Monday, July 1, 2013

How Righteous Do I Have To Be To Know I Am Righteous By Faith?

Al Martin
Martin Luther
Two Martins

Is There a Problem with 
Justification by Faith?

A mother hands a cookie to her little boy, then takes it back before he can eat it. A frustrated little boy. A girl tells a guy, "I've really had a great time; thanks for a wonderful evening," then follows with, "But I don't think we should see each other anymore." A deflated guy. Life is often like that. One hand gives, the other takes away. When that happens, it can be hard in the short term to follow with, "Blessed be the name of the Lord." 

Giving with one hand and taking away with the other seems to me to characterize Federal Vision theology and practice. The Federal Vision gives with one hand sacraments that mean something and do something. Sacraments unite us with Christ and with all the blessings of the salvation he accomplished. You are not waiting to receive grace. You received it when you were baptized. The Federal Vision assures us that we were justified at the time of and by means of our baptisms, whatever justification means. (The Federal Vision is allied with the New Perspective on Paul which tells us that justification is not really about forgiveness of sins and righteousness before God, but about being vindicated as belonging to God's people. Somehow being vindicated as a member of the people of God without certain ceremonial makers does not scratch my itch. It does not address the realities of  objective and subjective guilt and longing to be right with God.) 

The Federal Vision does say you got all the saving graces when you were baptized, but then the Federal Vision takes it away when it says that these saving graces are bestowed only conditionally. These blessings you have now may be taken away or forfeited, if you are not faithful to the covenant you have with God. I have trouble on this point distinguishing the theology of salvation taught by the Federal Vision and that of Roman Catholicism. 

But it seems to me that a similar giving with one hand and taking away with the other happens with the pastoral use of the Reformed doctrine of justification by faith. Reformed theology, whether you find it in the 39 Articles, or the Belgic Confession, or the Westminster Confession, or any other of the Reformation era declarations, gets justification by faith right. Would that nothing more needs to be said. 

In the PCA both the "grace boys" and the "obedience boys" confess justification by faith alone. However, they diverge with pastoral use they make of the doctrine. With regard to the  tensions between the "grace boys" and the "obedience boys", much as I would like to, I cannot bring myself to embrace fully the "grace" view, as I understand what it teaches. I have the same criticism of the "grace boys" that I have of their cousins, the "sonship boys." They both tend to look at the whole Bible and all of theology through the lens of adoption of sinners as sons and daughters of God on the one hand and the radical acceptance sinners by grace on the other. They both are Johnny one-notes in my view. You need a larger grid than either provides to interpret the Bible on its own terms and construct a balanced theology.

But there are problems too with the "obedience boys" and their take on "justification by faith alone in Christ alone." Justification by faith is good news to guilty sinners who know they can never clean themselves up enough to merit forgiveness and who know they never had, do not have, and never will have within or about themselves a sufficient holiness and righteousness to get them God's acceptance. The penalty for sin that satisfies God's justice is suffered wholly by Christ for us. The goodness that meets with God's approval is found only in Christ and not at all in us. Forgiveness obtained by Christ's sufferings and righteousness accomplished in Christ's life are received wholly by faith, not at all by our character, efforts, works, or accomplishments. 

But the rub comes with the "faith part" of justification by faith. Let me put this a couple of ways.

(1) Saving Faith. What is the faith that saves? This is often presented along the lines of "the faith that saves transforms."  Saving faith is altogether different from "easy believism" that allows you to walk the aisle or pray the prayer and go on your merry sinful way assured you are saved. If your faith is of the saving variety, it will produce definitive effects in your life. You will find in and about yourself evidences that saving faith is at work changing you. You must examine yourself to see if your faith is transforming, and if you cannot find clear evidence of transformation then your faith may not be of the saving sort. It may be "nothing in my hand I bring" at the beginning, but some things better show up in your hand pretty soon. It may be "just as I am I come" but you better not be what "I am" long or you didn't really come. 

(2) Regeneration. Faith is impossible apart from the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit. Regenerating grace or the new birth precedes faith. But what does regeneration do? Does it awaken the sinner to his true peril and then enable him to trust in Christ, or does it involve a total moral renovation? If it involves moral renovation, then you must look not only for faith that rests in and on Christ, but moral differences of nature, character, and behavior. You must look at your sanctification which is evidence of your regeneration apart from which you cannot believe. Are you born again into a whole new relationship with God in Christ or are you born again into a whole new moral quality of life? Are you a new creation by virtue or what you are in Christ or are you a new creation by virtue of moral renvovation?

3) Repentance. Faith and repentance go together. In teaching, I have illustrated it as I have turned from facing one wall to facing the other. Faith and repentance are two ways of describing the same event. You turn around - which means turning both from something and to something - from sin to Christ. You cannot turn from sin without turning to Christ. You cannot turn to Christ without turning from sin. But what is this repentance that goes with faith? Is it a change that means you no longer resist God, rely on yourself, and reject Christ? Or is it more? Is it being sorry for your sin, seeking mercy, and longing for the happy day when you will be free of it? Or is it more? We are back to issue of moral transformation and renovation. How much transformation and renovation must there be if you truly repent? How much ceasing from sin is involved in the repentance that is faith's Siamese twin?

4) Lordship. You receive the whole Christ by faith. Christ is both Savior and Lord. You cannot exercise just the "Savior option" and reject the "Lord option." You cannot hold Christ's Lordship in abeyance while you are a "carnal Christian" and later become a "spiritual Christian" when you put Christ on the throne and rise to a new level of faith, the faith of submission as distinct from the faith of assent. But what does receiving Christ as Lord mean? It is bowing to him as your only hope - putting yourself in his hands and saying, "Lord, I cannot save myself; you must save me"? Or is it a submission that issues in a consistent pattern of obedience? Are you in a new realm where the devil is no longer king but Christ is? Or, are you now so dead to the devil's rule and so alive to Christ's that, as a citizen of His kingdom, there is some but not a whole lot of remaining corruption. Does faith  in Christ as Savior and Lord mean that Christ has so conquered sin in your life that you and others see that sin no longer has dominion over you? You cannot really imagine having to say about yourself, "But I am carnal, sold under sin." And, if you hear someone else say it, you tend to conclude, "Carnal you are because you do not know Christ as Lord."

It seems to me that these issues about the "faith part" of justification by faith are a very big ones, though seldom if ever acknowledged. The problems are not so much with the doctrine itself as with the pastoral treatment of it. What is given in justification by faith alone can be taken away by so defining faith that the comfort and hope of justification is removed. 

What is the faith that saves? What is the regeneration that enables faith? What is the repentance that accompanies faith? What the reception of Christ's Lordship? It can come down to the question, "How righteous do I have be as a result of faith in order to know I am righteous by faith?"

I think the unfortunate thing about the current tensions between the "grace boys" and "obedience boys" is that instead of listening to, learning from and being challenged by one another, each "side" reacts against the other. Meanwhile ordinary believers can feel themselves caught between the devil and deep blue sea. 


OpaRon said...

Bill, a good and balanced view of the current "debate." Due to other obligations, I was not able to attend any of the meetings at 2nd Pres in Greenville, but you've captured the essence of the debate quite well. In my travels over the last 8 years (5 of which while Martha and I RVd quite a bit) we saw and heard the differences from good men and good preachers. There seems to be a locus for the origins of both in terms of seminary training. But also a look at the links on the various churchs' web sites gave a clue at to "which way they leaned" and to whom they gave great credence as mentors.

Don Frank said...


I believe that most FV proponents would agree that justification is not something that can be taken away, but that it will inevitably lead to works of love per WCF 11.2There is no need to ask how many works of love must be performed to be saved because it is not on the basis of those works that we are saved. The works are the necessary evidence that the faith is not a dead faith as the confession declares. God alone will judge the heart of man on the last day "according to the fruit of his doings" Jer 17:10.

FVers like to emphasize the significance of baptism on the basis of the confession which states that the visible church is the kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ out of which there is no ordinary possibility of salvation. This is a truth that is often under-emphasized in baptism. However, I have never heard an FV proponent claim that this covenant blessing is the equivalent of justification.

I would be happy to be corrected if I am wrong.

The Christian Curmudgeon said...

Don, I think your comments are confirmative of my brief comments about the FV. In reverse order. No baptism is not equivalent to justification any more than faith is the equivalent of justification. In each case we are speaking of instrumentality - of how justification is received. In the case of the FV, baptism is the instrument that initially unites one to Christ, though this can later be forfeited. As it unites to Christ, it unites to all the blessings that are in Christ and that includes justification. With regard to whether justification can be taken away, yes it can if one proves convenantally unfaithful. Further, you seem to take the view of Norman Shepherd that the faith that saves is obedient faith - or, to use your language, faith that does works of love. This turns on its head the Proestant understading that we are saved by faith alone defined as receiving and resting upon Christ alone for salvation as he is offered in the gospel. It is not faith that loves or faith that obeys but faith that rests that takes hold of Christ and results in justification that includes both the forgiveness of sins and the imputation of righteousness. The practical effect of the Shepherd/FV understanding is to conflate faith and obedience, faith and love, justifcation and sanctification, grace and works. Of course, FVers are free to believe that, but it is not Protestant and is not Reformed and at the end of the day is not Pauline.

Don Frank said...

Bill, I thought I was being faithful to Scripture and the WCF in what I said. Doesn't the WCF say that the faith that rests upon Christ alone for salvation is not a faith that is alone in the justified person, but one that does works of love.

"Faith, thus receiving and resting on Christ and His righteousness, is the alone instrument of justification, yet is it not alone in the person justified, but is ever accompanied with all other saving graces, and is no dead faith, but works by love." WCF XI, II.

As I said, the works of love are not the basis of the justification, nor is the faith, as you say. I am simply saying that the works are the necessary evidence of the faith in the person who has been justified.

I'm sorry, but I don't see how what I'm saying is any different than the WCF or the reformers.

Regarding the FVers, you'd have to show me that they say that justification is a blessing received in baptism. I just haven't seen this heresy expressed by any FV writer and would like to see specific statements that support such a position.


ECC said...

"Baptism expresses God's eternal sovereign choice of an individual to be a member of the people of God; and those who are members of the church stand righteous before God, are holy, and are sons because they are members of the body inseparably joined to the Son of God, who is the righteous and holy Son (1 Cor 6:11; Gal 3:28-29); these benefits of baptism, however, belong finally only to the baptized who respond to God's grace in faith; there are some who are made sons by baptism who fall away. That does express my view of baptism, and I refer you and the Presbytery to my recent book, The Baptized Body, for elaboration."

The Christian Curmudgeon said...

Thanks, Pete. Righteous by instrumentality of baptism though provisionally. Don, I rest my assertion.

Don Frank said...

Bill and Pete,I'm not sure what you are disagreeing with. The WCF says the same thing:

Baptism is a sacrament of the New Testament.....for the solemn admission of the party baptized into the visible Church WCF XXVII, I

The visible the kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ, the house and family of God, out of which there is no ordinary possibility of salvation WCF XXV, II

If we are admitted by baptism into the visible church which is the body and kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the house of the family of God, how can you say that we are not members?

He has not said that we are justified (this is what I asked you to prove) for in the end, the benefits are dependent upon a response of faith, which an infant is unable to express.

Add to this that Peter Liethart was not ruled out of bounds by the SJC, I'm not sure of your basis for declariing otherwise.

The Christian Curmudgeon said...

Don evidence cannot convince u not.even from the preeminent fver. This is.callef invincible ignorance.

Don Frank said...

Bill, the SJC is a higher court than those who opposed Leithart. They were not convinced either. How do you respond to that?

Calvin in his commentary on 1 Cor 7:14 says that "the children of the pious are set apart from others by a sort of exclusive privilege, so as to be reckoned holy in the Church."

What is it you are disagreeing with? Is it that Leithart calls baptized children of the covenant holy? That they are sons in the family of God? That they are joined to Christ as members of His body, the church?


The Christian Curmudgeon said...

Don we are not advancing the discussion here. Not even Leithart can convince you of what he is saying. You introduce topics that I have not, nor Peter. You seem to have in your own mind some kind of certainty and clairity but it is lost on me. It seems you just darken counsel, but I know in your mind it seems you are shedding light.

Don Frank said...

Bill, no problem. I have read and profited from Leithart's thinking and writing, as have many others. But I understand that he is also not helpful to many.


indianagreg said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
indianagreg said...

"...much as I would like to, I cannot bring myself to embrace fully the “grace” view, as I understand what it teaches."

Would you please explain this? I'm not following at all what you mean by this. Thanks.

Todd Mahaffey said...

My interest too was piqued by your grace comment, Bill. And I have recently come across the topic of sanctification and union with Christ and a legal teaching that has created a lot of young Pres preachers (obedience boyz) via the use of a book "The Imperative of Preaching" particularly used at a Presbyterian sem in Upper SC. This is a blogpost that mentions that TIOP makes anthropocentric what should be Christocentric...our response, our action, our obedience. What do you think? This sem seems to proliferate legal preachers as they are used for supplying pulpits. The author of TIOP was a homiletics prof there for 18 years.