Justification: Understanding the Classic Reformed Doctrine

Article by   March 2009
Justification: Understanding the Classic Reformed Doctrine
By J.V. Fesko
461 p.
P&R Publishing (August 2008)

The reader may be pardoned for thinking that all that could be said about justification has been said.  But the reader would be wrong.  John Valero Fesko, pastor of Geneva Orthodox Presbyterian Church in Woodstock, GA and adjunct professor of theology at Reformed Theological Seminary in Atlanta, has penned an encyclopedic treatment of the doctrine that is well worth the time and effort to digest.  I have some qualms that I will address at length later in this review, but I want to state at the outset that the church owes a debt of gratitude to Dr. Fesko for his efforts.  Will Fesko's work replace the classic study of justification by James Buchanan?  Maybe.  Maybe not.  It certainly will serve as a strong companion.

What is it that makes Justification unique?  At least two things stand out.  First, as Fesko himself notes, he wanted to provide a one stop source for a full discussion of justification.  He points out that books usually discuss the doctrine from the perspective of systematic theology or from the perspective of biblical studies, but not both.  Justification has the strength of having a concern for the exegetical, biblical theological and systematic aspects of the doctrine.  Additionally, Fesko helpfully brings the historia salutis and the ordo salutis into proximity to one another, which is biblical and is as it should be.  

Justification is comprised of fifteen chapters ranging from justification in church history to justification in the teaching of the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches.  In between these book ends the reader will find chapters dealing with theological prolegomena, the structure of redemptive history, the covenant of works, the work of Christ, the historical context of justification, the nature of sola fide, the new perspectives on Paul, the imputation of Christ's active obedience to the believer, union with Christ, the relation of justification to sanctification, the relation of justification to the final judgment, and the doctrine in the life of the church.  All in all, this is a well rounded study of the doctrine of justification.

This reader found much in the book that was outstanding.  The discussion of the covenant of works and the Adam/Christ parallel was solid.  The author has written on this topic in his Last Things First and I would have been terribly disappointed had he not built on that useful work.  Fesko's discussion of the resurrection as the justification of Christ was superb and was couched in such a way to answer the typical concerns raised when this subject is broached.  If Christ was cursed for our sins which were laid upon him as our federal head, then he needed to be justified.  Paul argues this way in Galatians 3:13, 1st Tim. 3:16, and Rom 1:3-4.   To balk at this teaching is to fall into a sort of docetic tendency.  Christ only seemed to be cursed.  If Christ was indeed cursed then he needed to be justified.  

Fesko's discussion of justification and the final judgment is perhaps the most original of the book.  The author argues for the view that the resurrection as such is the final judgment.  Rather than there being a resurrection followed by another event which is the general judgment which is in turn followed by glorification or damnation, Fesko cogently argues that since Christians are already raised in the inner man that the resurrection of the outer man just is the final judgment.  The author also helpfully addresses the views of N. T. Wright here by demonstrating that there is no second justification different from the justification the believer experiences in time.  Wright has argued that the final judgment will involve a justification based upon the whole life lived.  Fesko shows that this is sub-biblical and contrary to the classic Reformed presentation and confessional tradition.

I have just barely scratched the surface of what I deem to be praiseworthy about Justification.  But a review would not be a review if there were not criticisms.  I have a few observations to make here.  The first thing I want to say is that the chapter on the doctrine of justification in church history struck me as too cursory.  Of course this is not a study devoted solely to the doctrine of justification in the history of the church, but I would have liked to see more.  Specifically, I would take issue with the author's treatment of Jonathan Edwards' understanding of justification (34-39).  While I would agree that more research needs to be done on the relationship of Edwards' theocentric idealism and his Reformed theology, I am not convinced that Fesko has offered a careful treatment here.  In fact, I am convinced that Fesko relies too heavily on the flawed research of Barth scholar George Hunsinger.  I would recommend to the interested reader the recent dissertations on Edwards and justification by Michael McClenahan (Oxford), Brandon Withrow, and Craig Biehl (Westminster, Philadelphia) for further enlightenment on the topic.  Suffice it to say that one could not read these studies and come to the same conclusion as Fesko that Edwards compromised his doctrine of justification with something like justification by sanctification.

Another weak spot in the book is Fesko's treatment of the relationship of justification to union with Christ.  This discussion is a virtual minefield in recent Reformed theological discussion.  On page 69 Fesko comes pretty close to equating the views of Richard Gaffin (whom the author draws from extensively in other parts of the book) with Albert Schweitzer.  That both men affirm the centrality of union with Christ cannot be doubted.  But the comparison ends there at that minimal observation.  When the author discusses the relationship of justification and union he appears to trip over himself.  He tells us that union with Christ undergirds the whole of the ordo salutis (a position articulated some years ago by John Murray, among many others and fairly standard Reformed fare) and then proceeds to tell us that justification undergirds union!  "Therefore, the transformative is founded upon the forensic; union with Christ, though undergirding the whole ordo salutis, is grounded upon justification" (90, emphasis added).  This seems confusing to me.  Perhaps what the author meant to convey is that union with Christ undergirds the whole ordo and that justification (the forensic) is logically prior to sanctification (the transformative)?  

This brings into view one aspect of the discussion that has been going on within Reformed circles recently.  If we follow John Calvin in understanding that union involves the duplex gratia dei or twofold blessing of Christ, what, exactly is the relation of justification to sanctification within union?  All sides appear to grant that the benefits of justification and sanctification accrue to the believer simultaneously, but a disagreement exists as to the logical relationship.  One side in the debate argues for a logical as well as chronological simultaneity of the twofold blessing and the other argues for a logical priority within chronological simultaneity of justification to sanctification.  Who is right here?  It seems that the second view has some support from Calvin himself who said that justification was the "main hinge" of the Christian religion and Geerhardus Vos offers a clarion endorsement of the priority of justification to sanctification within union in the citation found on page 276 of Justification.  However, one can argue that this citation is taken from within a polemical context in which Vos is distancing the Biblical view from that of Albert Schweitzer.   One could also note that it is drawn from an early stage of Vos' scholarship and that one finds a different perspective in his Pauline Eschatology where the relationship of justification to sanctification is one of clear parity.  Clearly there is room here for further work within the Reformed theological community.
While I have noted my qualms with the book, I think John Fesko has provided the Reformed community with a book that will serve us for many years to come and even the weak spots provide us with material to discuss and clarify.  For that we can be thankful.

Jeffery Waddington is a PhD candidate at Westminster Theological Seminary and a teaching elder at Calvary OPC Church in NJ.

Jeffery Waddington, "Justification: Understanding the Classic Reformed Doctrine Review", Reformation 21 (March 2009)


This article was published in Reformation 21, the online magazine of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals.  The Alliance calls the twenty-first century church to a modern reformation by broadcasting, events, and publishing.  This article and additional biblical resources can be found at AllianceNet.org


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