Thursday, February 16, 2006

Lesson 6: Justification (Part 2)

(This is based, in part, on John Gerstner’s Primer on Justification from a compilation of his primers in the book Primitive Theology. I am using Primitive Theology for my Sunday School class. There is a growing list of links on the left for the posts for this class.

The Roman Catholic Way of Justification: Faith + Works → Justification

This is what the Reformation was all about. We agree with Catholics over the essentials of the Trinity, the deity of Christ, His vicarious death, and the necessity of faith in Christ. We also agree on what constitutes “works.” This includes obeying the Ten Commandments and also Christ’s new commandment (Matt 22:36-39). (Of course, Rome adds duties that are not in the bible: such as confession to a priest and observance of holy days.)

However we greatly differ when it comes to the great mystery of salvation: justification. How are we made acceptable to a Holy and perfect God who demands an unattainable perfect compliance with His law? Clearly we can never, on our own, meet such a demand.

The problem is not that our sins are not forgiven. The problem is that the price of admission to heaven is an unblemished record. And once one has sinned, the record can never be expunged. Christ said “I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” (Matthew 9:13). The (mythical) righteous man has no need of justification.

Justification is like being acquitted of a crime, though not because the accused is innocent, but because an innocent third party (Christ) has made a satisfactory restitution to the offended (God). We get off on some clever legal maneuvering.

So exactly how does this happen? There is a substantive difference between the Roman Catholic view and the Reformed or Evangelical view.

More than a quibble over the word “alone”

The difference between the Roman Catholic and evangelical views of Justification is sometimes cast as the “mere” addition of the word alone:

RCC: Justification is by faith.
Reformers: Justification is by faith alone.

However, there is another big question here, above and beyond the nontrivial insistence on the word alone. To wit, how does justification happen? And here we find another substantive difference between the RCC and the Reformers. It is not “just” the “aloneness” of justification, but also that way it happens.

The question is whether we can actually become righteousness (and are therefore acceptable to God) or whether God treats us as if we were righteous. The former is the view of the RCC, the latter was the position held by the Reformers.

Neither side teaches that any sort of justification can occur apart from God’s grace (the heresy of Pelagianism.) Both the RCC and Reformed position is that grace is necessary for justification. There is a difference as to whether it is sufficient.

Calvin wrote, summarizing the reformer’s view:
Thus we simply interpret justification as the acceptance with which God receives us into his favour as if we were righteous; and we say that this justification consists in the forgiveness of sins and the imputation of the righteousness of Christ.
Calvin also writes that the justified is “deemed righteous” and “regarded not as a sinner.” This makes it clear that the evangelical view is that man himself does not have inherent righteousness even after justification. The righteousness with which we present ourselves to a Holy God is by imputation; it is not inherent or infused into us. It is symmetric with the view that our sins were imputed to Christ on the cross and he was punished as if they were His own even though they were not.

Contrast Calvin’s view with what Rome declared at the Council of Trent:
… the instrumental cause [of justification] is the sacrament of baptism, which is the sacrament of faith, without which no man was ever justified finally, the single formal cause is the justice of God, not that by which He Himself is just, but that by which He makes us just, that, namely, with which we being endowed by Him, are renewed in the spirit of our mind, and not only are we reputed but we are truly called and are just, receiving justice within us, each one according to his own measure, which the Holy Ghost distributes to everyone as He wills, and according to each one's disposition and cooperation.
We see here a very different view from Calvin’s. The RCC view is that we are justified not by an imputation but by an infusion. We acquire inherent righteousness, initially from the instrumental cause: baptism. Justification also requires cooperation. Furthermore, the state of being justified can be lost through the commission of sin and must be restored by another sacrament: penance. This is turns leads to the idea of congruous merit that is so alien to the reformed view and that Luther so despised.

The RCC disputes the evangelical view of Justification and holds that if we must be righteous before God then we must have a true, internal righteousness which, though accomplished through grace, is nevertheless “ours”.

In addition to denying that our salvation is through Christ’s work alone, this view overestimates the value of our works, even if they were perfect, which they aren’t. Christ teaches the inadequacy of hypothetically perfect human works by a parable:
“Will any one of you who has a servant plowing or keeping sheep say to him when he has come in from the field, ‘Come at once and recline at table’? Will he not rather say to him, ‘Prepare supper for me, and dress properly, and serve me while I eat and drink, and afterward you will eat and drink’? Does he thank the servant because he did what was commanded? So you also, when you have done all that you were commanded, say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty.’” (Luke 17:7-10)
Man, as the creature, is obligated to obey God. If he did so he would still not deserve a reward; one is not rewarded for fulfilling an obligation.

It was the doomed effort of Luther, as a monk, to become righteous and achieve justification that led him to his insight of a simple biblical truth: that justification is not an achievement of man but a gift from God.

The RCC and the evangelical views on justification are very different-- different enough to be the primary cause of the Reformation. It is very important to appreciate that these differences are not superficial (some have said that the only difference is the Reformers and the RCC interchange the meanings of Justification and Sanctification). There are additional ramifications when it comes to other doctrines such as predestination, perseverance, the atonement, original sin, types of merit, purgatory, and virtually all other salvation related topics. Whether or not these differences are substantive enough in our eyes to warrant the greatest schism in the history of Christianity, they were without question considered very important to both the Reformers and Rome.

Sola Fide

The doctrine of Justification by Faith Alone is often attacked on two fronts. The first is the fact that the phrase never appears in scripture, except in the epistle of James. The second and more difficult front of the attack is that the one time the phrase does occur, it appears that James is refuting “faith alone”.

When Paul talks about justification, primarily in the book of Romans, he never states explicitly that justification is by faith alone. However, what is not explicit is nevertheless abundantly clear.

When we say justification is by faith alone, it is understood that the faith itself is by grace. So grace is not excluded, obviously, from the restriction: faith alone.

That leaves only one other thing that could possibly contribute to justification: keeping the law, or works. Thus we have three possibilities:
  1. Justification is by works alone.
  2. Justification is by faith and works.
  3. Justification is by faith alone, sola fide.
The first option is rightly rejected by all Christians. The debate is really between the second and third choices.

So if Paul wants to teach sola fide he has two possible basic strategies at his disposal: He could affirm it explicitly, or he could eliminate option 2, justification by faith and works, so that only sola fide remains as a possibility.

That is exactly what Paul does. He eliminates works as a contributing factor. If works do not contribute to justification, then the only thing left is faith, and faith alone.
he did it to demonstrate his justice at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus. 27 Where, then, is boasting? It is excluded. On what principle? On that of observing the law? No, but on that of faith. 28 For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from observing the law. (Rom. 3: 26-28)

If, in fact, Abraham was justified by works, he had something to boast about–but not before God. (Rom. 4:2)

know that a man is not justified by observing the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ. So we, too, have put our faith in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by observing the law, because by observing the law no one will be justified. (Gal. 2:16)
In light of these passages (and the book of Romans as a whole) one sees how weak the argument is that Paul does not teach sola fide simply because he never names the doctrine that he so clearly espouses.

The James Problem

The often quoted apparent refutation of sola fide:
Was not our ancestor Abraham considered righteous for what he did when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? You see that his faith and his actions were working together, and his faith was made complete by what he did. And the scripture was fulfilled that says, "Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness," and he was called God's friend. You see that a person is justified by what he does and not by faith alone. (James 2:21:24)
Here is the dilemma in a nutshell:
  • Paul teaches that justification is by faith alone.
  • Paul teaches that Abraham was justified by faith (Rom. 4:2). So does Moses (Gen. 15:6).
  • James seemingly denies sola fide, especially in James 2:24.
  • James teaches that Abraham was considered righteous for offering Isaac (James 2:21).
As an aside, this problem is always posed as a "James" problem for the sola fide crowd. It is equally (if indeed it were an actual dilemma) a "Paul" problem for those who deny justification by faith alone.

There are really only three possibilities.
  1. James is wrong.
  2. Paul is wrong.
  3. James and Paul are talking about different things.
Clearly the first two options are not open for consideration. Although Catholics and Protestants disagree on the sufficiency of scripture, both agree on its inerrancy. The only real possibility is that Paul and James are using justification differently. This is the only solution that preserves the integrity and harmony of scripture.

In discussing this, it is vital to remember the context in which Paul and James speak of justification. Paul is laying out a treatise of the forensic view of justification, forensic because we are declared "legally" righteous before God by claiming Christ's perfect righteousness as our own. Paul is always discussing the theological grounds for justification, which is faith and faith alone.

James' epistle is a much more practical, down-to-earth, in-your-face exhortation. James is addressing a dead orthodoxy and its cousin, antinomianism. James, unlike Paul, is not teaching first principle apologetics on the theological ground of justification, but its practical and inevitable manifestation.

This is most clear in the conflicting discussions of Abraham. Paul refers to Gen. 15:6, where Abraham is made (credited) with righteousness because he believed. James refers to an event much later, Abraham's willingness to sacrifice Isaac.

The fact that Paul and James refer to Abraham's justification as occurring at different times, and as the result of different events, either worsens the dilemma or, as I believe, is additional evidence that Paul and James are talking about different things.

Note further what James wrote: Abraham was considered righteous for offering Isaac. Considered by whom? God does not consider, God knows a man’s state. God knew Abraham was righteous because He made him (credited him) righteous earlier in his life. Abraham’s obedience made his justification manifest to himself, to Isaac, and most importantly to us. That is what James meant. For further evidence (and not dependent on the use of considered in the NIV) we note that James clearly views it as a display of righteousness (or justification), not the actual act of being justified, by also referring, in James 2:23, to Abraham’s ground for justification: faith.

In this view, James' teaching is clearly understood and in no way in conflict with Paul’s teaching of sola fide. James is telling us that if there is no fruit (works), then we are not justified, because justification (though by faith alone) always bears fruit. Both Paul and Jesus agree, teaching that, for example, a good tree is known by its good fruit (Matt. 12:33). God already knows which tree is good. Man does not know, except by the fruit, which then glorifies God.

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