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Calgary Conference on Justification

Category Articles
Date December 19, 2003

The reformed doctrine of justification, and whether it is being undermined by recent theological musings, set the stage for Dr. Cornelis P. Venema at the Annual Reformation Conference of Bethel URC Calgary on October 24-26.

Venema said the "central question of religious life is where I stand with God," adding that justification is the "most important thing of all." He began with what justification is – a judicial act grounded entirely on Christ’s obedience and granted by faith alone. But, these two elements are being confused or understated despite clear confessional statements. Venema’s lectures addressed this challenge directly and critically. He pronounced the New Perspective "dead wrong," and said the "Reformation got it right."

An entire lecture was devoted to justification and James 2. "I don’t think there is any way, any way, if James 2 uses ‘justify’ the way Paul uses it, that you are going to get a reformed view of faith alone. It troubles me, it perplexes me, and I haven’t heard yet a satisfactory explanation from those who suggest it." Venema noted he was unaware of any reformed exegete in the 16th or 17th centuries who embraced this interpretation.

In dealing with the relationship between covenant and election, Venema endorsed the traditional view of an inner circle of election and an outer circle of covenant that includes persons truly in the covenant, but said "not all, head for head, are elect children of the promise." He pointed out how little reference is made to the clarity of Romans 9 that "not all Israel is true Israel," and said "part of the difficulty today is that people use the language of election … in a way that is distinct from the way reformed churches have historically spoken of election."

Venema noted how Arminius viewed election through the covenant, ending up with a conditional election and a conditional covenant. Arminius held this view while confessing allegiance to the Belgic Confession, but like the tendency of current revisions, it led to losable election, losable regeneration, and losable justification. In other words, we have been here before.

Venema devoted more attention to the impact certain views of covenant have on justification. He said that Bavinck, like all distinguished Dutch theologians, believed in a covenant of works. Minimising the differences between this covenant with Adam and the covenant of grace tends to detract from Christ’s work as our perfect Mediator. When the two are not distinguished, faith in Christ may be replaced by "faithfulness" as the means to finding acceptance with God.

This formula has been popularised by Norman Shepherd, and Venema devoted considerable attention to his views. A teaching of Shepherd that noticeably distressed Venema is his recent assertion that justification is the forgiveness of sins only – that the righteousness imputed to believers is limited to Christ’s work on the cross (passive obedience) but not Christ’s obedience in our place (active obedience). Thus, the divine pronouncement of "righteous" must rest not only upon Christ’s work but also upon our covenant faithfulness."

Shepherd’s position that faith, as an instrument of justification, is more than a receptive faith but an "obedient" faith that contains works, makes justification uncertain. It has to be maintained by obedience. Venema insisted that we are incapable of the required obedience, but in our Mediator Jesus Christ it is imputed to us. By flattening out the covenant of works and the covenant of grace, Venema said, Shepherd minimises God’s justice before the fall and places more importance upon the believer’s works to maintain his standing with God. The result is a different emphasis than the historic formulation of justification – final acceptance with God comes through grace producing faithfulness in us.

While Shepherd insists that no benefit is ever merited in any divine covenant, Venema’s frank response was that obtaining eternal life by any means other than Christ’s obedience resembles the merit system of Trent, which teaches that works must be added to grace in order for the believer to obtain eternal life. "If it walks like a duck…."

With a prophetic voice, Dr. Venema asked, "Why diminish the work of Christ so as to increase the role you play unto justification? I don’t understand that. I mean that in my bones, deep down in who I am as a reformed Christian, and I think a biblical Christian, there is this notion that at the end of the day it’s all about Christ – His doing, His dying, His obeying. What He has done becomes mine, and that’s enough so far as my right standing with God is concerned."

Christian Renewal, November 24, 2003, by permission

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