In the sixteenth century justification by faith was a teaching which literally set men on fire. Those who received pardon of sins through this understanding of grace were enflamed with joy at the discovery of God’s unconditional love in Christ. As a result, this doctrine became a burning cry of triumph over against the condemnation of conscience and law. You can feel the cry of sure hope in the Heidelberg Catechism (1563), Question and Answer 56.
Question 56: “What do you believe concerning ‘the forgiveness of sin’”?
Answer 56: “I believe that God, because of Christ’s atonement, will never hold against me any of my sins nor my sinful nature which I need to struggle against all my life. Rather, in his grace God grants me the righteousness of Christ to free me forever from judgment.”
But others in the same century saw this teaching as a threat to Christian moral life and even an invitation to sin. It might be morally safe for a select group of saints to have assurance about the forgiveness of sins, but the danger for the Christian masses seemed obvious. Offer them the certainty that the Last Judgment had already been born for them by Christ, and it wouldn’t take much imagination to see how they would live. The opponents of justification by faith also suspected that this view of man’s relationship to God through faith would destroy the final day of judgment and what need would there be for a visible church? Therefore, these opposers saw to it that tens of thousands of those holding to justification by faith alone were burned at the stake.
The fire and the smoke have not entirely vanished in the twentieth century. For some years now a number of leaders in the Reformed tradition have opposed with almost prophetic zeal what they see as a distortion of justification by faith into an easy-believism which cancels out discipleship as inherent in the Christian life. Others in our tradition have argued that the very language of “justification by faith alone” suggests an empty, life-less faith which is unbiblical in character. Such an understanding of faith, it is said, is based upon a Lutheran dichotomy between gospel and law and between faith and good works. In response to these trends yet other leaders in the same circles have replied: “The concern to keep justification and discipleship together is commendable as a concern. But is it being done in a manner that clarifies and protects the free grace of the gospel message?”
Such a conflict is embarrassing to us in the Reformed tradition. To a believing layman it might seem that we who are theologically trained have great trouble seeing the obvious. But the situation is made even more embarrassing when you discover that modern people generally have little interest in the whole subject of justification by faith and its central message: the free forgiveness of sins through the righteousness of Christ imputed to us and received by faith alone. A major cause of this indifference is the influence of science. In our century, scientific studies have become increasingly naturalistic. Within this anti-supernatural framework, there is no room for absolute law and the consciousness of sin which goes with it. Seen from this evolutionary standpoint, man is a “naked ape”—an evolutionary marvel whose bestiality still clings to him. Such bestiality is regrettable, but it cannot be condemned by final standards of right and wrong. Since beast-man has no one with authority to condemn him in the first place, justification by faith alone is a meaningless concept. There are no sins to forgive and no God to accept the forgiven one.
However, scientific naturalism has left a massive hole in the modern life. For modern man just as much as sixteenth century man has a conscience which condemns him. This conscience is inescapable, and its constant message to man is: “You are not O.K.” Attempts to cope with this troubled and restless conscience vary all the way from bottle alcoholism to work alcoholism. In a word, scientific naturalism as an explanation of man and his life has failed. It cannot explain the most obvious fact about man: his innate and ineradicable sense of right and wrong. As a result, it must explain away in a most unsatisfying manner what is crucial to human life: man’s sense of moral rightness and wrongness and his relationship to his inner sense.
Against this background I would like to affirm certain of my own convictions about justification by faith and its place in the modern world.
First, I wish to affirm that it is my conviction that justification by faith has as a foundational presupposition a consciousness of the majesty of God and the absolute demands of His justice.
What it presupposes is not merely the existence of a God but the Lord God of the Bible, the compassionate Yahweh who is the Supreme Lord of all existence and whose Ten Commandments express His exact and unchanging justice.
This God has been excluded from the modern scientific textbooks on man and his world. And for the most part this same majestic Being has been excluded from the theology books as well. It’s true: the big trend in twentieth century theology is anti-monarchical. What the most diverse theologians have agreed on is one thing: Let’s keep God off His throne. Even a quick glance at the field brings to mind “anti-monarchical” theologians like Rudolf Bultmann, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Daniel Day Williams, [Illegible] Altizer, and, yes, the later Karl Barth (The Humanity of God). Obviously, such thinkers are not calling men to fall on their faces before the holy judge whose majesty astonishes the seraphim. What they offer us, rather, is a Senior Partner working cooperatively with us in and through the processes of history.
Like the naturalistic evolutionists, these theologians tend to be more conscious of humanity and its history than of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. For this reason, along with scientific naturalists, they have no answer for the man on the street who knows in spite of himself that he is “not O.K.”
But all too often our idea of God on His throne is mostly just that — an idea on paper, an empty metaphor derived from royal governments of the past. Here then is a boilerplate barrier to any effective communication of a teaching like justification to men in the twentieth century. Ours is an age of opportunity. Scientific naturalism has turned much of modern life into a wasteland. The various theological fads have not brought water to this thirsty world. But we are not very helpful ourselves if we are trying to hand on life-giving truth which has not powerfully influenced our own deepest convictions. We are surrounded by paper tigers, but even these shaky enemies are too much for us when we oppose them with mere orthodox words. Such talk has no compelling force when it does not issue from a consciousness of the majesty of the Most High and the justness of His justice.
Secondly, I wish to affirm that the cure of our disease lies in a personal encounter with God’s law and the conviction of sin which arises from that encounter (Romans 7:9–11).
The answer does not lie in making the law into gospel or the gospel into law. The law and the gospel both relate to God’s justice, but they are different, and this difference ought not to be blurred in our thinking, preaching, or living. When this blurring takes place, the law comes across as half-gospel and gospel comes across as half-law. Law therefore must be permitted to speak to us as law in all its fulness as the perfect revelation of a loving and holy Creator.
In nonbiblical religions law is always a collection of isolated and only loosely related commandments. On such an understanding of law, sin also is only partially revealed. Sin is the isolated deed, only superficially related to motivation if at all. By contrast, God’s law as stated in the Scriptures is a single mirror exposing sin and sinfulness in their comprehensive character (James 2:10–11). In this mirror as a created person, I behold the awesome Face of faces (Deu 6:4–6, Psa 27:8). We discover that the Maker of all is astonishingly personal. For at the center of His law is the First Commandment which forbids my having other “gods” before His face (Exo 20:3). It requires me to give this living Person my whole heart in worship and life. Indeed, this commandment means that all of life is His worship. He alone is worthy of my total adoration (Deu 6:4–6). He is not simply first among others, but He is absolute King and King alone (Isa 44:9). Thus, the worship and reverence of God expressed in the First Commandment controls all the other commandments. In observing each of them, the obedience required must flow from a love of the One who reigns supreme.
This law is holy, just, and good (Rom 7:12). Therefore, it is not surprising that it promises life to those who obey it in its comprehensive character (Lev 18:4–5, Deu 6:6, 13; 30:15–16, Rom 2:6–7, 7:10). Thus, we see that the method of justification required by the righteous nature of the law is on this order: obedience—justification—life (Lev 18:4–5, Rom 2:6–7, 7:10). But when broken the order is: disobedience—condemnation—death (Rom 5:12–21, 2:6, 8–9). Since all have broken this law (Rom 3:10–23), there is no possibility for a man to be justified by observing the law and entering into eternal life by that route (Gal 2:16). Instead, the wages of sin is death (Rom 6:23).
The full force of the law is expressed in the book of Deuteronomy. In it, Moses says “do” over fifty times to Israel. But God is not satisfied with any ordinary “doing.” He wants more than mere mechanical “works of the law.” He is the God of the First Commandment, and therefore in all doing He wants the affections of His sons to be given to Him. He will not share their love with idols (Deu 4:9–24). Furthermore, He will not accept cheerless doing. Unless they serve Him “with joy and gladness of heart,” he will expel them from the land of Canaan (Deut 28:47–48).
Such a searching law forces us to confess that we have not kept it but are “undone” by its exposing our guilty lips (Isa 6:5). In Psalm 143:2, David universalizes his own experience of the condemning power of the law. He cries:
Enter not into judgment with thy servant; For no man living is righteous before thee.
No man is able to stand before the Judge of all. In His holy presence the sentence must always be: “Cursed be he who does not confirm the words of this law by doing them” (Deu 27:26).
This biblical teaching on the majesty of God’s law and its comprehensive requirements is offensive to the natural mind. It is readily misinterpreted as cruelty and vindictiveness. In reality it is simply a matter of exact justice being spelled out for us by the Creator of all. If such a Judge does not act justly in keeping with His own holy nature, then He is less than a merely human judge who is fair and equitable in condemning or acquitting men according to their guilt or innocence.
But if we are to recover the consciousness of the Divine majesty and the expression of that majesty in His commandments, we need to take a further step. We must come to understand the Divine wrath. This is not man’s malicious wrath, but the indignation which arises from the moral sensitivity of a God grieving at His heart over man’s evil thoughts and murderous ways (Gen 6:5–13). It is not the blind rage of a white shark devouring innocent swimmers, but the expression of the just displeasure of a heavenly Being “against all ungodliness and wickedness of men who hold the truth in unrighteousness” (Rom 1:18). His descending clouds of judgment overshadow those who know better—who really know the truth but pursue evil (Rom 1:20–32). Such wrath is echoed even in ourselves when we pick up a newspaper and read about a man who rapes and cruelly murders a defenseless child. We are morally nauseated. We know that this man knows better. So, it is with God’s wrath. What we are and do calls forth His righteous moral indignation.
Now we begin to see the seriousness of sin as defined by this more comprehensive view of the law in its majesty. The law calls for end-less judgment to fall upon those who persist in refusing to give the All-glorious God thanks and praise and service from a joyous heart. Therefore, anyone who does not repent will “drink of the wine of God’s wrath, poured unmixed into the cup of his anger, and he shall be tormented with fire and brimstone in the presence of the holy angels and the presence of the Lamb” (Rev 14:10). And for how long? The answer is that “the smoke of their torment goes up for ever and ever; and they have no rest, day or night, these worshipers of the beast and its image, and whoever receives the mark of its name” (Rev 14:11). Such a state of affairs appalls me. I speak as a Christian human being. It must mean either that the Lord is a monster far worse than “jaws” or that our sin is infinitely worse than anything we had imagined.
The second one is the right one. I say this with astonishment. It means that God in His holiness is radically different from what I am. God is God, and He alone has the right to define Himself and His justice for men. Here the shoes go off our feet and our tongues fall silent. We cannot even stammer His name “Yahweh” unless He had first spoken it to us. And this name alone is holy. Sin therefore becomes God-hating rebellion against infinite holiness, against the Face that is thrice-holy, that is lifted above all impurity.
Should we wonder, then, that His holiness takes us so by surprise? Should we not find in it sure evidence of the truth of biblical revelation? For what man would or could imagine the holy God of the covenant? Who would dare invent such a Being, one so utterly unlike man in his perfect righteousness?
But accept the reality of this God, and at one stroke everything begins to fall into place. We now understand why man has a troubled conscience. Originally made in the image of God, the law of the Creator was stamped on his consciousness. Sin has darkened that awareness, but the conscience still speaks loudly enough to tell a man that he has a rendezvous with the Judge.
Such a vision of eternal wrath makes justification by faith alone a most precious gift. It is bitter to discover that the law which promised life to me has issued in eternal death (Rom 7:10). Yet as a condemned sinner, I am delighted to find a new kind of promise, the effect of which is summarized in Romans 4:5: “And to the one who does not work but trusts in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is credited to him for righteousness.”
Thirdly, I affirm my conviction that the Scriptures clearly teach that before the new birth and saving faith all men are in a state of condemnation.
All men are born sinners, and all men are by nature children of wrath (Eph 2:3). We are all under the curse of the law and must be ransomed by grace from that curse through Christ’s becoming a curse for us (Gal 3:10–13). The whole intent of John 3:16 and its immediate context is shaped by the teaching that God in love gave His Son to redeem men—who were all under condemnation and the sentence of death. Even the elect as sons of Adam are under condemnation: before their conversion they are under Divine wrath as other sinners. As evidence for this conclusion, we learn in 1 Thessalonians 1:10 that Jesus is the One who “delivers us from the wrath to come.” From the context nothing could be clearer than that Paul is referring to the elect (1 Thes 1:4). Even the chosen of God stand in need of being delivered from the wrath to be revealed at the Final Judgment.
But why underscore the universality of God’s condemnation of men? Wasn’t this point treated rather fully already? Perhaps. But my particular concern here is the tendency in modern Reformed circles virtually to exclude the elect or the children of the covenant from the divine wrath against sin. Whether this exclusion is based upon a careful line of reasoning or is simply an intuitive sense of what is, it can flow from a number of presuppositions. Among these is the notion of an eternal justification. The idea is that the elect being in Christ were justified in the counsel of God from all eternity. Once you have accepted this idea, then it may become pretty hard to take seriously the Scriptural teaching that the elect are in a real sense under God’s condemnation before their regeneration and conversion.
Others have made a case for two justifications for the elect: an active and a passive justification. As I understand the thought of active justification it means that the elect have through their union with Christ a justification which delivers them from a state of condemnation prior to their actually receiving Christ. Later, they receive Christ by faith as the ground of their passive or declarative justification. With respect to children born within the covenant there has been the same tendency to exclude sinners from the Divine condemnation. Early in the century in the Netherlands it was even officially concluded by the Reformed churches that children born within the covenant are presumed to be regenerate until they prove otherwise by their conduct (Decretals of Dordrecht). More recently here in the U.S. it has been held that by virtue of their baptism we are to view covenant children as belonging to Christ not only in a federal or representative sense but also as full participants in the life of the covenant. Apparently, they are thus to be viewed as Christians. Although I have not seen the implications of this view spelled out fully, it appears to me that the implications are that covenant children are not really under condemnation and wrath because of their baptism and covenant standing.
What I am concerned to do here is not to describe the view of any particular person but to speak to a trend or even a mind-set. What I see is a pattern that reminds me in some of its features of the European state church mentality. As I understand this state-church outlook, the thought is that all who have been baptized belong to God, that men are born Christians and not reborn as Christians. When this point of view is carried through consistently, it appears to me that you have practically lost the necessity of conversion. I believe that it was pastoral concern over this problem which led the authors of the Heidelberg Catechism to speak of “true conversion.” I am of the opinion that they added the word “true” to conversion or repentance to underscore the fact that mere membership in the visible church does not guarantee conversion to God and a deliverance from a state of wrath (Questions 20, 21, 60, 88). If men do not see themselves as under wrath and condemnation, then how can they see any necessity for a passage from death to life? In saying this, I am not arguing everyone brought up in a Christian home must know the hour of his first exercise of saving faith and repentance. But I am saying that he must know that he has passed from being under the condemnation of the law to a state of grace by faith in Christ alone.
Fourth, I wish to affirm the fundamental distinction between a legal promise and a gospel promise.
The contrast is developed with fine clarity in Calvin’s treatment of justification in The Institutes of the Christian Religion, Book III, Ch. XVIII. Following Calvin’s lead, I see Leviticus 18:4–5 as the classic legal promise. Here the law promises life, and I would add that the law must always promise life to those who obey it perfectly (Rom 7:10). So, Leviticus 18:4–5 reads: “You shall do my ordinances and keep my statutes and walk in them. I am the Lord your God.” . . . The matter could hardly be clearer. Flawless “doing” is the condition of living before God. That this understanding of the passage is correct is confirmed by Galatians 3:12 (and Romans 10:5) where the Apostle interprets it the same way.
By contrast, a gospel promise is unconditional and offered to men indiscriminately as a free gift of grace. Examples of gospel promises are Genesis 12:3, Habakkuk 2:4, Joel 2:32, John 1:12, 3:16, and Romans 10:9. Such a promise is based upon what our beloved Mediator has done. He has fully kept the legal promise of Leviticus 18:4–5 by a perfect obedience from the heart and taken the penalty of a broken law upon His own mighty shoulders. Hence, we conclude that the gospel promise flows out of Christ Jesus having kept the legal promise. This gospel promise and the work upon which it is based, however, is not extracted from an unwilling Father by a compassionate Son. Rather, it is the Father Himself who has given the Son as a sacrifice for sin. It is the Father who in infinite mercy brought into history the Last Judgment ahead of time—at the cross. Here the Father-Judge was satisfied; the claims of perfect justice were met in the painful sufferings of His only begotten Son. On the basis of that atonement the Father speaking through His ambassador church invites men to embrace by faith Jesus Christ freely offered to them in the gospel promise.
But to blur the distinction between the gospel promise and the legal promise will inevitably move one in the direction of justification by works. Galatians will begin to sound like Deuteronomy, and the liberty of the Spirit will be replaced by a yoke of bondage (Gal 3:1, 5:1). In saying this, I do not suppose that anyone would teach outright justification by works. It seems to me doubtful that even the Pharisees officially taught that works could earn standing before God apart from the assistance of grace. But if in any way one sees a legal promise as a condition of our being accepted of God, then works are being mixed in with grace. And finally, as a friend of mine has pointed out, you cannot stand long in the ocean with feet planted in two rowboats, with one marked “Christ and grace” and the other marked “Works and law.” The reason is that the second boat is sinking, and you will go down with it. You will find that “the very commandment that was intended to bring life actually brought death” (Rom 7:10).
Fifth, this gospel promise [justification] is received by faith alone.
In the Reformed tradition, this “alone” has been called “the exceptive particle.” This faith alone is synonymous with the expression “without works” or “apart from works.” It means that we are not trusting in a legal promise for our salvation. Such faith abandons the works of the law in order to trust in Christ alone for acceptance with God. This is the sense of Romans 3:28: “For we hold that a man is justified by faith without works of the law.” Now if you read Romans 3:20–28, you will note that the expression “works of the law” is first used in v. 20. Its equivalent is also used in v. 21–22, which reads: “But now the righteousness of God has been manifested without the law, although the law and the prophets witness to it, the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe.” In using the phrase “without the law” the Apostle is seeking to protect the truth that justification is grounded in a substitute righteousness provided by God through faith in Christ without any admixture of human law-keeping. Through Paul the Spirit intends to say that justification is through Christ and His righteousness alone. Justification is through Christ’s merits freely imputed to us period. There is no plus, no “and” possible after the name of Jesus. Nothing can be added by way of human work or effort to what He has done on behalf of His own. Only Jesus, our propitiation, can placate by His blood God’s just indignation over our ungodly ways (Rom 3:23–24).
Then when we meet the expression “without works of the law” (Rom 3:28) we should understand that Paul is further protecting the Christ alone (Rom 3:20–22). Here the language “without the works of the law” is attached to faith in order that faith will not be construed in some way as a new work blurring the ground of our justification, which can only be Christ. So, what is being said here in Romans 3:28 is that faith alone, or faith without works, is simply the equivalent of Christ alone. Faith in its receiving character is not attempting to fulfill Leviticus 18:4–5; instead, it is abandoning all claim to self-justification and laying hold of that which lies outside of the man, even Christ and His merits.
For this reason, I believe that it is a serious mistake to say that works may have a part in declarative justification. This may be done with all sincerity on the plausible basis that works may have a place in justification provided that they are not understood as meritorious or as the ground of our pardon and acceptance with God. But this appears to miss the whole point of Pauline reasoning. For “the faith without works” of Romans 3:28 underscores Paul’s effort to keep works completely out of the picture when discussing once-and-for-all declarative justification. He wants us to see that it is just faith without works which guarantees it is Christ without works.
Editorial Note: Handwritten Page “Insert on p. 13”
In summary, I wish to say that I can admire the pietist zeal to check the presumption of easy-believism by stressing the necessity for sincere faith in salvation. In the seventeenth and eighteenth century godly pietists did this by placing weight on the right kind of faith. So far so good. But the danger is that this right kind of faith (sincere faith) will mean a heart that you as a sinner are expected to work to prepare before you come to Christ (see Norman Petit, The Heart Prepared). But when you do that, I fear you may have moved in the wrong direction of justification by faith plus works. James Denny put the issue in these challenging words:
“The German pietists, in opposition to a dead orthodoxy, in which faith had come to mean no more than a formal recognition of sound doctrine, spoke with emphasis of penitent faith, living faith, true faith, obedient faith, and so on. It is somewhat against qualifications like these that they are foreign to the New Testament. What they come down to in practice is this: Before the mercy of God in Christ the propitiation can be available for you, O sinful man, you must have a sufficient depth of penitence, a sufficiently earnest desire for reconciliation and holiness, a sufficient moral sincerity; otherwise, grace would only minister to sin. But such qualifications do infringe upon the graciousness of the gospel . . . “(The Death of Christ, pp. 290–91).
End Editorial Note.
For this reason, the Westminster standards do not speak of faith in its justifying function as “sincere faith” “obedient faith” or “working faith.” To be sure, faith which justifies is going to be faith which works and obeys. But in the justification of the ungodly that is not its function. Rather, its unique office in declarative justification is to abandon all human righteousness and to receive and rest on Christ alone as Justifier. The Westminster Confession says: “But the principal acts of saving faith are accepting, receiving, and resting upon Christ alone for justification, sanctification, and eternal life, by virtue of the covenant of grace” (Ch. XIV, II). It also says: “Faith, thus receiving and resting on Christ and His righteousness, is the alone instrument of justification (Ch. XI, II).
Calvin says it like this: “When you are engaged in discussing the question of justification, beware of allowing any mention to be made of love or of works, but resolutely adhere to the exclusive particle” (Commentary on Galatians, Ch. 5:6). And the Holy Spirit says: “And to the one who does not work but trusts in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is credited to him for righteousness” (Rom 4:5).
Additional light on the unique role of faith in justification can be found in a brief consideration of the historic Reformed emphasis on faith as “the alone instrument of justification.” The language of “instrument of justification” sounds rather cold and can easily put off the person not trained in theological vocabulary. It also has been recently questioned among theologians on the ground that it smacks of Aristotelian theory of causation. For my part I believe that attempts to identify this word with Greek thought seems somewhat strained—as were earlier attempts to identify the word “person” in Trinitarian formulations with Greek philosophy. But I see little reason to dispute over a term like “instrument” if a better one can be found. I personally prefer the word “means” or some more popular language like “the eye that looks to Christ” or “the empty hand that receives the gift of Christ.” Yet whatever terminology is used, the main point must be upheld—which is that faith is the sole means by which we enter into union with Christ, the union which gives us our free justification as sinners. On the Divine side, our regeneration brings us into union with Christ. But the human part in establishing this union is faith alone. There is nothing else. It is the sole doorway by which I enter into the house of salvation and receive Christ and all His glorious benefits, including justification.
Therefore, we may not say that faith and non-meritorious works both function as the means or instrument of justification. If we were to maintain this view, we would take away from the unique function that faith performs in our justification. That function is to receive Christ, something works can never do, no matter how you describe them. Given these conclusions, all of us in the Reformed tradition ought to agree that teaching such a concept of faith and works (as instruments of justification) would constitute an offense against biblical doctrine.
As well, faith must always be seen as prior to justification in the order of the application of redemption. Temporally, faith and justification take place at the same time, but since faith functions as the unique means for bringing us into the state of justification, it follows that faith has a priority. It is the priority of means. There have been times when I have doubted the importance of this distinction. But I have seen that such a priority is inherent in the very idea of the open empty hand which takes hold of Christ, and faith is the way one lays hold of Him. Therefore, I am persuaded that this is a matter of importance just because it protects the humble character of justifying faith. Our salvation begins not with our effort, but in our taking a free gift.
This is confirmed by Scripture. In Romans 3 and 4 and Galatians 2 and 3, the prepositions translated “through” in relationship to faith imply that faith comes first as a means of our justification. As well, Genesis 15:6, the classic passage on justification by faith, expresses this same order of faith first, followed by God’s sentence of justification. Note the order: “He [Abraham] believed the Lord, and He [God] reckoned it to him for righteousness.”
We conclude then that God from all eternity decreed to justify His elect, and Christ died for their sins on the cross and rose again for their justification. But it is still true that they are not justified until they first have believed in Jesus Christ and had His righteousness imputed to them. There is no such thing as an eternal justification nor is there any such thing as an “active justification” which precedes this declarative once-for-all justification. Justification does not come to sinners until they have entered into applied union with Christ through faith in Him. I say this strongly by way of a loving challenge. If I am wrong on this point, then I would like to see the Scriptures which shows that there is an “eternal” or an “active” justification prior to justification by faith described in Romans 3 and 4.
Sixth, I wish to affirm the vital power of saving faith.
So far, I have been focusing on [saving faith’s] unique role in God’s act of justifying the ungodly. In such a discussion, I refuse to give any place to talk of love, works or obedience. It does not belong here. In this context the work of faith is that of a hungry mouth. It comes to feed on resources that it does not have. Or it is a surrender-trust reaching out to the winsome and trustworthy Savior. But now it is important that we not overlook the truth that the faith which embraces Christ is neither dead nor empty. Just because faith is that which abandons all human strength, and all human righteousness and lays hold of God in Christ, it has unlimited resources for working by love (Gal 5:6). It finds these resources to be beyond human description. For example, the Lord in the gospels says of faith that which can only be said of Divine omnipotence. “All things,” He states, “are possible to him that believes (Mark 9:23). That is an utterly astonishing thing to say because it is of God alone that it can be said that all things are possible for Him to accomplish. But the same can be said of faith. The reason? It is that faith brings the believer into union with the almightiness of the Triune God. By faith he possesses Him whose power is unlimited.
This possession of unlimited strength in God is not to be understood as an invitation for believers forthwith to set out to walk on water in a vain show of spiritual attainment. For this kind of power is that which was with Jesus in His humiliation—the kind of power which accomplishes the impossible through weakness (2 Cor 13:4, 12:9–10). It is the ability to pray for enemies, to bless those who curse, and to bear the fruit of the Spirit in family relationships. It is the grace to see eternity dawning with holy light while life ebbs away from a cancer-ridden body on a hospital bed. It is also the daring confidence to say: “I believe in the forgiveness of all my sins.”
Or to state the matter more formally as the ethics of justification by faith, it is faith which leads me joyfully to embrace the First Commandment as the supreme goal of life and thereafter to do all good things possible to my neighbor out of love for the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Relieved of the terrible burden of trying to fulfill an unfulfillable law, my faith looks at the cross. I can even live and die for others because I see by faith that Jesus died for me in all my ungodliness. Expressed in terms of the so-called Golden Rule, I can now think myself into the position of others and do for them what I would want for them to do for me because at the cross a bleeding Christ substituted Himself for me. From my faith in a substitutionary atonement, I inevitably pass into the substitutionary ethic required by the Golden Rule. I am able to put myself in another’s place in human relationships just because that is what the Lord did for me in His death.
To my joy I also discover that the law of God no longer is a letter written in stone for my condemnation (2 Cor 3:1–11). Christ has come, and the age of faith has come with Him (Gal 3:23–26). Now working through faith, the Holy Spirit has internalized the law in my innermost being. It is written on the fleshly tables of my heart. Spontaneously and without self-consciousness I begin to love my neighbor as myself (Gal 5:1–14). When asked: “Do we overthrow the law by this faith?” Our answer must be: “By no means; on the contrary we uphold the law” (Rom 3:31). Through the blood of Christ and the power of the Spirit we find the law to be our indwelling friend. It is no longer a message of death spoken from Sinai, but a law of love and holiness imparted to us by the Spirit of grace at Mount Zion. Now when the Father says: “Thou shalt,” by the supernatural power of the Spirit I say in faith: “I will.”
Perhaps the case for the power of faith in relationship to the work of the Spirit was never more strongly stated that it is in the book of Galatians. The book is a defense of justification by faith against the attack of legalists who were trying to entangle the new Christians in a yoke of bondage (Gal 5:1). Their strategy was to attack the faith of these believers by telling them that first-class religion required more than Christ and His atonement. According to these legalists, what they also needed was circumcision and all the legal framework that circumcision implied. In arguing against this approach, the Apostle Paul pointed out that there is an unbreakable bond between justification by faith and the vital ministry of the Spirit. Indeed, what he is interested in defending first of all is the ministry of the Spirit with its wonderful freedom and fruitfulness. The reason then that justification must be by faith and not by anything statutory is that this faith is the foundation of the ministry of the Spirit (Gal 3:1–5). His thought is: “Don’t throw out justification by faith because if you do you are losing all that the Spirit has brought into your lives by that same faith.”
To test out the accuracy of this understanding of Galatians, you need merely examine Galatians 3:1–14 and the whole of chapter 5. The climax to this line of reasoning about the power of the Spirit working through faith is found in the great sections on love in this chapter. Here the working of faith is practically synonymous with the power and presence of the Spirit in producing love in Christian relationships (Gal 5:6, 13–14, 22). And all of this dynamic activity stands on the foundation of sonship received as a free gift through justification apart from the works of the law.
From this teaching on the power of faith, we can now draw some conclusions about our covenant young people. They must learn that in themselves they deserve eternal wrath but that in the covenant of grace God offers them a twofold gift: Deliverance from the curse due to their sin and the freedom of believing sons through the possession of the Spirit. The lesson of Galatians for them is that when they believe in Christ for themselves personally, they also receive by faith the gift of the Holy Spirit to enable them to walk in love. Frankly I do not think our covenant youth hear enough about the power of faith which accompanies the glorious promise of the Spirit. My years of experience as a teacher in a Christian high school and as a pastor convince me that our young people fall into a habitual outer conformity to law and duty while in heart, they love the world. Such a double life often is re-enforced by teaching which minimizes the necessity for each sinner to pass from darkness to light and from wrath to grace (Gal 3). Given such teaching the child can slide into the notion that saving faith is mere mental assent to biblical truth and to substitute moral training and its benefits for personal conversion. What we have then is a powerless “covenant easy-believism.”
Such a state of affairs can then lead into enfeebled despair. The young person assumes that he has in his possession the fulness of covenant reality and the power of the Spirit working through faith. He tries hard to obey but is yet left powerless in his unbelieving self-effort with a deepening sense of guilt over the hypocrisy of outer conformity.
In saying this, I do not mean that our task as Christian leaders and parents is to raise all the wrong kind of doubts among children and youth who really know Christ from an early age. Yet it is a sad thing to see a covenant child guilt-ridden and knowing nothing of the dynamic of faith. So, we must remember that the covenant of grace means that God has put our children into our hands so that we may claim the promises of the covenant for them and evangelize them with the liberating and joy-inspiring truths of the gospel. It is our privilege and task to show them that the promise is aimed at them. It comes to them as a twofold gift: the gift of forgiveness and the gift of the Spirit for freedom from the law’s oppression. However, they need to know that the promise of the Spirit must be claimed by specific faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. In themselves, by nature inherited from Adam, they deserve only eternal judgment. Therefore, we must urge upon them the gospel promise and at the same time warn them that not to be converted is to be a covenant-breaker devoid of the Spirit. Thus, those born within the covenant must be converted in order to stay within it even as those born outside of it must be converted in order to enter it.
Seventh, I affirm that it is my belief that Galatians and related passages in the New Testament draw a sharp distinction between the Mosaic covenant and the New covenant.
But I am of the opinion that in our time we are seeing the emergence of a new kind of “Reformed orthodoxy” which reads biblical history primarily in terms of “covenant continuity.” This approach minimizes the Pauline teaching with its emphasis on the apostle’s dichotomy between law and gospel, wrath and grace, servitude, and sonship. It also knows little or nothing of the freedom of the Spirit. What concerns me most in this line of reasoning is the idea that the governing principle of this “covenant continuity” is covenant obedience. This requirement for obedience and what is promised to this obedience have already been discussed in relationship to Leviticus 18:4–5 and related passages in Deuteronomy. Of course, God does require covenant obedience. He does this without any qualification or modification (Gen 17:1, Exo 34:7). The full requirement of the law in general and the Sinaitic covenant in particular are not filed down for anyone (Matt 5:17–20). But it is just this kind of covenant obedience which we can never supply, and which proves to be such an albatross around our necks. Or to use a distinctive already noted, I want us to recognize that Leviticus 18:4–5 is a legal promise and not a gospel promise. And I vigorously object to a concept of “covenant continuity” which obscures this distinction.
It appears to me that the clearest refutation of this point of view is found in Galatians 3. Even a casual look at the chapter makes it clear that Paul is not finding covenant continuity between the Mosaic covenant and the New covenant. Instead, he finds the continuity in the relationship between the Abrahamic covenant as promise given and the New covenant as promise fulfilled. The dominant note, according to Paul, in the Sinaitic law is obedience—not promise. The conclusion is summarized for us in v. 12 in the citation of Leviticus 18:5. Paul also argues that this way of obedience leads to the curse, since it is obvious none of us is able to meet this condition of obedience (v. 10).
Then read verses [in Galatians 3] 6–9, 14–19, and 29, and you cannot miss seeing the Pauline emphasis that the promise of the Abrahamic covenant and faith of Abraham stand in contrast to this law-keeping principle. It is this covenant of grace initiated by God with Abraham that the law of Moses cannot “annul” (v. 17). However, in relationship to this covenant of grace, the law served a most useful purpose. It brought a curse (i.e., death) to transgressors (vv. 10–11); “was added because of transgressions” (i.e., to reveal them (v. 19); locked men up as prisoners (i.e., strapped spirit and conscience) (vv. 23–25); and kept them in servant status (i.e., to live under a yoke of law) (4:1–3). In summary, the apostle is reasoning that the law compelled the people of God to see the need for the Abrahamic covenant of grace to be fulfilled by Jesus’s work and our claiming the promise by faith in Him. Hence, covenant continuity lies in the Abrahamic promise and its fulfillment in the New covenant established by the death of Christ.
Looking at the whole chapter, we see that it is teaching that there is a dichotomy between the Mosaic covenant and the fulfillment of the promise of the gospel in Christ. Paul’s master thesis is that an inheritance can only come by promise and not by law. In vs. 18 the apostle gives this thought sharp edge and outline: “For if the inheritance is by the law, it is no longer by promise, but God gave it to Abraham by a promise.” The law cannot give an inheritance because the law requires work, but an inheritance flows out of the gospel promise with its free grace. No one earns an inheritance. It is a gift.
Paul also stresses that this passage from law to grace and from wrath to pardon takes place in redemptive history. The entire development of his thought beginning with v. 23 brings this transition into sharp focus. In vs. 23 he speaks of the Mosaic administration as “before faith came.” In v. 25 we learn that faith has now come. The same verse also says that we are “no longer” under an oppressive superintendent, namely, the law. The climax, though, is found in Paul’s grand words which begin in Galatians 4. Here Paul says, “But when the time had fully come, God sent forth his Son …” What is “this time”? It is the appearing of Christ in history and the coming of the age of faith. It is the epoch of freedom and of the Spirit which replaces servitude and nonage which issued from Sinai (4:1–7, 21–31).
Why do I think that this Pauline emphasis on a historical dichotomy between law and grace is so important? I think the reader will agree that the answer has already been partly stated. But here I want to give bumper-sticker prominence to my concern. What I do not want to see is a turn in biblical theology which leads us to miss the fundamental change in the unfolding of the redemptive history set forth in the Pauline epistles, the book of Hebrews, and the gospel of John. It seems to me that something like the formalism of the European state church could naturally issue from such an omission. If there is little stress on the Pauline teaching on the radical change in redemptive history brought in by the gospel replacing the Mosaic ministry of condemnation and death, then there is likely to be little stress on the personal transition from death to life of the individual sinner. The reason is that in Paul’s argumentation the two go together. His argument from the history of salvation is the foundation for his argument on the nature of personal salvation. But leave this out of your thinking and by implication what counts most for the people of God will not be a passage from wrath to grace but the faithful use of the external signs of the covenant and faithful obedience to its requirements. Faith in coming to Christ will be obscured by faithfulness in following Him. Of course, faithfulness in following Christ is integral to the very heart of our new being as Christians. However, faithfulness must not be understood in a way which will obscure the distinctive features of justification by faith alone. In a word, Genesis 15:6 is talking about faith—not about faithfulness. It is talking about trusting—not about being trustworthy.
Against this reading of Galatians, it is argued that Paul is not always to be taken literally in his use and interpretation of Old Testament history and Scripture. The reasoning varies, but in general it comes down to the judgment that Paul is mounting a negative polemic against the “Judaizers,” who were extreme legalists in their understanding of the Mosaic law. Supposedly, Paul is arguing against their misinterpretation of the law and therefore it is against this background of legalistic distortion that we are to understand the negative role he assigns to the law in Galatians, Romans, and 2 Corinthians 3.
Here this point of view can only be assessed briefly. But let me say in general that it is rather risky to let historical considerations in effect reverse what would seem to be the plain meaning of Paul’s argumentation. As well, there is the difficult question: How do you find out exactly what was the historical situation? But even assuming that such knowledge is obtainable, how can we adopt a method of “historical exegesis” which treats the obvious course of Paul’s reasoning so lightly? I should like to spell this out just a bit. Both in Galatians and Romans the Apostle is dealing with, in good part, the problem of justification as it had been intensified by Jewish legalism. But Paul never treats the matter in that limited way. He takes the Jewish conflict and universalizes it so as to apply to all men everywhere and to all times.
A good example of this Pauline methodology is found in Romans 3:20. It reads: “Because by works of law no flesh will be justified in His sight; for through the law comes the knowledge of sin.” The terminology “the works of law” obviously has a Jewish background. Among other things, it reflects a legalistic effort in the flesh to obey Leviticus 18:4–5 and Deuteronomy 27:26 (See also Galatians 3:2–3). But in paraphrasing Psalm 143:2, Paul universalizes “the works of law.” He includes every human being when he says, “no flesh.” The idea is that what the Jewish law-keepers attempted to do with intense moral rigor had failed. This failure did not come to them because they were Jews but because they were human beings who lacked the ability to keep the law. Therefore, their experience with attempting to do the works of law will inevitably be the experience of every man.
Likewise, in Galatians the Apostle is not simply refuting Jewish legalism on its ritualistic side. Rather he is busy defining and defending the rights and delights of sonship conferred upon those who have been justified by faith. In this letter the very gospel itself is at stake. But he does not reshape his message for apologetic purposes in any fundamental way. In fact, he is zealous to emphasize that he is restating what he had said before (Gal 1:8–10). And what he had to say before relates to a justification that issues from a cross, not from anything statutory. Such a justification, he wishes to maintain, is the foundation for sonship both for the circumcised and the uncircumcised. And this is no mere Jewish issue, for it is a sonship based upon the unchanging nature of law and grace (Gal 3:26–29). (Note: handwritten in parenthesis, “not finished”)
Eight, I affirm my conviction that declarative justification as set forth in Romans 3 and 4 and Galatians 2 and 3 is a definitive act of God’s grace on behalf of the ungodly.
Seen in the light of God’s attributes as defined in Exodus 34:6–7, our ungodliness presents the Lord God with a stupendous difficulty. One the one hand, the Lord is full of compassion and delights in showing mercy (34:6); but, on the other, He may by no means clear the guilty (34:7). And we are guilty. How, then, can a just God respond in mercy to those who in Romans 3:10–23 are indicted as “ungodly”?
In Christ’s person and work that problem receives a stupendous solution at the hands of God. Our sin is our doom, but in Christ’s death we have the doom of our sin. In our justification based on that atonement, God pardons all the sins of His people and accepts them as righteous in His sight once-and-for-all. This declaration of justification passed by God on us the ungodly is based entirely on the righteousness supplied by Christ as our substitute (Rom 3:22–25, 4:5). It is credited to our account through faith alone (Rom 3:28, 4:5). This act of forensic justification means that the believer can never fall from this position of acceptance in the Beloved Son (Rom 8:28–39, Eph 1:3–14).
This amazing justification of the unworthy by free grace is designed to give all the glory to God and none to man. Perhaps the best way to spell out this truth more fully is to look at the biblical teaching on the two Adams. The first Adam as representative of the human race disobeys God’s command and is condemned to death (Gen 2:16–17, 3:19). In him all men are constituted sinners through imputation of Adam’s sin and come under the sentence of death (Rom 5:12–21). The second Adam (Christ) as representative of the elect obeys God on their behalf and purchases for them justification and life by His atonement (Rom 5:12–21, 2 Cor 5:21). The Spirit works faith in God’s people and without any works of their own brings them into union with the second Adam (Christ). In this generous outpouring of grace there is not a single thing that men can do to boast in as his accomplishment. All the glory is God’s because all the undoing is by man and all the successful doing is by Christ, the second Adam.
This understanding of justification is confirmed by the use in the New Testament of the expression “the works of law.” In good part this language represents a Pauline counterattack against the Jewish tendency to use the law-covenant made with Moses at Sinai practically to cancel out the on-going covenant of grace made with Abraham (Gal 3:17–18). Therefore, Paul can virtually equate “the works of the law” with the flesh (Gal 3:2–3). Since these works involve the enemy of the flesh, it is probably not going to far to say that they are rooted in unbelief. Fundamentally, they are works in which men would seek to boast (Rom 4:1–5).
I must take issue with anyone who would limit the meaning of this expression to a Jewish context and Jewish self-glorying. As noted previously, Paul in Romans 3:20 universalizes “the works of law” so that they obviously apply to all men. It is not just Jews who try to be saved at Mt. Sinai. All human boasting must be silenced by the law (Rom 3:19). The truth is that every man has “the work of the law” (legal prescription) written on his heart (Rom 2:15). In other words, there is a miniature Sinai in every man’s inward being. And every man wants to glory in his self-righteous keeping of the law. That is why customs, moralities, religious traditions, and duties are constantly multiplied by mankind. They reflect that all men know something of Leviticus 18:5: Do this and live. Men wish to exalt self on the ground of their obedience. And it also explains why all non-Christian religions and ethical systems end up being such a dreadful burden to the conscience of the unbeliever. The reason is that boastful man still knows in his heart that he is “not O.K.”
Moreover, it should be evident from Paul’s two citations or Leviticus 18:5 in the New Testament that “the works of the law” are closely related to the legal requirements of the Sinaitic law as requirements which silence all man’s glorying. In the Galatians 3:12 citation of Leviticus 18:5, the words “do them” is obviously the strict doing required by the Mosaic law. This doing clearly refers to the expression “works of the law” mentioned in v. 10 and the language “justified by the law” in v. 11. Note how this condemnatory passage reveals this connection in Paul’s reasoning:
“For as many as are of the works of the law are under a curse: for it is written, cursed is everyone who continues not in all things that are written in the book of the law, to do them. Now that no man is justified by the law before God, is evident: for, the righteous shall live by faith; and the law is not of faith; but, He that does them shall live by them” (Gal 3:10, 12, ARV).
The other Pauline citation of Leviticus 18:5 is found in Romans 10:5. The immediate line of thought which climaxes with the citation of the passage from Leviticus begins with Romans 9:30. Paul poses the question: “What shall we say, then” (RSV)? This question introduces a dichotomy between the righteousness of faith and the works of the law as an explanation of the Israelites being left in an unjustified state, whereas the Gentiles attain this justification by faith (Rom 9:31–32). Doubtless they did fail to understand the limitations of the Sinaitic law as a method of salvation inheritance (Gal 3:18). But as the Pauline explanation unfolds, it is made plain that the Jewish failure does not stem primarily from their rewriting the Sinaitic law in its legal requirements. Paul does say that there is something wrong with the nature of the law in its specifically legal character. This is not Paul’s major problem with his countrymen or anyone else. From his point of view what is wrong is human nature. Human nature cannot live by what the law as law commands (Rom 10:5). Therefore, there is nothing in man to qualify him to glory before God (1 Cor 1:29). Only Christ (the second Adam) can fulfill Leviticus 18:5 and bring the penalty of the law to an end (Rom 10:4).
Our conclusion is that though there are grace elements in the law of Moses taken as a whole, the specific nature of law as legal requirement demands perfect doing of the requirements of the law (Deut 27:26). The fact that these works do not exist in no manner can take away from the duty of doing them. If these deeds could be flawlessly done, it might even appear that a man would have some reason for boasting (Rom 4:2). But since no man has ever produced unstained works, there is not a man who can boast in his deeds (Rom 3:23, 4:2, Eph 2:8–10). Yet we recall that there is one exception: the second Adam. The covenant of works which the first Adam failed to keep has been kept by the second Adam. Here is ground for glorying. He has accomplished the One Great Work, our salvation by substitutionary obedience to the law (John 4:34, 17:4, 19:30). Therefore, all the glory is His (John 1:14). As new man in this new Adam, we boast in Him alone (1 Cor 1:30–31).
In our once-and-for-all justification we stand on new legal ground. But it is also glory ground. Our glorying is not in anything statutory done by us but in the cross of Christ (Gal 6:14). We are a doxological people because we have a grace inheritance in the second Adam.
The inevitable consequence of this Reformation teaching is a firm and healthy assurance in the Christian life. Having given up all our boasting which is rooted in self-righteous human effort, we have a new identify as forgiven, thankful sons of God. As James Denny has pointed out in The Death of Christ, this assurance is the very life and breath of the child of God. As he notes, if you go to Rome, you discover that the official teaching is shaped so as to foster endless question marks as to one’s final acceptance with God. And if you come to our Protestant denominations, you find that assurance is often described as a right and privilege. But in the Scriptures this assurance is described as a glorious fact. It is a living reality inherent in our being in Christ through faith without works. Or to use somewhat different language, we are perfectly secure in our boasting in Christ and His work, but not secure in our own persons and work.
We are now in a much better position to see how we can confront the world of the twentieth century. So long as believers try to work out the gospel from the foot of Mt. Sinai, they are denying the validity and power of the cross. We do not find ourselves boasting in Christ but doing bitter penance over our sins. Pastoral counseling may temporarily relieve us. But we can have no lasting peace of mind because we are forgetting about our overarching peace with God. We feel no courage to witness to the world because we are talking about a message that we have at least half-forgotten ourselves. However, we are yet the sons of God if we have trusted in Jesus. We have a radiance of Christ and a power to be different through the Spirit of grace. Be what you are! Glory in your sure salvation! Daringly boast in full and free forgiveness! When under satanic attack, take your troubled conscience to God through the use of that magnificent Pauline Psalm 32. It will guide you straight to the mercy seat as you honestly confess your sins. Above all, at the throne of grace, confess there the greatest sin of all—which is taking lightly the cleansing, healing power to be found in Christ’s atonement.
Then confidently look about yourself at the desperately needy world of the late 20th century. You will find that men everywhere want to dethrone God and His laws. But when they do that, they inevitably end up enthroning a god of fear and anxiety. You catch this note in John Paul Sartre’s words (his autobiography). He speaks of having “pulled God the Father out of the sky,” but then confesses he could never get the Holy Spirit out of the cellar of his life. By “having the Holy Spirit in the cellar” he means that he has never been able to escape an anxious awareness of God and particularly a high sense of “doughtiness.” And this is a universal problem for contemporary man. He will not have God rule him as the Great King, but he yet finds that he cannot escape the inward law of this sovereign Lord pressing obligation upon his mind. To solve this problem of the conscience which incessantly tells him, “You are not O.K.”, he tries to re-enact the cross in his own life. He has no Christ; so, he will try to placate his conscience by the slow internal torment or anxiety and emotional penance which is a form of internal crucifixion.
Attempts to justify oneself by good works of inward penance prove empty. They only lead into deeper anxiety. This is the frustration of our times. For who knows when one has ever done enough to placate a troubled conscience and the law of Sinai behind it? Positive thinking and possibility thinking are offered as solutions. But there is no ground for positive thinking outside of reconciliation to God through the blood of Christ. Apart from Christ, positive thinking will finally prove to be nothing but presumption. But this is the wonder of the Biblical answer to man’s deepest need—which is to know the reality of full forgiveness and to have a reason for glorying in something other than himself. But be confident! In Christ we have God’s tremendous solution to man’s tremendous problem. Our part is to be daring in lifting up God’s solution in a Kafkaesque world troubled by guilt and anxiety and without a clue to the real answer.
Ninth, I affirm that declarative justification properly understood does not cancel out discipleship but makes it a reality.
To be sure I think it is true that some fundamentalists have unwittingly presented the faith involved in justification as mere mental asset or as a “feeling” about Christ. I also fear that some Reformed pastors have presented justification as something legal but also as something dead and inert and having no relationship to our standing as living disciples of Jesus Christ. This confusion is tragic. “By faith alone” the Reformers meant to exclude penance and all human striving as conditions to be met before coming to Christ. They never meant saving faith to be understood as a mere legal device for accomplishing a powerless legal transaction.
Yet such a tragic misunderstanding of the nature of faith should not lead us to conclude that there is an inherent tension between justification and discipleship or to emphasize continuance in the state of justification in a manner that begins to erode the free grace alone of justification by faith alone.
As observed previously, I think that much of the tension which develops in believers’ minds between justification and discipleship originates in a misunderstanding of the functioning of faith in salvation. Here I wish to put into the foreground the role of faith in relationship to Christ’s atonement for our sins. When I believe in Jesus, His death becomes the death of sin for me. Legally His death is the doom of sin in all its guilt. But it is also the death of sin in all its moral entanglements. That is, believing in Christ also involves me in a death to sin as a power or dominion (Rom 6). Having been baptized into Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection, I have died to sin and come alive to God. Thus, my sanctification is inseparable from my justification. They are different. Justification is purely forensic and outside of me. Sanctification brings me into a new lordship and involves an inward and ongoing process. But they are also inseparable. They are intimately related in the wholeness of my rich salvation through union with a new Lord. Justification came first in the order of salvation, but sanctification and the discipleship in it inevitably accompanies justification.
Seen from this standpoint, we may rightly affirm the necessity of good works as part of our comprehensive salvation. Under the moral rule of a new dominion, the disciple is able to reckon himself dead to sin. His union with Christ includes a new mind-set (Rom 6:11). Having died to sin and come alive to God, he reckons himself dead to sin and presents himself as a servant of righteousness. As one himself who is alive to God, he lives out his faith by doing good in conformity to God’s law (Rom 6:22). Doing good is inherent to his new nature but not to produce good works in this sense is to receive “the wages of sin”—which is eternal death (Rom 6:23).
Therefore, I conclude that the obediences of Romans 6 are the necessary fruit of our being in Christ. They are the evidence demonstrating that our faith is the real goods. Since saving faith is always that which unites us to the whole Christ, we expect each disciple to have the foundation of justification and the obedience of faith.
But I must insist that it is wrong to say that “the righteousness of faith is the obedience of faith” when the context of the statement indicates that one is identifying “the righteousness of faith” of Romans 4:11 with “the obedience of faith” of Romans 1:5 and 16:26. Such identification confuses imputed righteousness with imparted righteousness. We must, instead, bend every effort to protect free grace for poor sinners by showing that good works follow justification and are of no account as the basis of our acquittal in definitive justification. When I say “follow,” I am not thinking of a time sequence as such, but of the kind of priority implicit in a fruit-bearing tree. The root of the tree functions like the power of the Spirit and faith to unite the child of God to Christ. This root makes for “a good tree.” It plants us in Christ. So, fruit must follow. And it must be good fruit. To have a tree filled with bad fruit would be evidence that the man is an empty talker without saving faith. As such he is certainly not justified through Christ. In this sense, we in the Reformed tradition speak of the necessity of good works. These deeds of the Spirit are of no value for our forensic justification, but they certainly are the evidence that we have come through faith to a death to sin and a new life in Christ.
We now must consider how this necessity of good works relates to the Last Judgment.
So far, I have emphasized that the cross represents the “Last Judgment ahead of time” for the believer. Does this mean that the believer is excused from any final assessment of his faith and life of obedience? John Owen in his Justification by Faith (Ch. V, VI, XI) and G.C. Berkouwer in Faith and Justification (Ch. V) both provide real help in answering this question. They both agree that good works will really be considered on the Day of days by the Supreme Judge. If we accept that view, this leads to a second question: What precisely will be the role of good works at that time?
Negatively, I wish to answer that we must not waver from the Reformation position that one’s own record as a human being cannot function as a basis for acquittal at the Last Judgement or at any other stage of our redemption. That is why throughout his life Paul holds with such a passion to the righteousness of God received through faith alone in Christ (Phil 3:8–9). He self-consciously rejects any inheritance received through obedience to the law (Phil 3:4–8).
Positively, I know with Paul that faith is not only the means by which I enter into justification through union with Christ, but it also is the bond by which the Spirit maintains our union with Christ. This persevering by faith explains why the righteousness of Christ can function as an overarching umbrella throughout the believer’s life, providing a sure basis for the daily confession of sin and daily forgiveness (1 John 1:7–2:2, Psa 32). Through faith as a disciple, I can also stand before God at the Last Judgment because the righteousness imputed to my account is not cold or dead, but it abides forever, living in the person of my righteous Advocate. He intercedes for me both now and on that final day (1 John 2:1–2, Heb 7:25–26, 10:11–13).
For this reason, the believer in Christ is not overwhelmed by the Scriptural teaching that there is a judgment according to works (Rom 2:6, 2 Cor 5:10, Rev 20:13, 22:12). Of course, I tremble at the thought that every “useless word” of mine will be repeated at that time (Matt 12:36–37). But my works have been “sanctified by the Spirit” who gave me “obedience” and cleansed me by the “sprinkling with His blood” (1 Pet 1:1–2). This work of God gives me sure confidence that my works will be fully accepted by the Father and rewarded by Him as well (Matt 25:34–40, Luke 19:11–27). At that hour I will enter fully into His glorious inheritance.
Thus, the final judgment involves at its center the manifestation of Christ’s righteous person and the power of His salvation for the praise of His glorious name. He will be present as the righteous One. Just as His righteousness was my hope and boast the first day I trusted in Him, so it will be my hope and boast on that Day of days (Gal 5:5). In a word, this means that the One who will judge me has already stood trial for me and provided me with a sure verdict and acquittal. Therefore, at the judgment seat it will be his righteousness which will be brought forward as the basis for a final acquittal. This is a forensic or legal hope since it rests entirely on what Christ did for me and apart from me at the cross and the tomb.
At the same time the believer’s works must harmonize with this verdict and vindicate the work of faith in his life. After all, it is a judgment based upon works as its ground. These works demonstrate to all that the believer’s life has been righteous and as such pleasing to God (2 Thes 1:5). So, God judges that his life has been characterized by deeds comformable to the law of God. Cleansed by the blood of the second Adam, these evidences of grace will be revealed as deeds worthy of the kingdom. As such they will be honored of God (Rom 2:7). They become our crown of life received in the way of faithful obedience to Christ (Rev 3:18–21). Yet it is a crown-gift which we will quickly cast before the throne of the lamb lest we intercept any of the glory which is His due alone (Rev 4:10).
This judgment according to works is also a vindication of God and His plan of salvation. He will be vindicated as the Author of a salvation which is perfectly just over against the satanic charge that God plays favorites. Throughout the history of redemption of the people of God, Satan constantly accuses the grace of God on the ground that its foster hypocrisy (Job 1:9–11) and is unjust through extending free forgiveness to the ungodly (Luke 22:31, Rev 12:10). But at the judgment day the devil is cast down forever through the full disclosure of the work of God in our salvation (Rev 12:11). The enemy will be compelled to admit that the blood of Christ provides a fully just basis for our pardon and acceptance by a holy God. He will also be compelled to acknowledge that the salvation of God produces in us a conformity to Christ. He has been conquered “because of the blood of the Lamb” and “because of the word of their testimony.” And what is “the word of their testimony”? It is that they are like Jesus in their sincere character. They do not love “their life even to death.” That is the way of Jesus: sincere perseverance of steadfastness unto death. And God’s salvation is now vindicated as it is made clear to all that steadfastness to death and perseverance in doing good are also the marks of the Christian life (2 Thes 3:5, Rev 13:10, 14:12). The requirement of the law is fulfilled in their obedient faith (Rom 3:31). The law required “perseverance” or “continuance” in doing good (Rom 2:7). This continuance is the hallmark of a good deed and distinguishes the whole Christian life. God’s gospel of grace has produced in every disciple a saving faith which continues to work by deeds of unfeigned love throughout the believer’s life. Therefore, God’s mighty salvation demonstrates itself to be fully glorious. The Day of judgment is God’s day of vindication. He has produced a new race of sons along the lines of the exact justice with the result that the whole universe rings with praise for the marvelous works of God (Rev 5, 15:3–4).
I shall now seek to relate this view of definitive justification and discipleship to James 2:12–26 and Romans 2:1–16. In both passages we have “the language” of justification used—or so it would seem. What is startling is the apparent contradiction between James and Paul. Paul says that justification is by faith without the deeds of the law, and James says three times that justification is by works (James 2:21, 24, 25). Romans 2:13 says: “The doers of the law shall be justified” (ARV).
An examination of both passages reveals that the justification in view is closely related to the day of judgment. James 2:13 announces: “For judgment is without mercy to him that has showed no mercy …”(ARV). And Romans 2:16 speaks of “the day when God shall judge the secrets of men, according to my gospel, by Jesus Christ” (ARV). Support for concluding that both passages are closely oriented to the Last Judgment is found in the wider context of James (3:1, 4:12, 5:9) and in the immediate context of Romans 2 (2:1–12). This fact itself supplies us with clear indication that Romans 2 and James 2 are describing something other than the definitive justification of Romans 3 and 4 and Galatians 2 and 3.
Additional light on the nature of this “justification” is provided by v. 18 of James 2. James writes: “I by my faith will show you my faith” (ARV). It should be evident that James means to any that he is concerned with the demonstration of faith by works. In v. 21 the offering up of Isaac is said to be the work which justified Abraham. It would seem rather obvious that “justify” here does not mean to declare righteous as in definitive justification but to demonstrate that Abraham’s faith is alive. The idea is that his faith demonstrates itself as alive by bearing the visible fruit of obedience. Thus, the verb “to justify” as used here—means “shown to be righteous”—not “declared to be righteous.”
But this conclusion may seem to some to leap over the citation of Genesis 15:6 in v. 23. Here we have the classic passage on imputation cited in a context which does not speak of declarative justification.
How do we explain the use of forensic or legal language in this setting? Recently the point has been pressed upon me by a friend who believes that this legal language is the same as elsewhere used of declarative justification. In response, I must say that this observation should not lightly be turned aside. But the problem may have a solution. Consider what we have seen so far. We have noted that James 2 seems to be oriented toward the Last Judgment and the showing or demonstrating faith through deeds of mercy to the poor before that event. Apparently, James is saying that works will have a certain forensic character at the Last Judgment. Or if you reject the idea that the chapter is oriented toward the Last Judgment, then it should seem to follow that the works are related to a present judgment.
But what is this forensic role of works? Certainly, they can never have any part in our definitive justification or function as the legal ground for a final acquittal of God’s people. I believe that they will have a key role in the Last Judgment seen as a final vindication of the faith of God’s people. It appears to me that such a development warrants the language of “reckoning” found in v. 23. Works are necessary as a fulfillment-vindication of our faith (v. 22). J.A. Ziegler quite rightly sees the fundamental uses of the verb “to justify” occurs with two different forces, the demonstrative, where it means something like ‘vindicate,” and the declaratory (The Meaning of Righteousness in Paul, p. 128). Granted that the person is said to be justified and not his faith, we nonetheless must see that it makes excellent sense to think that a person’s righteousness must be demonstrated or shown by what he does. In this passage James is reasoning that if a person has a faith that is alive this faith will be followed by righteous action, and the man in question will be vindicated, demonstrated as righteous (Ibid. p. 129).
C. John Miller, “Justification by Faith in the 20th Century” (Unpublished), The C. John Miller Manuscript Collection, PCA Historical Center, St. Louis, MO, December 1978.