What's All the Fuss About?

Michael S. Horton
Thursday, June 7th 2007
Mar/Apr 2002

How is the doctrine of justification faring in our day? Historically, of course, the reformers ap-proached it with the utmost seriousness. For example, consider the impassioned plea of Martin Luther written in the preface to his Forty-Five Theses drawn up in 1537: "The article of justification is the master and prince, the lord, the ruler, and the judge over all kinds of doctrines; it preserves and governs all Church doctrine and raises up our conscience before God. Without this article the world is utter death and darkness."

John Calvin reiterated Luther's passion when he called the doctrine of justification "the principal hinge by which religion is supported."

The Dangers of Familiarity and Presumption

One need not deny the article of justification as "the article by which the Church stands or falls" in order to actually deny its central role in our faith and practice. There are many ways of losing touch with this article of faith. First, we must recognize that by frequent handling any doctrine can lose its sharp edges. It no longer startles us that God justifies the wicked. Forgiveness and divine acceptance can easily become little more than a general "niceness" in God-and perhaps also in us-that renders the reality of God's wrath and justice innocuous. As a result, we begin taking justification for granted and eventually may even start looking for something else-some other interpretation of reconciliation with God-that sounds more exciting.

Second, we can lose touch with this doctrine because we assume that everybody in our churches has the gospel nailed down, and it's something else that should preoccupy the believer now, after his or her conversion. Related to this danger is a third: regarding the doctrine of justification as one article among many. Of course, we accept this truth, but our view of the Christian life somehow gets unhinged from justification. We begin to talk about the new birth, sanctification, covenantal obedience, adoption, union with Christ, as if these were independent from the article of justification.

Commenting again on this important doctrine, John Calvin said, "Whenever knowledge of it is taken away the glory of Christ is extinguished, religion abolished, the Church destroyed, and the hope of salvation utterly overthrown" ("Reply to Sadoleto," Tracts I:41). Elsewhere Calvin added, "The safety of the Church depends as much on this doctrine as human life does on the soul. If the purity of this doctrine is in any degree impaired, the Church has received a deadly wound" ("On the Necessity of Reforming the Church," Tracts I:137). This central tenet of our faith, which John Calvin and Martin Luther said was the foundation of the Church and the hope of our salvation, is facing new threats and challenges as deadly as those the reformers witnessed over four hundred years ago. Let's look at several recent challenges to the traditional understanding of justification.

The New Perspective(s)

In 1977, British biblical scholar E. P. Sanders published Paul and Palestinian Judaism. In this groundbreaking work and its sequel, Paul, the Law and the Jewish People (1983), Sanders argued that Paul had been misunderstood, particularly since the Reformation. That is because Luther and Calvin treated first-century Judaism, even Phariseeism, as if it were merely an anticipation of the works-righteousness that they detected in medieval Christendom.

So if the reformers got it wrong, how are we to understand Paul and the doctrine of justification? First of all, Sanders's "New Perspective on Paul" shares with other interpretations a position known as mono-covenantalism; that is, there is only one covenant, a covenant of grace, running from the time of the fall to the time of the consummation. Gone, therefore, is the law-gospel or covenant of works-covenant of grace contrast that Reformation Christianity claims to see so clearly in Scripture. The question of the Bible, then, is not Luther's, "How can I find a gracious God?", but rather, "How can Gentiles be accepted into an essentially Jewish covenant? Must they be circumcised? Keep the ceremonial laws and festivals?" It isn't a question of sinners being justified before God in some legal, courtroom sense, but it is a matter of determining the criteria for membership. How does one justify his or her claim to belong to the people of God? That is justification, the New Perspective insists: One gets in by grace and stays in by obedience.

Whatever the differences between Roman Catholic and Arminian approaches, and they are surely legion, at least on this point the New Perspective does not actually break new ground. For Rome and at least many leading Arminian thinkers, the New Testament has styled a "new law," and Jesus Christ is chiefly viewed as a second Moses. "Neonomianism" was the tag that the Puritans put on this error, and it is alive and well under the guise of groundbreaking discoveries in the realm of Pauline studies. Law and gospel collapse into each other, as "salvation" is defined chiefly in terms of the ethical constitution of the people of God. And the problem of sin and grace is replaced with the problem of Jewish and Gentile relations.

While the New Perspective is increasingly drawing a lot of fire from biblical scholars (Jewish and Christian), it is increasingly popular in evangelical seminaries. To be sure, we must always be open to new light from sacred Scripture and be willing to correct our cherished interpretations if better exegesis makes them untenable. However, the fact that this New Perspective has suffered serious blows from specialists in inter-testamental Judaism and Pauline studies should at least warn us not to renounce too quickly the interpretation that has been, in its general features, so obvious to careful exegetes and the people of God in their ordinary reading of the biblical text.

Ecumenical Declarations

Ever since the sixteenth century, those in the Lutheran and Reformed traditions have been committed to the unity of the Church. It is not a question of doctrine or unity, but of unity through doctrine. Agreement is simultaneously an act of confession and fellowship. It would, therefore, be out of character for descendants of the Reformation to reject in principle the possibility for the widest Christian unity and for them not to work in tangible ways for greater visible unity.

Recent attempts to reconcile the churches have not ignored the primary obstacle: our respective formulations of how God saves sinners; specifically, the doctrine of justification. Lutheranism has been beset by the emergence of the New Finnish Interpretation that concentrates on the central Eastern Orthodox doctrine of theosis (i.e., human participation in God's own life) and argues that Luther's theology is best understood in these terms. The big difference here between a reformational understanding of justification and these other views (whether Wesleyan, Roman Catholic, or Eastern Orthodox) is not that we deny what they affirm; namely, sanctification and union with Christ, but that we go on to affirm what they deny; namely, that God declares sinners righteous solely on the basis of Christ's active and passive obedience received through divinely given faith alone.

In 1995, "Evangelicals and Catholics Together" (ECT) was published with an impressive list of signatories from both sides. Largely through the energy of Fr. Richard John Neuhaus, a well-known former Lutheran pastor who became a Roman Catholic priest, as well as Prison Fellowship founder Charles Colson, ECT became a flashpoint for debate over the nature of the gospel itself. In its wake, as many indications of fracture as signs of unity began to appear. Fissures in an already divided Evangelicalism became chasms. Though founded for broader purposes, the newly formed Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals became intimately involved with these debates and insisted then, as now, on maintaining a witness to the centrality of the biblical teaching of justification by grace alone, through faith alone, because of Christ alone. One Reformed leader who vigorously defended his signature of ECT had earlier called the doctrine of justification, as the reformers understood it, the Atlas upon whose shoulders the whole Christian faith was borne. Yet in the ECT debates he referred repeatedly to the Reformation formulation of justification as "fine print." This is perhaps the most serious challenge to our contemporary confidence in the centrality of this teaching. Even where the evangelical doctrine of justification is officially embraced, in actual practice it has been pushed to the periphery.

In the present day of ecumenical paper drafting and signing, one need not deny any particular formulation in order to achieve agreement. An evangelical may believe that he or she is accepted before a holy God without any personal merit, whereas a Roman Catholic firmly believes that he or she is accepted as a result of his or her meritorious cooperation with grace. An evangelical may believe that grace alone saves, whereas a Roman Catholic may go on believing in indulgences, merit, purgatory, and the intercession of the saints. This, in fact, was explicitly declared in "The Gift of Salvation," the follow-up document to ECT. Of course, it is impossible for an evangelical signatory to then go on saying that justification as a purely gratuitous declaration based on the imputation of an "alien righteousness" is central, much less essential, for a true understanding of the gospel. Much that has been said of ECT would hold true for the Joint Declaration between Rome and the Lutheran World Federation. At the end of the day, said representatives for both sides, the mutual condemnations of the sixteenth century no longer hold because neither of the partners actually believes what the other condemned its rivals for holding true.

Evangelical Apathy

These are not the only challenges to our understanding of justification and its importance. Even in a number of Lutheran and Reformed circles, I have detected a somewhat different attitude toward this doctrine and its defense. Some people openly criticize the reformers for extremism, a denial of inner transformation in favor of a merely objective declaration-as if the theology of the Reformation in any way denied that sanctification was an essential corollary to justification. Much of the preaching one encounters in evangelical churches, even Lutheran and Reformed, is a steady diet of "practical" moralism. Instead of energizing believers with the triumphant indicative-that God in Christ has reconciled us to himself-many pastors weigh them down with bare imperatives. Their preaching is chiefly exhortation and uplift rather than a startling announcement of God's work. Some preaching has adopted the therapeutic paradigm, where one would never think of sin and grace in exclusively vertical terms: being reconciled with a holy God who is clad in righteous vengeance. Rather, salvation is practically reduced to Jesus picking up the broken pieces of our lives and making us better. Whether in its harsher or milder forms, therapeutic moralism shares with all synergistic efforts an emphasis on self-improvement to the practical neglect of being right with a holy God.

All of these tendencies share at least one major characteristic: they are all fearful of antinomianism (i.e., license) and uniformly concerned about underscoring the subjective work of the Spirit in our hearts, transforming us by degrees. Once again, as with the forced choice between justification or sanctification, this embraces a false antithesis: either the "court room" or the "family room"; legal declaration or moral transformation; judge-and-accused or father-and-son. Only the Refor-mation doctrine of justification refuses this false antithesis, affirming both the wholly forensic (legal) character of justification as the imputation of an alien righteousness and the inseparable reality of new birth and new obedience that inevitably follows from this new relationship. Only this Reformation perspective affirms both the courtroom and the family room. In fact, it is only the Reformation perspective that provides a satisfactory exegetical account of the satisfaction of God's justice that then establishes the relationship of sonship on the unshakable foundation that it needs before the heart can confidently cry out, "Abba, Father!" It is the evangelical doctrine of justification that insists that the sinner who stood condemned is now so received into God's presence that he or she need never fear the Law's judgment, so that now we relate not as criminals but as adopted children.

Neither Eastern Orthodoxy nor Roman Catholicism-nor, for that matter, the various Protestant departures from the evangelical doctrine-proclaims both justification and sanctification. All of these departures, in one way or another, collapse the former into the latter. Only in the evangelical doctrine do we have both. Therefore, whatever disagreements we may continue to have materially over this issue, it would be more helpful if our critics would be fair in admitting that it is they, not we, who are reductionistic. It is not we who give up one or the other. Within the grand theology of our union with Christ, churches of the Reformation sing of that "double cure," which saves us from both sin's guilt and power. With Paul and the whole of Scripture, we announce the great deeds of God for our redemption in its three tenses: past (atonement and justification), present (new birth and sanctification), and future (glorification). But if justification is not the central fact of God's acceptance of sinners, there can be no amount of sanctification, no promise of glorification, that can make up the difference that God's righteousness requires.

In the end, the arguments, when distilled to their most basic essence, have not really changed. This realization lends support to the insistence of Augustine, Luther, and Calvin that whenever the Church declines, it is always in the direction of some version of the Pelagian error, however unintentionally. It is just part of who we are as children of Adam to resist the kind of salvation for which Paul can only break out in praise: "For of him and to him and through him are all things, to whom be the glory now and forevermore. Amen" (Rom. 11:36).

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Michael S. Horton
Michael Horton is editor-in-chief of Modern Reformation and the J. Gresham Machen Professor of Systematic Theology and Apologetics at Westminster Seminary California in Escondido.
Thursday, June 7th 2007

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