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Gaffin’s Conference on Justification

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Category Articles
Date December 20, 2002

Has the Reformation misunderstood Paul?

by Doug Barnes

The question is central to New Testament scholarship today, particularly for the school of thought known as the "New Perspective on Paul" (NPP). And the question formed the theme of a recent lecture series by Dr. Richard B. Gaffin Jr., sponsored by Mid-America Reformed Seminary of Dyer, Ind.

Gaffin addressed a packed crowd, as a host of visitors and visiting pastors joined Mid-America students and faculty to hear Gaffin’s teaching and enjoy fellowship over coffee and snacks.

The author of two books and a professor at Westminster Theological Seminary since 1965, Gaffin opened his November 12 and 13 lectures by noting that many modern Pauline scholars have concluded that the Reformation did, in fact, misunderstand Paul by considering justification by faith alone – or justification of any sort – to be Paul’s central concern.

According to most who subscribe to the "New Perspective," the doctrine of justification was a secondary issue for Paul. Matters of personal communion with Christ, inner renewal, and the ethical/spiritual/mystical nature of Christian experience were far more central for the apostle, NPP proponents allege.

During his three-session lecture, Gaffin sought to debunk that view by explaining where the "center" lay within Paul’s teaching, as well as some significant implications of Paul’s central concepts.

Some visitors and students at the lecture said they were mildly disappointed that Gaffin did not more directly address the so-called New Perspective on Paul, focusing, instead, on the proper understanding of Paul’s teachings on salvation. However, most also appreciated the fresh discussion of Paul’s teaching concerning the "already/not yet" character of the application of redemption to believers.

In English, that means Gaffin addressed the way Paul’s letters speak of believers as having already died, been raised and been perfected in Christ – while at the same time affirming that believers struggle with sin, battle Satan, and look forward to a future perfection in heaven.

According to Gaffin, the central concept in Paul’s writings is the death and resurrection of Christ, along with the implications of those events for believers. As the Reformation rightly saw, justification by faith is a primary concern of Paul’s teaching.

Yet Reformed theology does have room to grow and improve, particularly in discussing how the finished act of justification by faith relates to the ongoing application of salvation to believers.

Gaffin said we need to more fully explore the ordo saludis ("order of salvation") in its broad sense – that is, as the on-going application of salvation, as distinct from Christ’s once-for-all accomplishment of salvation typically emphasized by Reformed theology.

Because the inner man/outer man (or realized/future) distinction is found throughout Paul’s writings, Gaffin said Reformed theology needs to address dichotomies such as the receive-but-future adoption concept found in Rom. 8:14-25.

In developing salvation’s "already/not yet," distinction in light of the believer’s union with Christ, Gaffin said, difficult debates such as the relation of faith and works come into a clearer focus. Christians can begin to see that the indicative of who they are in Christ leads to the imperative of how they must live.

"I am united to Christ by faith alone," Gaffin affirmed. "Disaster will surely result from denying or obscuring faith as the alone-instrument of justification."

However, when we rightly understand faith and the nature of justification in terms of Scripture, he added, we realize that "works are the integral fruit and evidence of faith." We begin to see that sanctification is an aspect of the on-going application of our justification which will culminate, at that last great day, in "an open manifestation of what has been there all along – that Christ’s righteousness has been imputed to me."

Those interested in tapes of Gaffin’s lectures ($12) can obtain them by contacting Mid-America Reformed Seminary at mars@jorsm.com.

Christian Renewal December 16 2002

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