Justification By Faith

Monday, July 16th 2007
Mar/Apr 1999

Moore College trains a significant number of Australia's evangelical Anglican and Presbyterian ministers. This interview was conducted by Peter Hastie, editor of The Australian Presbyterian. (1) The interview provides some international perspective on current debates about justification.

PH: What is the doctrine of justification by faith?
PJ: The best place to start in thinking about the doctrine is with the judgment seat of God. The Bible teaches that we are all going to appear before the judgment seat of Christ to be judged one day. Either we will be acquitted or we will be condemned. Those who are acquitted will be "justified." In other words, God will hand down a verdict of "not guilty." He will declare that we are righteous. And the question is: how does that happen?

Unfortunately, most people think it happens because of our good works. However, the Bible tells us that our good works have nothing to do with God's declaration of justification. In fact, we are justified through our faith in the Lord Jesus Christ alone. His righteousness is freely given to us. So the doctrine of justification by faith is the teaching that God declares to be righteous those who have put their trust in nothing else but Christ for their salvation.

PH: How is justification by faith integral to Paul's Gospel?
PJ: Justification is integral to Paul's message because it is the Gospel of the good news about Jesus Christ. When Paul preached the Gospel, he focused on the death of Christ upon the cross. He preached that Christ had borne our penalty upon the cross, and had taken away God's judgment upon our sin. Now, since the Lord Jesus does that, we may put our faith in him and be justified. So at the very heart of Paul's message lies this great truth of justification by faith alone, and it is integral because it touches every part of his message.

For instance, look at what Paul says about the Sacraments of Baptism and the Lord's Supper. All Paul's teaching about them presupposes that we are saved by grace through faith in Christ alone. The Supper proclaims that we are saved only by the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. So justification by faith is a teaching that lays an axe to the root of human pride and arrogance. It says "No!" to the idea that we are justified by our good works. This means that we must be sure that every aspect of our church life reinforces the fundamental idea that we are saved by God's grace through faith in Christ and not in any sense by our works.

PH: Why did Luther call this the article of a standing or falling church?
PJ: Because the church which does not preach the Gospel in a "justification by faith" way, is a Church that has lost the Gospel. It's as simple as that. And even though it may be a church with an impressive history, like the medieval Roman Catholic church, with all the panoply and glory of a great past and much wealth, as well as an extensive priesthood and a powerful sway over millions of people, yet if it is not preaching the Gospel in a "justification by faith" way, then it has lost the Gospel. It is preaching another Christ. And it's a miracle if some people are saved in the fellowship of such a church. So Luther rightly brought to bear the test of justification by faith upon the preaching of the church. Where justification by faith is being preached, the Gospel is being preached. Where it is not being preached, then the Gospel is being distorted and people are being sent back to their own works which cannot save them.

PH: Can you explain why the Archbishop of Canterbury, George Carey, recently said: "Justification by faith is hardly a common expression these days, even in the church"?
PJ: Yes, I can explain it, because what he said is true. It's true about the worldwide Anglican Communion, and it is true of other churches too.

There are a number of reasons for it. First, people are not familiar with their Bibles. The phrase "justified through faith" is a Bible phrase, and it's only as you read the Scriptures that you'll be led to think about it. If you don't read the Scriptures, and the Scriptures are not taught and preached in the Church, then the phrase won't come up and you won't ever hear it. Over the last thirty or so years in the worldwide Anglican Communion, there has been a strong movement to celebrate a weekly Eucharist where the preaching is based only on the set readings mainly from the four Gospels. It sounds fine in theory, but what it has meant is that people don't know their Bibles, and they don't understand the truths of the faith, particularly the doctrine of justification. This is a serious problem.

Another reason why justification by faith is little known in the church is that preachers have tended to leave Bible language behind in their efforts to translate the faith for modern hearers. When they have put the Gospel into contemporary terms, they have tried to teach the general idea of "justification by faith," but it has been under a different guise and using other terms. Now I can understand why preachers try to translate the Gospel for the twentieth century, but in the end we do need to introduce the phrase because it's a Bible term. Otherwise, how can people understand their Bible properly? Preachers must remember that one of their tasks is to instruct their hearers so that they don't lose touch with the Word of God.

PH: Why doesn't the doctrine of justification seem to grip people today the way it did during the Reformation?
PJ: The short answer to that, as usual, is sin. What we must realize is that the natural way that sinful people think is that God saves them because of their own decency and good works. That's how we as children of Adam are born to think.

Now the news that God saves us despite our good works is not something that's easy to hear, and it requires God first to enlighten our minds by his Spirit. Otherwise we will never understand the extraordinary message of God's grace. That has always been the case, and it was like that at the Reformation as well.

But there is a further element that we need to explore in the question. Is there some reason why the doctrine doesn't seem to grip Christians or church people in the modern world? I think that the answer to that lies in the weakness of our teaching about sin and judgment, and ultimately about the holiness of God. Tragically, the theme of judgment is thoroughly muted in the church. Likewise, what used to be called the preaching of the Law is rarely done. Although the way some may have done it in the past was inappropriate, nevertheless, I think that the commands of God and his holy demand upon our lives rarely get a mention these days. If people are not aware of God's holiness and judgment, then they can't really be aware of the depth of their own sin and their desperate plight when it comes to dealing with God. Now if we are not preaching the Gospel in those terms, then we are not preaching the Gospel. And I fear that we are not preaching the Gospel as we ought to be doing.

PH: Why has the subject of justification by faith become once more a topic of hot debate amongst scholars today?
PJ: This is an interesting question because it is a surprising phenomenon. Thirty years ago, it was not a subject for active debate, but it has become so since 1977. I choose that date because that was the year that a New Testament scholar, E. P. Sanders, published an important but controversial book in which he challenged the conventional view that first century Judaism was a religion of good works.

Sanders was critical of the idea that religion in the time of Jesus was a religion of rules and regulations which would save you if you kept them. Up until Sanders' book, scholars assumed that when Jesus and Paul were preaching their doctrine of justification by faith they were preaching against a straightforward "good works" religion. However, E. P. Sanders blew the whistle on this simple idea, and said that it wasn't true.

Sanders believed that a major reassessment of first century Judaism was needed. As a result of his studies, he formed the view that grace played a major role in the Jewish faith of the period. According to him, it was wrong to claim that the Jews believed in salvation by good works.

Not surprisingly, Sanders sparked a theological row amongst New Testament scholars which is still raging today. So the current debate that is going on is not really provoked by issues like the sinfulness of man and the holiness of God; rather, it's all about a reassessment of first century Judaism and how Paul was reacting to it.

However, there is another element in the debate that I need to mention. Some scholars are also reexamining the meaning of justification by faith in the light of word studies on such significant terms as "righteousness" as it was used in the Old Testament. But again, none of this questioning is arising out of a sense of spiritual crisis prompted by the holiness of God and the sinfulness of human beings. I think popular Christianity has become far less interested in holiness than it used to be, and that the current talk about justification by faith has barely filtered down from scholars to the average believer.

PH: Why are some New Testament scholars like Tom Wright saying that the doctrine of justification by faith is not a central Pauline doctrine?
PJ: I think that scholars like Wright are often reacting to the position of some German scholars earlier in the twentieth century who treated justification by faith as the central Pauline doctrine, as the definition of the Gospel. In doing so they probably owed their thinking to Luther, and so this later reaction is not just a response to an earlier generation of New Testament scholars, but it is also a reaction to the Reformation itself.

Wright's basic position is this: when you look at Paul's writing you will notice that justification by faith doesn't turn up everywhere, and there are other doctrines which would easily be regarded as more at the center of Paul's thought. He would say, I think, that the Gospel was more central. Some other people think that incorporation into Christ is the center of Paul's theology. Wright makes the point that Paul is mainly discussing the future of Israel and the relationship with the Gentiles. Thus justification is about the nature of the church (who belongs?) rather than salvation (who does God accept?).

I simply make two observations about the broader issue, rather than about Wright's studies particularly: First, I think that the business of trying to find the center of Paul's theology is a mistake. How can you ever be sure that you have found it? The idea of "finding the center" of something is a very alluring metaphor, but it fuels the false hope that it can be done. Isn't it much more sensible to say simply how a particular doctrine relates to the others, rather than to say that it is at the center? I think so.

Second, it needs to be said that many New Testament scholars don't believe that Paul wrote all the New Testament letters attributed to him. So the Paul they're talking about is not necessarily the man that we are referring to. The other problem that they have is that they are looking exclusively at Paul without taking into account how the rest of the Bible handles these issues.

My own view on all this is that justification by faith is absolutely integral to our whole doctrinal understanding because it has to do with what is so vital in the Bible, namely, the judgment day, what Christ has done to save us from that judgment day, and what we must do in response to Christ's rescue of us from this coming crisis. After all, the reason for wanting to know who is in the church is to know who is to be saved in the coming judgment.

PH: How are some of these modern scholars like Tom Wright and James Dunn redefining the doctrine of justification by faith?
PJ: Both Dunn and Wright are struggling to come to terms with the new perspective of E. P. Sanders, in their own way. Let me admit first that it is quite difficult to summarize these arguments briefly in a way that does justice to them.

Sanders, as you will recall, suggested that we have misunderstood the beliefs of first century Jews. The Jews of Jesus' day, he said, did not believe in justification by good works. Rather, they exalted in God's grace and believed that it was only by grace that they were in the covenant. However, Sanders went on to say that although Jews believed that they were saved by grace, they also believed that they stayed in the covenant by works. Both Wright and Dunn in their different ways are trying to grapple with this, and they are trying to reassess the doctrine of justification by faith in the light of it. Both of these scholars are very attracted to the idea that Paul's "justification by faith" talk comes out of the relationship between Jew and Gentile in the church, which is undoubtedly a major issue in Paul's letters to the Galatians and the Romans.

Dunn's view, for example, is that Paul's term, "the works of the law," does not refer to the works we do in order to gain salvation through the law. Rather, these works are "boundary markers" or symbols of one's Jewishness. A person is not saved by having or doing them. They are merely intended to signal that you are Jewish. The real question before the Gentile churches was this: Do you need to perform "the works of the law" to be a Christian? In other words, do you have to become Jewish to enter the covenant? The issue has nothing to do with good works or building up credit for salvation; rather it is about whether you have to become a Jew to be saved.

In the end, Dunn does specifically see justification as having to do with their relationship with God, and dependence on God. But the initial point is this-you don't have to become a Jew to be a Christian. You can be justified as a Gentile through faith in Christ without keeping the Law. In other words, you don't have to convert to Judaism as a first step to being a Christian. But I am not at all convinced that he is right to say that works of the law are merely marks. I think that Sanders is wrong and that there is sufficient evidence that some people did put their faith for salvation in good works. What is sometimes missed is that the mere fact that people appealed to grace does not mean that they did not also rely on good works.

Tom Wright is also interested in this matter. But for him the business of justification by faith is not so much a matter of God's verdict on the day of judgment. Instead, it's related to whether or not a person has a belief that Jesus is Lord and that God raised him from the dead. This shows that they are a Christian. Wright claims that this is evidence of the Spirit's work in a person's life, and hence proof that the person is already in the covenant. So what he is saying is that the doctrine of justification by faith is not about how God makes a person a Christian; rather, it is God's righteous declaration that someone is already a Christian.

For Wright, faith is not the instrument by which we grasp Christ, but the evidence that we are already in Christ. But this is not how Paul uses the term "faith" in my view. One of the effects of this way of approach is that it tends to dissolve the clear distinction between the Catholic and Protestant definitions of justification. I am concerned about his emphasis on church rather than salvation.

PH: What's the danger of going down the new path? What do we lose?
PJ: Well, the first thing that we have to recognize is that this new path is attractive. It's like all new things; it's exciting and therein lies its danger. Sadly, some Christians will go down this path only because they're like the Athenians who were always interested in some new thing.

The other factor that makes this new path attractive is that it appears to give us a wonderful new way of looking at the New Testament that people haven't thought of before, almost as if for thousands of years we haven't known what the New Testament says. And now, suddenly, all is revealed. So it's quite attractive. The advantage of this new view is that it gives the appearance of drawing us into the historical circumstances of the day.

However, the danger of the new path is that it is inherently reductionist. That is to say, it certainly correctly draws us into the issue of Jew and Gentile relationships, but it doesn't seem to ask the obvious question: why is this issue so important? I take it that the reason why the question was ever important in the first place was because it involved the crucial issue of how we shall stand before the judgment seat of God. Unless we realize that that is the real question, then the New Testament will be essentially trivial for us. It will be no more than the hobby horse of academic experts who happen to be able to read it in a new way. So personally, I think that the new path is dangerous. I believe that it will obscure the doctrine of justification by faith, and it will make assurance of salvation very difficult indeed. Further, I think that if it obscures the doctrine of justification by faith, it will cut off the root of godliness because godliness grows out of justification by faith as well.

Charles Colson and Os Guinness, among others, have been calling on evangelicals and Roman Catholics to bury the hatchet on their differences over justification. Should we do that? And should we treat the Reformation as a backward stop? I believe quite strongly that evangelicals and Catholics should bury the hatchet on justification by faith, and both of us should do that by submitting to the truth. And we can do that best by witnessing to the truth continually.

Sadly, many evangelicals no longer believe in justification by faith as you can see from the neglect of it in their popular writings. Historically, this has not always been so. In an earlier period, evangelicals regarded justification by faith as enormously significant. However, in the broad evangelical movement today it is not seen in the same light. So whether we are talking about evangelicals or Catholics, both of us need to rediscover the great teaching of justification by faith. I believe we have a responsibility to invite the Roman Catholic Church to do it. It hasn't done so yet, although I hope it will.

As far as the Reformation goes, I believe that it was a marvelous backward step. It is the sort of backward step that we ought to be taking all the time-right back into the New Testament. It's time we realized that going back to the New Testament is the only way to go forward. And we need to do it again today. There's an American Episcopalian Bishop who has recently been saying that we have to rewrite the Bible for every new age. I think he's completely wrong. What we have to do is to go back to the sources of our faith in the New Testament. Then we will discover afresh in each generation the wonderful truth of the Gospel in a "justification by faith" way. I think that it's tragic that many today who call themselves evangelicals are ashamed of the Reformation or attack the Reformation. Some of them treat the word "Protestant" as though it's a vulgar term, and they want to distance themselves from the Reformation as much as possible. I would question the credentials of any person who calls himself an evangelical if he does such a thing. I am not ashamed of the word "Protestant." I think that one of the great losses of the last twenty to thirty years has been this term. It's a very important word that we need to reuse and rediscover.

PH: To what extent then can evangelicals and Catholics work together, bearing in mind, for example, their collaboration on pro-life issues?
PJ: It's perfectly true that evangelicals and Catholics often work together on pro-life issues, and we ought to be grateful for that. I, myself, belong to an organization which has evangelicals and Catholics working on these sorts of causes. There are definitely issues on which Christians who have a Trinitarian approach to life can work together effectively. But if such cooperation obscures for a second the massive difference between us on the issue of how a person is saved, then we must stop doing it at once. Cooperation on secondary issues must never be used as an excuse for down-pedaling the crucial issue of how a person is justified.

People often don't realize the subtle impact of universalism. It explains why it's easier for evangelicals and Catholics to come together today. When we really believe that all will be saved, the differences between evangelicals and Catholics seem insignificant and trifling. The popularity of universalism in the twentieth century goes a long way to explaining why there is a fresh push for unity with Rome. It is not because we really believe the same thing about justification by faith. Rather, it is because the issue of the judgment seat of God has been muted through universalism. That's why it's now so easy for Catholics to accept a watered-down version of justification by faith with Protestants. It's all due to the error of universalism.

PH: What will be the pastoral implications if Protestant preaching no longer focuses on justification by faith alone?
PJ: The essential thing that people must grasp is that Protestant pastoral practice flows out of the doctrine of justification by faith alone. If you look at Catholic spirituality, particularly Jesuit spirituality, you will find that inherent in it is the idea of free will and the capacity of human beings for a good life and good works. This is endemic in all Catholicism. It is an absolute and non-negotiable part of their teaching. Because Catholic teaching contains these ideas within it, Catholic spirituality takes a different form from Protestant spirituality.

Protestantism has different assumptions altogether. For a start, Protestants do take seriously the scriptural teaching that human beings are totally sinful, that is, that sin has affected every part of our being. There's no part of our existence which is untouched by sin's effect, and so we need to refresh ourselves again and again by coming back to the cross of Christ and receiving forgiveness. The Gospel tells us that we can have assurance of salvation by faith in Christ, and it underwrites this promise by showing us the greatness of the Saviour. The Christian life begins and continues at every stage by faith. It's a life of faith that we live. We have faith in Christ, our great Saviour, and faith in him gives us assurance.

However, in Catholic theology you are not permitted to have assurance. There's always the element of uncertainty. Assurance is never on the agenda, because the presence of free-will and good works in Catholic teaching rules it out. Ultimately, your personal destiny hinges on your own ability, which gives us no confidence at all. So when people become enamored of a Catholic spirituality, even if they are Protestants, then you will get a different version of the Christian life, and a different pastoral practice altogether.

I think it should be obvious to everyone that these are terribly important issues, and they are important because in our age so many prominent Protestant authors are now calling upon Catholic "spirituality" to help them in their pastoral practice. This is a movement fraught with great dangers, and it shows how many Protestants have a defective understanding of human sinfulness and the Gospel. The way forward is to refresh our understanding of the Gospel in a "justification by faith way."

1 [ Back ] This interview was also published in The Australian Presbyterian.
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