Justification and the Old Perspective

Charles Spurgeon’s famous quip goes something like this, “I love to proclaim these strong old doctrines, that are called by nickname Calvinism, but which are surely and verily the revealed truth of God as it is in Christ Jesus.” We might say something similar about justification.  We may describe it as the Reformed perspective or Protestant perspective on justification but it is nothing other than the truth of God revealed in Scripture.  In this article, I simply want to point out the constituent elements of the doctrine of justification and make reference to their Biblical support.

First, we must affirm that man is fallen in Adam.  Consider Paul’s summary, “Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned…”[1] And in I Corinthians he affirms that “in Adam all die.”[2] He goes on to explain the spread of sin saying, “by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners.”[3]  Now, what does it mean that many were “made sinners”?  Consider the Roman Catholic theologian Joseph Fitzmyer’s explanation, “Adam’s disobedience placed the mass of humanity in a condition of sin and estrangement from God; the text does not imply that they became sinners merely by imitating Adam’s transgression; rather, they were constituted sinners by him and his act of disobedience.”[4] Douglas Moo argues that the word translated “constituted” or “made” means to appoint and “must be interpreted in the light of Paul’s typical forensic categories. “[5] The theological language classically employed for this constitution or appointment is imputation.  In other words, Adam’s sin was imputed, reckoned or appointed to us.  This reckoning is clearly forensic and declarative.

Second, we must affirm that union with Christ provides the organizing structure through which the Holy Spirit applies all of the saving benefits found in Christ.[6] Consequently, Paul teaches in Ephesians 1:3, that the Father has “blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places.” Put simply, this means that the blessings cannot be separated from the person of Christ.  Thus, says Herman Bavinck, there is no sharing in the benefits of Christ unless we share in His person.[7] The answer to Question 69 of the Westminster Larger Catechism merely echoes these sentiments when it says, “The Communion in grace, which the members of the invisible Church have with Christ, is their partaking of the virtue of his mediation, in their justification, adoption, sanctification, and whatever else in this life manifests their union with him.” Thus, the blessing of justification cannot be had apart from Christ.  One is only justified in Him.  But how does this come about?

Third, just as Adam’s sin was imputed to his posterity so too is Christ’s righteousness imputed or reckoned to those for whom He died.  In Romans 5:19 we read, “For as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous.” What is more, notice what follows this imputation of Christ’s righteousness, “Therefore, as one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men.”[8]  Clearly, our justification, which is forensic and declarative, is based on the judicial and forensic ground of the imputation of Christ’s righteousness. Thus, union with Christ provides the relational and participatory ground for the distinct and yet inseparable forensic benefits of imputation and justification.  

Well, those are the basic elements of the Old Perspective. You can given them whatever nickname you would like. However, because they come from the Bible they are nothing more or less than the truth of God.  

Jeffrey A Stivason (Ph.D. Westminster Theological Seminary) is pastor of Grace Reformed Presbyterian Church in Gibsonia, PA.  He is Professor-elect of New Testament Studies at the Reformed Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Pittsburgh, PA. Jeff is also an online instructor for Westminster Theological Seminary, Philadelphia, PA. He is the author of From Inscrutability to Concursus (P&R), he has contributed to The Jonathan Edwards Encyclopedia (Eerdmans) and has published academic articles and book reviews in various journals. Jeff is the Senior Editor of Place for Truth (placefortruth.org) an online magazine for the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals. 



[1] Romans 5:12

[2] I Corinthians 15:22

[3] Romans 5:19

[4] Fitzmyer, J. A., S. J. Romans: a new translation with introduction and commentary  (New Haven; London: Yale University Press, 2008), p. 421.

[5] Moo, D. J. The Epistle to the Romans  Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1996), p. 345.

[6] Oliphint, Scott, K. Justified in Christ (Great Britain: Mentor Books, 2007), 24. The article by Lane G. Tipton is excellent and I highly recommend it to the reader. Cf. Westminster Larger Catechism Questions 65-69.

[7] Bavinck, Herman, Our Reasonable Faith (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1956), p. 399-400.

[8] Romans 5:18