Category Archives: Justification by Faith
George Eldon Ladd, A Theology of the New Testament (Eerdmans, 1993), pages 483–484:
Justification, which primarily means acquittal at the final judgment, has already taken place in the present. The eschatological judgment is no longer alone future; it has become a verdict in history. Justification, which belongs to the Age to Come and issues in the future salvation, has become a present reality inasmuch as the Age to Come has reached back into the present evil age to bring its soteric blessings to human beings. An essential element in the salvation of the future age is the divine acquittal and the pronouncement of righteousness; this acquittal, justification, which consists of the divine absolution of sin, has already been effected by the death of Christ and may be received by faith here and now. The future judgment has thus become essentially a present experience. God in Christ has acquitted the believer; therefore he or she is certain of deliverance from the wrath of God (Rom. 5:9) and no longer stands under condemnation (Rom. 8:1). …
Justification is one of the blessings of the inbreaking of the new age into the old. In Christ the future has become present; the eschatological judgment has in effect already taken place in history. As the eschatological Kingdom of God is present in history in the Synoptics, as the eschatological eternal life is present in Christ in John, as the eschatological resurrection has already begun in Jesus’ resurrection, as the eschatological Spirit is given to the church in Acts (and in Paul), so the eschatological judgment has already occurred in principle in Christ, and God has acquitted his people.
Michael Horton, in his book Covenant and Salvation: Union with Christ, makes the point that the believer’s spiritual adoption carries both a relational emphasis and also a forensic/legal emphasis. “Before orphans can enjoy the love and care of a new family,” he writes, “they must be legally adopted” (248). Good point. Sometimes folks like us—who rightfully emphasize the forensic side of justification—can view God as a distant and impersonal Judge who does no more than declare the wicked innocent in a cold courtroom. Innocence and righteousness before that Judge is a gift of incredible grace, but it’s not the whole story. Justification entails a relational aspect that can go neglected. This harmony between the legal and the relational aspects of salvation is a harmony displayed in spiritual adoption. “Adoption, like justification, is simultaneously legal and relational” (247).
Here are two favorite quotes regarding how we can be assured of the reality of God’s justification.
The first is from Geerhardus Vos in his Grace and Glory: Sermons Preached in the Chapel of Princeton Theological Seminary (Solid Ground, 2007):
“Among all the realities of the invisible world, mediated to us by the disclosures and promises of God, and to which our faith responds, there is none that more strongly calls into action this faculty for grasping the unseen than the divine pronouncement through the Gospel, that, though sinners, we are righteous in the judgment of God. That is not only the invisible, it seems the impossible; it is the paradox of all paradoxes; it requires a unique energy of believing; it is the supreme victory of faith over the apparent reality of things; it credits God with calling the things that are not as though they were; it penetrates more deeply into the deity of God than any other act of faith.” (135)
The second is from Robert Kolb and Charles Arand in the The Genius of Luther’s Theology: A Wittenberg Way of Thinking for the Contemporary Church (Baker Academic, 2008):
“Those who see this form of forensic justification as merely a legal fiction do not share Luther’s understanding of the power of the Word of God. The reformer knew that from the beginning of the world, God determined reality by speaking. Therefore, he was certain that God’s word of forgiveness created a new reality in the life of the sinner. The reformer could not explain the mystery of evil and sin continuing in the lives of those God had claimed as his own in baptism. But he did not doubt that when God said, ‘Forgiven,’ the reality of human sinlessness in God’s sight was genuine and unassailable. God’s children must live with the mystery of the continuing sin and evil in their lives as they engage in the battle against their own sins. But they have no warrant to doubt that God has established the mightier reality of their innocence in his sight. And what he sees is real because he determines reality.” (154-155)
“Among all the realities of the invisible world, mediated to us by the disclosures and promises of God, and to which our faith responds, there is none that more strongly calls into action this faculty for grasping the unseen than the divine pronouncement through the Gospel, that, though sinners, we are righteous in the judgment of God. That is not only the invisible, it seems the impossible; it is the paradox of all paradoxes; it requires a unique energy of believing; it is the supreme victory of faith over the apparent reality of things; it credits God with calling the things that are not as though they were; it penetrates more deeply into the deity of God than any other act of faith.”
—Geerhardus Vos, Grace and Glory: Sermons Preached in the Chapel of Princeton Theological Seminary (Solid Ground, 2007), p. 135.
I recently stepped out of the daily routine for a few days of reading. I brought with me a tall stack of books (some old, some new) on the topics of practical theology, biblical theology, and systematic theology. My stack on biblical theology included a little book of sermons delivered by biblical theologian Geerhardus Vos, Grace and Glory: Sermons Preached in the Chapel of Princeton Theological Seminary.
The diverse sermons were captivating, revealing a warm pastoral side of Vos that I had never seen.
I should not have been surprised. I’ve found the sermons of theologians to be great entry points into their writings.
If you’ve never read John Calvin, for example, don’t start with the Institutes or even his commentaries–but first read his sermons (say, on the Beatitudes) and then you’ll see a man moved greatly by the things of God. To see these great men of faith behind the pulpit will help frame their thoughts when you begin listening to them from the lecture hall. Readers who neglect these sermon manuscripts and only go for the complex writings often cast Augustine, Martin Luther, Calvin, Jonathan Edwards, B.B. Warfield, and other theologians as overly intellectual and devotionally dry. Start with the sermons and then move into the deeper theological works. Such is true of Vos.
In a message on Hebrews, Vos takes up the topic of faith and addresses the reality of personal justification—that God has declared us perfectly righteous in his sight through the finished work of Jesus Christ. Vos is aware that we can often lose sight of our justification because we are more aware of our dumb, sinful actions, thoughts, and omissions than we are aware of the grace of God in having cleansed our sins forever. Vos reminds us that to “see” our justification is “the supreme victory of faith over the apparent reality of things.”
In Romans and Galatians, faith is in the main trust in the grace of God, the instrument of justification, the channel through which the vital influences flowing from Christ are received by the believer. Here in Hebrews the conception is wider; faith is “the proving of things not seen, the assurance of things hoped for.” It is the organ for apprehension of unseen and future realities, giving access to and contact with another world. It is the hand stretched out through the vast distances of space and time, whereby the Christian draws to himself the things far beyond, so that they become actual to him. …
Among all the realities of the invisible world, mediated to us by the disclosures and promises of God, and to which our faith responds, there is none that more strongly calls into action this faculty for grasping the unseen than the divine pronouncement through the Gospel, that, though sinners, we are righteous in the judgment of God. That is not only the invisible, it seems the impossible; it is the paradox of all paradoxes; it requires a unique energy of believing; it is the supreme victory of faith over the apparent reality of things; it credits God with calling the things that are not as though they were; it penetrates more deeply into the deity of God than any other act of faith.
-Geerhardus Vos, Grace and Glory: Sermons Preached in the Chapel of Princeton Theological Seminary (Solid Ground) pp. 133, 135
So do we look at our lives by faith in the cross, or do we look at our lives merely by the sight of what appears on the surface? May we penetrate, by faith, into what God has declared true.
Related post: Luther, God’s Word, and Justification.
It was a joy to attend my first Ligonier Conference in Orlando this past week. The conference is well organized and very enjoyable and it was great meeting so many TSS readers. Thanks for the encouragement.
I want to pass along several highlights from the conference.
The first note I wanted to pass along was from a message by Dr Sinclair Ferguson. He said John Owen’s book, The Doctrine of Justification By Faith, Through the Imputation of the Righteousness of Christ; Explained, Confirmed, and Vindicated, is one of the best treatments on the topic of justification (vol. 5 of Works).
Ferguson especially centered his attention on chapter 15 (“Of Faith Alone”). Owen here makes the following observations about the nature of saving faith:
1. That faith whereby we are justified is most frequently in the New Testament expressed by receiving.
2. Faith is expressed by looking.
3. It is, in like manner, frequently expressed by coming unto Christ.
4. It is expressed by fleeing for refuge.
5. It is a leaning on God, or casting ourselves and our burden on the Lord.
I would recommend reading the (surprisingly short) chapter here.
I want to point you to an excellent sermon on Galatians 4:1-7 by C.J. Mahaney, titled God as Father: Understanding the Doctrine of Adoption. Here is one particularly helpful excerpt on the connection and distinctions between justification and adoption:
… Notice God’s purpose was both to redeem and to adopt — “to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons” (v. 5).
I’m sure you will agree that redeeming us from slavery to sin and the penalty of sin would have been sufficiently astounding. But God’s purpose did not conclude with redemption, it culminated with adoption. He made slaves into sons through the death of His Son. And here in this phrase, and this passage, we encounter the deepest insights into the greatness of God’s love!
Now, historically in Covenant Life Church and Sovereign Grace Ministries, we have taught more on the doctrine of justification than we have on adoption. I don’t think we should ever teach less on the doctrine of justification. I do think we should teach more on the doctrine of adoption. Actually, the doctrine of justification must always remain primary because all saving benefits depend on justification by faith alone, through grace alone, in Christ alone. One can’t understand adoption apart from justification. Adoption depends on justification. Grasping justification positions us to fully appreciate adoption.
There are those who speak about the Fatherhood of God without reference to the Cross or the doctrine of justification. We cannot, we should not, and we must not, speak of the Fatherhood of God apart from the Cross and apart from the doctrine of justification.
So with those qualifying remarks let us distinguish between justification and adoption without separating justification and adoption. Let’s distinguish between them because they are not the same thing.
Understanding the differences is of critical importance to experiencing adoption. Dr. J.I. Packer helps us understand the difference and has written the following helpful remarks:
“That justification – by which we mean God’s forgiveness of the past, together with his acceptance for the future – is the primary and fundamental blessing of the gospel is not in question. Justification is the primary blessing, because it meets our primary spiritual need. We all stand by nature under God’s judgment; his law condemns us; guilt gnaws at us, making us restless, miserable, and in our lucid moments afraid; we have no peace in ourselves because we have no peace with our Maker. So we need the forgiveness of our sins, and assurance of a restored relationship with God, more than we need anything else in the world; and this the gospel offers us before it offers us anything else. … But contrast this, now, with adoption. Adoption is a family idea, conceived in terms of love, and viewing God as father. In adoption, God takes us into his family and fellowship – he establishes us as his children and heirs. Closeness, affection and generosity are at the heart of the relationship. To be right with God the Judge is a great thing, but to be loved and cared for by God the Father is a greater” [Knowing God, pp. 206, 207].
I love that last sentence – “To be right with God the Judge is a great thing.” I just want to say it is indeed “a great thing” to be right with God the Judge through the person and work of Jesus Christ. It is “a great thing” to be forgiven of sin. It is “a great thing” to be freed from fear of future wrath. It is “a great thing” to know this day that there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. It is “a great thing” to know that on the final day there is no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus. To be right with God the Judge – that is “a great thing”!
But to be loved and cared for by God the Father is greater. Now they are inseparable. There is no greater apart from the great. The great precedes the greater. But it’s possible to understand the great and not comprehend and live in the good of the greater.
And if you are right with God the Judge — through the person and work of Jesus Christ — let me just say that is a “great thing”! But as incomprehensible as it is, there is something greater. The greater is to be loved and cared for by God the Father. That’s the greater. This is part of Paul’s burden in this passage, that we not only experience the great (“redeemed”) but the greater (“adoption”).
Do the words closeness, affection, and generosity describe your perception and experience of God? Do they? If not, perhaps you are more aware of your sin than you are the adopting grace of God.
In order to experience more of the love of God, the affection of God, the closeness of God, the generosity of God, I want to recommend that for a season you study the doctrine of adoption until you are assured and secure in the love of God. If you are unfamiliar with the gift of adoption, I want to encourage you to restrict your spiritual diet (if necessary and for a season) to this topic so that you might experience the greatness of God’s love. If you are a Christian and you are not convinced of God’s love for you then I would recommend you confine yourself to this topic. Confine yourself to your study to this passage and other passages that reference adoption. Confine yourself for a season of time to the study of the doctrine of adoption. Immerse yourself in extended study.
– C.J. Mahaney, sermon, “God as Father: Understanding the Doctrine of Adoption” (Dec. 2, 2007) 34:08-41:35.
Shortly thereafter, C.J. recommended the following books for extended study:
- Knowing God by J.I. Packer (especially ch. 19)
- Children of the Living God by Sinclair Ferguson
- Adopted into God’s Family by Trevor Burke
I encourage you to listen to the full sermon audio here:
Or download the sermon MP3 here.
The Future of Justification: A Response to N.T. Wright
by John Piper
N.T. Wright is a British New Testament scholar and the Anglican Bishop of Durham, England. He’s become known for his controversial teaching on justification and for his statements like: “The discussions of justification in much of the history of the church, certainly since Augustine, got off on the wrong foot – at least in terms of understanding Paul – and they have stayed there ever since.”
Enter pastor and scholar John Piper.
Piper’s highly anticipated new book The Future of Justification: A Response to N.T. Wright (Crossway: 2007) is framed around eight fundamental questions raised in the theology of Wright:
- The gospel is not about how to get saved? (ch. 5)
- Justification is not how you become a Christian? (ch. 6)
- Justification is not the gospel? (ch. 6)
- We are not justified by believing in justification? (ch. 5)
- The imputation of God’s own righteousness makes no sense at all? (ch. 8 )
- Future justification is on the basis of the complete life lived? (ch. 7)
- First-century Judaism had nothing of the alleged self-righteous and boastful legalism? (chs. 9, 10)
- God’s righteousness is the same as His covenant faithfulness? (ch. 11)
Obviously these are monumental questions, bearing heavy consequences for the Church.
As expected, Piper walks slowly through these questions raised in Wright’s theology and returns frequently to biblical exegesis for his responses. Piper remarks in the intro that he dialogued with Wright during the process of writing the volume, even receiving an 11,000-word response on the first draft to clarify and prevent distortions (p. 10).
But before jumping into the debate, Piper opens the book with very humble words. He is too close to glory to waste his time winning debates and scoring publicity points. It’s a beginning that we can all learn from (see p. 13). This humble introduction is followed by an entire chapter – “On Controversy” – to explain why true Christian unity is not to be found in avoiding disagreements. Taking his cue from Machen, the Church has risen to new heights when celebrating truth within the context of controversy (p. 29).
Where Wright is right
Piper is clear and quick to point out areas of agreement. These include mutual convictions of Scriptural authority, the resurrection of Christ, the deity of Christ, the virgin birth of Christ, the opposition to homosexuality, and a big-picture understanding of the Abrahamic Covenant (pp. 15-16). And even in elements more closely related to the Gospel, Piper points out continuity. Piper writes, “There is nothing unclear about Wright’s commitment to penal substitution” (p. 48). And later, “Wright’s own words concerning penal substitution seem clear and strong” (p. 52).
Where Wright is wrong
The debate may appear to some as a trifle between one pastor/scholar and another pastor/scholar. But the implications run deep for all Christians. “This book took its origin from the countless conversations and e-mails with those who are losing their grip in this great gospel” (p. 10). Piper’s overriding argument is not that the gospel is being lost by outright dismissal, but in a gradual, incremental relaxing of the gospel due to a blurring of the biblical understanding of justification. So dangerous is this blurring, according to Piper, that at the end of the day, Wright may in fact be reinforcing Roman Catholic soteriology (p. 183)!
Piper is concerned that Wright’s biblical theology has become a grid that brings in too many extra-biblical resources to make interpretive decisions. Piper believes this approach, when it comes to understanding justification, “has not been as illuminating as it has been misleading, or perhaps, confusing” (p. 38).
Wright’s removal of justification from the gospel is also a big problem. Piper writes, “I find it perplexing that Wright is so eager not to let the message of justification be part of the gospel” (p. 82) and “Wright’s zeal to remove justification from the event of becoming a Christian” is “remarkable” (p. 95). Later, Piper highlights the missing element of Christ’s imputed righteousness in Wright’s theology.
Piper takes time clarifying the nature of legalism and the careful distinction of works and justification, a distinction not easily seen in Wright’s writings. In the end, Piper is forced to make the following clarification:
“If we make the mistake of thinking that our works of love (the fruit of God’s Spirit) secure or increase God’s commitment to be completely for us, now and in the last judgment, we compromise the very reason that these works of love exist, namely, to display the infinite worth of Christ and his work as our all-sufficient obedience and all-sufficient sacrifice.
Our mind-set toward our own good works must always be: these works depend on God being totally for us. That’s what the blood and righteousness of Christ have secured and guaranteed forever. Therefore, we must resist every tendency to think of our works as establishing or securing the fact that God is for us forever. It is always the other way around. Because he is for us, he sustains our faith. And through that faith-sustaining work, the Holy Spirit bears the fruit of love” (p. 186).
Piper devotes many pages to the Law-Court theme in justification, where great disparity between Piper and Wright becomes obvious. The book gives the reader a great overview of the most important features of the biblical gospel. A series of six related and helpful appendices conclude the book (pp. 189-225).
I’m thankful for the care taken by Piper to stay close to the issues that directly impact the clarity of the gospel message.
The overriding concern for Piper is not that Wright has evil intentions or is viciously dangerous. The problem is that Wright’s message confuses the gospel and breeds confusion where the Church needs to be strongest.
“I am not optimistic that the biblical doctrine of justification will flourish where N. T. Wright’s portrayal holds sway. I do not see his vision as a compelling retelling of what Saint Paul really said. And I think, as it stands now, it will bring great confusion to the church at a point where she desperately needs clarity. I don’t think this confusion is the necessary dust that must settle when great new discoveries have been made. Instead, if I read the situation correctly, the confusion is owing to the ambiguities in Wright’s own expressions, and to the fact that, unlike his treatment of some subjects, his paradigm for justification does not fit well with the ordinary reading of many texts and leaves many ordinary folk not with the rewarding ‘ah-ha’ experience of illumination, but with a paralyzing sense of perplexity” (p. 24).
Later Piper writes, “This book exists because of my own concern that, specifically in the matter of justification by faith, Wright’s approach has not been as illuminating as it has been misleading, or perhaps, confusing.” (p. 38). Even the most straightforward passages on imputation (like 2 Corinthians 5:21) are “shrouded in Wright’s misleading comments” (p. 178).
And most notably, the gospel in its application to sinners becomes vague.
“But there is a misleading ambiguity in Wright’s statement that we are saved not by believing in justification by faith but by believing in Jesus’ death and resurrection. The ambiguity is that it leaves undefined what we believe in Jesus’ death and resurrection for. It is not saving faith to believe in Jesus merely for prosperity or health or a better marriage. In Wright’s passion to liberate the gospel from mere individualism and to make it historical and global, he leaves it vague for individual sinners” (pp. 85-86).
Piper is rightly concerned that this vagueness will spread into the pulpit. “Following N.T. Wright in his understanding of justification will result in a kind of preaching that will at best be confusing to the church” (p. 165).
A fitting summary of Piper’s entire case is found early in the book.
“My conviction concerning N.T. Wright is not that he is under the curse of Galatians 1:8-9, but that his portrayal of the gospel – and of the doctrine of justification in particular – is so disfigured that is becomes difficult to recognize as biblically faithful. It may be that in his own mind and heart Wright has a clear and firm grasp on the gospel of Christ and the biblical meaning of justification. But in my judgment, what he has written will lead to a kind of preaching that will not announce clearly what makes the lordship of Christ good news for guilty sinners or show those who are overwhelmed with sin how they may stand righteous in the presence of God” (p. 15).
It’s right for the Church to jealously guard the clear and biblical understanding of how sinners are brought into a right relationship with God. And it’s at this critical place, over the battle for our understanding of justification as the personal application of Christ’s work to a sinner’s soul, where Wright’s theology simply falls apart. This is an error the Church cannot afford to entertain.
Whether Piper has clearly and fairly represented Wright at every detail is a conclusion I’ll leave for those more connected to the discussion. What is certain is that The Future of Justification: A Response to N.T. Wright is a book thoroughly centered on clear exegesis of Scripture on the topic of justification. You don’t need a background in the Wright/Piper debate to gain a better appreciation of – and a firmer hold on – the biblical message of the gospel.
Title: The Future of Justification: A Response to N.T. Wright
Author: John Piper
Reading level: 3.0/5.0 > moderately difficult at times
Dust jacket: no
Paper: white and clean
Topical index: yes
Scriptural index: yes
Text: perfect type
Price USD: $11.99 from Monergism
ISBN: 9781581349641, 1581349645
“In his struggles with penance and confession, he [Martin Luther the monk-scholar] wrestled with Psalm 19:12, ‘Clear thou me from hidden faults’ (ASV). Luther’s problem was never whether his sins were large ones or small ones, but whether in fact he had confessed every single one. What about the sins he could not remember? What about the sins committed in his sleep? Luther anticipated Freud by recognizing a depth-dimension to the human person and by refusing to limit the effects of sin to the conscious mind alone. Such a radical reading of the human situation could only be answered with an even more radical reading of divine grace. …
Luther’s new insight was that the imputation of Christ’s alien righteousness was based, not on the gradual curing of sin, but rather on the complete victory of Christ on a cross. The once-for-allness of justification was emphasized: ‘If you believe, then you have it!’ Nor is there any direct correlation between the state of justification and one’s outward works, as Luther made clear in his sermon on the pharisee and the publican (1521): ‘And the Publican fulfills all the commandments of God on the spot. He was then and there made holy by grace alone. Who could have foreseen that, under this dirty fellow?’
Luther’s doctrine of justification by faith fell like a bombshell on the theological landscape of medieval Catholicism. It shattered the entire theology of merit and indeed the sacramental-penitential basis of the church itself.”
- Timothy George essay on Luther in Reading Romans Through the Centuries: From the Early Church to Karl Barth (Brazos Press: 2005) pp. 115-116.