. It was her confidence and faith in the coming Christ that enabled her to receive and hide the spies. James nowhere intimates that Rahab had an entire life of law-keeping for her justification before God. 

James alluded to a single event in Abraham's life, as well as to a single event in Rahab's life, in order to show that they both had a sincere and living (i.e. saving) faith. Abraham and Rahab were both justified before God solely because they believed on Him who was to come; they were justified before men by their acting in accord with that faith in obedience. In this way, James is saying that they were justified before the watching world on account of the works that their saving faith produced. They had a saving faith that was demonstrated by their subsequent acts of obedience.

When we consider James' use of the word 'justified' in 2:21, one massively important interpretive principle must be understood:

The word 'justify' (δικαιω) and it's various forms is used several different ways in Scripture. Context always determines how it is used. It is true that the majority of Pauline uses of 'justify' have to do with the legal (forensic) standing that men have before God. Jesus, however, uses the word in Luke 7:35 to denote evidence, when he said of His own works bearing evidence to who He was, "wisdom is justified by her children." In other words, Jesus said, "I am shown to be who I am and who I say I am by the works that I do." This seems to be the exact same usage as that found in James 2. In fact, in the context, James says, "You show me your faith without your works..." and "I will show you my faith by my works..." It is clear that the human court is in view in James 2. In Romans 4, however, where the Apostle Paul says, "For if Abraham was justified by works he has something to boast about--but not before God," the Divine court is clearly in view.

The 19th Century Scottish theologian, James Buchanan, differentiated between justified in Paul and justified in James by the use of the terms actual justification and declarative justification (see Buchanan Justification pp. 223ff.). Accordingly, Paul speaks of actual justification before God and James speaks of declarative justification before men. The late professor John Murray--perhaps even more helpfully--employed the term declarative and demonstrative.3 Murray put declarative in the place where Buchanan had used the term actual and demonstrative where Buchanan had used declarative. Murray suggested that Paul refers to declarative justification and that James speaks of demonstrative justification. Under this explanation, God declares one righteous by faith alone in Christ alone, and the one who has been declared to be righteous then demonstrates that he or she is so by observable good works. J. Gresham Machen summed up the difference between the two justifications being spoken of when he wrote:

The faith which James is condemning is a mere intellectual ascent which has no effect upon conduct. The demons also he says, have that sort of faith, and yet evidently they are not saved (James 2:19). What Paul means by faith is something entirely different; it is not a mere intellectual ascent to propositions, but an attitude of the entire man by which the whole life is entrusted to Christ. In other words, the faith that James is condemning is not the same as the faith that Paul is commending.2

As we navigate through the pages of Scripture, we must be ever careful in our efforts to come to an understanding about the "less clear" portions of Scripture. We must gives ourselves to a prayerful consideration of the context. We must study the details of the Old Testament examples picked up in New Testament exposition. We must labor to understand the way that words are used. We must always try to find a resolution based on the more clear passages of Scripture. In this short study, Romans 4:2-5 is the "more clear" passage by which the "less clear" passage (James 2:14-26) must be understood. The explanation above is a brief attempt at resolving for us any seeming contradiction. Though not all passages are equally important to our salvation, to err in our understanding of James 2 is to jeopardize the Gospel itself. May God graciously keep us from ever doing so. 


1. Gidley, James S. James and Justification by Faith. New Horizons in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, Feb. 2005.

2. J. Grecham Machen Notes on Galatians (Nutley, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1977) p.. 146

3. John Murray Romans pp. 350ff. 

*This post is a modified version of a post that originally appeared over at the Christward Collective.

The Old Perspective on the Works of the Law

Biblical studies have undergone something of a seismic shift over the past three decades. Noted scholars such as James D.G. Dunn, E.P. Sander and N.T. Wright have questioned whether the theologians of the Reformation have properly understood the theological arguments of the Apostle Paul. This is especially so with regard to Paul's teaching on the meaning of justification in the letters to the Romans and Galatians. Their resounding conclusion is that Reformed and Protestant theologians have largely misunderstood Paul's argumentation concerning the nature of justification and the eschatological role of the Law in the life of believers. According to proponents of the New Perspective(s) on Paul, justification does not--as the Reformed have always maintained--involve the imputation of Christ's righteousness by faith alone. The crux of the argument has to do with how one defines the phrase "works of the Law" (and its various related forms in Pauline literature). Without wishing to do injustice to the nuanced differences that exist in the writings of these men, I want to point out what I believe to be an important historical theological fact that has often been overlooked in recent debates: the New Perspective's supposedly new understanding of the meaning of the phrase works of the Law is nothing other than the Old Roman Catholic perspective on the phrase. 

Proponents of the New Perspective(s) have insisted that the phrase "works of the Law" does not, as the Reformers and Puritans held, refer to "a man's attempt to work for his standing before God based on his own law keeping." They contend that the phrase refers to Jewish boundary markers. In redefining it in this way, they reduce the meaning of the phrase down to nothing other than the ceremonial laws of Israel. In doing so, they radically redefine Paul's argument concerning justification--rejecting the Reformed idea that Paul was teaching that "justification is the receiving of the forgiveness of sin and a legal standing of righteous by faith alone, based on the death of Christ and the imputation of His righteousness." Instead, they assert that justification is inclusion of Jew and Gentile into the one corporate body of God's Covenant people under the Lordship of Christ. In turn, N.T. Wright teaches that there is an eschatological (i.e. future) justification based on the Spirit wrought good-works of believers. 

The Apostle Paul's argument that a man is justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the Law (Rom. 3:28; Gal. 2:16; 3:11; 3:24) strikes a decisive blow to the thesis of the New Perspective, if Paul is, in fact, teaching that justification is what the Reformed taught it to be, namely, a once-for-all legal act of God. The Reformers understanding of Paul's argument radically impacted later Protestant formulations on the doctrine of justification. There is arguably no better formulation than that which we find in the Westminster Short Catechism

"Justification is an act of God's free grace, wherein He pardons all our sins, and accepts us as righteous in his sight, only for the righteousness of Christ imputed to us, and received by faith alone" (WSC Q. 33). 

The essence of this definition is found in Calvin's Institutes, where we read:

"We simply interpret justification, as the acceptance with which God receives us into his favor as if we were righteous; and we say that this justification consists in the forgiveness of sins and the imputation of the righteousness of Christ" (Institutes 3.11.2).

Calvin labored tirelessly as an exegete, in dependence upon and in polemical interaction with the exegesis of those who went before him. It should come as no surprise for us to discover that Calvin paid a great deal of attention to the arguments of Roman Catholic theologians regarding Paul's arguments on justification--especially in his exegesis of Romans and Galatians. For instance, in his commentary on Galatians 2:15 Calvin wrote: 

"The first thing to be noticed is, that we must seek justification by the faith of Christ, because we cannot be justified by works. Now, the question is, what is meant by the works of the law? The Papists, misled by Origen and Jerome, are of opinion, and lay it down as certain, that the dispute relates to shadows; and accordingly assert, that by the works of the law are meant ceremonies" (Commentary on Galatians).

Here we discover that the argument of the theologians of the New Perspective(s) on the meaning of the phrase works of the Law is merely the Old Perspective of Early and Medieval Romans Catholic theologians. Calvin continued:

"As if Paul were not reasoning about the free justification which is bestowed on us by Christ. For they see no absurdity in maintaining that no man is justified by the works of the law, and yet that, by the merit of works, we are accounted righteous in the sight of God. In short, they hold that no mention is here made of the works of the moral law. But the context clearly proves that the moral law is also comprehended in these words; for almost everything which Paul afterwards advances belongs more properly to the moral than to the ceremonial law; and he is continually employed in contrasting the righteousness of the law with the free acceptance which God is pleased to bestow." 

As we celebrate the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation, it would do us a world of good to turn our attention to the labors of those upon whose shoulders we stand. This includes our need to focus on their exegesis in light of the polemics in which they were engaged. As we do, we will find that many of the recent supposed advances in biblical studies are merely retorgrades back to the isogesis of Roman Catholicism from which the Reformers helped set us free. 

Faith Among the Graces: Edwards on Faith and Love


This year we celebrate the 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Protestant Reformation when the German Augustinian monk Martin Luther nailed a long series of academic debating points about the medieval Roman Catholic penitential system (the 95 theses) to the door of the Wittenberg church. One of the central questions of the Reformation revolved around the nature or essence of saving faith. Is faith in relation especially to the blessing or benefit of justification passive and receptive or is it an active or working faith? Does faith have its own integrity or does it have to be supplemented or completed by another grace?

The Reformation concluded that saving faith, as it is related to justification (i.e. the saving benefit of a sinner being found acceptable in the sight of a holy and righteous God by virtue of the imputed righteousness of Jesus Christ) is merely receptive. That is, one is justified by placing one's faith in Jesus and that results in the complete forgiveness of one's sins and the obtaining of a right(eous) standing before God. The Reformers determined that the Scriptures taught that faith was the alone instrument or means whereby the sinner unites to and apprehends Christ. While a true and living faith was understood to always be accompanied by all the other saving graces, none of these other graces were taken into consideration by God for his or her justification. It was sola fide or faith alone that was the instrument of justification.

The medieval Roman Catholic church held that saving faith was formed faith. That is, in order for faith to save, it must be formed or perfected by love. In practical terms, one was saved by faith and good works. Luther and the other Reformers recognized that a true and living faith always produced good works but that good works had no part in a proper and biblical understanding of the nature or essence of faith. Faith for Luther and the other Reformers, while accompanied by other graces such as love, was not defective and in need of some corrective such as love.

Over two hundred years later--and across the Atlantic Ocean--New England pastor-theologian Jonathan Edwards addressed the question of the relation of faith and love in relation to each other in the thirteenth sermon in the preaching series later published as Charity and its Fruits entitled "Christian Graces Concatenated Together." Edwards has been at the center of a scholarly debate regarding whether or not his concern for sanctification in the Christian life, and specifically his concern with nominalism caused him to compromise his Protestant and Reformed principles about the integrity of justifying faith.

In the 1950s preeminent Edwards scholar Thomas Schafer argued that Edwards had in fact undermined, or called into question, his commitment to a biblical and confessionally Reformed understanding of faith and love in justification. Schafer did not suggest that Edwards intentionally departed from the faith once for all delivered to the saints, but that given his concerns with the new birth and growth in sanctification in the Christian life, he had perhaps accidentally moved away from the gold standard of Reformed orthodoxy. Schafer argued that Edwards embraced a quasi-Roman Catholic understanding of saving faith as formed faith, that is, faith formed by love. It is agreed that Edwards defended the traditional Reformed doctrine of justification in his graduation oration at Yale and in his lecture series on justification delivered at Northampton in 1734. No doubt we will not be able to settle this dispute here and now. However, we can look at how Edwards discusses the relation of faith and love in this sermon to open up for a window into how Edwards thought about this.

Before delving into the specifics of the sermon, we should note the context of this particular sermon. The sermon "Christian Graces Concatenated Together" is the thirteenth of a sixteen sermon series on 1 Corinthians 13, famously known as the "love chapter." I note this in order to point out the direct subject matter is not the doctrine of justification per se, or the nature of justifying faith. Having said this, any confessionally Reformed theologian worth his salt would always have a concern to be as clear and careful as possible when talking about faith (even in a context such as this sermon where the doctrine of justification is not directly in view)--to clearly define faith in such a way as to maintain its integrity as a discrete Christian grace. Faith is a broad biblical category of which justifying faith is one element or facet. What we say about faith more broadly, however, must not undermine what we say more narrowly about justifying faith.

Additionally, I should mention Edwards' emphasis on the integrated nature of the human soul. Edwards moved away from the faculty psychology of his day in which the powers of the human soul (intellect and will) worked concurrently with each other rather than in a reified, hierarchical manner. This means that faith for Edwards was a "whole soul" endeavor. It was not just a matter or the intellect or will alone, but both working together.

Now we can turn to the sermon "Christian Graces Concatenated Together." The main point of the sermon is that whatever Christian graces the Holy Spirit dispenses to Christians, they are chained (this is what concatenation means) together or they occur together or they are interlocked or linked. This is a thoroughly sound and biblical insight. Paul talks about the fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5 and not fruits. Wherever one fruit such as love, joy, or peace occur, so do others. The Westminster Assembly divines concurred in this (which is a good thing since they were aiming to be biblical!) when they noted that while justification was by faith alone, it was not a faith that was alone. True faith would always be accompanied by every other saving grace. In the case of 1 Corinthians 13, Paul is arguing for the supremacy of agape love. In the end, only three graces remain and survive into the eschaton: faith, hope, and love. And, as Paul tells us, the greatest of these is love. Note that this is said by the Apostle of justification by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone.

Edwards tells us three things about the Christian graces: they always appear together, they depend on one another, and they are implied in one another. For our purposes, it is the second and third points that may be most problematic. To say that faith depends upon hope and love in order to be faith or vice versa does seem to suggest that faith does not maintain its own integrity or independence. The further point that faith implies hope and love or implicates them also casts into doubt Edwards' understanding of faith. Edwards goes further and says that love is of the essence of faith or is essential to faith or is an essential ingredient of faith.

One basic Pauline thought at this point is that the fruit of the Spirit, while multifaceted, is singular. We can even recognize a sort of synergy at work in the concatenated graces in which the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. We can go further and say that each grace brings out the best in the others. But, to many, Edwards' language of faith depending upon hope and love to be what it is and to function properly seems to undermine the discrete integrity of faith. Some have suggested that it comes too close to the Roman Catholic notion of formed faith. It is one thing to say that hope and love enrich faith but it is another to say faith depends upon hope and love. This dependency relation suggests that faith cannot function in its own right. That is, faith qua faith, is insufficient. The same thing can be said about implication. Implication suggests that no grace is sufficient as God created them and gives them to his people. Is it logomachy to suggest that impinge might be a better word than imply?

Edwards' concern to stress that Christian graces come together like a floral bouquet is altogether legitimate. But dependency appears to undermine the proper functionality of each grace. Love is not faith--neither is it hope. Implication appears to undermine the discrete integrity of faith, hope, and love. Is Edwards' suggesting in so many words, that the Christian graces interpenetrate one another in a manner analogous to the perichoretic nature of the triune Godhead? He does not say as much in this sermon; but, one is left wonder.

We are left to conclude that while Edwards nowhere affirms in this sermon the medieval Roman Catholic doctrine of formed faith, the logical implication of what he says seems to suggest something similar. Be that as it may, this does not square with what Edwards has written elsewhere about justification by faith alone. I suggest that we have a consistency breakdown in the teaching in this particular sermon.

In conclusion, what we learn from this experiment is that no fallen, sinful Christian theologian can be accepted in everything he teaches or advocates. This is in no way to undermine Edwards' proper due influence. However, with regard to the dependency and implication ideas, Edwards appears to accidentally undermine the biblical and confessionally Reformed notion of justifying faith as passive and receptive and complete in and of itself with its own proper functionality and discrete integrity. The Protestant Reformation recovered a biblical jewel when justification and justifying faith were clarified. Edwards' muddies the waters at this point. So brethren, let's go back behind Edwards to the crystal clear fount of Scripture and the Reformers! 

Dr. Jeff Waddington is the interim pastor at Knox OPC in Landsdowne, PA. He is the author is The Unified Operations of the Human Soul: Jonathan Edwards Theological Anthropology and Apologetic. Jeff is a contributor on the podcast, "East of Eden: The Biblical and Systematic Theology of Jonathan Edwards."

Justifying a Non-Repeatable Justification

As there has been no small debate in recent decades over the doctrine of justification, I was delighted to come across a treatment of the once-for-all nature of justification in Geerhardus Vos' Reformed Dogmatics. Having introduced the subject by explaining that the Roman Catholic church conflates justification and sanctification with it's doctrine of a first and second justification, Vos explained that even within the Reformed tradition there have been those who have denied that justification was a once-for-all, non-repeatable act. Some within the Reformed tradition, he acknowledged, "think that justification repeatedly follows each confession of sin." With these aberrant views in the background of his treatment, Vos went on to defend the majority Reformed view that "justification is an actus individuus et simul totus, that is, an indivisible act that occurs only once" by setting out six (typically brilliant) reasons why we must hold this view. Vos' reasons for the belief that justification is non-repeatable are as follows:

"1. Scripture itself nowhere says that the judicial act of God, which it calls justification, would be capable of repetition. Rather, it always presents justification as occurring at one point in time. As there is one predestination, one calling, one glorification, so there is also only one justification, and this stands between the other acts of the order of salvation (Rom 8:30), of which it is certain and generally agreed that they occur but once. 

2. The idea of sonship implies that we cannot lose the state of justification once we have obtained it. A son can certainly sin and transgress against his father, but he does not therefore cease to be a son. By adoption as children, the legal position of believers in relation to God is loosed once for all from their own doing and working. Note: not their moral position but their legal position. A believer remains under the moral law, and for him every transgression of it is sin, which must be confessed. But his status before God is no longer determined by those things. 

3. If justification must be constantly repeated, then it is not clear how a sinner could ever come to be in a state of being justified. In each fraction of a second a new sin is committed; there is never a sinless moment in the life of believers. They are therefore, according to this view, repeatedly outside of justification and never within it. Their life is a matter of constantly becoming justified and never being justified. This differs considerably from the situation of one justified as that is portrayed for us by Scripture in Romans 5:1 and 8:33-34. 

4. It will naturally not do to say that one does not need a new justification for all sins committed after the first justification, but only for those that occur in the consciousness and so are confessed. The consciousness of sin can never be made such a basis for distinguishing. One could with as much right maintain that in the so-called first justification all those sins were forgiven that appear in the consciousness. 

5. One might say that it is an absurd idea that future sins, which are not yet committed, would be forgiven. But this idea contains nothing absurd if one only considers that for the Judge who pronounces forgiveness, the record of sins, their guilt, does not lie hidden in the darkness of the future but in the full light of His divine omniscience. Furthermore, it cannot be more absurd to forgive sins in advance than to atone for sins in advance. The latter has taken place in Christ. He bore millions of sins that were not yet perpetrated and for which the perpetrators were not yet in existence. This is possible because for God's eternal view all that, too, was present. 

6. The testimony of Scripture is that all our sins are forgiven by the imputation of the merits of Christ (Col 2:13), that nothing more can be charged against the elect of God (John 5:24; Rom 8:33-34; cf. also 5:1, according to which there is no longer any condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus). The same thing holds for the second aspect of justification. Not a part of the rights is granted to us, but at once in their entirety. In Ephesians 1:3, it is said that we are blessed with all spiritual blessings in Christ. Also, it is completely unthinkable that the one Christ, who surely becomes ours in justification, would only be imparted to us by degrees and in parts. We receive Him completely, and therefore our justification must be complete from the outset."

1. Geerhardus Vos, Reformed Dogmatics  (R. B. Gaffin, Ed., A. Godbehere, R. van Ijken, D. van der Kraan, H. Boonstra, J. Pater, A. Janssen, K. Batteau, Trans) (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2016) (Vol. 4, p. 157). 

2. Ibid., p. 157

3. Ibid.,  pp. 157-159.
The Protestant Reformers, following Scripture's lead, roundly rejected the notion that believers might be justified in part or in whole by their own good works. Sinners, they maintained, are justified wholly on the basis of Christ's perfect righteousness imputed to them, a righteousness appropriated by faith alone. The doctrine of justification by works which gained traction in medieval theology and was defended by Rome at the Council of Trent was anathema to them. They took a much more positive view, however, of the doctrine of justification of works; that is, the doctrine that not only the believing sinner himself or herself but also the believing sinner's good works are cloaked in Christ's own perfect righteousness (apprehended by faith), and so are most pleasing to God.

Robert Rollock (1555-1599), the first regent, principal, and professor of theology at the University of Edinburgh and a key figure in the course of reform in Scotland in the sixteenth century, articulated this position well in a short treatise on good works published with his Romans Commentary in 1593. Rollock writes:

"Man already regenerated, having through faith recovered some portion of sincerity of heart, can by virtue of that portion be described as ready unto good works--according to that measure, of course, in which integrity and sincerity of heart has been recuperated. But the work of a regenerate man is good only according to its share of conformity to the law, and does not give all that is required to the Law of God, who is most holy and most perfect. Hence it does not, insofar as it possesses even the smallest degree of imperfection, satisfy God. For, then, a work to be satisfying to God and to conform to his own law and will, it must appear, as it were, before him--it must be led into his own light and view--cloaked in Christ's merit, which is apprehended by faith. Thus it is said in Rom. 14:23, "whatever does not proceed from faith is sin." And similarly in Heb. 11:6, "without faith it is impossible to please him," which statement means not only that man's heart, by faith in Jesus Christ, is made clean and recovers some part of its sincerity and integrity, but also, in truth, that the imperfection of works proceeding from a heart only in part reborn are covered by that same faith. Therefore, faith accomplishes two things with regard to the good work of the regenerate man: first, it purifies the heart and fount of that good work (Acts 15:9); and second, it covers, as it were, the defects of that work which proceeds from a heart only partially reborn. The work of the man without faith, moreover, suffers a twofold loss: first, without faith there is clearly no beginning of regeneration, from whence that work should proceed; and second, without faith there is no veil for the impurity under which that work labors."

The doctrine of justification of works, unlike that of justification by works, stands to provide sinners of sensitive conscience with much relief. It encourages us to broaden our appreciation for what Christ accomplishes for us; he has not merely justified our persons by his perfect obedience, he has also justified our efforts to conform our lives to God's law and Christ's perfect example. It also encourages us to make greater efforts at good works, confident that our works, however imperfect, are most perfect in God's estimation. It encourages us, in other words, to act in faith, not apart from it, but still to act -- contra the perennial claim that Protestant teaching on justification encourages indifference towards good works.

Rollock develops the theme of the justification of believers' good works more fully in his treatise on the subject. That treatise, along with several other previously untranslated writings of Rollock, is now available in English translation in a short volume titled Some Questions and Answers about God's Covenant and the Sacrament That Is a Seal of God's Covenant: With Related Texts, published last month by Wipf and Stock's Pickwick Publications imprint. The principal work included in this volume is the titular catechism, which Rollock published in Latin in 1596. In addition to the treatise on good works noted above, the volume also includes treatises on the divine covenants and the sacraments which were likewise included in Rollock's Romans commentary. All the writings included in the volume make significant use of the doctrine of the covenant of works. That, indeed, was the logic of their inclusion. I've translated the texts myself, and have included an introductory essay which intends to shed new light on Rollock's role in the development of Reformed covenant theology. But, as hopefully indicated above, the treatises on good works and on the sacraments in particular are theologically interesting beyond the use they make of the doctrine of the covenant of works. The book is available from Amazon in hard copy or as an e-book, or directly from Wipf and Stock itself at a slightly reduced price. I dedicated the work to my dog Oakley for reasons explained in the acknowledgments, and all proceeds from the book will be devoted to his ongoing maintenance. So please, for his sake, consider purchasing a copy.

"One thing," Martin Luther writes in the Freedom of a Christian (1520), "and only one thing, is necessary for Christian life, righteousness, and freedom. That one thing is _______." Knowing Luther to be the author, we're quick to assume that "faith" belongs in the blank. And not without reason. Luther is keen to emphasize in this work and others the instrumental role that faith plays in laying hold of Christ and his perfect righteousness as the basis of our own perfect standing before God. But that's not where Luther starts. "That one thing," he writes, "is the most holy Word of God, the gospel of Christ."

Luther's doctrine of justification by faith alone is prefaced and contextualized by a doctrine of justification by God's Word alone; or more precisely, a doctrine of justification by God's word of promise alone. It's well worth tracing his own train of thought on this score, because it helps us understand why faith, in Luther's (and hence Protestant) thought, ultimately plays the pivotal role that it does in apprehending salvation.

"The soul [that] has the Word of God," Luther begins, "is rich and lacks nothing since [that Word] is the Word of life, truth, light, peace, righteousness, salvation, joy, liberty, wisdom, power, grace, glory, and of every incalculable blessing." Yet even this requires qualification since God's Word, in Luther's estimation, "is divided into two parts," and it's properly the latter "part" that proffers the benefits just named. God's word consists of "commandments and promises." The former "show us what we ought to do but do not give us the power to do it. They are intended to teach man to know himself, that through them he may recognize his inability to do good and may despair of his own ability." Once man has despaired, then God addresses him with His word of promise, that word that properly justifies. "Here the second part of Scripture comes to our aid, namely the promises of God." God's word of promise is the word "concerning his Son, who was made flesh, suffered, rose from the dead, and was glorified" on behalf of sinners in need of rescue. This, again, is properly the word that justifies: "To preach Christ means to feed the soul, make it righteous, set it free, and save it."

And thus we arrive at faith. For faith, and only faith, is the appropriate response to this word of promise. "Faith alone is the saving and efficacious use of the [promissory] Word of God.... Therefore it is clear that, as the soul needs only the [promissory] Word of God for its life and righteousness, so it is justified by faith alone and not any works."

As Luther goes on to explain, good works -- that is, any human striving after righteousness -- are really a blasphemous response to God's word of promise (if done in the hopes of securing salvation). After all, it is the height of ingratitude and unbelief (not to mention futility, given our sinful condition) to try to earn that which one offers to us as free gift. By way of analogy, the appropriate response to an invitation to my family's house for dinner is not to show up on our doorstep with a crock-pot and accoutrements in hand, but just to show up, hungry and confident that you will be fed. Efforts to merit that which God freely gives voice refusal to believe that God is as generous and liberal as he declares himself to be when he bids us to "come [and] buy wine and milk without money and without price" (Isa. 55.1).

Luther's doctrine of justification by God's word of promise alone provides critical context to his doctrine of justification by faith alone. It reminds us that there is in fact a (divine) logic to the instrumental role that faith plays in appropriating Christ and his righteousness as the ground of God's judicial declaration of our perfect standing before Him. Too often, I think, our Protestant talk about justification by faith alone fails to reflect that logic. Too often, that is, we fail to meaningfully consider the (promissory) nature of the divine word that faith answers to, and spring too quickly to a discussion of faith vis-a-vis love, hope, works, etc. We thus stand in danger of treating faith as some arbitrary thing that God has seized upon, a hoop to jump through (as it were) before he grants us entrance to eternal joy in his presence -- as if, indeed, he might have chosen some other thing (whether love, hope, or a daily diet of cheeseburgers).

Luther's doctrine of justification by God's word of promise alone also helpfully reminds why a doctrine of justification by faith plus works (however conceived) is so heinous. A doctrine of justification by faith plus works is not merely dangerous to our souls (though it is that). A doctrine of justification by faith plus works twists God's word of free promise into a word of conditional promise, a word that dangles life in front of us if we will only meet some demand. As such, a doctrine of justification by faith plus works constitutes a perverse theological claim, representing God as someone or something different than he reveals himself to be in his own accomplishment of our salvation and application of the same to us.

Proper acknowledgement of the promissory nature of God's justifying word to us, by way of contrast, helps us appreciate why exactly "true faith in Christ is a treasure beyond comparison," a treasure "which brings with it complete salvation."

When Calling Someone A Heretic...

What makes someone a heretic? 

This topic may be more important than we might think, especially in the world of online discourse. There is a distinction between willfully committing a soul-destroying heresy and committing a theological error. To call someone a "false teacher" is to say they are unsaved (see 2 Peter 2:1). To call someone a "moralist" is no different than calling someone a "false teacher." 

A heretic usually has no problem in affirming the Scriptures as the Word of God. Their problem almost always arises from a perversion of the meaning of God's Word. One only needs to look at the Racovian Catechism, which is filled with Scripture, but puts forth a Socinian manifesto that involves several heresies. 

All heresies are errors, but not all errors are heresies. As Augustine said, "I may err, but I shall not be a heretic" (Errare potero, haereticus non ero). 

I understand heresy in the way described by George Gillespie, a Scottish commissioner to the Westminster Assembly: 

Heresy is a gross and dangerous error, voluntarily held and factiously maintained by some person or persons within the visible church, in opposition to some chief or substantial truth or truths grounded upon and drawn from the Holy Scripture by necessary consequence.

The key words above are "voluntarily" (not ignorantly) and "factiously" (not quietly, but "stubbornly" [see Ames]) in terms of the manner in which a heretic promotes his or her view(s).

Conversely, we may hold to an error, but (thankfully) that error is not sufficiently severe enough that it overthrows the fundamental articles of the Christian faith. 

As a result, I would argue that Pelagianism is a heresy, but Arminianism is not. Pelagianism overthrows several fundamental articles. I would argue that Arminianism is a serious error, but it is not a heresy. (My Arminian friends would likely say the same about my Reformed views.) Holding to Arminian doctrine does not consign one to hell. Most of the Early Modern Reformed divines I have studied on this issue appear to take this view. 

Alexander Henderson, at the time of the 1638 General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, is said to have argued:

That all the Controversies (especially if they exceed not the limits of the five controverted Articles) between the Arminians and Anti-Arminians or Calvinists, neither were nor are about Fundamental Doctrines; that indeed the Arminians erred grievously, but that he and the Synod were not yet persuaded that all Heterodoxies, that is, that all Erroneous Doctrines are Heresies

Earlier in the seventeenth century, John Ball made the point that through ignorance a Christian may misunderstand many things in God's word, but not be in danger of damnation. He says, "All error and misbelief does not destroy the truth of faith, no more than every imperfection does the truth of righteousness. A man may misunderstand diverse places of Scripture, and thereupon hold that to be true which is false, and yet be saved for all this error."

I admit that is isn't always easy to distinguish between error and heresy. John Owen said that for Protestants "it is a most difficult thing to determine of heresy." If you believe that you can easily identify heresy, I would be interested in the rules that would infallibly settle what constitutes heresy. 

In the matter of justification by faith, William Bradshaw, in his work, "A Treatise of Justification" (1615), makes some points that I think we need to carefully consider:

You cannot be ignorant (good Reader) what special differences have been, (and yet are) among ourselves (Reformed theologians) in some points, about the justification of a sinner before God. When many weak minds have been somewhat perplexed, and some strong ones (at least in their own conceits) exceedingly distempered; as though there were among us which overturned foundations, teaching blasphemous heresies about this matter: whereas all of us with one mouth profess this, that a sinner is justified, not by any formal inherent righteousness in himself, but only by the free and mere grace and mercy of God, through the meritorious satisfaction of our Savior Christ, the only Mediator between God and a sinner. Wherein we all give all the glory of our justification and salvation to God in Christ Jesus, and therein hold the main foundation. We differ only in certain circumstances, wherein nothing is derogated, either from the mercy of God, or merits of Christ, or arrogated to our own works

Let that paragraph sink in, especially for the sake of the peace and purity of the church. 

Denying that the active obedience of Christ is imputed to believers is an error, but not a heresy. 

You should be careful - very careful, indeed - when you hurl around, as one of those "exceedingly distempered" individuals, the words "moralist", "false teacher", and "heretic" on matters that do not rise to the level of soul-damning doctrine. 

We do not need to shrink back from lively, vigorous theological debate. Paedocommunion, premillennialism, amyraldianism, closed communion, and episcopacy are all errors, in my view. But, these errors are not heresies. A wall exists between my brothers who hold to any one of these views, but the wall is not so high that we cannot "shake hands" as brothers.

As I have said before, we are not justified by precision alone. We are justified by faith alone. That doesn't just include the fact that we've done bad things, but it also includes the fact that we have believed - and still do believe - some bad things. 

There is, of course, a higher standard for teachers compared to lay Christians who do not hold office. One only has to glance at  a few books in the NT to see this. A lay Christian may, quite unintentionally, hold to a view that could be deemed heretical, but I would treat such a person very differently than a teacher who willingly and obstinately espouses heretical doctrine. I teach a lot of students who believe some pretty weird things, e.g., Jesus was God, became man, and then after the resurrection went back to being God. Sure, I freak out at first. But then after (sometimes) patient instruction they usually come around. 

A false teacher, however, as Gillespie noted above, "voluntarily" holds and "factiously" maintains a view that opposes a chief truth of doctrine. Almost all of what I see going on in broadly Reformed circles, where there is lively debate, is not heresy but error - errors that God forgives. We can debate these errors, but I get the impression that the language used to describe an error can be overly harsh, i.e., *[those in error are basically heretical]. 

We should also be careful about those who are always crying foul (i.e., "internet policemen") regarding theological positions. There is a time to confront error and heresy, but those who do so should generally not have a reputation for doing so on a weekly basis on twitter and blogs. Books, which take time to write - and pass by the desks of many editors - generally prevent hasty reactions and regrettable words (assuming the book is not a self-published endeavour). Our posts here at Reformation21 are edited for content and style by someone with a PhD in theology. They do not go up as soon as they are written. 

Personally, I have always been more persuaded about the error of a particular theology when the person I have read has not given the impression to me that he simply lives for the debate or that he is always vexed by this or that, or that he sees the error everywhere. Dropping the "H-bomb" too easily - or using the word "moralist" to describe anyone who slightly departs from your own impressive understanding of Reformed doctrine - quickly hinders your critique. 

When calling someone a heretic, false teacher, or moralist (Pelagian), one had better have really good grounds. And if you've done that more than a handful of times online, then you've probably done it too often. 

* Note the full title:

Defending Piper (Again) from "The West Coast Offense"

Never say "never", and never say "always" when making a claim about the Reformed tradition. That's rule number one, and it can save you from a lot of embarrassment. I plan to post on this in the future and bring into light some Reformed voices who have made bold claims in an attempt to cast aspersions on the theology of other people whom they disagree with. But for today, I give you one example.

Lee Irons, in critiquing John Piper, made the following point:

The second confusing terminology is his use of the word "conditions." He wants to say that faith is the sole condition of entering into a right relationship with God. But if we replace "entering into a right relationship with God" with "being justified," then it is not true that faith is the sole condition, since faith is related to justification not as a condition but as a means. Faith has never been viewed as a condition of justification in Reformed theology or in the Reformed confessions. Paul himself never uses the prepositional phrase dia + accusative, "justified because of faith." Instead he uses dia + genitive or ek + genitive, "justified by faith." Faith is not the ground of justification, but the means by which we are justified, by which we rest upon Christ and receive the gift of his imputed righteousness. Faith is a purely passive and receptive instrument. It is an open hand that receives the gift. In this it is the exclusive means or instrument by which we are justified, since we do not receive the righteousness of Christ by works of obedience, even by Spirit-wrought works of obedience.

Now, there's a lot to interact with in his post, including his comments (which only exacerbate the problems in the post*). Also, I tend to think that theology by prepositions is, well, not all that helpful. The Greek sounds sophisticated to the neophyte, but it hardly helps his point against Piper. 

Nonetheless, I am flabbergasted at the cocksure way by which Irons makes these claims. He castigates Piper for several errors, but ends up making a few blunders himself. One in particular stands out.

He says: "Faith has never been viewed as a condition of justification in Reformed theology..." (emphasis mine).

This is simply false. 

This was a dispute among the Reformed orthodox and the antinomians in the seventeenth century. If you asked a Reformed theologian (e.g., Owen & Witsius) whether faith is a condition for justification he would likely have said, "yes and no", and then explained how faith is a condition for justification and how it isn't. They had to say "no" against the Arminians and "yes" against the Antinomians. But they didn't get rid of the term because of "pastoral reasons". They just explained what they meant by "condition". Irons, regrettably, doesn't do that. 

Ironically, in critiquing Piper for not being Reformed, Irons actually makes arguments that would have been well received in the antinomian camp, but firmly rejected by most of the Reformed.

John Owen allowed one to argue that faith is the condition of justification only if "no more be intended thereby, but that it is the duty on our part which God requires, that we may be justified" (5:113).  Stephen Charnock notes, "Faith is the condition God requires to justification; but not a dead, but an active faith." Thomas Manton says that faith is the "only condition required" for justification. The list goes on, and the evidence is overwhelmingly against Irons.

This all coheres with WLC, Q. 32, where the question is asked: "How is the grace of God manifested in the second covenant?"

A. The grace of God is manifested in the second covenant, in that he freely provideth and offereth to sinners a Mediator, and life and salvation by him; and requiring faith as the condition to interest them in him..."

Note also WCF 7.3, "requiring of them faith in Him, that they may be saved" (Rom. 10:6 as proof text).

Faith is the (antecedent) condition for receiving the benefits of Christ. No faith, no benefits ("interest them in him"). But how do we keep in balance both the "freeness" ("freely provides") and the "conditionality" ("requiring faith as the condition") of the covenant?

Reformed theologians were not stupid; nor were they moralists, Papists, or Arminians. They carefully highlighted what they meant (and what they did not mean) by faith as a condition for justification. 

In the first place, they distinguished between certain types of conditions, namely, antecedent and consequent conditions. This important distinction sheds light on the various theological debates that took place in seventeenth-century England, particularly with reference to the Antinomians, who taught that faith followed justification. 

According to views expressed in the sermons of Tobias Crisp on John 2:1-2, the elect are justified and reconciled to God before they believe, so that faith is neither the instrumental cause of justification nor a condition of being justified.

In his response to Crisp and the Antinomians, John Flavel claims that the controversy is not about consequent conditions (i.e., things required after the believer is instated into covenant with God), but rather about whether we may speak of antecedent conditions in order to be justified or enter into the blessings of the covenant of grace.

Flavel considers this discussion from two distinct vantage points: 

1) The covenant made with Christ; and
2) The application of the benefits of the covenant to sinners. 

With regard to the former, Flavel admits that no condition is required on man's part, "but depends purely and only upon the Grace of God, and Merit of Christ." 

But Flavel asks whether the condition of faith may be understood as antecedent in the application of salvation. Thus he distinguishes between meritorious acts and non-meritorious acts:

1. Such Antecedent Conditions which have the force of a meritorious and impulsive Cause, which being performed by the proper strength of Nature, or at most by the help of common assisting Grace, do give a Man a right to the reward or blessings of the Covenant. And in this sense we utterly disclaim antecedent Conditions.

2. An Antecedent Condition signifying no more than an Act of ours, which though it be neither perfect in every degree, nor in the least meritorious of the benefit conferred; nor performed in our own natural strength; yet according to the constitution of the Covenant, is required of us in order to the blessings consequent thereupon by virtue of the Promise: and consequently the benefits and mercies granted in the Promise in this order are, and must be suspended by the donor or disposer of them, until it be performed, such a Condition we affirm Faith to be.

Based upon this distinction, Flavel affirms faith to be an antecedent condition in terms of a non-meritorious act required of us in order to receive the application of the benefits of the covenant of grace, including justification. But given the controversy that surrounds this subject, he makes a further (important) distinction between faith "essentially" considered and faith considered "organically and instrumentally." 

Faith essentially (i.e., in terms of the essence of faith) considered refers to obedience, "and in that respect we exclude it from justifying our persons, or entitling us to the saving-mercies of the New Covenant." 

However, faith "organically" considered refers to its instrumentality, "as it receives Christ...and so gives us power to become the sons of God; it being impossible for any Man to partake of the saving benefits of the Covenant, but as he is united to Christ." 

Thus faith, as an antecedent condition, "organically" considered, is required for sinners to receive the blessings of the covenant of grace. There were very good theological and polemical reasons why Reformed theologians spoke of faith as a condition for receiving justification. But while they did that, they also explained what they did and did not mean by "condition." In addition, Rutherford speaks well for Reformed theologians when he says: "conditions wrought in us by grace, such as we assert, take not one jot or title of the freedom of grace away."

Before critiquing Piper, I think Irons needs to read more carefully on the different senses of "condition" in the Reformed tradition, especially if he is going to make sweeping claims that cannot be justified at all. Is Piper saying anything different than Owen, Charnock, Manton or Flavel? I highly doubt it. Would Irons go after Owen, Charnock, Manton or Flavel? I wonder.

Personally, I just don't understand the obsession that some have for wanting to find fault in a writer where there doesn't need to be. Piper's language and theology on this issue fits perfectly within the Reformed tradition, and I wish certain people would stop trying to suggest otherwise. It is divisive and unnecessary. It does not build up the church, but divides it. And it makes some Reformed Presbyterians look petty (nasty?), as if we have nothing better to do than go after a man who actually took on Tom Wright, but evidently still should not to be trusted on justification.

If I were Irons, I would erase the post and offer a public apology to Piper for intimating that he is teaching error. I doubt it will happen, but it would be a good example for others who have previously gotten a little carried away in their zeal. 


* In the comment section, Irons basically says that the covenant of grace, in which we live by faith, partakes of conditions but justification in no way does, not even in terms of faith; yet justification is a benefit of that selfsame covenant of grace. Do you see how a wrong-headed paradigm can lead to absurd statements? 

Judgment According to Works

Part 6: Judgment According to Works (see below)

It is well nigh impossible to deny that Christians will be judged according to works when Christ returns (2 Cor. 5:10; Matt. 16:27; Jn. 5:28-29; Gal. 6:7-9; Rev. 20:13; 22:12). The question arises, then, how do we maintain the teaching of the passages above with the equally clear teaching that justification is received by faith alone? We do not, as I have written previously, hold to the Roman Catholic version of "two justifications." We hold to one justification by faith; but we must also grapple with the nature of true, saving faith, and the not too infrequent conditional language of the New Testament (see WCF 13.1, citing Heb. 12:14; 2 Cor. 7:1).
In relation to faith, Owen says: "For there is a faith whereby we are justified, which he who has shall be assuredly saved, which purifies the heart and works by love. And there is a faith or believing, which does nothing of all this; which [he] who has, and has no more, is not justified, nor can be saved" (see WCF 11.2). This concept forms the backbone of the judgment according to works.
Justification has both an "authoritative" aspect and a "declarative" (or "demonstrative") aspect. Thomas Goodwin points out that "the one [i.e., authoritative] is the justification of men's persons coram Deo, before God, as they appear before him nakedly, and have to do with him alone for the right to salvation; and so they are justified by faith without works" (Rom. 4:2-5) (see Works, 7:181ff.).
But there is a demonstrative aspect to our justification. God will, at the Day of Judgment, judge men and "put a difference between man and man, and that upon this account, that the one were true believers when he justified them; the other were unsound, even in their very acts of faith" (Goodwin) (Acts 8:13). God will therefore make evident, for all to see, the difference between those whom he has truly justified and those who have been left under wrath, even though they may have "professed" faith. Matthew 25:31-46 is instructive on this point.
Returning to the "right" versus "possession" distinction, Goodwin, who has affirmed that the right to salvation as received by faith alone, also posits: God will not "put the possession of salvation upon that private act of his own, without having anything else to show for it." This language is remarkably similar to Petrus van Mastricht: "God does not want to grant the possession of eternal life, unless there are, next to faith, also good works which precede this possession, Heb. 12:14; Matt. 7:21; 25:34-36; Rom. 2:7, 10." This is not a "Puritan" distinctive, as some seem to think. Dozens of Continental theologians spoke this way.
The key in all of this is to understand that Goodwin is making an argument for God's own justification of himself at the Day of Judgment. God justifies apart from works, but he also will "go demonstratively to work" and clearly distinguish between a true believer versus a spurious believer. God will "justify his own acts of justification." Or, to put the matter another way, God will justify the faith of the believer who has been justified - the judgment will prove we had a lively faith that worked through love.
The contrast between Paul and James is then brought into clearer view: "In a word, Abraham's person, considered singly and alone, yes, as ungodly, is the object of Paul's justification without works, Rom. 4:3-5. But Abraham, as professing himself to have such a true justifying faith, and to have been justified thereupon, and claiming right to salvation by it, Abraham, as such, is to be justified by works" (Goodwin).
Goodwin speaks about what sense "a man may be said to be judged by his works at the latter day." All those judged will either be justified or condemned. "So there is no more danger to say, a man at the latter day shall be justified by his works, as evidences of his state and faith, than to say he shall be judged according thereto." He essentially argues that we will be justified by works, but only demonstratively as God justifies his own act of justification in each believer. After all, Christ speaks of a (demonstrative) justification according to works in Matthew 12:36-37, "...for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned."
Goodwin adds: "neither is it anywhere said, that God will judge men according to their faith only." (As Calvin says, justification "by faith alone" is ambiguous; the sense of "alone" has to be understood adverbially, not adjectively). "God will say, I am to judge thee so as every one shall be able to judge my sentence righteous together with me: 1 Cor. 4:5, the whole world may know that he justified one that had true faith indeed." The final judgment is as much about the vindication of the triune God as it is about true believers having their lives vindicated. 
The result of this, for Goodwin, is that "Paul's judging according to works, and James his justification by works, are all one, and are alike consistent with Paul's justification by faith only. For in the same epistle where he argues so strongly for justification by faith without works, as Rom. 3-4, he in chapter 2, also declares, that 'he will judge every man according to his works.'" 

Most of the Early Modern Reformed did not view Romans 2:7-11 as hypothetical, contrary to what some in the Reformed camp today have suggested. Rick Phillips has addressed this question in the past, but I remain concerned about some historical and exegetical issues made therin; his post also strikes me as far too defensive. Better, in my view, is the approach taken by Richard Gaffin in By Faith, Not By Sight
Should this cause people to despair regarding the future judgment? Only if one is a bona fide hypocrite. Christ will rightfully condemn the hypocrites in the church (Matt. 25:41-46). They are marked out as those who did not do good works. They are those who neglect the weightier matters of the law (Matt. 23:23).
Here is the good news for those who have a true, lively faith: the resurrection will precede the judgment (Larger Catechism, 88; 2 Cor. 5:10). Based on 1 John 3:2, we shall see Christ and be immediately transformed by the sight (beatific vision) of him. We shall appear, then, in a manner of speaking, as already justified at the judgment. Remember, when we first believed, we received the "right to life." This is the glory of justification (Rom. 5:1; 8:1). Nothing can separate us from God's love, especially at the judgment.
We do not need to fear the final judgment if we are children of God. But, as children of God, glorified in the presence of Christ, we "must [nevertheless] all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil" (2 Cor. 5:10). And, yes, there will be those in the church who will not do so well at the final judgment because their faith was dead (i.e., did not produce fruit, Jn. 15:2-5, 10, 16).

One final thought. It occurs to me that some speak of the final judgment in a sub-trinitarian way. It is all about declarative justification for some. Now, of course, declarative justification gives us the right to life. Only the imputed righteousness of Christ can withstand the severity of God's judgment. But, demonstrative justification, as I have highlighted above, is the Father's approval of the Spirit's work - that is, the Spirit of Christ - in his people because of our union with the Savior. 

The Father who gave two gifts to us, the Son and the Spirit, will look upon us as justified in Christ and sanctified in Christ by the Spirit; and he will be well pleased with his work. He will accept us for Christ's sake and reward and vindicate us because of Christ's Spirit, who has enabled us to do good works, which were prepared in advance for us to do (Eph. 2:10).  

So, it seems to me, we need to do a better job - at least, from what I've been able to read - of describing the final judgment in explicitly trinitarian terms. To that end, I believe the account above aims to do just that.

If there is a better way to bridge together the freeness of justification by faith, the conditional language of Scripture (Rom. 8:13), and the fact that Christians will be judged according to what they have done in the body (2 Cor. 5:10), I'd be very interested in such an account. But I trust and hope the basic map laid out above, with help from a well-respected Westminster divine, is faithful to the overall teaching of the Scriptures. 

I do wonder, given the zeal of some today, whether Goodwin might not find himself in some trouble in certain Presbyteries, and no amount of squirming on his part ("hey, I wrote the Confession") will absolve him from his errors.

One Justification or Two Justifications?

"And a good work it is, no doubt, to pare off all unnecessary occasions of debate and differences in religion, provided we go not so near the quick as to let out any of its vital spirits." John Owen

Part 5: One or Two Justifications? (see below)
Part 6: Judgment According to Works (to come soon)

In the past I have discussed how Reformed theologians have historically disagreed with the Remonstrants (Arminians) on justification by faith alone. I have also discussed how the Reformed have insisted that good works are the way to life (final salvation or "heaven") (see WLC 32, "and as the way which he hath appointed them to salvation"). In this way, the Reformed theologians at Westminster clearly aimed to distance themselves from the language of the Antinomian theologian, Tobias Crisp.

Crisp remarked that "they [i.e., good works] are not the Way to Heaven." He refers to the Reformed view as a "received conceit among many persons," namely, "that our obedience is the way to heaven." 

We cannot deny that it is quite difficult to speak in a way that avoids several errors at once. Those who are quick to criticize need to realize that avoiding "scylla and charybdis" (Arminianism/Popery, and Antinomianism) is not quite as easy as we might think. As Joseph Hart once said,

Pharasaic zeel and Antinomian security are the two engines of Satan, with which he grinds the church in all ages, as between the upper and the [lower] millstone. The space between them is much narrower and harder to find than most men imagine. It is a path which the vulture's eye hath not seen; and none can show it us but the Holy Ghost.

Confessional statements had to take into account not just one error on either justification or sanctification, but several errors. 

Against Rome, Reformed theologians were adamant that the Romish doctrine of a double justification was false. The first justification, according to Rome, is the infusion of grace through baptism, which effects grace automatically ex opere operato, whereby original sin is extinguished and the habits of sin are expelled. The second justification is the formal cause of their good works. As John Owen notes,

Paul, they say, treats of the first justification only, whence he excludes all works [...] but James treats of the second justification; which is by good works [...] Sanctification is turned into a justification [...] The whole nature of evangelical justification, consisting in the gratuitous pardon of sin and the imputation of righteousness [...] is utterly defeated by it. 

Elsewhere, Owen argues that the distinction of two justifications as defended and articulated by the Catholic Church leaves us with no justification at all. Why is that?

There are only two ways by which a man may be justified according to Owen. The first justification is "By the works of the law," wherein sinners are to fulfill all the terms of the law, like Christ, and the second is "by grace," wherein Christ has fulfilled all the terms of the law on behalf of the elect. Justification is a work of God "by grace" that is once completed "in all the causes and the whole effect of it, though not as unto the full possession of all that it give right and title unto."

What this means is not that we attain to heaven by faith alone. Rather, it means that we have the full right to heaven when we first believe. As Thomas Goodwin notes: "Works of new obedience are required as necessary to the possession of salvation, but faith is that alone which puts us into a condition of having the title and right to it, by the blood and righteousness of Christ." He, like pretty much every other Reformed theologian of the period, knows how to distinguish between the right to heaven and the way we possess heaven. Similarly, Richard Sibbes: "There must be some grace between faith and the possession of heaven. I am assured of the possession of heaven in my first conversion; but I am not invested into it. It is deferred."

In other words, a man is fully declared righteous as soon as he puts his faith in Christ. Justification is an act that cannot be revoked. However, the full benefits of justification, like heaven, for example, are a future possession, even if we possess the right to heaven now. Moreover, by believing, Christians become sons of God and have a right to all the benefits of his mediation, which leaves any other justification unnecessary. Through faith in Christ, the sins of God's people are forgiven so that no one can lay charge against God's elect, for "he that believes has everlasting life" (Jn. 3:36). If justification is not at once complete and in need of a second justification, "no man can be justified in this world." This last sentence is crucial. There is one justification, not two justifications. Why? 


For no time can be assigned, nor measure of obedience be limited, whereon it may be supposed that any one comes to be justified before God, who is not so on his first believing; for the Scripture does nowhere assign any such time or measure. And to say that no man is completely justified in the sight of God in this life, is at once to overthrow all that is taught in the Scriptures concerning justification, and wherewithal all peace with God and comfort of believers. But a man acquitted upon his legal trial is at once discharged of all that the law has against him.

For these reasons, Owen rejects the Catholic doctrine of a twofold justification. And, well, so should any good Reformed believer. The idea that good works are an instrumental cause of justification is utterly grotesque.  

But what about a judgment according to works and how does that relate to our justification? That's a question I hope to turn to in the future, with a few present-day Reformed theologians in my sight who seem to be unnecessarily skittish about a judgment according to works. 

James Is, You Know, in the Bible


A couple of years ago, a friend of mine was discussing the necessity of works to salvation when a fellow Reformed minister accused him of legalism.  This pastor, noted for promoting a radical version of Lutheran soteriology, cut him down with a slashing riposte.  "You sound like a follower of James!" he stabbed.  Unbloodied by this thrust, my friend answered, "James is, you know, in the Bible." 

This conversation came to mind as I read Mark Jones' defense of John Piper in his insistence that Christians attain to heaven not merely by faith but also by works.  ("Attaining to heaven," here seems to correspond with the character of one's post-conversion Christian life.)  If one replies that Jones and Piper sound like the apostle James, well, James 2 is in the Bible. 

It is by now standard for Reformed Christians to realize that when James wrote that "faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead" (Ja. 2:17), he was not contradicting Paul's teaching of justification through faith alone.  The most common explanation is that while Paul taught that we are justified through faith alone, James taught that our faith is justified by works.  Hence the non-contradiction.  This is a helpful formula, yet it may not do James full justice or give the full emphasis of his point. 

Consider the explanation in James 2:21-24.  First, James writes that "Abraham our father [was] justified by works when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar" (Ja. 2:21).  This refers, of course, to Abraham's obedience in Genesis 22.  The angel of the Lord noted the importance of this obedience in Abraham's salvation, saying, "now I know that you fear God, seeing you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me" (Gen. 22:12).  Evidently, fearing God is of soteric importance to those who have been justified through faith alone.  It was on the basis of this fearing God that the covenant promise given long before in response to faith was confirmed again in Genesis 22:17.  Unless we are to make this episode a pointless footnote to Abraham's story, we must say that the patriarch did not attain to salvation apart from obediently fearing the Lord, a matter that was important enough to God that he tested Abraham in so onerous a manner. 

How, then, do we relate faith and works in Abraham's salvation?  Conveniently, James tells us: "You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by his works" (Ja. 2:22).  Here, James leaves Paul's doctrine of justification through faith alone undamaged.  Both initially and finally, faith alone remains the instrumental condition of our justification.*  But if we ask how a believer occupies himself between conversion and final glory, i.e. how he attains to salvation, James answers that faith is active in and finds its expression through works.  So essential is this relationship between faith and works that James famously insisted: "faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead" (Ja. 2:17).  It is in this sense that James concludes not only that our faith is justified by works but that "a person is justified by works and not by faith alone" (Ja. 2:24).  Here we see the necessity of works, not only as evidence of true faith but as characteristic of the justified believer, such that a professing Christian without works has no basis to consider himself justified.  As Abraham's example shows us, a person who is justified through faith alone attains to salvation by a life characterized by God-fearing obedience and good works.  This person remains a sinner, of course, who stands justified before God only in Christ through faith.  But being in Christ through faith involves a necessary and organic connection to good works (see also Eph. 2:8-10).

I can think of few messages more urgently needed by our worldly churches today than the necessity of pursuing practical holiness through obedience and good works.  I realize that many even of our Reformed brothers would rather ignore James' teaching than work through its challenges, both doctrinally and practically.  But as my friend insisted, "James is, you know, in the Bible."


* The word "condition" in theology does not always mean "instrument of."  My guess is that people who are alarmed by Piper saying that there are other conditions than faith for attaining heaven are thinking of "condition" only in this narrow sense.  I do not see Piper espousing the kind of initial vs. final justification teaching that you see in N. T. Wright, an approach that Piper has clearly refuted in The Future of JustificationSince, Piper reserves faith alone as the instrumental cause of our justification, I have taken his use of "condition" here to refer to the necessary characteristic of the justified Christian life.  In this sense, James 2 urges full agreement.

In Defense of Piper

I've been told that some folk are taking issue with John Piper's Foreword to Thomas Schreiner's book on justification. According to Piper, who agrees with Schreiner, we are "right with God by faith alone" but we do not "attain heaven by faith alone." He adds that "there are other conditions for attaining heaven." 

Based on what I believe is a charitable and straight-forward reading of Piper, there is not a single word in his Foreword that seems out of place in terms of the basic Reformed approach to justification, salvation, and conditionality.  

Piper affirms strongly and clearly that works do not contribute to the acquisition of salvation. But Piper also wants to affirm that good works should be considered necessary for the obtaining of salvation. I fail to understand how this idea isn't present in literally dozens of Reformed luminaries from the Early Modern period. As Francis Turretin says:

"This very thing is no less expressly delivered concerning future glory. For since good works have the relation of the means to the end (Jn. 3:5, 16; Mt. 5:8); of the 'way' to the goal (Eph. 2:10; Phil 3:14); of the 'sowing' to the harvest (Gal. 6:7,8)...of labor to the reward (Mt. 20:1); of the 'contest' to the crown (2 Tim. 2:5; 4:8), everyone sees that there is the highest and an indispensable necessity of good works for obtaining glory. It is so great that it cannot be reached without them (Heb. 12:14; Rev. 21:27)."

Again, Piper says we do "not attain heaven by faith alone" and Turretin speaks of the "indispensable necessity of good works for obtaining glory". I don't see why we can't agree that they are saying essentially the same thing; and, indeed, if they are, what is the problem?

For those who have trouble grasping how Piper can affirm that justification is by faith alone, but that entering glory is not by faith alone, we must keep in mind the well-known distinction between the right to life versus the possession of life

Herman Witsius makes a distinction between the right to life (i.e., acquisition) and the possession of life. The former is "assigned to the obedience of Christ, that all the value of our holiness may be entirely excluded." However, regarding the latter, "our works...which the Spirit of Christ works in us, and by us, contribute something to the latter."

Similarly, Petrus van Mastricht once wrote: "in so far as God, whose law we attain just now through the merit alone of Christ, does not want to grant possession of eternal life, unless [it is] beyond faith with good works previously performed. We received once before the right unto eternal life through the merit of Christ alone. But God does not want to grant the possession of eternal life, unless there are, next to faith, also good works which precede this possession, Heb. 12:14; Matt. 7:21; 25:34-36; Rom. 2:7, 10."

Is there anything in Piper's Foreword that could not have come from the pen of Witsius or Turretin or Boston or Ball (see Patrick Ramsey's post here) or Owen or Rutherford or Mastricht? I'm having trouble understanding what the problem is both biblically and historically. In fact, I can point to works by authors in the Reformed tradition who have stated the matter perhaps a little more strongly than Piper does (e.g., Mastricht, Davenant). 

It seems one would have to have a built-in bias against Piper - perhaps because of his relationship to Daniel Fuller or perhaps for some other reason - to raise questions about the orthodoxy of his Foreword. And, let's be honest, it is a serious thing to raise questions about the orthodoxy of someone on this point. It isn't like we're talking about complementarianism. 

Piper speaks of good works as necessary for attaining heaven. Reformed theologians have spoken of good works as necessary for possessing heaven. In my mind, that's the same thing. And, quite frankly, I think that's the better approach rather than causing unnecessary division where there really doesn't need to be any. 

In sum, as Piper says, "there are other conditions for attaining heaven". Or, by someone else:

"The New Testament lays before us a vast array of conditions for final salvation. Not only initial repentance and faith, but perseverance in both, demonstrated in love toward God and neighbor...Holiness, which is defined by love of God and the indispensable condition of our glorification: no one will be seated at the heavenly banquet who has not begun, however imperfectly, in new obedience." 

And if you don't like that last quote, you can take it up with Michael Horton. But I happen to agree with it completely. 

Justification and Ariel's Grotto

Systematic theology must make sure that each doctrine it teaches is biblical. It must also make sure that each doctrine it teaches reflects an appropriate proportion and order in relationship to other doctrines. This proportion and order is determined by the shape of biblical teaching--"the pattern of sound words" (2 Tim 1.13), not by the theologian's architectonic sensibilities. 

Justification by faith alone is the doctrine on which the church stands or falls. But justification is not a stand-alone doctrine. The doctrine of justification only makes good Christian sense when rightly ordered and related to biblical teaching about other doctrines such as God and creation, sin and the law, grace and Christology, church and eschatology. Abstracted from this broader biblical and doctrinal context, even the most pristine doctrine of justification is susceptible to distortion and misuse, much like that poor fork in Ariel's Grotto.

Mike Allen devotes the first chapter of his fine book on justification to this precise issue. Where does the doctrine of justification fit in relation to other biblical doctrines? According to Allen, the doctrine of justification provides the legal "ground" of our sanctifying fellowship with the triune God, a fellowship enjoyed now under the ministry of the gospel within the church and not yet in the unmediated presence of the triune God within the new creation. This, in part, is what it means to say that the church "stands or falls" on the doctrine of justification. Furthermore, according to Allen, though justification is the "ground" of our sanctifying fellowship with God, this sanctifying fellowship--now in the church, not yet in the new creation--is the "goal" of justification. Within the broader economy of God's saving works on behalf of his elect children, justification is not an ultimate end. Justification is a wonderful and indispensable means to other (more) wonderful ends.

A quick glance at Romans 5.1-11 confirms this point. According to Paul, the blessing of justification is ordered to (at least) six other blessings. 

(1) As a consequence of justification, we have peace with God (Rom 5.1). The greatest consequence of sin is neither guilt nor misery. The greatest consequence of sin is that we have made ourselves "enemies" of God (Rom 5.10) and therefore that we abide under his "wrath" (Rom 1.18ff). God himself, the Holy One of Israel, is our problem. In an act of incomparable love (Rom 5.6-7), and through the obedience and death of his beloved Son (Rom 5.9, 18), God himself has addressed this problem. God has reconciled us to himself: "since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ" (Rom 5.1).

(2) As a consequence of justification, we stand in the state of grace (Rom 5.2). If we limit ourselves to the Book of Romans, this state of grace includes several privileges: (i) the privilege of adoption, a privilege sealed by the Holy Spirit who has been poured out into our hearts (Rom 5.5; 8.12-17); (ii) the privilege of Christ's heavenly intercession on our behalf, wherein he preserves us in the state of grace and justification (Rom 5.10; 8.34); (iii) and the privilege of living unto God and of bearing fruit for the glory of God, i.e., the privilege of sanctification (Rom 6.1-23; 8.4-11, 29; 12.1-2).

(3) As a consequence of justification, we rejoice in hope of the glory of God (Rom 5.2). The ultimate goal of human nature, and the supreme source of human bliss, lies in the beatific vision: beholding the unmediated glory of the triune God. Sin deprived us of fulfilling our true end and thus of realizing our true happiness. Through justification, our ultimate goal and our supreme happiness have been secured. We are at peace with God. We will see God. And we will be supremely happy in God (Ps 16.11; 1 John 3.2; Rev 22.4).

(4) As a consequence of justification, our suffering is now ordered to our benefit (Rom 5.3-4). Because we have been reconciled to God through the death of his Son, all of the suffering, sorrow, and loss that God sends our way in this "vale of tears" does not come to us as punishment for our sins (see Isa 54.14-17). Instead, suffering, sorrow, and loss are divinely ordered to our endurance, character, and maturity. Suffering, sorrow, and loss are ordered to our conformity to the image of God's beloved Son, our elder brother (Rom 8.29; Phil 3.10). Though often we cannot feel the reality of this privilege in the midst of suffering (Heb 12.11), this too is one of the blessed consequences of justification and a reason to rejoice.

(5) As a consequence of justification, we will be saved from God's eschatological wrath (Rom 5.9). According to Hebrews 9.27, "it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment." However, for those who belong to Jesus Christ, and therefore who are united with him in his sin-bearing death, the second coming of Jesus Christ is not a reason to expect divine wrath and judgment. For us the second coming of Jesus Christ is reason to expect full and final salvation: "Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin but to save those who are eagerly waiting for  him" (Heb 9.28).

(6) As a consequence of justification, we rejoice in God (Rom 5.11). Matthew Henry observes that the doctrine of justification causes Exodus 15.2 to be fulfilled in us: "The Lord is my strength and my song; and he has become my salvation." Through justification, God becomes the "strength" of "weak" sinners (Rom 5.6). Through justification, God becomes the "salvation" of guilty sinners, who are the objects of his righteous wrath (Rom 5.9). And through justification, God becomes the "song" of the justified. We were made to glorify God and enjoy him forever, the catechism teaches us. Justification is a blessed means to realizing this blessed end here and now. Because of our justification, we no longer relate to God as an object of terror and fear. We relate to God as an object of love and delight: "we . . . rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation" (Rom 5.11).

Why is it important to grasp the proper order and relations of justification to other biblical doctrines? The doctrine of justification is all too easily hijacked by the American "folk religion" that sociologists and theologians have labeled "Moral Therapeutic Deism" ("MTD") (see here  and here), a folk religion that plagues many of our Reformed and evangelical churches. Within the religious universe of MTD, the self lies at the center of the solar system and the affirmation of the self is the law that maintains all planets in their orbits. One of the most common errors related to justification in popular (as opposed to academic) Christianity does not involve revising the nature of justification. It involves making an otherwise pristine doctrine of justification the satellite of the therapeutic self. There is a kind of gospel teaching and preaching that does not challenge the basic tenets of MTD but (often unwittingly) appropriates the doctrine of justification to serve MTD's ends rather than Christian ends. In a universe where the chief end of man is his own affirmation, justification is easily employed in a manner which suggests that even God is ultimately ordered to the self's affirmation. 

I am not a sociologist. Nor am I the son of a sociologist. But I do suspect that the scenario described above is responsible in part for the high degree of moral and theological compromise and confusion that characterizes many Reformed and evangelical churches today. To the extent that this is the case, systematic theology, and particularly its office of articulating the order and interrelationship of biblical teaching, may yet have an important role to play in shaping an ecclesiastical culture in which justification makes good Christian sense: beyond the borders of Ariel's Grotto.

Arminian vs Reformed on Justification

WCF 11.1 ... nor by imputing faith itself, the act of believing, or any other evangelical obedience to them, as their righteousness ...

Part 1: Justification by Precision Alone?
Part 2: Act and Habit of Faith
Part 3: Justification is an act that cannot be revoked
Part 4: Arminian vs. Reformed on justification (see below)


Recent scholarship on Arminius has pointed out that he was a theologian of grace. Of course, I am yet to read of a Christian theologian who would not wish to be described that way. Some scholars have also tried to narrow the gap between Arminius and the Reformed tradition, with some suggesting that Arminius was correct to view himself as Reformed. 

Historically speaking, according to the judgment of many Reformed divines, Arminius, and his Remonstrant successors, deviated from the Reformed doctrine of justification by faith alone in a significant way. Arminius thought his difference was only minor.

In fact, as in other doctrines, Reformed theologians argued that Arminius and his successors seemed to hold to a view that is more Socinian and Roman Catholic than Reformed. This was a recurring polemic from the Reformed against the Arminians, who believed that Arminian theology had certain nominalistic tendencies and veered towards Socinianism on several important doctrines, especially on the matter of justification.

Franciscus Gomarus, the famous opponent of Arminius, said that it was "not the doctrine of predestination but that of justification" which was the "cardinal point on which Arminius deviated from Reformed doctrine." Fascinating. I do not think Gomarus fought with Arminius over this doctrine because of irrelevant differences. True, Arminius claimed to agree with Calvin on justification in book 3 of the Institutes, but Arminius also claimed to agree with the Heidelberg Catechism and Belgic Confession based on what, according to Richard Muller, can at best be described as a highly defensive and tendentious reading of those documents. 

The usually irenic Herman Witsius also drew attention to this deviation by Arminius: "Arminius, by his subtlety, frames vain empty quibbles, when he contends that the righteousness of Christ cannot be imputed to us for righteousness..." He adds: "It is well known that the reformed churches condemned Arminius and his followers, for saying that faith comes to be considered in the matter of justification as a work or act of ours." 

Besides Witsius, we could add the critiques of De Moor, Vitringa, Lubbertus, Voetius, Burgess (see The True Doctrine of Justification Asserted and Vindicated from the Errours of Papists, Arminians, Socinians...), Hoornbeek, Featley, Eyre, Buchanan, Roberts, Walker and many others. 

But what is this unorthodox view?

Arminianism Explained

Arminius distinguishes between legal theology and evangelical theology. Regarding, the latter, as sinners, because of the gracious estimation of God, faith is our righteousness. The righteousness of Christ is not imputed to believers, according to Arminius. He did not seem to believe Christ's righteousness could be imputed. 

Arminius made use of a concept, known as acceptilatio. Imperfect faith is accepted (by God's gracious estimation) as righteousness. Or, to put it another way, the human act of faith is by grace counted as evangelical righteousness, as if it were the complete fulfillment of the whole law. This genuine human act comes forth from the ability to choose (liberum arbitrium). God has a "new law" in the evangelical covenant, whereby faith answers to the demands of the covenant.

Arminius clearly struggled in coming to a settled view. Yet, as Aza Goudriaan says in his excellent essay on this topic, "While it is difficult to pin Arminius down on one particular view, it is obvious that he suggested in certain texts a justification because of the act of faith" (Scholasticism Reformed, 163; cf. McCall and Stanglin, Jacob Arminius: Theologian of Grace, 166-169).*

What is the problem? Because the act of faith constitutes righteousness, the manner in which a sinner is justified is not because of the righteousness of Christ imputed to us through the instrument of faith, but because of the act of believing which answers to the demands of the evangelical covenant. 

If you read Petrus Bertius (an Arminian) you might come to the conclusion that the Reformed and the Remonstrants seemed to agree on the formal cause of justification, i.e., imputation. But they differed on the material cause. What is imputed to the believer, our act of faith or Christ's righteousness apprehended by faith? The Reformed held to the latter, whereas, as noted above, the Arminians typically held to the former. But even on the so-called "formal cause" there was an important difference between the two camps. Based on what I have said above, for the Arminians, imputation is an aestimatio - God considers our righteousness (i.e., act of faith) as something that it is not (i.e., perfect). The Reformed, however, view imputation as secundum veritatem - God considers Christ's righteousness as our righteousness, precisely because it is, through union with Christ. The verdict that God passes on his Son is precisely the same verdict he passes on those who belong to Christ - but only through imputation.

In other words, technically we can stand before the tribunal of God with as much assurance of our righteousness as Christ can before the Father. Not because God accepts imperfection, but because God demands perfection from all who would enter life, and we possess a perfect righteousness, by imputation. This is why justification cannot be revoked (i.e., we cannot lose our salvation). Justification by faith (in the Reformed schema) has important implications for our doctrine of perseverance.

The act of faith in both the Papist and Arminian schemes seem to reveal similarity between the two positions. But for the Papists, faith is only the beginning of justification, whereas for someone like Bertius, faith is the perfect righteousness of the law. The act of faith answers to the demands of the gracious covenant. (Here Arminians and Reformed affirmed faith as a condition, but understood this condition in different senses). 

Sibrandus Lubbertus, a Reformed opponent of Bertius and the Arminians, makes the following point in terms of connecting Arminian views with Socinianism:

"For although the Papists teach that we are justified by faith taken in the literal sense, yet they do not teach that faith is our whole righteousness: they just teach that faith is the beginning of our justification...Servetus, however, and Socinus teach that faith is our whole righteousness, as has been shown before, and they reject [Christ's] merit. So because you [i.e., Arminians] say that we are justified by faith, taken in the literal sense, and in contrast deny, against the Papists, that faith is only the beginning of our justification, and [because you] add from Servetus and Socinus that it is the perfect fulfillment of the law, that is, it is the whole and perfect righteousness by which we are justified before God; because you finally deny against the Papists the merit of faith, and assert, with Servetus and Socinus, that it justifies because of God's valuation, [therefore] everybody sees that you come closer to Servetus and Socinus than to the Papists and for that reason it can be more correctly said that you are disciples of Servetus and Socinus than those of the Papists" (Goudriaan, Scholasticism Reformed, 172). 

In Socinus's view, faith itself is graciously considered righteousness by God. Christ's active and "passive" obedience is not imputed to the believer. So, as many Reformed theologians pointed out, there are similarities between Arminius and Socinus on justification by faith. 

Daniel Featley, at the Westminster Assembly, highlights the errors of the Papists, Arminians, and Socinians, and mentions Socinus immediately after Arminius: 

2. By the papists: if Christ's righteousness, then either whole or part. If the whole, then one hath all, another none. Or then everyone as righteous as Christ. ... 3. By Arminius: if by the act of faith, then not by the Imputed righteousness of Christ. Socinus neither active nor passive...

This, in part, explains the words quoted above from WCF 11.1, "... nor by imputing faith itself, the act of believing, or any other evangelical obedience to them, as their righteousness ..." The Assembly seems clearly to have in view the views of the Arminians.


William Perkins highlights the importance of the Reformed view on imputation: "For as his righteousness is made ours, so are his merits depending thereon: but his righteousness is made ours by imputation ... Hence arises another point, namely, that as Christ's righteousness is made ours really [secundum veritatem] by imputation to make us righteous: so we by the merit of his righteousness imputed to merit and deserve life everlasting. And this is our doctrine."

Indeed. This is our (i.e., Reformed) doctrine. Justification by faith alone: whereby the gift of faith is the instrument that receives, through imputation, the merits of Christ.

But, make no mistake, the Papists and Arminians were zealous to say their view revealed the grace of God. Arminius also felt that his view did most justice to the biblical data (Rom. 4:5). Yet when you bridge the act of faith in justification according to the Remonstrant scheme with their Molinism, you'll find that one doctrine seems to affect another. And there is a type of synergism in Remonstrant theology that isn't found among the Reformed. As Goudriaan says, "it could be argued that Arminian positions on both predestination and justification reveal a common focus: human activity is formative in both Arminian doctrines" (SR, 178; cf. McCall & Stanglin,168). 

That said, I'm glad that we're not justified by believing in the precise doctrine of justification by faith alone. The Arminian view is not as bad, in my view, as the Papist error. Remember, too, that Rome hasn't officially revoked her anathema towards those who believe in justification through faith alone. But, where do we, in the Reformed world, begin to anathematize others for a view of justification that is in error? Now that's an interesting question! 


* As an aside, Stanglin and McCall are very fine scholars. I would be interested to see what other conclusions they might reach with a bit more historical context and theological analysis. I think Gomarus, who studied Arminius's works carefully on this topic, shows contrasting approaches by Arminius to his understanding of justification, thus disproving a fully consistent Arminius! The Lubbertus/Bertius debate is also crucial. Bertius was too close to Arminius to be ignored in a historical reading of Arminius on justification. That was one of the key strengths of Goudriaan's essay. One would need to disprove a lot of historical and primary source work by Goudriaan to establish the case that the Remonstrant view of justification was very close to the Reformed view. Indeed, to their credit, McCall and Stanglin admit it was different (Rom. 4:5 being a key text). 

John Fesko has a very good discussion of this debate in his book on the Westminster Assembly. Unfortunately, I only saw it just, but we seem to be in agreement on the Reformed vs. Arminian views of justification.

Can we lose our justification?

Can justification ever be revoked if someone is justified? There are many reasons why this is impossible. I want to offer two (and perhaps some others in a future post). First, because we are justified by faith alone. Second, because of the nature of Christ's intercession.

That sinners are justified by faith alone is a key aspect of the biblical Reformed doctrine of justification. Interestingly, Martin Luther may never have called justification the article by which the church stands or falls, even though the concept is clearly found in his writings. I am still looking for a primary source that proves that Luther is the originator of the phrase, but the saying may still have come from him. For example, William Eyre refers to justification as "articulus stantis aut cadentis Ecclesiae, as Luther calls it." As a result, Richard John Neuhaus wrongly argues that the 'stands or falls' phrase did not originate until the eighteenth century. 

The term "by faith alone" (sola fide) originated with Luther, though the idea is much older. In his German translation of Romans 3:28, Luther added the word allein ("alone"), rendering "justified by faith" as "justified by faith alone."

Owen speaks of and defends justification by faith alone by noting:

"That it is faith alone which on our part is required to interest us in that righteousness, or whereby we comply with God's grant and communication of it, or receive it unto our use and benefit; for although this faith is in itself the radical principle of all obedience...yet, as we are justified by it, its act and duty is such, or of that nature, as that no other grace, duty, or work, can be associated with it, or be of any consideration."

Owen's argument for faith alone is fivefold. 

First, in the New Testament justifying faith is most frequently expressed as "receiving." Only faith can receive Christ, "and what it receives is the cause of our justification" (John 1:12). Moreover, even the grace of God and righteousness itself, "as the efficient and material cause of our justification, are received also." 

Second, "faith is expressed by looking" (John 3:14-15). By looking upon Christ alone "the nature of faith is expressed" and is therefore "exclusive of all other graces and duties whatever." 

Third, faith denotes coming to Christ (Matt. 11:28). "To come unto Christ for life and salvation, is to believe on him unto the justification of life; but no other grace or duty is a coming unto Christ: and therefore have they no place in justification." 

Fourth, faith is expressed by "fleeing for refuge" (Heb. 6:18):

"For herein it is supposed that he who believes is antecedently thereunto convinced of his lost condition, and that if he abide therein he must perish eternally; that he hath nothing of himself whereby he may be delivered from it; that he must betake himself unto somewhat else for relief; that unto this end he considers Christ as set before him, and proposed unto him in the promise of the gospel; that he judges this to be a holy, a safe way, for his deliverance and acceptance with God."

Finally, the terms by which faith is expressed in the Old Testament are "leaning on God...or Christ...resting on God...cleaving unto the also by trusting, hoping, and waiting." Those who acted on this type of faith "declare themselves to be lost, hopeless, helpless, desolate, poor, orphans; whereon they place all their hope and expectation on God alone." 

Owen is aware that the Scriptures do not explicitly say "justification is by faith alone." However, he points out that "faith alone" is implied in the words "by faith in his blood"; for "faith respecting the blood of Christ as that whereby propitiation was made for sin,--in which respect alone the apostle affirms that we are justified through faith--admits of no association with any other graces or duties."

The doctrine of justification by faith alone is a theological doctrine rooted in the Scriptures. But the doctrine itself requires not a proof-text here and there, but good and necessary consequence. Some may be sheepish about "good and necessary consequence" (cf. Matt. 22:32) when it comes to baptizing babies, but that principle of interpretation is vital to the "alone" in how we are justified. 

If we were not justified by faith alone, we would have some other "qualification" which would then bring our state of justification into doubt. If justification is not at once complete, but rather in need of a second justification, "no man can be justified in this world" (Owen). 

The second reason a justified sinner will always remain justified is because of Christ's intercession. The application of Christ's life and death relate to his intercession. But the difference between Christ's death and his intercession is that Reformed theologians call his death "medium impetrationis, that is, the means of procurement or obtaining it for us; but his intercession, medium applicationis, the means of applying all unto us" (Goodwin).

Therefore, the justification of the ungodly depends on Christ's intercession. In fact, the continuation of our justification depends on the continuing of Christ's intercession since his intercession is the "virtual continuation of his sacrifice" (Goodwin).

In layman's terms, this simply means that for a sinner who is justified to lose his or her justification, Christ would have to relinquish his office as priest. So, pastorally speaking, we can say: you will lose your justification when Christ decides he doesn't want to be a high priest. 

Though Christ's death happened once, "yet is it done over every moment, for it is continued by acts of free Grace, and so renewed actually every moment" (Goodwin). Thus Christ is infinitely more interested in maintaining the justification of his people than they can ever be. 

After all, the Father has made a declaration, and Christ wants to honour his Father's declaration by being the faithful, sympathetic high priest that he has been called to be. 

The Act & Habit of Faith in Relation to Union with Christ

I've been meaning to write a book on important theological distinctions and how they can be of practical use to ministers and lay Christians. In the past I've discussed the distinction between God's absolute power and God's ordained power. Today I want to talk about the distinction between the act and the habit of faith in relation to union with Christ.

The act-habit distinction is pretty much the same concept as the act-power distinction. God grants the power, but we perform the act. So John Flavel: "though faith (which we call the condition on our part) be the gift of God, and the power of Believing be derived from God; yet the act of believing is properly our act..."

In other words, it is insufficient to merely possess the habit of faith in order to be justified; we must also produce an act of faith to be justified. True, the habit of faith enables us to believe; but we must really believe (i.e., it is our own act).

Peter Bulkeley argued that "the habit is freely given us, and wrought in us by the Lord himself, to enable us to act by it, and to live the life of faith; and then we having received the gift, the habit, then (I say) the Lord requires of us that we should put forth acts of faith." 

We are passive when God grants us the habit of faith. But upon receiving the habit of faith, we are then able to believe, and are therefore "active." How does this relate to union with Christ? 

Goodwin's The Object and Act of Justifying Faith is helpful in answering this question. In it, he speaks of the act of the will completing the union between Christ and the believer, which makes believers "ultimately one with him." 

However, as the bride, we are simply confirming a union that has taken place. So, contrary to the common view of marriage, which requires the consent of both partners since a man (usually) cannot marry a woman against her will, there is a spiritual union on Christ's part to the elect that does not require assent from the sinner "because it is a secret work done by his Spirit, who doth first apprehend us before we apprehend him." 

That is to say, Christ establishes a union with the elect sinner by "apprehending" him and then giving the Spirit to him. But this union is only complete ("ultimate union") when the sinner exercises faith in Christ. 

"It is true indeed the union on Christ's part is in order of nature first made by the Spirit; therefore Phil. 3:12, he is said first to 'comprehend us before we can comprehend him'; yet that which makes the union on our part is faith, whereby we embrace and cleave to him.... It is faith alone that doth it. Love indeed makes us cleave to him also, but yet faith first." (Note: The learned Bishop Davenant also argues the act and habit of faith precede the act and habit of love).

Goodwin is at his finest when he speaks of Christ "taking," "apprehending," and "comprehending" the sinner. Christ "takes hold of us before we believe" and "works a thousand and a thousand operations in our souls to which our faith concurs nothing...Christ dwells in us and works in us, when we act not and know not our union, nor that it is he that works." Before the new believer is aware, our Lord unites us to Himself ("takes hold of us") and works in us. 

As Witsius says, "By a true and real union, (but which is only passive on their part,) [the elect] are united to Christ when his Spirit first takes possession of them, and infuses into them a principle of new life: the beginning of which life can be from nothing else but from union with the Spirit of Christ...Further, since faith is an act flowing from the principle of spiritual life, it is plain, that in a sound sense, it may be said, an elect person is truly and really united to Christ before actual faith.

Witsius sounds very much like Goodwin and Owen in insisting that the elect are united to Christ when Christ's Spirit "takes possession of them" and regenerates them. And he likewise affirms that union precedes actual faith. But then he makes a similar point to Goodwin's, namely, that a "mutual union" inevitably follows from the principle of regeneration:

"But the mutual union, (which, on the part of an elect person, is likewise active and operative), whereby the soul draws near to Christ, joins itself to him, applies, and in a becoming and proper manner closes with him without any distraction, is made by faith only. And this is followed in order by the other benefits of the covenant of grace, justification, peace, adoption, sealing, perseverance, etc."

Not only is the "mutual union" emphasized by the act of faith in the sinner, but also by the fact that the benefits of the covenant of grace (e.g., justification) flow out of this union.


1. The faith that justifies is really our faith, which is why we are justified. The act of faith becomes the instrumental cause whereby we receive the righteousness of Christ. Our act does not justify, but our act of faith is necessary for God to justify us.

2. The faith that justifies is, however, enabled by the power (habitus) that God freely (graciously) grants to us, apart from works. 
Hence, we avoid the antinomian error whereby Christ believes for us; and we avoid the legalist error whereby we contend that faith is not a result of the natural capacity of man. And we hold that justification is an act of God that can never be revoked because the habit is formed by God himself so that he may impute to us Christ's righteousness because our act of faith is the instrument which enables us to receive full justification (WCF 11.2). 

In relation to union, we hold that Christ, in his grace, first takes a hold of us and then enables us to take a hold of him in the act of believing. When this is done, and only when this is done, are we justified and ultimate union takes place. But we only unite ourselves to Christ because he first united himself to us. 

There are a lot of other distinctions related to the doctrine of justification that warrant further discussion. But I am constantly amazed at how the most sophisticated theologians that I have read have done me the most pastoral good. That's why Seminaries might do well to have their best theologians in the PT departments!

Can Humans Merit Before God? (1 of 2)

Some recent defenders of justification by faith have appealed to the concept of Adamic merit because of what they perceive to be the obvious parallels between Adam and Christ. Christ merited as the second Adam, ergo...

How do we understand the theological concept of merit between humans and God? Could Adam merit anything before God in the Garden? Understanding the first question will help us to answer the second question. 

According to Johannes Maccovius, for something to be meritorious, four things are required:

1. It must be something that is not owed.
2. It should proceed from the powers of the one who deserves it.
3. It must be of use to him of whom someone thinks that he deserves something.
4. The reward must not be greater than the merit.

The Westminster divine, Obadiah Sedgwick, in Bowels of Tender Mercy (pp. 460-61), similarly suggests that merit:

1.    Must be opus indebitum ["a non-indebted work"]--for he who does do no more than he ought to do, or suffers what he deserves to suffer, merits nothing by his doing, or by his suffering.

2.    Must be opus perfectum ["a perfect work"]--against which no exception can be taken--nothing is meritorious which is short and faulty.

3.    Must be opus infinitum ["an infinite work"]--a work of infinite value and worth, which cannot only stand before justice, but plead also with it and challenge it for the dignity of what is done or suffered (see also William Perkins or Ursinus, who claims that our good works, which are necessary and to be done for rewards, cannot even merit temporal blessings).

In his discussion on the Westminster Shorter Catechism, James Fisher makes the point, basically echoed by all of his contemporaries and predecessors, that there was no proportion between Adam's obedience and the life promised (whatever that "life" was). Adam could not, therefore, merit eternal life. Why? "Because perfect obedience was no more than what he was bound unto, by virtue of his natural dependence on God..." (Fisher). Anthony Burgess acknowledges that although Adam was in a covenant of works he "could not merit that happiness which God would bestow upon him." God's grace to man is "an infinite good, and all that is done by us is finite." 

Adam's obedience was made possible not because he obeyed simply in his own strength, but also because he had assisting grace from God. William Ames argues that Adam persisted in the garden by grace and that "grace was not taken from him before he had sinned." Ames was not alone in making this point. The acts were Adam's, but that does not mean that he did not receive power from God (hence: the act/power distinction).

George Downame, in his treatise on justification, and in a section where he is opposing Papist theologians, claims that God is not a debtor to any, including Adam: "For [God] covenants Non de debito sed de gratuito, not for rendering a due debt, but for freely bestowing his own free gift, not according to debt, but according to grace."

The original covenant made with Adam was gracious, even though it was also a covenant of works/life (so Ursinus). Reformed theologians in the seventeenth century generally did not see works as opposed to grace in God's covenantal dealings with Adam and Eve. This point seems to be rejected by some today when the bilateral structure of redemptive history is brought up.

Patrick Gillespie, in The Ark of the Testament Opened (1681), spends a good deal of time highlighting the similarities and differences between the covenants of works and of grace. He first considers a number of similarities between the two before moving to a discussion of their differences. In both, God was the efficient cause; that is, he is the author of both covenants. In both, the moving cause is the grace of God. Some Puritans (e.g., Francis Roberts) were not altogether keen on the use of "works" and "grace" as the principal designations of these two covenants for the simple reason that "there was very much of Grace and Favor in both." Personally, I don't have a problem with the two-covenant schema described as a covenant of works and a covenant of grace, but we shouldn't assume that the covenant of works was devoid of grace, even thought it was not the grace of mercy through Christ that we experience.

Patrick Gillespie, like all of the Reformed orthodox of that era, admits that in the covenant of works the condition was obedience and the reward resulted from works; yet, "even that Covenant was thus far a Covenant of Grace (emphasis mine)." Not only did God's grace provide the motive for the establishment of the covenant in Eden, but God also "freely endued man with all the habits of Grace in perfection" (cf. Ames above). Moreover, the promised reward was gracious because Adam's obedience could not merit anything from God.

Francis Roberts argues that God's entering into the covenant of works with Adam was an "act of divine grace and favor, not of debt." God could have dealt only in terms of "command," requiring duty from Adam without a reward. However, God's condescending to Adam and entering into a covenant with him was "mere grace," according to Roberts. In connection with this, he insists that Adam could not merit any reward. Even if Adam had rendered perfect obedience, he would still have "been an unprofitable servant, having done nothing but what was duty." In fact, Roberts suggests that if God's dealings with Adam in the covenant of works were an "Act of Divine Grace," then God's covenant of grace was an act of "superabounding and transcendent grace."

If Sinai is a republication of the covenant of works because there is a "works principle" concerning the retention of the land on a corporate level, we may also say, "in some sense," that it is also a republication of a gracious covenant of works! How many advocates for republication are willing to say that Sinai is a republication of a gracious covenant of works? Again, this is not to deny the bilateral structure of redemptive history (CoW and CoG), but to suggest that the details of each covenant administration need to be clearly set forth. (I personally hold to material republication, not formal republication).

This is why I was a little surprised to read Bryan Estelle claim that the works-principle in the old covenant functioned in such a way as to provide the "meritorious grounds for Israel's continuance in the land?" (Estelle, TLNF, 136) (emphasis mine). What does he mean by "meritorious grounds" and how can fallen sinners merit anything, even corporately in relation to temporal blessings? I suspect Professor Estelle might have a different conception of merit than what I have highlighted above from our classical Reformed theologians. 

Calvin Beisner and R. Fowler White have argued that Adam could indeed merit in the Garden of Eden: "One the one hand, there was the principle of personal merit according to which the reward of everlasting life was promised and would be rendered to Adam as merited by his obedience...On the other hand, there was the principle of representative merit according to which the reward of everlasting life would be rendered to Adam's posterity as vicariously merited for them by Adam's obedience and unilaterally imputed to them..." (p. 151).

In the essay they also happen to claim their views reflect "classical" covenant theology. 

The concept of ex pacto merit emerges later on in the seventeenth century, but not at the expense of affirming that there was grace in the Garden (the writers say as much). Those who want to affirm "ex pacto merit" should, if they wish to maintain general agreement with the Reformed orthodox of the seventeenth century, also be comfortable with (and perhaps insist upon) pre-Fall grace. If grace is defined simply as God's favor in the place of demerit, then it doesn't make much sense to speak of God showing grace to Adam in Eden. But that definition of grace is, I believe, wrong-headed because Christ received God's grace.

Christ was, unlike Adam, able to merit before God; but Christ was also endowed with the habits of grace in order to keep the terms of the covenant. In other words, in order to keep the Adam-Christ parallels, we must not actually abandon the concept of grace given to them both, but actually affirm it. It has been a peculiar oddity that some assume that the parallels between the two Adams means that Adam could not have received the grace of God because Christ did not. But this view is based on the fatal assumption that God was not gracious to Christ in any sense. 

David VanDrunen, in criticizing Norman Shepherd's rejection of merit in the Garden of Eden, makes the following claim:

"It is not difficult to see how such a view, if taken seriously, makes belief in Christ's active, imputed obedience impossible. If image bearers do not merit anything before God, then the true image bearer, Christ, did not merit anything before God, and his perfect obedience can hardly be reckoned ours as the basis for our justification" (CJPM, 51). 

This paragraph by Professor VanDrunen will give me an opportunity in the next post to examine more carefully - I trust, in an irenic tone - some of his claims from a historical and biblical perspective. 

But it is interesting to me that some recent defences of justification seem to approach the topic somewhat differently than what I find in the Early Modern era when it comes to merit and the Edenic context for Adam's obedience. 

(updated) Pastor Mark Jones would like to thank all of the "amateur" theologians who have helped him understand these things better. 

A Roman Catholic at Death (with Luther near by)

My wife's step-father has attended a Roman Catholic church his whole life. But he has just been moved to palliative care, and likely has days or weeks to live.

He has a book beside his bed where he lies dying: not the Catechism of the (Roman) Catholic Church, but a book by Martin Luther on justification through faith alone. 

I left that book at his house years ago, and now it's at his death-bed. That's the book he chose to take with him as he left his house for the last time. As heretical as this might sound, and open to obvious misunderstanding, I am happier he has Luther beside his bed than a Bible in this instance. (Without the church's confession, which, of course, is grounded in Scripture, the Scriptures are ineffectual - Bavinck).

For about 10 years I've spent many hours with him in private, explaining the gospel and the need to renounce his "good works" and lay hold of Christ's righteousness that comes through faith. What sounds so easy is actually so hard for man to receive, especially someone who has grown up trying to justify himself - and, believe me, he did! Often, thoroughgoing Romanists are harder to talk to about free justification than atheists. 

But having a far greater advantage than his priest, who does not do pastoral visits, I was able to speak many times with my wife's step-father in simple terms about the gospel and his sin. He needed to be reminded about his "foot-wedge" on the golf course that he regularly used (thus breaking the 8th, 9th, and 10th commandments). But, more importantly, he needed to be reminded that the seed of every known sin lies in his heart and he is guilty before a holy God. 

To be made aware of the vileness of our sin - i.e., that we are internally what Naaman was externally - puts us in a position to understand the beauty of the gospel and justification by faith alone: "for," as John Owen said, "although this faith is in itself the radical principle of all obedience,... yet, as we are justified by it, its act and duty is such, or of that nature, as that no other grace, duty, or work, can be associated with it, or be of any consideration."

This is good news. We can be justified in this life (Rom. 8:1). And because of that we can be assured of our salvation (1 Jn. 3:2). As Cardinal Bellarmine said, assurance is the greatest Protestant heresy. And I'm exceedingly grateful to embrace this "heresy." 

The battle with Rome is not unimportant. We are dealing, quite literally, with matters of life and death. Rome gives no true comfort; Rome gives no true hope; and Rome cannot give true assurance. But the doctrine of justification that Luther recovered gives penitent sinners hope in a gracious God who welcomes sinners (immediately!) into paradise for the sake of his Son.

Rome does its worst; but Christ does his best. And in this case, Luther, not Benedict, sits beside the bed of a man who, I pray, knows (as Newton did) that he is a great sinner, but Christ is a greater Savior.

If we want to pontificate about these matters, it seems to me to be a good idea to spend time with people, especially dying people. And then - and perhaps only then - will we realize the importance of good theology, and why people have died at the stake in defence of these truths. Those who condone popery pour gasoline on the flames that engulfed Cranmer, Latimer, Ridley, and others who died for the sake of truth. 

Pastor Mark Jones hopes that if a priest visits his step-father, the priest will see Luther's book beside the bed and take up and read!

Which is better: Justification or Sanctification?


Why do we love justification and sanctification? And do we love one more than the other?

If you've ever been in a position where you think you might die, your theology really begins to matter, and you learn a great deal about yourself and what you believe.  

A legalistic type of Christian probably needs to be confronted with the reality that he or she will die. When that reality hits, Christ's righteousness and God's mercy are no longer just doctrines to live by, but truths to die by. That is why justification by faith alone is a doctrine worth dying for: people need to die believing that truth.

The Puritan (ahem), Anthony Burgess, while vigorously opposing antinomianism, nevertheless suggested that the doctrine of justification, unlike any other, inclines God's people to increased humility and self-emptiness, "for by this we are taught even in the highest degree of our sanctification, to look out of ourselves for a better righteousness." 

We are never so holy as to think that there isn't a better righteousness than our own. If we did not possess an "alien" righteousness, that perfectly answers to the demands of God's law, the Christian life would be pure misery.

Nonetheless, Robert Murray M'Cheyne - a particularly godly person - made the comment that sanctification is "the better half of salvation."

He is echoing a point made by another Scot, Samuel Rutherford.

Rutherford asks the question, whether Christ should be more loved for justification or sanctification? Rutherford claimed to love Christ more for the latter, because "it is greater love in him to sanctify than to justify." For in sanctification we are made like Jesus, i.e., conformed to his image (Rom. 8:29).

In his provocative way of writing, Rutherford asserts:

Let a sinner, if possible, lie in hell for ever. If God makes him truly holy, and lets him stay there burning in love to God, rejoicing in the Holy Spirit, hanging on to Christ by faith and hope, then that is Heaven to that saint in the bottom of hell.

Such is the blessing of Christ-likeness, according to Rutherford. But I'm not quite with M'Cheyne and Rutherford. Perhaps their godliness - and the fact they were Scots - explains their view.

Personally, I am so thankful for my right standing with God because, after all, my sanctification is more imagined than real. But my justification is more real than imagined.

And if you ask me which blessing I love most right now, the answer is easy: union with Christ. For, in him, I have everything, so that I don't really need to decide whether I love justification or sanctification more than another. I'm comforted, primarily, by the fact that I belong to Christ and his work for me and in me will not fail.  

When it comes to Christ himself, we may ask, which is more present in him? The truth is, he is both - and always has been - perfectly justified and sanctified, even now in Heaven. The Father declares him righteous (Matt. 3:17; 1 Tim. 3:16; Rom. 1:4), the Spirit makes him righteous (Gal. 5:22). And that is my hope: that one day I will be like him: perfect in every way (i.e., glorified).

Pastor Mark Jones believes Canada is better than America.

Fides sola est quae justificat; fides quae justificat non est sola. 

Latinisms can have a wonderful way of crystallising issues in theological reflection - so with this one: 'It is faith alone that justifies; but faith that justifies is never alone!' This isn't just a statement about the alone-ness of faith as the means by which we receive God's justifying grace, but something much more far-reaching. It highlights the crucial distinction we need to grasp as we try to understand what it means to be justified. Namely, that a person who is truly justified is never merely justified!

This may sound like theological hair-splitting, but actually it is tied in with one of the most vexed issues of Christian experience that goes back to the earliest days of the New Testament church and further back still. Because that is so, we are reminded that every pastoral problem has theological dimensions and every theological problem has pastoral implications and we dare not lose sight of either. Continue on Place for Truth.

Holding the centre

Having been away on holiday for a week (yes, delightful, thank you for asking), I return to find that things continue much as they were, except that Mark Jones has joined Team Reformation21, and Paul has allowed him to write a long post using long words and referring to past centuries without hammering him for it but rather wittering on about lunchtime lectures. I smell a Presbyterian stitch-up.

However, I am glad to see that Rick Phillips has drawn attention to the work being done by the Gospel Reformation Network, whose affirmations and denials I read with genuine interest. As Rick has highlighted and explained some of those statements, Mark has chipped back in with explanations and clarifications of his own language at certain points. Scriptures are being expounded and applied, history is being ransacked, and language is being sharpened to hone concepts that need sharply defined edges.

But why does such to-ing and fro-ing give joy? Because whenever debates like the one about the relationship between justification and sanctification, law and grace, and other related matters, have come up in the past, there is a fearful tendency that rapidly becomes apparent. Contention risks pushing men to extremes detached from the anchor of revelation: actions provoke reactions and counteractions that can all end up drifting and departing from the truth. It is quite clearly happening today. To be fair, in some instances it has been imputed, but in others it is stated fairly baldly. I remember my wry smile on reading in the introduction to one fairly well-known little book a statement by the authors that amounted to this, in almost as many words: "We used to be legalists, but we got better." In this instance, while acknowledging that they might have had some issues before, I would query the definition of legalism, and would certainly question whether the stance in which they ended up was any better, being simply different and equally dangerous. This is because, as I hope we would all affirm, the antidote to legalism is never a few drops of antinomianism, and the response to antinomianism is never a decent dose of legalism.

Our definitions and explanations, our actions, reactions, and counteractions, must not be forced upon us by circumstance or other external pressures, but forged of scriptural metal in the white heat of humble prayer, hammered fine by the tools of righteous exchange and measured against the standards of the history of orthodox Christianity. Any other substance or process will not serve us as we need.

We must hold the centre. We must not depart from the Word of God. We must allow the Scriptures to say all that they say, in the way that they say it, drawing out the truths that the Bible contains, and ensuring that each and all are maintained and declared in their proper place and proportion. So, for example, we must maintain the righteousness of Christ alone as the grounds of our justification, and faith as the God-imparted instrument by which that righteousness of Christ is obtained. We must maintain also that there is a real personal holiness which is to be ardently cultivated by us, the fruit of our union with Christ: "Pursue peace with all people, and holiness, without which no one will see the Lord" (Heb 12:14). I tried to do some of this in a simple way in a recent book called Life in Christ (RHB/, for those who might want a plain and pastoral introduction to what it means obediently to work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you both to will and to do for his good pleasure (Phil 2:12-13).

We must understand this not as a matter of mere semantics or theoretical theology (no real theology is simply a theory). If you are a pastor, salvation and the assurance of it hang upon these things. The men and women to whom we preach need to know the right answers to the questions of how we can stand before the Lord of heaven and earth considered not just as blameless but as positively righteous, what will be our confidence in the day of judgement, what are the present evidences of our interest in Christ Jesus, and how we may live so as to enjoy the smile of our heavenly Father. We must be ready, like Robert Traill in his Justification Vindicated, to counsel those who ask, "What must I do to be saved?"
Why should not the right answer be given, 'Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you shall be saved'? Tell him what Christ is, what he has done and suffered to obtain eternal redemption for sinners, and that according to the will of God and his Father. Give him a plain downright narrative of the gospel salvation wrought out by the Son of God; tell him the history and mystery of the gospel plainly. It may be the Holy Ghost will work faith thereby, as he did in those firstfruits of the Gentiles in Acts 10.44. If he asks what warrant he has to believe on Jesus Christ, tell him that he has an utter indispensable necessity for it, for without believing on him he must perish eternally; that he has God's gracious offer of Christ and all his redemption, with a promise that, upon accepting the offer by faith, Christ and salvation with him are his: that he has God's express commandment (1Jn 3:23) to believe on Christ's name, and that he should make conscience of obeying it, as much as any command in the moral law. Tell him of Christ's ability and goodwill to save; that no man was every rejected by him who cast himself upon him; that desperate cases are the glorious triumphs of his art of saving. (27-28)
But we must also answer the question, "What does it look like to be saved?" And there we must answer, "gird up the loins of your mind, be sober, and rest your hope fully upon the grace that is to be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ; as obedient children, not conforming yourselves to the former lusts, as in your ignorance; but as He who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, because it is written, 'Be holy, for I am holy'" (1Pt 1:13-16).

We must pore again over those works like The Marrow of Modern Divinity or Andrew Fuller's Antinomianism Contrasted with the Religion Taught and Exemplified in the Holy Scriptures to sharpen our spiritual senses and stock our souls with truth to be proclaimed and defended, always with that Berean spirit which heeds the words of proven men highly esteemed and stills searches the Scriptures to see whether these things are so. We must let all our thinking and feeling be governed by the whole counsel of God, illuminated by the Spirit of Christ, and tested against the understanding of those men who have gone before us in the right way.

It is horrible, and will be again, to see men driven away from the truth by their professed zeal for the same. I am far from suggesting that this is true of Rick or Mark. Rather, their determination to phrase the truth accurately and carefully, accounting for all the bold emphases and subtle nuances of revelation is just what is needed. We must hold the centre, for the sake of our own souls and the souls of others.

Let me leave you with one of Ralph Erskine's Gospel Sonnets, which I read just the other day and which seemed to me to express something of the sweetness of a right understanding of some of these things:

When by the Law to grace I'm schooled,
Grace by the Law will have me ruled;
Hence, if I don't the Law obey,
I cannot keep the Gospel way.

When I the Gospel news believe,
Obedience to the Law I give;
And that both in its fed'ral dress,
And as a rule of holiness.

The Law is holy, just, and good,
All this the Gospel seals with Blood;
And clears the Royal Law's just dues
With dearly purchased revenues.

Here join the Law and Gospel hands,
What this me teaches, that commands;
What virtuous forms the Gospel please,
The same the Law doth authorize.

A rigid master was the Law,
Demanding bricks, denying straw;
But when the Gospel-tongue it sings,
It bids me fly, and gives me wings.

The rebel and the king

(I first posted this about two years ago, but it seems germane, so I am going over the ground again.)

Consider the man born into a family of terrorists. The man's father had rebelled against the King of the kingdom in which he lived, and - having so rebelled - all his posterity were brought up to hate and fight the King who ruled in this kingdom. It is to this family that the man belongs. Having been falsely taught all his life that the sovereign is cruel, vindictive, proud and unjust, and hating him as a tyrant accordingly, he has racked up a long list of foul crimes and misdemeanours against the King, all of which bring him under sentence of death. This life of rebellion takes its toll on the terrorist, cut off as he is from all that makes life worth living in the kingdom. His misery and wretchedness increase day by day as he slowly loses his foolish fight. Finally, he receives an overture of peace from the King. The King knows of the rebel's appalling condition, and has had compassion on the man. Together with his son, the Prince, and his Lord Chancellor, the King has devised a way by means of which, without any detriment to the King's justice and glory, the rebel might be entirely forgiven, and - even more - brought into the King's royal family. He publishes this offer by means of his ambassadors. At first, the terrorist cannot believe that such an offer can be true. After all has heard and believed of this king and his character, after all he has done to merit death, can the alleged tyrant really be ready to forgive all his sins and actually adopt him as his own?  Then the Lord Chancellor himself comes to press upon him the reality of the king's free and gracious offer: the Prince himself will take the entire punishment that the law demands and which the rebel deserves. The rebel, finally persuaded, gratefully accepts his merciful terms and embraces all that is bound up in leaving his life of crime. The Lord Chancellor conducts him back to the King's palace, where he is inducted into the life of a true son of the King, dearly beloved of the sovereign, and heir to all that the Prince himself is entitled to receive. Overwhelmed, scarcely believing his mercies, he yet knows that to him now belongs all the freedom of the kingdom. However, it is worth noting that while his relationship to the King has altered radically in some respects, there are some underpinning realities which have not altered. The King has become his father, with all the blessings involved in his adoption. The weight of the law as an instrument of condemnation has ceased to hang over him. But has the father now ceased to be a King? By no means! And is the ex-rebel any less obliged to obedience to the law of the kingdom because he has been delivered from its condemnation? By no means! His obligations to obedience have been by no means reduced, but only heightened. He is all the more obliged - love and gratitude and position all oblige him - to embrace and obey the law of his King and his father. He has all the obligations that belong to him as one under the royal authority, as well as all the obligations that belong to him as an adopted son, overwhelmed by gratitude for the undeserved privileges bestowed upon him. It is the same law that was in place while he was a terrorist, the very same law as condemned him to death for treason. The law has not changed, and he now cheerfully obeys that law both as a subject under its royal authority and as a son in his father's household. The royal law is still in effect, is as potent and extensive as it ever was, except that now it is profoundly, readily, willingly embraced by one who has come to have that law truly impressed upon him as the continuing standard of life in the kingdom of his father, which his father the King, his natural son, the Prince, and the Lord Chancellor have all seen fit to honour in bringing him from the condemnation of death to life and to liberty.

I am that rebel. I have been condemned by God's law. And yet, by grace, I have been redeemed from my sins through the sacrificial death of Jesus Christ, atoning for my ungodliness, being called by the Father and regenerated by the Holy Spirit. God having justified me through faith, I have been set apart to him, called to a life of holiness, and adopted into his family. I am no longer condemned by the law, but the law still exposes sin in me. I am no longer condemned by the law, but the law still expresses my Father's will for what is right and holy and just. I am no longer condemned by the law, but that law no longer presses upon me from without, rather springs up from within, having been written on my heart. I am no longer condemned by the law, but have come to recognise it as good and just, and embrace it with a willingness and readiness to obey it in all its parts. It is that law that is now written not on tablets of stone, but on the fleshy tablet of my heart. It is as a son, as a redeemed man, that the law becomes my delight as well as my duty.

An Apologie

Thanks to Carl (sort of) for the Introduction. But the man he speaks about is not me, I promise. I have lots of friends on Facebook, but do plan to purge some of the less trustworthy ones.

I hope to alleviate the concerns of Rick Phillips, which mainly seems to be over one word in particular. But first, I must say that I appreciated his kind, irenic tone, even if I have a few queries about his post.

The word "salvation" has a broad semantic range in the New Testament, and does not always refer to how we are justified. It can encompass all of our saving benefits, from regeneration to justification to glorification (e.g., 1 Tim. 4:16; 1 Pet. 1:9; Heb. 2:3). I believe Reformed theologians have tried to do justice to this New Testament concern, though we should be sensitive to the fact that many American evangelicals have a truncated understanding of the word.

According to the seventeenth-century Reformed theologian, Francis Turretin, good works are required "as the means and way for possessing salvation." Works do not contribute to the acquisition of salvation - a point I made clearly in my original post -, but "still they should be considered necessary to the obtainment of it, so that no one can be saved without them." He then goes on to argue:

"This very thing is no less expressly delivered concerning future glory. For since good works have the relation of the means to the end (Jn. 3:5, 16; Mt. 5:8); of the 'way' to the goal (Eph. 2:10; Phil 3:14); of the 'sowing' to the harvest (Gal. 6:7,8)...of labor to the reward (Mt. 20:1); of the 'contest' to the crown (2 Tim. 2:5; 4:8), everyone sees that there is the highest and an indispensable necessity of good works for obtaining glory. It is so great that it cannot be reached without them (Heb. 12:14; Rev. 21:27)" (emphasis mine).

John Owen's position was made sufficiently clear in the original piece, so I will not venture to discuss his view in detail, except to say that Owen makes it quite obvious that holiness is the way of our "attaining and coming to blessedness." Like Turretin, Owen affirms that good works are the necessary path believers must walk to final salvation. This is in keeping with Westminster Larger Catechism, Q & A 32, which speaks of good works as "the way which [God] hath appointed them to salvation." WCF 16.2 speaks of "their fruit unto holiness" leading to the end, which likewise reflects the relationship between means and end.

Finally, Herman Witsius, a so-called "middle-man" in antinomian/neonomian debates in the latter part of the 17th century, affirms that the "practice of Christian piety is the way to life, because thereby we go to the possession of the right obtained by Christ." But as I noted in my book on Antinomianism (p. 67), Witsius makes a distinction between the right to life (i.e., acquisition) and the possession of life. The former is "assigned to the obedience of Christ, that all the value of our holiness may be entirely excluded." However, regarding the latter, "our works...which the Spirit of Christ works in us, and by us, contribute something to the latter."

Enter Petrus van Mastricht, the Reformed theologian that caused Rick so much consternation. (By the way, Mastricht was not a Puritan, so the "Puritan gravitas" that Rick speaks about should be understood as a "Reformed gravitas." I tend to dislike the idea that the Puritans were somehow radical or different on soteriological issues compared to the broader Reformed tradition).

Rick raised the following concern:
"But when we suggest that works enter into the instrumentality of salvation, so that in the consummation of our salvation eternal life is granted on the basis of good works, then I find myself expressing both objections and concerns."

I must confess to being a little bit confused as to how and why Rick would make this particular point, since I nowhere referred to works as an "instrumental cause" of salvation. I also do not know what to make of Rick's choice of words. Neither Owen, Mastricht, or any other reformed writer has ever suggested that the consummation of our salvation and eternal life is granted on the basis of good works. If one did put good works into the instrumentality of our salvation, then that would make works the basis of eternal life. The language of "basis" suggests ground; but a ground is different from an instrument. So Rick's concern, if he still has one, might need some fine-tuning.

As Bishop Downame said, "Sanctification, and the duties thereof are not causes of salvation." Good works are not the cause of salvation (in serie causarum), but the way to salvation. Because Rick read Mastricht (and myself) in a particular way - though Rick granted that we could technically speak about the "efficacy of good works" if understood properly!! -, he was led into all sorts of objections that were, in my view, quite unnecessary. After all, the majority of the post was about Owen, with whom Rick seemed to agree.

Causes: Regarding "causes," an instrumental cause is not the same as a material cause, an efficient cause, or a formal cause. Faith is the instrumental cause of justification, a point hardly in dispute (I hope). These distinctions were important among Post-Reformation Reformed orthodox theologians because they enabled our divines to remain clear on matters where the gospel was at stake.

So in debates with Remonstrant (i.e., Arminian) theologians, the Reformed and the Remonstrants seemed to agree on the formal cause of justification, i.e., imputation. But they differed on the material cause. What is imputed to the believer, our act of faith or Christ's righteousness apprehended by faith? The Reformed held to the latter, whereas the Arminians typically held to the former. But even on the so-called "formal cause" there was an important difference between the two camps: for the Arminians, imputation is an aestimatio - God considers our righteousness (i.e., faith) as something that it is not (i.e., perfect). The Reformed, however, view imputation as secundum veritatem - God considers Christ's righteousness as our righteousness, precisely because it is, through union with Christ. The verdict that God passes on his Son is precisely the same verdict he passes on those who belong to Christ - but only through imputation.

The thorny issue of neonomianism also relates to "causes." Simply put, neonomianism is the idea that Christ, by fulfilling the requirements of the old covenant, makes it possible for man to be justified according to the more lenient terms of the "new law" (hence, "neonomianism") of the gospel. Christ's righteous obedience becomes the meritorious cause of justification, which allows the faith of the believer to be the formal cause of justification. As noted, most Reformed theologians believed that the imputation of Christ's righteousness was the formal cause of justification.

Returning, then, to Mastricht: his point about good works having "in a certain sense" an "efficacy" is immediately explained: "in so far as God, whose law we attain just now through the merit alone of Christ, does not want to grant possession of eternal life, unless [it is] beyond faith with good works previously performed. We received once before the right unto eternal life through the merit of Christ alone. But God does not want to grant the possession of eternal life, unless there are, next to faith, also good works which precede this possession, Heb. 12:14; Matt. 7:21; 25:34-36; Rom. 2:7, 10 (emphasis mine)."

While I personally would not chose to use the word "efficacy" (even in the way Rick thinks is acceptable), I believe Mastricht is saying precisely the same thing as Witsius, Turretin, and others, since in the quote he affirms the well-known distinction between "right" and "possession." In all probability, Witsius's words, "contribute something to the latter" (regarding "possession" not "right"), equals Mastricht's "sort of efficacy". There are a lot of other Reformed theologians - not just the Puritans!! - who were of this mind (e.g., Martin Bucer, John Calvin, Robert Rollock, Gisbertus Voetius, John Davenant). Surely Rick does not want raise concerns about the Reformed tradition (not just a few "Puritans") to which he belongs?

Rick, I think, is concerned that the "right" to eternal life remains the imputation of Christ's righteousness. I agree. But the Reformed often speak of "possessing" eternal life, and good works are the necessary path that believers must walk if they are to enter eternal life. In this context, "efficacy" simply has to do with the way in which we attain the end. Again, I understand how that word could confuse some - and I apologize for not explaining that initially - but there is a perfectly legitimate way of reading Mastricht that does not require us to impute to him - pardon the pun - the view that causes Rick so much concern. It never occurred to me that there was an incipient "neonomianism" in Mastricht for the reasons asserted above, and the fact that he was something of a legend among Reformed theologians who came after him! And he will be again soon once his massive systematic theology is translated.

"Right" versus "Possession": The "right" versus "possession" distinction has several advantages. First, it helps us to safeguard the fact that when we trust in Christ we are united to him and possess all blessings in him. That is the "right" aspect (based on Christ's meritorious work). We are as justified as we will ever be when we first believe. Second, it helps us to make sense of the "conditional" language of Scripture (see, for example, Philippians 3:7-14 "...[12] Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. [13] Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, [14] I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus."

Entering into the possession of glory comes through a path that God has marked out for his people, and that path necessarily involves good works (See Rom. 8:13, which his obviously about sanctification). Here, I think, we see one of the many benefits of Reformed scholasticism for present-day debates that have often missed important distinctions and qualifications.

I understand this may be a little bit technical for some, and I'd be happy to speak on two of the other issues Rick raised, such as "stages in justification" or "judgment according to works", but the above seems sufficient for now.

Pastoral Summary
: As a pastor I do not like to use big words in the pulpit. I don't even think we should use the word "eschatological" when preaching. And I'll be wearing skinny jeans in the pulpit before I preach from the Westminster Confession or Catechisms. So how would I explain all of this to average laypeople?

Our right to eternal life is based on the imputed righteousness of Christ. Nothing can be added to that, not even a single good work. Justification is an act that can never be revoked. That is why we are justified by faith alone in this life, because through faith alone we receive this inestimable gift. But the final goal of our salvation is glorification and the vision of Christ (beatific vision). When we stand before God our justification, whereby we stand clothed in Christ's perfect righteousness (i.e., his active and passive obedience), enables us to withstand the demands of God's righteous, holy law. But we nonetheless have to walk to this destination in order to possess the vision of Christ (eternal life), and the only path we walk is the path of good works - works that have, of course, been prepared in advance for us (Eph. 2:10). Not only must we (i.e., necessity) walk this way, but we will (i.e., God's promise) walk this way. Sanctification, as much as justification, is a gift from Christ, and we can be confident that both will play their appropriate and necessary part in our so great a salvation.

Let me again take the chance to thank Rick for being gracious when he was concerned. Not always an easy thing to do. While I do think he got a little ahead of himself in this instance, I can appreciate his desire for clarity and, most of all, his desire to protect the article by which the church stands or falls.

Pastor Mark Jones likes long walks on the beach with his "smokin' hot wife," singing "You'll Never Walk Alone."

I have benefited from reading the comments on the wide variety of blogs that have picked up the discussion between Tullian Tchividjian and me on the subject of total depravity, the Christian, and the doctrine of sanctification.  In some respects, these conversations are most valuable in terms of the interplay that takes place in the comments.  I have been helped by reading what people are thinking and want to thank those who have commented, whether positively or negatively about me.  I have found, however, a number of misconceptions that it may help to have cleared up.  Here are five points that I hope will clarify this discussion:

Justification Discussion at ETS


Been following the Wright/Schreiner/Thielman exchange over justification at ETS last week in Atlanta?


Among the many good points from Tom Schreiner's criticism is the challenge to Wright's insistence on making justification an ecclesiological issue and not a soteriological one, to which Wright adds that Luther's making of justification a soteriological issue (framed by medieval notions) was a misstep, which further leads Wright to conclude that imputation is not a biblical concept, nor a helpful theological construct.


Schreiner also lamented the lack of time to discuss other passages.  One such passage I would like to see them discuss is 2 Corinthians 5:21:  "For our sake he [God] made him [Christ] to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God."


Wright has said of this text what he has said of Paul's discussion of justification in Romans.  In Wright's article, "On becoming the Righteousness of God, 2 Corinthians 5:21," he argues that this verse is not a soteriological statement, but also, in accord with Wright's understanding of "the righteousness of God" in Romans, understood as the covenant faithfulness of the one, true God, for whom Paul is a minister. 


My question is:  How is 2 Corinthians 5:21, in the context of 5:11-20, not about the gospel?  How is it not a "statement of soteriology"?   How is not a statement of Christ taking upon himself something he did not do (the imputation of sin) so that I might have something I could not nor never possibly achieve (the imputation of righteousness)? 


The world needs to be reconciled because of sin (2 Corinthians 5:19)--a "problem" that Christ sacrificially, if not amazingly, solves by dying for us on the cross (5:14-15).   And so in 5:21 Paul gives us the gospel he so eagerly and himself sacrificially (read of his own suffering in 2 Corinthians 4) proclaims. 


Wright wants to make the case that 2 Corinthians 3-5 is all about Paul and his ministry, therefore, Wright concludes that 2 Corinthians 5:21 fits in that mold.  Can 2 Corinthians 3-5 be about Paul's ministry and about the content of that ministry, the content of his preaching, namely the gospel?


I think Wright is wrong in not seeing 2 Corinthians 5:21 as a statement of soteriology and I think he is wrong in not seeing Paul's discussion of righteousness and justification in Romans as a statement of soteriology.  And I think he is wrong not see imputation in 2 Corinthians 5:21.  Christ is taking on something he didn't deserve (death for sin) so that we me receive something we don't deserve (righteousness). 


And I'm glad for Tom Schreiner's capable and kind criticism of Wright on this point of justification.  The implications are huge.  And it is something we need to be paying attention to.  We need to be grateful for folks like Tom Schreiner, Frank Theilman, D A Carson, John Piper, Guy Waters, and others who have offered significant criticisms of Wright, as well as criticisms of the other New Perspective proposals. 


I am most grateful, however, that because of what Christ has done for me on the cross by taking my sin upon him he has made me righteous, that through my union with Christ I am accounted as righteous before the one, true, holy God.  We have no hope apart from Christ's work.

More on the Pope and Justification


Well, how did I miss that? Scott Clark already had an excellent post on the subject. Here.

At any rate, astute ref21 readers will have already correctly put their finger on the Pope's crucial ambiguity. What does he mean when he speaks of love as integral to justification? If he means that justification is always accompanied by sanctification, and thus faith by love, then he's a Protestant! If he means that justification is on the basis of, or indistinguishable from, sanctification, or enabled by a moral renovation that entails, and is expressed in, our love - then he's with Trent.

If our love grounds or is a basis of God's acceptance and forgiveness of us in any way - then Luther would definitely oppose faith alone to that role of love in justification.

By the way, the Pope is always very precise in what he says on these issues. He is probably the only Pope in the last hundred years who has read Turretin. He knows what he's about. Peter Jones met with him once (with a larger group of Reformed Protestants, back when he was Pope John Paul II's Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith --a successor to the, ahem, Inquisition!--). Peter was duly impressed with his knowledge of Reformed Theology and the Protestant Scholastics.


Well, Joseph Alois Ratzinger (Benedict XVI) preached an interesting sermon back in November, on Paul and justification. I've had a number of inquiries about it. Here's an English translation. Carl, I'd love to hear your assessment.

In one portion, he says: "It is Christ who protects us against polytheism and all its deviations; it is Christ who unites us with and in the one God; it is Christ who guarantees our true identity in the diversity of cultures; and it is he who makes us just. To be just means simply to be with Christ and in Christ. And this suffices. Other observances are no longer necessary.

That is why Luther's expression "sola fide" is true if faith is not opposed to charity, to love. Faith is to look at Christ, to entrust oneself to Christ, to be united to Christ, to be conformed to Christ, to his life. And the form, the life of Christ, is love; hence, to believe is to be conformed to Christ and to enter into his love. That is why, in the Letter to the Galatians, St. Paul develops above all his doctrine on justification; he speaks of faith that operates through charity (cf. Galatians 5:14)."

One friend wrote to me and said: "I must say that what he says seems more orthodox than what is taught in most Protestant churches (perhaps I'm too cynical). It's a bit unclear how faith operates in his his view (perhaps the lack of clarity exists because of my suspicion), but he does state that grace and justification are a gift. He frames love as integral to justification, and I think he means that it flows necessarily from the act of justification and is the means by which justification is properly expressed in our lives."

"Love as integral to justification" - now there's the rub. Is love an instrument? A basis or ground? Or an invariable accompaniment to justifying faith? Does love precede and ground or follow and evidence justification. For my part, the Pope's message reminded me that at the heart of the Roman-Protestant disagreement on this issue is the confusion of justification and sanctification. And if my justification is based, in any way, on my love - I have no hope. 


Paul Helm has a new post online, looking at John Piper's The Future of Justification. Here is his summary:

The first is to draw attention to what I believe is one of the most significant methodological points that Piper makes, but one which may, in the flurry of interest about justification, and the dust raised by it, get overlooked. The second thing is to underline what Piper says about the ambiguity of some of Bishop Wright's language about imputation and justification. What both of these have in common is that Piper shows us the need to observe theological distinctions.

Results tagged “justification” from Through the Westminster Confession

Chapter 11.3

iii. Christ, by his obedience and death, did fully discharge the debt of all those that are thus justified, and did make a proper, real, and full satisfaction to his Father's justice in their behalf.  Yet, inasmuch as he was given by the Father for them; and his obedience and satisfaction accepted in their stead; and both, freely, not for anything in them; their justification is only of free grace; that both the exact justice and rich grace might be glorified in the justification of sinners.

The doctrine expressed in the Westminster Confession's third paragraph on justification is one of the most excellent and beautiful theological statements ever penned. The burden of this paragraph is to insist that justification is by grace alone. Yet, in making this point, the divines gather up all that they have previously said about justification in order to show how fully this doctrine glorifies God. There are three things for us to emphasize: the work of Christ in obedience and satisfaction; the substitutionary nature of Christ's work; and the free grace of God that is glorified in the justification together with his justice.

First, a right understanding of Christ's saving work is so essential to the Westminster divines that they cannot miss another opportunity of stating it. Christ accomplished two great saving works in his first coming. First, he made a "proper, real, and full satisfaction to his Father's justice" for those who believe. This refers to Christ's sacrificial offering of his life to pay the just penalty of sin. The divines were convinced that penal substitutionary atonement is at the heart of Christian salvation. This is a truth that needs to be emphasized today, as postmodern-leaning evangelicals find themselves embarrassed by the cleansing blood of Christ. The effect of Christ's satisfaction was to "fully discharge the debt of all those that are thus justified." Thus to be justified means, first, to have your sins forgiven and your penalty forever paid by Jesus.  

Moreover, Jesus positively fulfilled the demands of God's law so as to secure the verdict of "righteous" for his people. Not only was his "satisfaction," but also "his obedience... accepted" by God so as to justify his people. With this in mind, we see that the aphorism is partly true which says justification means "just as if I'd never sinned." Yet justification is actually more than this.  It goes further actually to say that in Christ I am "just as if I'd always obeyed." 

Second, this third paragraph emphasizes the substitutionary nature of Christ's work as being key to the operation of justification. How can I be forgiven when I have sinned and how can I be justified when I have not been righteous? The answer is found in the vital words, "in their stead."  I am forgiven because Jesus stood in my stead to pay the penalty my sins deserved. I am justified because Jesus fulfilled the law in my stead so as to attain all righteousness. Thus was John the Baptist's query answered, when he marveled that Jesus would submit to the baptism of repentance. "I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?" John asked. Jesus answered, "Let it be so now, of thus it is fitting for to fulfill all righteousness" (Mt. 3:14-15). By this act, Jesus was standing under God's law for his people, "in their stead," in order to achieve a perfect righteousness on behalf of those who sins disqualified them from eternal life. One theologian who understood this key matter, despite his other failings, was Karl Barth. When once asked what is the most important word in the Bible, Barth answered with the Greek preposition huper, which means "on behalf of." At the heart of the gospel is the substitutionary work of Jesus on behalf of sinners. "Christ died for us," Paul insisted (Rom. 5:8).

Third, the divines emphasized that justification is by God's free grace alone. Paul wrote, "all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus" (Rom. 3:23-24). With this teaching in mind, the divines state that Christ justified sinners "freely, not for anything in them; their justification is only of free grace." The Christian thus declares that he or she is justified apart from any merit or virtue in himself but only for the grace of God in Christ.  It is the free gift of God's grace so that all the glory belongs to him. 

This glory pertains not only to God's grace, however, but also to his justice. We must not believe that mercy sets aside justice in our justification, as if one attribute of God could be set against another. Rather, God's mercy fulfills God's justice perfectly through the satisfaction and obedience of Christ. The believer in Jesus may therefore point not only to God's grace in his justification, but may also look to the justice of God that once we so dreaded and say, "God's justice demands my justification!"  How is this? How may a sinner be admitted by the sword of God's perfect, holy justice - not only admitted but demanded admittance? The answer is the grace of God in Christ, which fully and forever satisfies the justice of God. Thus "both the exact justice and rich grace" of God are "glorified in the justification of sinners." 

How shall we reply to the glorious drama of the doctrine of justification? James Boice put it this way: "All merit, boasting set aside, by faith alone I'm justified / Before the throne I take my place and rest in God's amazing grace."

Dr. Richard D. Phillips is the senior minister of Second Presbyterian Church in Greenville, South Carolina and chairs the Philadelphia Conference on Reformed Theology.

Chapter 11.2, Part Two

ii. Faith, thus receiving and resting on Christ and his righteousness, is the alone instrument of justification: yet is it not alone in the person justified, but is ever accompanied with all other saving graces, and is no dead faith, but worketh by love.

One of the familiar complaints against justification through faith alone is that it makes no allowance for the necessity of works. In one sense this is true, since the Confession teaches that justification is by faith apart from works, the sinner relying on Christ's works instead of his or her own. In another, sense, however, the Confession is keen to join faith and works. As the divines taught it, it is true that justification does not involve our works. But it is also true that faith is inseparable from works. We are justified through faith alone, yet that faith "is not alone in the person justified, but is ever accompanied with all other saving graces." Roman Catholicism teaches that faith + works = justification. The Confession teaches instead, with the Bible, that faith = justification + works. Through faith alone the sinner is justified, so that our works are not a condition of justification. Yet that very faith involves the sinner in a life of increasing godliness and good works, so that works are very much a consequence of justification. In this proper sense, works are quite necessary to salvation: as the Confession states, justifying faith "is no dead faith, but worketh by love."

This approach is the key to understanding how Paul's teaching on faith and justification agrees with James's teaching on the same subject. Many Christians want to pit Paul and James against one another, as Martin Luther was purported to have done. But this is mistaken.  Whereas Paul was providing doctrinal teaching on justification in passages like Galatians 2:16-17 and Romans 3:23-25; 4:4-5, James was writing to correct the error of claiming faith while having no works. "Someone will say, 'You have faith and I have works,'" James says, complaining against the idea of fundamentally separating the two. "Show me your faith apart from works," he counters, "and I will show you my faith by my works" (Ja. 2:18). Notice James's point: he is not giving a doctrinal definition of justification but rather showing how faith is proved.  Whereas Paul says that sinners are justified by faith alone, James asserts that justifying faith is justified by works. This is the very point made by the Confession in saying that faith "is not alone in the person justified, but is ever accompanied" by works.   

Roman Catholic apologists make much of James' statement in 2:24: "You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone." They point out that whereas the Bible never says that justification is by faith alone, it states explicitly that justification is "not by faith alone." The Bible says the exact opposite of the Westminster Confession, they exclaim! Our answer to this is two-fold. First, while the words "justification by faith alone" are not in the Bible, Paul clearly makes this very point in Galatians 2:16, "a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ." Second, we point out that what James means is that justifying faith must be proved by good works. In this we heartily agree, with the Westminster Confession.  Using the example of Abraham, James pointed out that Abraham's justification was justified by his good works. This is precisely in keeping with the Confession's teaching (or rather, the Confession is in keeping with James, along with Paul). James agrees that the Scripture says that Abraham was justified by faith: "Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness" (Ja. 2:23).  But how do we know that Abraham believed and thus was justified?  We know this, we prove his faith, only by works.

This emphasis on the works that accompany justifying faith is important today. Many Christians grew up in legalistic settings and feel set free from a life of works when they encounter the Reformed doctrine of justification. In one vital sense, they are right! They are freed from the vanity of our works in justification. They are delivered from a "performance religion" that is filled with pride and crippled by fear. God justifies the ungodly through faith in Christ alone! Yet these brothers and sisters need to remember that faith joins us to a Christ who is holy. True faith, by its very nature, leads to good works and all other Christian graces. The claim of faith without corresponding works is a dead claim. To be sure, works are no longer a condition of our justification - praise God for that! But works remain a consequence of our justification. Thus Jesus says to those whose claim to faith is devoid of good works: "I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness" (Mt. 7:23).

Chapter 11.2

ii. Faith, thus receiving and resting on Christ and his righteousness, is the alone instrument of justification.

The Westminster Confession unabashedly declares justification through faith alone. It defines faith as "receiving and resting on Christ and his righteousness," calling faith "the alone instrument of justification." In our next study, we will see how the faith that justifies is joined to good works. But first we must emphasize that works are not part of justification itself. We are justified by trusting in Christ's work; our own works contributing nothing to justification. Paul stated this clearly in Galatians 2:16, "We know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ."

While "faith alone" is stressed in paragraph two of the chapter eleven, this emphasis also plays an important part of paragraph one's teaching of the nature of justification. We have noted that justification is by imputation, not infusion. So how is Christ's righteousness imputed to Christians? Paragraph one states, "not for anything wrought in them, or done by them, but for Christ's sake alone." This means that when we trust in the finished work of Jesus Christ - both his sin atoning death and his perfect law keeping life - we are justified on the basis of his works and not our own. I like to stress that justification is most certainly by works - indeed, in an important sense, sinners are justified only on the basis of works. But the glory of the gospel is that we are justified by Christ's works, which we receive through faith alone.  

This is our answer to the Roman Catholic charge that justification through faith alone involves a "legal fiction" that disgraces God. They argue that, under our doctrine, God justifies those who have no legal basis for righteousness. In reality, however, our doctrine teaches that sinners are justified by a perfect legal fulfillment under God's justice. Christ's works have perfectly fulfilled God's law and his atoning death has perfectly paid the penalty of our sins demanded by the law.  Therefore, we are justified through faith alone, apart from our works, by the righteous works of Jesus Christ. On a pastoral level, this reminds Christians that in justification it is not merely God's mercy that declares our salvation. Justification more directly involves God's justice demanding our acceptance because all of its requirements have been satisfied by the perfect work of Jesus Christ for us.

The Confession is careful to avoid another error, this time coming not from Roman Catholicism but from Protestant Arminianism. This is the teaching that we are justified by faith as a substitute for works. Under this view, recently championed by Robert Gundry, since sinners cannot be justified by the law (which we have broken) we are instead justified by that act of faith, which is our righteousness. The Confession answers by specifying that we are justified not "by imputing faith itself, the act of believing, or any other evangelical obedience to them, as their righteousness." Faith is not a substitute for law keeping in justification. Rather, through faith the sinner receives Christ's law fulfilling work on our behalf: God imputes "the obedience and satisfaction of Christ unto them, they receiving and resting on him and his righteousness, by faith."  The Arminians claim the proof text of Genesis 15:6, where Abraham "believed the Lord, and he counted it to him as righteousness." We should admit, they say, that this teaches that faith is our righteousness before God. In Romans 4:4-5, however, where Paul exegetes that text, the apostle insists that justification is by imputation and that we are justified while remaining "ungodly." So it is not the case that believing makes us righteousness, since in justification we remain ungodly while Christ's righteousness is "credited" to us.

According to the Confession, then, faith is "the alone instrument of justification," as the means by which we receive Christ's righteousness by imputation. Finally, the Confession stresses that the very faith by which we are justified is "not of themselves, it is the gift of God." This stems from Paul's vitally important statement: "For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast" (Eph. 2:8-9). According to the Bible, Christians are personally involved in our justification through faith. Yet justification remains by grace, since that faith is God's gift to us and God's work in us.  Expressing the genius of the Gospel, Paul explains: "That is why it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace" (Rom. 4:16).

Chapter 11.1

i.Those whom God effectually calleth, he also freely justifieth: not by infusing righteousness into them, but by pardoning their sins, and by accounting and accepting their persons as righteous; not or anything wrought in them, or done by them, but for Christ's sake alone; nor by imputing faith itself, the act of believing, or any other evangelical obedience to them, as their righteousness; but by imputing the obedience and satisfaction of Christ unto them, they receiving and resting on him and his righteousness, by faith; which faith they have not of themselves, it is the gift of God.
The Westminster Confession's treatment of justification brilliantly sets forth the teaching of Scripture on this most pivotal doctrine. Moreover, this definition is clearly rooted in the Calvinistic divines' conflict with both Roman Catholicism and Arminianism. As such, paragraph one not only sets forth clearly the nature of justification but it also combats prominent errors associated with this doctrinal heading. Justification is placed after effectual calingl in the ordo salutis: the call is logically prior because it is the source of faith, and faith is the instrument of the Christian's justification. Justification is the free gift of God's grace, through faith in Jesus Christ.

It is notable that this paragraph emphasizes the dual nature of what justification accomplishes.  Negatively, it removes the guilt of the believers' sin: "pardoning their sins". Positively, justification bestows a righteous standing with God: "accounting and accepting their persons as righteous." This two-part construction is essential to the Reformed doctrine of justification. Like Joshua the high priest in the vision of Zechariah 3:1-5, Esther in her approach to the Persian king in Esther 5:1, and the guest without a garment in Jesus' parable of the wedding feast (Mt. 22:12), we must not only be forgiven but positively clothed in righteousness in order to be justified before God. 

This construction has raised a question about the necessity of teaching Christ's "active obedience."  The distinction is made between Christ's obedience to the Father in in dying for our sins (passive obedience) and Christ's obedience to the Father in fulfilling all righteousness by his perfect law-keeping life (active obedience). While this language is not found in the Confession, the ideas are clearly important to the divines' teaching. In justifying sinners, Jesus both died for our forgiveness and fulfilled in his life the law-keeping righteousness that God's justice requires.

How, then, does Christ's righteousness become ours, so that we as sinners are justified?  Paragraph one answers by clearly distinguishing between the infusing of righteousness and the imputation of righteousness. The Roman Catholic doctrine teaches that sinners are made righteousness as God's grace changes them. Only when God's grace has perfectly made us righteous by infusion - a change of our nature - can we be justified. The Westminster Divines insisted instead that sinners are declared righteous by the imputation of Christ's righteousness.  This is a change of status apart from a change in our nature. As Paul put it, God "justifies the ungodly" (Rom. 4:5): while our nature is still sinful, our status before God is changed by the imputation of Christ's perfect righteousness.

Imputation is an accounting term, involving the granting of credit. Just as our sins were transferred to Jesus by imputation - Jesus did not become a sinner by infusion, but he bore our sins that were reckoned to him - his righteousness is imputed to sinners through faith. This doctrine has been newly brought into controversy by N. T. Wright and the so-called "New Perspective on Paul."  Wright has argued that righteousness is not a substance that can be passed across a court room. He errs badly in this, however, since status is often conveyed by declaration. Children are adopted when the status of son is passed to them or declared of them.  In Christian justification, sinners are declared righteous by the reckoning of Christ's perfect righteousness to their record. This was Paul's meaning in Romans 4:5: "And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness."  The verb for counted is logizomai, which means a legal reckoning. 

Thank God for the imputation of Christ's righteousness!  As J. Gresham Machen said on his deathbed about Christ's active obedience, there truly would be "no hope without it."