Imputation & The Gospel

R.C. Sproul
Thursday, August 2nd 2007
Sep/Oct 1998

Has the term “evangelical” become hopelessly diluted? All words, including those that serve as shorthand theological labels, are subject to the shifts of linguistic evolution. As every student of lexicography knows, word definitions are forged not only upon the anvil of etymology but are tempered in the crucible of contemporary usage. Thus, to determine what a word means one must look not only to the past but also, and especially, to the present.

“Evangelical”: Past and Present

Etymologically the word “evangelical” is derived from the New Testament word for “Gospel,” the “evangel” or “good news.” In its most linguistic meaning the term means (or once meant) in its adjectival sense, “Gospeler.” The chief historical significance of “evangelical” grew out of the Protestant Reformation as the term was used to distinguish Protestants from Roman Catholics. Since the magisterial reformers saw the material issue of the Reformation as the dispute over the doctrine of justification, they were convinced that the conflict focused on the question of the meaning of the Gospel itself. Sola fide was considered normative to biblical Christianity precisely because the reformers believed that sola fide was essential to the Gospel and, therefore, any “gospel” that either rejected it or failed to include it was “another gospel” and therefore not the biblical Gospel. The chief protest of Protestantism was a protest about the Gospel. The reformers viewed the Roman Catholic doctrine of justification as a virtual repudiation of the biblical Gospel. Initially the term “evangelical” was a term of antithesis, coined to differentiate sharply between Roman soteriology and Reformation soteriology. The antithesis was so stark that Luther could call sola fide the article upon which the Church stands or falls, and Calvin could call it the hinge upon which everything turns.

In the centuries that followed the Reformation, Protestantism divided into multiple denominations and communions that differed from one another on a host of disputed points of doctrine. Yet this vast diversity of doctrine did not demolish an abiding unity based upon a common understanding of the Gospel. For centuries the twin affirmations of sola scriptura and sola fide served as the unity for Protestant diversity. It gave assurance that diverse Protestant groups, that subscribed to different confessions and creeds, could still regard their doctrinal differences as intramural debates among brothers and sisters in Christ, the people of God who share a common authority in the Bible and a common faith in the Gospel. Historic evangelicals also shared a common “catholic” agreement regarding matters settled in the great ecumenical councils of the first millennium of Christianity such as the Trinity, the Atonement of Christ, his resurrection, etc.

Again for centuries the term “evangelical” served as a synonym for “Protestant.” When Protestantism was invaded by nineteenth century theological liberalism, which attacked not only the common understanding of the Gospel and the normative authority of Scripture, but basic catholic tenants of historical Christianity, the term “evangelical” became used more and more to describe those within Protestant communions who rejected liberalism and clung to orthodox Christianity.

The modernist-fundamentalist controversy further sharpened the term “evangelical” to refer to those who still affirmed the historic creeds and who believed that personal redemption was an essential concern of the Christian faith. Evangelism was a top priority of evangelicals.

In recent years the term “evangelical” has undergone more subtle changes. The most recent crisis for understanding its meaning has been provoked by people claiming the term for themselves while repudiating its historic meaning. The “reformist evangelicals” such as McMaster University theologian Clark Pinnock, et al., have distinguished themselves from “traditional evangelicals.” While blatantly rejecting classic and catholic theism, Pinnock and others still claim to be “evangelicals.” At the same time Roman Catholics have claimed the term for themselves while rejecting its historic usage. Keith Fournier calls himself an evangelical in the sense that he believes the gospel in terms of orthodox Roman Catholic theology. His appropriation of the word for orthodox Roman Catholics rejects the historic usage of the term as antithesis.

Evangelicals and Catholics Together, I and II

In 1994, a group of professed evangelicals issued a joint statement together with Roman Catholic leaders entitled “Evangelicals and Catholics Together.” Known widely as “ECT” the bulk of their joint declaration focused on the need for co-belligerence of Catholics and evangelicals working together to resist the influence of secularism in matters of abortion, political liberty, human rights, and the like. They called for a united stand against relativism in truth and ethics. But the document went beyond what Charles Colson called a “world-view” document to declare a unity of faith and mission between Catholics and evangelicals.

The publication of ECT sparked a serious controversy precisely as the point of the declaration of a unity of faith and mission. Historic evangelicals were distressed that such a unity of faith could be declared without a unity of the Gospel itself, especially with respect to the doctrine of justification by faith alone. Pleas were made to the Protestant signatories to clarify this declaration. These pleas were responded to by the 1997 joint declaration entitled “The Gift of Salvation” popularly referred to as “ECT II.” (1) In this document points of agreement were articulated that the signatories believe set forth a unified agreement on sola fide itself, while issues such as the language of imputation, merit, indulgences, purgatory, etc., were left on the table for future discussion. Many professing evangelicals have lauded this new initiative as a remarkable achievement that at long last resolves the historical antithesis between Roman Catholics and evangelicals so that the two groups can now see themselves as enjoying a unity of faith in the Gospel.

Efforts in the past to reconcile the two sides have ended in an impasse over the grounds of our justification. Does justification rest solely in the righteousness of Christ imputed to us (extra nos: outside of us) or on the righteousness of Christ that to some degree inheres in us? The two views are manifestly antithetical views of the nature of the Gospel.

The framers of the document insist that they are not speaking for their communions but to and from their respective communions. We note the importance of these prepositions, for, to, and from. What is not explicitly stated is a fourth crucial preposition-the preposition “about.” Sadly, the document proclaims a unity of faith in the Gospel shared by both communions. They are saying something about two communions that obscures the historic antithesis.

As I have always considered myself an evangelical, I was distressed that other evangelicals were declaring to the world something about me that I knew is not true. I know that as an historic evangelical I do not share a unity of faith and mission or a unity of faith in the Gospel with Rome. To be sure there are members of the Roman Catholic Church who do believe the biblical Gospel and as such are my brothers and sisters in Christ. But a blanket statement of unity in the Gospel between Roman Catholics and evangelicals is irresponsible if what is meant by the term “evangelical” is its historic sense.

In the ECT affirmations there is declared a three-fold unity between Roman Catholics and evangelicals. This unity includes a unity of faith and mission and a “unity of the Gospel.” Perhaps no aspect of this accord has provided more discussion than the declaration of a unity of the Gospel. The controversy on this point recalls the heart of the Reformation debate, which gave definition to the historic meaning of the term “evangelical.”

“The Gift of Salvation” affirms that we are justified by the righteousness of Christ alone. This affirmation has caused many evangelicals to rejoice in that it seems to affirm the Reformation doctrine of sola fide. But before we analyze this we must look at some preliminary considerations.

If the issue of justification boils down to two mutually exclusive options, a righteousness in us or a righteousness apart from us, how can the discussion be reconciled? We meet here a clear antithesis that seems incapable of being synthesized by some mutually agreeable compromise. To ameliorate the difficulty, I can think of three possible ways to resolve the dispute: (1) evangelicals can abandon their view of sola fide and its foundation upon imputation; (2) Roman Catholics can abandon their view of inherent righteousness; or (3) a formula can be drawn up that is a studied ambiguity by which agreement is reached in words but not in substance, leaving each side the opportunity to maintain its original position.

Which of these options, if any, was pursued by the signatories of ECT I and II? On the surface it appears that it was #3. That both ECT I and ECT II are ambiguous at critical points should be clear to anyone who carefully reads the document. However, the presence of ambiguity in such documents does not require that these ambiguities are intentional. To qualify for a “studied ambiguity,” the ambiguity must be both conscious and intentional. We may wonder how it can be conscious without at the same time being intentional, but suffice it to say that both are necessary for a studied ambiguity to be “studied.”

That ECT I has conscious ambiguity is without doubt. In a letter circulated to the signatories of ECT I written by Richard John Neuhaus, the chief Roman Catholic architect of the document, he asks the question, “Do we mean the same thing by the words used?” He answers his own question with the emphatic words: “of course not.” On at least three occasions the chief evangelical architect, Charles Colson, declared that “after all, we don’t mean the same thing by what we said.” In response to this disclaimer, I asked Mr. Colson, “If you knew you didn’t mean the same thing by the words you used, how can you claim to the world that you have an agreement?”

With respect to ECT II, one of the Protestant scholars who worked with the group declared his relief that there were “very few intentional ambiguities” in the document. Of course if there were even a few intentional ambiguities in the text that means, according to the laws of immediate inference, that there were at least some intentional ambiguities in the document. The question then becomes not if there are studied ambiguities, but what are they?

It is at this point that authorial intent becomes of critical importance. It is also at this point that the letter of clarification offered jointly by Timothy George, Thomas C. Oden, and J. I. Packer, released by Christianity Today is important. (2) Some of the explanations offered by these men are of crucial significance, since they were designed to answer questions concerning the “purpose and intended meanings of ‘The Gift of Salvation.'”

The evangelical signatories stress that they do not claim a unity of faith with the Church of Rome but simply a unity with some Roman Catholics. They also explain that the accord is not a “complete common agreement on the doctrine of salvation as expressed in the official teaching of our respective communities,” but is a “significant first step in the right direction.” Further the writers declare, “We see our statement as expressing, not indeed unity in every aspect of the Gospel, but unity in its basic dimension.”

I am pleased by the attempts of all those involved in the preparation of the clarification statement. I was personally engaged with some of these men who were involved in its writings. I am convinced that these men, both in their clarification statement and in their formulation of “The Gift of Salvation” intended to proclaim the historic evangelical position and are convinced that was basically accomplished in the accord. Some were effusive in their delight that their Roman Catholic “interlocutors” had yielded so much including sola fide and forensic justification. They sincerely believe that they were able to achieve unity in the basic dimension of the Gospel.

However, I do not agree that such unity was achieved; not only between evangelicals and the Roman church, but even between the evangelicals and the Roman Catholics who signed the document. I say this because I believe that the Reformation doctrine of imputation is a basic dimension of the Gospel and that the Reformation doctrine of imputation was not affirmed by “The Gift of Salvation” document.

What the letter of clarification states is vital to the question:

The word imputation [not used in the body of the document] refers to God’s crediting of righteousness to us because of what Christ has done for us: which means, God’s accounting of Christ’s righteousness to all those who are united with him through faith. As Evangelicals, we saw this teaching as implicit in the doctrine of justification by faith alone and tried to express it in Biblical terms.

I think it is clear by these statements that the evangelicals intended to affirm both the doctrine of justification by faith alone and its essential element, the imputation of the righteousness of Christ as the sole grounds of our justification.

The problem is, however, that “The Gift of Salvation” neither explicitly affirms sola fide nor imputation. Indeed the document itself, though it does not explicitly deny imputation, does implicitly deny it. How so?

What the document does explicitly affirm about sola fide is that some affirmations are “in agreement with what the reformers meant by sola fide.” That is, the document affirms things that agree with sola fide but does not explicitly affirm sola fide itself. It may well have been the intent of the evangelical signatories to affirm, unambiguously, the Reformation doctrine of sola fide, but the awkward wording of the assertion leaves that affirmation ambiguous. If it were unambiguous, we wonder how such Roman Catholic signatories as Keith Fournier or Richard John Neuhaus could have signed it while at the same time maintaining their allegiance to Roman Catholic orthodoxy and the Council of Trent?

The most problematic section of “The Gift of Salvation” is the section that refers to the urgent questions that are not yet resolved, which includes, among other things, the language of imputation and the question of purgatory. The language of imputation is inseparably related to the concept of imputation. Without the concept of imputation, you do not have the biblical doctrine of justification by faith alone, and without sola fide you do not have the biblical Gospel.

Michael Horton has used an analogy to illustrate the problem, using the metaphor of chocolate chip cookies. If one mixes together the necessary ingredients of sugar, flour, eggs, and butter but leaves out the chocolate chips, he may produce cookies, but not chocolate chip cookies. In a word, chocolate chips are an essential ingredient to chocolate chip cookies. Without the chocolate chips one simply does not have chocolate chip cookies. Sugar, butter, flour, etc. all “agree” with chocolate chip cookies, but in themselves don’t yield chocolate chip cookies.

Likewise though we may affirm together important elements or “ingredients” of sola fide (such that saving faith involves more than intellectual assent, and that justification issues in a changed life”), without a clear affirmation of the imputation of the righteousness of Christ alone, achieved in his perfect active obedience (not limited to his work of atonement on the cross), sola fide is not affirmed.

To Charles Colson’s credit, it was reported that during the discussions leading up to the final draft of “The Gift of Salvation,” he steadfastly insisted that unless sola fide was included in the agreement he would not sign it. Colson is convinced that sola fideis affirmed and has declared that he could not see how imputation could have been made any more clear than it is in the document.

In the clarification letter, the evangelical signatories declared that the document was a “good faith effort” by some Roman Catholics and some evangelicals “to say with as much clarity as possible” how they understand God’s gracious gift of salvation. No doubt the effort was in good faith, but that this effort yielded such clarity is doubtful. The signers of this letter acknowledge that the word “imputation” is “not used in the body of the document” but is “implicit” in it. Obviously, if clarity is the goal, the explicit is far more useful than an implication, which may or may not be drawn from the text. Since imputation goes to the heart of the historic controversy we would have hoped that any attempt to resolve that controversy would have addressed it explicitly and without ambiguity.

Some of those who prepared “The Gift of Salvation” have complained that its critics have “moved the goal posts.” That is, after ECT I the chief complaint was about sola fide. Now after ECT II the chief complaint focuses on imputation. That this is seen as a moving of the goal posts only underscores the theological questions raised by this initiative. The goal posts have not been moved. The question of imputation is simply a question about sola fide. If indeed imputation is essential to sola fide, then it is incomprehensible how any evangelical would see them as separate issues that “move the goal posts.”

Even more to the point is the question of purgatory. Purgatory and sola fide are utterly incompatible. As long as purgatory remains on the table, sola fide and the Gospel remain on the table with it. If we are justified solely on the grounds of the imputed righteousness of Christ, that justification can be neither augmented nor diminished. I need no more purity to be declared righteous by God than the perfect purity of Christ, which requires no more purging of impurity in purgatory. As along as purgatory is affirmed, sola fide is not only implicitly but categorically, by necessary inference, denied. As long as purgatory remains on the table, there is no unity in “the basic dimension” of the Gospel.

During the course of discussions of the preparation of the letter of clarification, I suggested that the statement read that the evangelicals were able to reach agreement on some aspects of the Gospel but did not achieve unity in the Gospel itself. It was granted to me by two of the signatories that they had not actually reached unity in the Gospel with their Roman counterparts. Somewhere along the way that reading was changed to its present form that declares a unity in the Gospel’s basic dimension.

What of forensic justification? The term “forensic justification” has been used in evangelical theology to refer to God’s legal declaration, by which he declares the believer just in Christ by virtue of the imputation of Christ’s righteousness to him. The letter of clarification says: “‘The Gift of Salvation’ affirms a declaratory, forensic justification on the sole ground of the righteousness of Christ alone, a standing before God not earned by any good works or merits on our own.” (3)

Here is ambiguity with a vengeance. Rome has always had her version of “forensic” justification. That is, Rome recognizes that justification involves God’s legal declaration that the believer is just. This is said to be via the righteousness of Christ. But it is the infused righteousness of Christ with which the believer cooperates and to which the believer assents in order to become inherently righteous. But, Rome teaches, God does not, and will not, declare the believer just until or unless that believer becomes inherently just; hence the need for purgatory. Roman Catholic theology emphatically repudiated Luther’s simul justus et peccator (the reality that the Christian is simultaneously justified and yet still intrinsically sinful), calling it a legal fiction. Rome repudiates the Reformation concept of forensic justification.

Because “The Gift of Salvation” says that our standing before God is not earned by any good works or merits of our own, the evangelicals read this as a solid affirmation of sola fide. Yet an orthodox Roman Catholic could affirm the same words without meaning the same thing. Rome insists, as recently as the new Catholic Catechism (1992) that because our good works and/or merits are wrought by virtue of the aid of the infused grace of Christ’s righteousness, they are strictly speaking, not “earned.” This is the Roman version of sola gratia which differs sharply from the Reformation view. (Neither Rome nor “The Gift of Salvation” document denies that believers have true good works or true merit, only that these do not “earn” salvation.)

To be sure there are crypto-evangelicals, who truly believe the evangelical faith, within the Roman Catholic communion, just as there are crypto-Romanists within the evangelical communions. But this does not justify a public manifesto that declares a generic unity of faith and mission and a unity of the Gospel between Roman Catholics and evangelicals. Such a manifesto at best confuses the faithful and at worst confuses the Gospel. The ECT initiative is seriously, if not fatally, flawed since it proclaims too much way too soon.

Finally, it is sad to see in “The Gift of Salvation” that among those items that remain on the table for future discussion is the issue of the normativeness of sola fide. That leaves us with the assumption that even if a handful of Catholics and evangelicals did affirm sola fide, they do not yet regard this affirmation as normative to the unity of faith and unity in the Gospel as such unity can be proclaimed without its resolution.

In conclusion, I see nothing in “The Gift of Salvation” that an orthodox Roman Catholic could not in good conscience sign. The document is flawed by its ambiguity at crucial points. These points must be addressed before there can be any significant resolution of the historic conflict.

1 [ Back ] See Christianity Today, December 8, 1997, 35-8.
2 [ Back ] Timothy George, Thomas C. Oden, and J. I. Packer, "An Open Letter About 'The Gift of Salvation,'" Christianity Today, April 27, 1998, 9.
3 [ Back ] Ibid.

Thursday, August 2nd 2007

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

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