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Retreating To Rome: The New Battle Over Justification

Author ,
Category Articles
Date December 5, 2003

James W Galyon

(A PhD candidate at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas)

When God initiated his covenant with Abraham, He declared, “I will make you a great nation…. And in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Genesis 12:2-3). All the families of the earth will be blessed because of Abraham’s Seed, the Lord Jesus Christ. Because of Him, people from every tribe, tongue, people and nation will sing out joyfully for all eternity, “You are worthy to take the scroll, and to open its seals; for You were slain, and have redeemed us to God by Your blood” (Revelation 5:9). A question related to this wonderful truth, being raised in evangelical circles because of the influence of the “New Perspective on Paul” is, “How does one enter, and remain, in the covenant?” The answer to this question, from a theological standpoint, determines the nature of justification.

The Nature of Justification: An Old Battle

The controversy over selling indulgences, which provoked Martin Luther to post his Ninety-five Theses, focused upon procuring favor with God by performing works of “satisfaction.” The Augustinian monk had come to the correct conclusion that the entire scheme, including penance, was unbiblical. He sought to reform the Roman Catholic Church, centering his enterprise around sola fide. Luther and the other Reformers insisted that the instrumental cause of justification is faith. Faith alone is sufficient for appropriating the benefits of the atonement and for having the righteousness of the Lord Jesus imputed to the believer. Grace is vital for justification in two aspects. First, redemption rests in the Lord Jesus Christ having the transgression of His people imputed to Him. Second, by His life of perfect obedience the Lord Jesus achieved the righteousness which is imputed to all who place their faith in Him. The transpiring of this great exchange, which happens at the time faith is exercised, results in God declaring the individual who trusts in the Lord Jesus as “just.” The Lord will affirm this declaration at the last judgment. This understanding of justification has been termed “forensic justification” because justification itself is a forensic, or legal, term. Its meaning is to be understood in the language of a court, the act of a judge acquitting a person accused of a crime.1 This forensic declaration does not change the nature of the individual, just the status. The sinner is not inherently righteous at the time of this pronouncement, but rather intrinsically sinful. The declaration and blessings attending justification are on account of Christ alone. This is why Luther declared that the believer is “simultaneously just and a sinner.”

According to Roman Catholicism’s understanding of justification “grace” is essential in two aspects. First, atonement is required for the satisfaction of God’s justice. God graciously satisfied His justice in the death of Christ. Second, sinners must be made inherently righteous. This begins with baptism, viewed by Rome as the instrumental cause of justification. This sacrament supposedly results in both cleansing from original sin and the infusion of Christ’s righteousness into the soul. The one baptized is in a state of grace and must assent to, and cooperate with, this infusion in order to become inherently righteous. Once achieving this righteousness, the individual is considered justified. Justification, however, is not necessarily permanent. One may fall from grace by committing mortal sin (labeled such because it “mortifies” justifying grace). A return to justifying grace is possible through the sacrament of penance, considered the second plank of justification for those who have shipwrecked their souls. This process involves confession to a priest, acts of contrition, receiving absolution, and performing works of satisfaction. Restoration to grace occurs once this procedure is completed. Ultimate justification will take place at the judgment.2

There is a vast difference between these two views. Luther called forensic justification, justification by grace alone through faith alone on account of Christ alone, the article upon which the Church stands or falls. He also declared, “If the article of justification be once lost, then is all true Christian doctrine lost.”3 Calvin was no less emphatic in his conviction, exclaiming, “Wherever the knowledge of it is taken away, the glory of Christ is extinguished, religion abolished, the Church destroyed, and the hope of salvation utterly overthrown.”4 These two were correct in these assertions. Any attempt to redefine justification is a matter of grave concern.

The Nature of Justification: A New Battle

The works of Krister Stendahl, Ernst Käsemann, E. P. Sanders, James D. G. Dunn, N. T. Wright, and others have contributed to the ascension of the “New Perspective on Paul” within the evangelical realm. From this viewpoint God chose the Jews to be His covenant people and entrusted them with the covenant standard, the law. While the Jews were initiated into this covenant by God’s grace, they were responsible to maintain their status as the people of God by observing the law.5 The Jews were awaiting the Messiah, the One who would ensure that the righteous people of the covenant would be vindicated while their enemies, pagan Gentiles, would be judged. Jesus of Nazareth, who claimed to be the One, did not meet these expectations. Instead He inaugurated the new covenant and included the Gentiles and those who were unrighteous (tax collectors, prostitutes, etc.). He claimed that all those who believe His message and receive His way of salvation are made part of the covenant. Not only were the “unclean” invited to join the covenant family, but the Temple religion was also eradicated. Rituals and restrictions were no longer necessary. The Jews, while not holding to works righteousness, rejected Jesus of Nazareth as the Messiah. They could not accept His new and inclusive teaching, so they rejected it and retained their adherence to the old covenant. Christians, on the other hand, believed Jesus to be the Messiah. They accepted the new, inclusive message and lived with the understanding that because of Christ’s sacrifice at the cross the old covenant requirements were no longer binding.

The apostle Paul, therefore, did not view the Jews as advocates of works righteousness. His contention with them was that they refused to accept the inclusiveness of the new covenant. The apostle’s antagonism against the “works of the law” centered on a dispute over cultural differences in cultural practice between Jews and Gentiles, such as circumcision and dietary restrictions. It was not a contention with Hebraic attempts to meet God’s standards to attain salvation. The real question surrounding justification from the “New Perspective,” then, has to do with the identity of covenant members rather than the issue of how an individual receives redemption. N. T. Wright declares that evangelicals who read St. Paul’s work on justification through the lens of Luther and the Reformation “may actually lose sight of the heart of the Pauline gospel.”6 He believes justification, as understood by the early Church, pertained to “God’s eschatological definition, both future and present, of who was, in fact, a member of his people…. In standard Christian theological language, it wasn’t so much about soteriology as about ecclesiology; not so much about salvation as about the church.”7 He adds,

Despite a long tradition to the contrary, the problem Paul addresses in Galatians is not the question of how precisely someone becomes a Christian, or attains to a relationship with God…. Within its first-century context, it has to do quite obviously with the question of how you define the people of God; are they to be defined by the badges of Jewish race, or in some other way?8

For Wright it is possible to identify a member of the covenant because they wear the “badge” of faith. Someone is not received into the covenant through the righteousness of the Lord Jesus Christ imputed through the instrument of faith, but rather someone is already a member of the covenant and simply recognized as being so because they have faith. Covenant status is maintained by keeping the law, and the member who does so will one day be declared “just.”

Attempting to retain traditional Protestant language, Wright maintains justification is a “present declaration” that “constitutes all believers as the single people, the one family, promised to Abraham (Gal. 2.14-3.29; Rom. 3.27-4.17), the people whose sins have been dealt with as part of the fulfilled promise of covenant renewal (Jer.31.31-34)…. Justification is thus the declaration of God, the just judge, that someone is (a) in the right, that their sins are forgiven, and (b) a true member of the covenant family, the people belonging to Abraham,” then adds, “It doesn’t describe how people get in to God’s forgiven family; it declares that they are in. That may seem a small distinction, but in understanding what Paul is saying it is vital.”9 So, how do people get in to God’s forgiven family? Wright claims that at the cross the Lord acted decisively to manifest His covenant faithfulness, to rescue His people from their iniquities, and to usher in the new covenant,10 yet he never makes it clear when an individual is actually brought into the family of God.

Covenant Entrance: Baptism

While Wright’s position is nebulous, there is no question with some who have been influenced by “New Perspective” thinking as to how covenant entrance is obtained. Steve Schlissel, in an address given at the Auburn Avenue Pastor’s Conference, asserts that baptism is the entryway to the covenant. He declares, “We should realize that the people of God are not few but many, and everyone who is baptized is to be regarded as belonging to Christ with obligations to live in accordance with the covenant in which he has been placed by the grace of God.”11 Note that Schlissel speaks of one having “been placed’ ‘in the covenant “by the grace of God.” No doubt that those included in the new covenant are there due only to the grace of God. However, Schlissel thinks this of anyone who has been baptized. Does he have a Roman Catholic understanding of baptism? Does he view baptism as a replacement for faith as being the instrumental cause of justification? It seems so. He laments Southern Presbyterians being like Baptists in that,

They don’t believe that their children are saved by the grace of God. They are waiting for a decision-some sort of cogent, confessable experience of personal regeneration in transition from death to life – because they believe that their children are born in death. They have bought into the Baptistic way of thinking, and it is an abomination.12

He speaks of Baptists and Southern Presbyterians awaiting for a cognitive act, a decision, in the life of their children. This act, this decision, is placing faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. In other words, Baptists and Southern Presbyterians are evangelicals. They hold to justification by faith alone. Justification is not received through physical birth or by baptism (John 1:12). Evangelicals understand that their children are born dead in trespasses and sins (Romans 5:12), and that they are not brought into the family of God unless, and until, they are awakened by the Spirit of God and granted faith to trust the Lord Jesus alone for salvation (Ephesians 2:1-9). The seed of Abraham are known, not by the sign or seal of the covenant, but by faith (Romans 4:9-25; 9:6-8, 30-33; Galatians 3:6-9). Is Schlissel denying this? Yes, it appears so, and it also seems that he is not the only one within the Reformed camp to take this stand. Steve Wilkins, another Auburn Avenue conference speaker, goes so far as to speak of baptismal regeneration. He declares,

Reading the Bible in this way, and in this sense, we can speak of baptismal regeneration…. By our baptism we have been reborn in this sense-having died with Christ, we’ve been raised with Him…. Because by baptism-by baptism-the Spirit joins us to Christ. Since He is the elect one, and the church is the elect people, we are joined to His body, we therefore are elect. Since He is the justified one, we are justified in Him. 13

Notice in Wilkins’ sequence that election is preceded by, and contingent upon, baptism. Where the doctrine of justification is concerned, this is a return to Rome.

Rome, nonetheless, must be given credit for its affirmation of such doctrines as the virgin conception and the resurrection of the Lord Jesus from the dead. Douglas Wilson, who has helped many with his fine works dealing with family life and his many sharp insights in Credenda Agenda, asserts shockingly that a “theological liberal.. should be considered covenantally a Christian, even though he denies the virgin birth, the substitutionary death of Christ, the resurrection, and the final judgment. He is a Christian in just the same way that an adulterous husband is a husband.”14 Lest there be any doubt as to Wilson’s avowal, he adds, “And when a liberal bishop says that Christ was merely a man, he is more than wrong. He is antichrist. But he does belong to that which he betrays. Judas was this kind of bishop (Acts 1:20).”15 Wilson presses his point even further, claiming that the “savage wolves” which molest the sheep actually belong to the fold:

What does a faithful shepherd do with a savage wolf? He fights. And where do savage wolves appear? “For I know this, that after my departing shall grievous wolves enter in among you, not sparing the flock. Also of your own selves shall men arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away disciples after them” (Acts 20:29-30). So, are these men in the covenant? Of course they are, which is why they are so dangerous.16

Wilson is correct in stating that a liberal bishop who denies the deity of the Lord Jesus is antichrist, but his assertion that such an individual belongs to that which he betrays is absolutely erroneous. The apostle John, in his first epistle, makes it clear that the one who is “antichrist” is not of God (1 John 4:1-6). In his second epistle the apostle John not only warns that those who deny the deity and humanity of the Lord Jesus are antichrist, but that those who even greet an individual who does not affirm the biblical teaching regarding the Lord Jesus participate in his wickedness (2 John 7-11). Judas followed the Lord Jesus with his feet for three years, but never with his heart. He was the “son of perdition” (John 17:12) whose unregenerate heart, a heart which had never been cleansed (John 13:10-11), was manifested by its greed. Judas’ greed led him to steal (John 12:6) and to betray the King of Glory for a mere thirty pieces of silver (Matthew 26:14-15). Judas was a member of the twelve, but never a member of the covenant (1 John 2:19). If he had any sort of faith, it was the faith of devils (James 2:14-20). One is brought into the covenant by grace alone through faith alone on account of the Lord Jesus Christ alone.

Covenant Keeping: Maintaining Justification

Ironically, the same circle advocating that apostates are within the covenant because of baptism is also asserting that justification must be maintained. Schlissel inquires, “Is the law ‘repugnant’ to how we stay right with God?,” and then goes on to assert in discussing Psalm 78, “The keeping of the commands of God is identified as putting trust in God; it is contrasted with forgetting God and disobeying God. To be in the gospel, then, is to be in the law of God.”17 Norman Shepherd, who is linked to Schlissel and Wilson, declares that justification must be maintained by obedience. He writes:

Because faith which is not obedient faith is dead faith, and because repentance is necessary for the pardon of sin included in justification, and because abiding in Christ by keeping his commandments.. .are necessary for continuing in the state of justification, good works, works done from true faith, according to the law of God.. .are nevertheless necessary for salvation from eternal condemnation and therefore for justification.18

Does one “stay right” with God through personal obedience? Is one’s justification contingent upon personal obedience? No! One is kept in a right relation with God through the completed work of the Lord Jesus which has been applied to the individual. Justification is not ongoing. As the Apostle Paul writes, “Having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ…. Much more then, having now been justified by His blood, we shall be saved from wrath through Him” (Romans 5:1, 9). The apostle speaks of justification in the past tense even while discussing the future judgment. The apostle later assures the Romans (see 8:29-30), and all saints, that those whom have been “justified” have also been “glorified” (note again the past tense). Shall the transgressions, the law breaking, of the elect be held against them? Must they “stay right” with God through their obedience? Certainly not! This is why St. Paul writes, “Who shall bring a charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is he who condemns? It is Christ who died, and furthermore is also risen, who is even at the right hand of God, who also makes intercession for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ?” (Romans 8:33-35a). Nobody can bring a charge against the people of the covenant because the Lord Jesus has died for them and makes intercession for them. Obedience does not merit justification, but it does flow from the regenerate hearts of those who have been justified. The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ is not to be thought as a license for sin (1 Corinthians 6:9-11; Titus 2:11-14; Jude 4). As the Reformers declared, “Justification is by faith alone, but not by a faith that is alone.” Or, as St. Paul puts it, “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast. For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them” (Ephesians 2:8-10). The concern about antinomianism shown by Schlissel, Shepherd and others should also be shown by other evangelicals. A disregard for the law of God is a massive problem within the Church in our own day. A disregard for the law, however, is not to lead to a disregard for the true nature of the gospel.

Covenant Entrance: The Nature of Evangelism

If baptism is the way one enters into the covenant then the nature of evangelism is altered drastically. Instead of proclaiming the gospel and inviting hearers to make a cognitive decision to trust in the Lord Jesus Christ and to turn from their sins, one will focus upon the baptismal fount. Schlissel argues that the great evangelistic expansion of the nineteenth century, based upon the principle of individual conversion, is in fundamental opposition to the “communal [or what we would call covenantal] form of expression.”19 Schlissel asserts, “Western Christendom was not built up by the method of individual conversions,” but rather by rulers ordering their subjects to accept Christianity.20 By virtue of their baptisms, irrespective of personal faith, these subjects were included in the covenant. What Schlissel has somehow managed to forget is that Western Christendom, in being built by the method of “communal conversions” and paedobaptism, was erected upon a faulty foundation. Western Christendom was blinded by superstition during the Dark Ages until God released the light of the gospel through the revival known as the Reformation.

Serious questions have to be posed in response to this position. While Jesus taught the masses, was He only concerned with them? When Jesus stopped in Samaria at the well, did He look for the “city mayor” or was He concerned about the conversion of a rather insignificant individual residing in an inconsequential community? Certainly others were converted in the region, but it was not because Jesus began with the communal leadership. This account in John 4 does not include any discussion of baptism although Jesus and the apostles certainly practiced baptism. Instead the inspired Word of God records that the Samaritans “believed” (John 4:39-42). Nothing is mentioned of baptism. If baptism were the entryway into the covenant, then why does the apostle Paul declare, “Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel,” and “It pleased God through the foolishness of the message preached to save those who believe”? (1 Corinthians 1:17, 21) Nowhere does Paul attach a “group” or “community” and its baptism to the gospel. Instead he relates the gospel to “those who believe,” to individuals. Even when Paul preached to the masses, the Scriptures record that the message was believed by individuals (see Acts 17:34, for instance). Baptism is often recorded as a result of the preaching that takes place, but it always follows after individuals have believed the gospel. Individuals who place faith in the Lord Jesus are placed supernaturally with other believing individuals into a family, a community, a holy nation (1 Peter 2:7-10). This supernatural union is evidenced in the life of the local church.

Wright, in his concern about the importance of Christian community and the assault of rampant individualism states:

The gospel creates, not a bunch of individual Christians, but a community. If you take the old route of putting justification, in its traditional meaning, at the centre of your theology, you will always be in danger of sustaining some sort of individualism. This wasn’t so much of a problem in Augustine’s, or even in Luther’s, day, when society was much more bound together that it is now. But both in Enlightenment modernism and in contemporary post-modernism, individualism has been all the rage, with its current symbols of the personal stereo and the privatization of everything. Tragically, some would-be presentations of “the gospel” have actually bought into this, by implying that one is justified or saved first and foremost as an individual…. Of course every single human being is summoned, in his or her uniqueness, to respond personally to the gospel. Nobody in their right mind would deny that. But there is no such thing as an “individual” Christian. Paul’s gospel created a community; his doctrine of justification sustained it. Ours must do no less.21

While one might disagree with Wright’s assessment regarding the position of justification in one’s theology, he is certainly correct in his assertion that “there is no such thing as an ‘individual’ Christian.” Many evangelicals, particularly Baptists, shirk from Cyprian’s comment that “He can no longer have God for his Father, who has not the Church for his mother.” Cyprian rightly understood that salvation does not exist apart from the Church. Those who are converted are brought into a new family, a new community. The Christian life is lived out within the framework and support of this body. Southern Baptists should lament the fact that our evangelistic practices have been those of which Wright speaks. We generally have a very distorted concept of ecclesiology, at least in practice. We now boast 16,247,736 total members in the Southern Baptist Convention, yet only 5,839,945 manage to attend worship. This does not mean, however, that evangelism is to be “communal” rather than “individualistic.” Rather, it must always be remembered that the Great Commission is a command to “make disciples,” and that disciples are made within the confines of the community of God – the church.


Wright claims that the “New Perspective” understanding of justification is extremely important because it “impels the churches, in their current fragmented state, into the ecumenical task. It cannot be right that the very doctrine which declares that all who believe in Jesus belong at the same table (Galatians 2) should be used as a way of saying that some, who define the doctrine of justification differently, belong to a different table.”22 Evangelicals are certainly to be concerned about the ecumenical task insofar as there is agreement upon the fundamentals of the faith. Justification is a fundamental because it has to do with how one is made right with God. To let go of justification is to let go of the gospel and return to Rome.


1See Martin Luther, Martin Luther. Selections from His Writings, ed. John Dillenberger (New York: Anchor Books, Doubleday, 1962), 86-7; 111-15; Doctor Martin Luther’s Small Catechism, ed. C. Gausewitz (Milwaukee: Northwestern Publishing House, 1956), 154; John Calvin, John Calvin: Selections from His Writings, ed. John Dillenberger (New York: Scholars Press, 1975), 165.

2John F. Clarkson, John H. Edwards, William J. Kelly, John J. Welch, translators, The Church Teaches: Documents of the Church in English Translation (St. Louis: B. Herder Book Co., 1955), 230-42.

3Martin Luther, Commentary on Galatians, ed. John Prince Fallowes, trans. Erasmus Middleton (Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 1979), xvi.

4John Calvin, “On Reform (Reply to Letter by Cardinal Sadoleto to the Senate and People of Geneva),” in Writings, 95. See also John Calvin and Jacopo Sadoleto, A Reformation Debate: Sadoleto’s Letter to the Genevans and Calvin’s Reply with an Appendix on the Justification Controversy, ed. John C. Olin (New York: Harper and Row, 1966), 97-112.

5See E. P. Sanders, Paul and Palestinian Judaism: A Comparison of Patterns of Religion (London: SCM, 1977).

6N. T. Wright, What Saint Paul Really Said. Was Paul of Tarsus the Real Founder of Christianity? (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997), 113.

7lbid., 119.

8lbid., 120.

9N. T. Wright, “The Shape of Justification.” Accessed at

10N. T. Wright, The New Testament and the People of God (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992), 458.


12Schlissel, “Covenant Reading.” Lecture delivered at the Auburn Avenue Pastor’s Conference, 2002.

13Steve Wilkins, “The Legacy of the Half-Way Covenant.” Lecture delivered at the Auburn Avenue Pastor’s Conference 2002. It is interesting, from an historical point of view, that Wilkins stated this in a lecture entitled “The Legacy of the Half-Way Covenant.” From the perspective of Jonathan Edwards, the Half-Way Covenant was unbiblical and led to several problems within the congregation at Northampton.

14Douglas Wilson, “Judas Was a Bishop,” Credenda Agenda: Presbyterion vol.13, no.2. Accessed at



17Steve Schlissel, “Covenant Reading.”

18Norman Shepherd, Thirty four Theses on Justification in Relation to Faith, Repentance and Good Works. Accessed at

19Steve Schlissel, “Covenant Hearing.” Lecture delivered at the Auburn Avenue Pastor’s Conference, 2002.


21N. T. Wright, What Saint Paul Really Said, 157-58.

22N. T. Wright, What Saint Paul Really Said, 158.

Published in the Founders Journal Issue 54 Fall 2003, and used here by permission.

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