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Category Articles
Date January 7, 2011

I. From the Fathers to the Reformation1

We are familiar with the concise, scriptural definition of The Shorter Catechism: ‘Justification is an act of God’s free grace, wherein He pardoneth all our sins, and accepteth us as righteous in His sight, only for the righteousness of Christ imputed to us, and received by faith alone’ (Ans. 33). James Buchanan explains the term as meaning ‘man’s acceptance with God, or his being regarded and treated as righteous in His sight – as the object of His favour and not of His wrath, of His blessing and not of His curse’.2

Accordingly this is not man’s inward righteousness, his sanctification; it is his legal standing before God. The question is: Does God now accept the sinner, or does he still stand condemned before his holy Judge? Louis Berkhof brings out this point clearly with his definition: ‘Justification is a judicial act of God, in which He declares, on the basis of the righteousness of Jesus Christ, that all the claims of the law are satisfied with respect to the sinner’.3 Justification is not the infusing of righteousness into a sinner; it is appropriate to use these words in describing regeneration and sanctification but not justification. In the same category as justification is condemnation; they are opposites, but they are both legal concepts. So John Owen points out that ‘condemnation is not the infusing of a habit of wickedness into him that is condemned . . . but the passing a sentence upon a man with respect unto his wickedness’. Then he comes to his main point: ‘No more is justification the change of a person from inherent unrighteousness unto righteousness by the infusion of a principle of grace’, but the passing of a sentence declaring ‘him to be righteous’.4

It is vitally important, as we will see, to keep this distinction between justification and sanctification very clearly in view; in God’s revelation of religious truth in Scripture these are distinct ideas. The Westminster Confession stresses that sinners are justified, ‘not by infusing righteousness into them, but by pardoning their sins, and by accounting and accepting their persons as righteous: not for anything wrought in them, or done by them, but for Christ’s sake alone’ (11:1). Much of the doctrinal confusion that has plagued the Christian era has arisen through a failure to keep distinct the two ideas of justification and sanctification.

One other general point at this stage: Buchanan notes what is ‘characteristic of all human systems as distinguished from the divine method of justification’; it is ‘self-righteousness or self-sufficiency in one or other of its manifold forms, which are all, more or less, opposed to dependence on the grace of God’. This error, he says, is universal, and manifests itself in human beings in three distinct ways: (1) ‘in reliance on the general goodness of their character and moral conduct’, (2) ‘in their observance of religious forms and ceremonies, as a compensation for any shortcoming in moral obedience’, (3) ‘in their possession of peculiar privileges, viewed as special tokens of God’s favour’.5

With these points in mind, let us now proceed to consider how the doctrine of justification has fared at the hands of the Church – and, in particular, its theologians – in the period since the Apostles. The Fathers, the Church leaders during the centuries immediately following the Apostles, do not provide an elaborate exposition of the doctrine of justification. But in their writings we find indications of what they believed on the subject. For instance, in the Epistle to Diognetus, we read:

In whom was it possible that we, transgressors and ungodly as we were, could be justified, save in the Son of God alone? O sweet interchange, O unsearchable operation, O unexpected benefit, that the transgression of many should be hidden in one righteous Person and that the righteousness of One should justify many transgressors!6

However, after Constantine established Christianity as the religion of the Roman Empire, persecution became a thing of the past and professing Christians began to lose their sense of sin. Accordingly they no longer felt their need of an effective remedy; they lost sight of the significance of the blood of Christ and turned their backs on the doctrine of justification by faith.

There can be no doubt that the unscriptural teachings of Romanism on this subject can in part be traced back to the writings of Augustine of Hippo (354-430); he was the greatest of the Fathers and did much to oppose the teachings of Pelagius – the British monk who denied original sin and maintained that man has power to save himself. However, Buchanan argues that, while Augustine’s use of the term justification included the idea of sanctification, he did not confound the two ideas. Augustine’s ‘was not a mind’, Buchanan insists,

that could confound things so different as the guilt of sin and its defilement, the remission of sin and the renewal of the sinner, a man’s external relation to God and his inherent spiritual character. And . . . there is no evidence to show that he made a sinner’s forgiveness and acceptance with God to rest on his own inherent righteousness as its procuring cause.7

Buchanan describes the views of Anselm on this subject (died 1109) as ‘thoroughly Protestant’ and quotes Bernard of Clairvaux (died 1115) saying, ‘The Apostle says, “If one died for all, then were all dead,” meaning thereby to intimate that the satisfaction made by One should be imputed to all, even as One conversely bore the sins of all’.8 The most prominent of mediaeval theologians was Thomas Aquinas (died 1274), whose massive writings have been fundamental for later Roman Catholic thinking. His idea of justification included three components: the forgiveness of sin, the infusion of grace, and the turning of the will to God. And in the theology of the Middle Ages the justification of a sinner became dependent on the grace that is infused into him; further, the good works which result from the infused grace have merit before God. It is that merit which leads to pardon and acceptance with God. There was even a kind of merit in doing one’s best; what it amounted to was that people could have some claim on God for spiritual blessings on the basis of their good works.

And in Baptism, it was said, God first renews the soul and then forgives, completely removing all the effects of original sin – though, if the Baptism is to be thus effective in adults, they must be properly prepared by exercising the seven virtues of faith, fear, hope, love, penitence, with a purpose to receive the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, and a purpose to lead a new and obedient life – a whole series of good works. We may note the form in which the Roman teaching on Baptism is put in the present-day Catechism of the Catholic Church: ‘By Baptism all sins are forgiven, original sin and all personal sins, as well as all punishment for sin’; and, further: ‘Baptism not only purifies from all sins, but also makes the neophyte [that is, the one who has just been baptized] “a new creature”, an adopted son of God, who has become a “partaker of the divine nature”, member of Christ and co-heir with Him, and a temple of the Holy Spirit’.9 This is what is claimed to take place merely as a result of the priest taking some water, sprinkling it on the person and repeating the requisite words.

It was in such a climate that the sale of indulgences flourished in the early sixteenth century – people were given the impression that a monetary contribution would lead to the forgiveness of their sins; it was even possible for them to deliver themselves from the agonies of purgatory on account of sins they had not yet committed. And it was when these indulgences began to be sold among his own people that Martin Luther prepared the 95 theses that he nailed to the door of the Wittenberg church, which was effectively the beginning of the Reformation.

Luther had previously come to realise, through painful personal experience, that the way of salvation which God has provided for sinners is by faith in Jesus Christ, not through the ceremonies of the Church. He had suffered terribly at the thought of the righteousness of God, which he had understood as God dealing righteously with the sinner – which for him could imply nothing else but God’s inflexible severity in punishing sin.

But Luther relates his deliverance:

At last I came to apprehend it thus: through the gospel is revealed the righteousness which avails with God, a righteousness by which God, in His mercy and compassion, justifies us, as it is written: ‘The just shall live by faith’. Straightway I felt as if I were born anew; it was as if I had found the door of paradise thrown wide open. The expression, ‘the righteousness of God’, which I so much hated before became now dear and precious . . . I see the Father – inflexible in justice, yet delighting in mercy – ‘just’ beyond all my terrified conscience could picture Him; He ‘justifies’ me a sinner.”10

God had showed the future Reformer – with whom the idea of justification by faith is so closely associated – that sinners are saved by faith alone, not by their good works.

So during the winter of 1515-16 Luther, lecturing on Romans 3:28, was declaring to his students:

We hold, recognise and affirm, we conclude from what is said that a man is justified, reckoned righteous before God, whether Greek or Jew, by faith, apart from the works of the law, without the help and necessity of the works of the law.11

The Lord had led him to a thorough understanding of the doctrine of justification, which William Cunningham describes as

the great fundamental distinguishing doctrine of the Reformation . . . regarded by all the Reformers as of primary and paramount importance. The leading charge which they adduced against the Church of Rome was that she had corrupted and perverted the doctrine of Scripture upon this subject in a way that was dangerous to the souls of men; and it was mainly by the exposition, enforcement and application of the true doctrine of God’s Word in regard to it that they assailed and overturned the leading doctrines and practices of the papal system.12

Thomas M’Crie was impressed by two particular points in the writings of the Reformers:

The first is the exact conformity between the doctrine maintained by them respecting the justification of sinners and that of the Apostles. The second is the surprising harmony which subsisted among them on this important doctrine. On some questions respecting the sacraments and the external government and discipline of the church, they differed; but on the article of free justification, Luther and Zwingli, Melanchthon and Calvin, Cranmer and Knox spoke the very same language. This was not owing to their having read each other’s writings, but because they copied from the same divine original . . . Some of their successors, by giving way to speculation, gradually lost sight of this distinguishing badge of the Reformation and landed at last in Arminianism, which is nothing else but the popish doctrine in a Protestant dress.13

II. Reformation Teaching

As time went on, the Reformers may have expressed more clearly their understanding of justification, but they taught the substance of it from the beginning. They were clear that justification describes a change in the sinner’s legal state, not in his moral character – yet they were equally clear that a change of moral character must inevitably accompany his justification. When sinners are justified, their guilt has been removed; they are no longer under condemnation; they have been forgiven; they have been accepted before God as if they had always kept his law perfectly. And sinners are justified, not because of anything they have done to deserve it, but only by God’s grace, for the sake of the righteousness of Christ – which has been imputed to them and received by faith alone.

Yet while regeneration and sanctification form no part of justification, every justified sinner is regenerate; his sanctification has begun and it will continue. Thus Calvin corrected Cardinal Sadoleto:

You touch on justification by faith. But this doctrine, which stands supreme in our religion, has been effaced by you from the memory of men. You allege that we take no account of good works. If you look into my catechism, at the first word you will be silent. We deny, it is true, that they are of any avail in man’s justification, not even so much as a hair, for the Scripture gives us no hope except in the goodness of God alone. But we attribute worth to works in the life of the just, for Christ came to create a people zealous of good works.14

The Roman Catholic response came ultimately from the Council of Trent, which gathered for three periods between 1545 and 1563 in what is now a northern Italian town but was then within the Holy Roman Empire. On the subject of justification, the Council produced 16 chapters and 33 canons which, says Cunningham, are ‘characterised by vagueness and verbiage, confusion, obscurity and unfairness’. Indeed he adds, ‘It is not very easy on several points to make out clearly and distinctly what were the precise doctrines which they wished to maintain and condemn’.15 But it is important to note that, despite Vatican II, Rome has not rejected the Canons of the Council of Trent; they are still central to her teaching. Pope John Paul II described Trent’s declarations on justification as ‘one of the most valuable achievements for the formulation of Catholic doctrine’, adding significantly that ‘the Council intended to safeguard the role assigned by Christ to the Church and her sacraments in the process of sinful man’s justification’.16

The Council was adamant that justification not only includes the forgiveness of sins but also sanctification, a renovation of man’s moral nature.17 The critical point here, of course, is how the term justification is used in Scripture. In various contexts, it is used as the opposite of condemnation; for instance: the judges in Israel were to ‘justify the righteous and condemn the wicked’ (Deut. 25:1); and in a context that is more directly relevant to our present concerns, Paul encourages believers with the words: ‘It is God that justifieth. Who is he that condemneth?’ (Rom. 8:33). In each case, to justify and to condemn are clearly legal terms; to justify is the opposite of to condemn and means to declare righteous; justification is not a term which can be used to describe the infusion of righteousness into anyone – any more than condemnation can be used to describe making that person’s moral character worse.

We may note one further piece of evidence: David’s plea in Psalm 143:2: ‘Enter not into judgement with Thy servant: for in Thy sight shall no man living be justified’. Here justification is again placed in the context of an act of judgement. In the particular context of a sinner entering the kingdom of God, his justification does not refer to him being made righteous; it refers to him being accounted righteous; it is a statement of how God, as judge, views him. For the sake of Christ, the justified sinner is viewed as free from guilt and as having always kept the law of God perfectly.

Yet in somewhat different contexts, we have what Buchanan16 refers to as the declarative sense of justification – for example, Luke 7:29, where we are told that ‘all the people . . . justified God’. In other words, the people declared, or acknowledged, that God was righteous. Similarly when James asks, ‘Was not Abraham our father justified by works, when he had offered Isaac his son upon the altar?’ (2:21), he intends us to understand that Abraham’s works declared the genuineness of his spiritual state. James is not discussing how Abraham entered the kingdom of God. He did so by faith; but where there is faith, good works will follow. Here James is referring to Abraham’s good work of offering his son Isaac on the altar. Good works declare that the faith in the justified person’s heart is genuine.

But not all that seems to be faith is actually genuine. This is what James has in mind when he says, ‘Even so faith, if it hath not works, is dead, being alone’ (v 17). This is why James can ask, ‘What doth it profit, my brethren, though a man say he hath faith, and have not works? Can faith save him?’ (v 14). The question is: Can the dead faith, the faith from which good works do not flow, save anyone? And the answer must be, No, for it is not genuine, living faith – which is clear because there are no works to evidence spiritual life, neither before God or before other human beings. Those individuals whose works justify them, in the sense in which James uses the word, have already been justified by faith without works; and that is now to use the word in a somewhat different sense to how James used it and, more importantly, in a rather different context – that of entering the kingdom of God. In this context it is of unspeakable importance to understand that no works of ours can in the least degree contribute to our acceptance with God.

Trent thundered its anathema against anyone who would deny the need for divine grace in justification – which for the Council included sanctification. But, in the Christian Church, the number of outright Pelagians must always have been minimal (Pelagians claim that human beings are able to make themselves acceptable to God by what they can do, without help from above). The vast majority of professing Christians would allow some place for grace; by far the commoner error is to attempt to divide up the basis for salvation between divine grace and human works – which is semi-Pelagianism, its best-known branch being Arminianism.

But Trent thundered a further anathema against ‘anyone [who] says that the sinner is justified by faith alone, meaning that nothing else is required to co-operate in order to obtain the grace of justification’.19 This was the main error confronting the Reformers: not a doctrine, at least in theory, of works alone – but semi-Pelagianism, the doctrine of works plus grace. Cunningham comments that, when we view Trent’s scheme as a whole and ‘in connection with the natural tendencies of the human heart’, it is

so constructed as to be fitted to foster presumption and self-confidence, to throw obstacles in the way of men’s submitting themselves to the divine method of justification, and to frustrate the great end which the gospel scheme of salvation was, in all its parts, expressly designed and intended to accomplish.20

And he expresses that divine purpose in the words of the Westminster Confession: ‘that both the exact justice and rich grace of God might be glorified in the justification of sinners’ (11:3).

We need not go beyond the Epistles of Paul to understand that our works can form no part of the basis for our salvation. Works rule out grace; ‘to him that worketh’, Paul stresses, ‘is the reward not reckoned of grace, but of debt’. But, on the other hand, ‘to him that worketh not, but believeth on him that justifieth the ungodly, his faith is counted for righteousness’ (Rom. 4:4,5); it is the ungodly who are justified. ‘No place is left’, says Owen emphatically, ‘for any works to make the least approach towards our justification before God’.21

We may note, at slightly greater length, the views of the English Reformers, as expressed in their Homily on Salvation:

The true understanding of this doctrine – we be justified freely by faith, without works; or that we be justified by faith in Christ only – is not that this our own act to believe in Christ, or this our faith in Christ, which is within us, doth justify us and deserve (or merit) our justification . . . but the true understanding and meaning thereof is that although we hear God’s Word and believe it; although we have faith, hope, charity, repentance, dread and fear of God within us, and do never so many works thereunto, yet we must renounce the merit of all our said virtues . . . which we either have done, shall do, or can do, as things that be far too weak and insufficient and imperfect to deserve remission of sins and our justification. And therefore we must trust only in God’s mercy and that sacrifice which our High Priest and Saviour Jesus Christ, the Son of God, once offered.22

It cannot be too strongly stated that the one basis for the forgiveness of sinners and for accepting them as righteous before God – that is, for their justification – is the work of Christ in this world as the substitute of sinners. That basis is the righteousness of Christ imputed to them and received by faith alone. So John Calvin states:

The power of justifying which belongs to faith consists not in its worth as a work. Our justification depends entirely on the mercy of God and the merits of Christ; when faith apprehends these, it is said to justify . . . We say that faith justifies, not because it merits justification for us by its own worth, but because it is an instrument by which we freely obtain the righteousness of Christ.23

Again in the words of the Westminster Confession, God justifies,

nor by imputing faith itself, the act of believing, or any other evangelical obedience, to [sinners] as their righteousness; but by imputing the obedience and satisfaction of Christ unto them, they receiving and resting on Him and His righteousness, by faith: which faith they have not of themselves; it is the gift of God (11:1).

And this issue remains one of the great dividing lines between true, scriptural Christianity and the errors of Rome. For instance, Karl Keating, described as ‘a Roman Catholic apologist’, wrote in 1988, ‘The Bible is quite clear that we are saved by faith. The Reformers were quite right in saying this, and to this extent they merely repeated the constant teaching of the Church. Where they erred was in saying that we are saved by faith alone.’24 The error, of course, lies on Keating’s side of the argument but, as we will notice again later, any omission of that significant word alone in this context is downright dangerous.

While justification is by faith alone, faith is not the only activity in the regenerated soul. When God implants new life in the soul – the new life which makes faith possible – he also implants every other grace. Otherwise it would be, to hark back to James’ expression, a dead faith. The Westminster Confession expresses the matter with characteristic conciseness: ‘Faith, thus receiving and resting on Christ and His righteousness, is the alone instrument of justification; yet is it not alone in the person justified, but is ever accompanied with all other saving graces’ (11:2). We may also note that saving faith is not, as Roman Catholics and others are encouraged to believe, only assent – a mere intellectual acceptance that particular teachings are true.25 Faith includes assent, of course, but it is more than assent; it includes trust. In the exercise of the faith that justifies, the sinner receives and rests upon Jesus Christ ‘as He is offered to us in the gospel’.26

When sinners believe, they are justified. In other words, the righteousness of Christ is imputed to them. Just as the sin of the human being – his guilt – is put to the account of Christ, so the righteousness of Christ is put to the account of the sinner when he believes, and he is accounted righteous. Charles Hodge explains the righteousness of Christ to mean: ‘all He became, did and suffered to satisfy the demands of divine justice, and merit for His people the forgiveness of sins and the gift of eternal life’.27 Christ was in the world as the substitute of his people. In his sufferings, he was bearing the punishment due to those who would believe on him; in his law-keeping, he was also acting as their substitute. What Christ did as the substitute of sinners is imputed to them – that is, it is put to their account.

Hodge remarks that ‘Philemon had no doubt what Paul meant when he told him to impute to him the debt of Onesimus’.28 Believers are treated, in a legal sense, as if they had brought about these blessings themselves. Because Christ suffered in their place, they are forgiven; because Christ kept the law in their place, they are treated as if they had kept the law perfectly themselves and so they have a right, in Christ Jesus, to eternal life.

Justification is not merely forgiveness. In W G T Shedd’s words:

The law is not completely fulfilled by the endurance of penalty only. It must also be obeyed. Christ both endured the penalty due to man for disobedience and perfectly obeyed the law for him; so that He was a vicarious substitute in reference to both the precept and the penalty of the law.29

This was the understanding of the Reformers but was denied by Rome and by the followers of Arminius.

The Arminians believed that God treated faith as if it was complete obedience to the law – on the grounds that the believer’s faith ‘is counted [or reckoned, or imputed] for righteousness’ (Rom. 4:5). Their idea is that God accepts the sinner on the basis of his faith and of the perfect obedience which flows from it, and thus faith becomes the ground of justification. But this is to treat faith as a work, in spite of the fact that this verse refers to the one who is justified as’him that worketh not’. Commenting on this verse, Hodge states: ‘It must express the idea that it was by means of faith that Abraham came to be treated as righteous, and not that faith was taken in lieu of perfect obedience’. And Matthew Poole notes that faith is ‘not considered in itself as a work, but in relation to Christ, the object of it, and as an act of receiving and applying Him’; so that the sinner by faith lays hold of the righteousness of Christ, which is imputed to him. Thus Calvin comments: ‘Faith adorns us with the righteousness of another, which it begs from God’. Faith has no merit whatever in itself; it is just the instrument which lays hold of the glorious provision which God has made in Christ for needy sinners.

To see what is imputed to the sinner in justification we must note the teaching of 2 Corinthians 5:21. There Paul says in the name of all believers: ‘He [God] hath made him [Christ] to be sin for us, who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in him’.

Charles Hodge comments as follows:

There is probably no passage in the Scriptures in which the doctrine of justification is more concisely and clearly stated than in this. Our sins were imputed to Christ, and His righteousness is imputed to us. He bore our sins; we are clothed in His righteousness. Imputation conveys neither pollution nor holiness. Christ bearing our sins did not make Him morally a sinner, any more than the victim was morally defiled which bore the sins of the people [of Israel]; nor does Christ’s righteousness become subjectively ours; it is not the moral quality of our souls. That is what is not meant. What is meant it is equally plain. Our sins were the judicial ground of the sufferings of Christ, so that they were a satisfaction of justice; and His righteousness is the judicial ground of our acceptance with God, so that our pardon is an act of justice. It is a justification; or a declaration that justice is satisfied . . . it is not mere pardon, but justification alone, that gives us peace with God.

III. The Influence of Ecumenical Thinking

We have lingered for some time with the Reformers, as it was in their age that the details of this vital doctrine of justification were hammered out on the basis of Scripture. Let us now move on to notice how the forces of twentieth-century ecumenism have impinged on this doctrine. We may look first at the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission, originally established in 1970. What is of interest to us at the moment is the second report of this body, ARCIC II, entitled Salvation and the Church, which was published in 1987.

The Commission was intended to further an ecumenical agenda, though Pope John Paul II suspended further talks in the wake of the appointment of an openly-homosexual Anglican bishop in the United States. Salvation and the Church claims that ‘the doctrine of justification . . . can be properly treated only within the wider context of the doctrine of salvation as a whole’. This is intended to allow the doctrine to be treated within the bounds of the Roman Catholic concept of justification, as inclusive of sanctification. Not unexpectedly then, the report merely states: ‘It is by faith that [salvation] is appropriated’30. The report thus lacks the necessary emphasis on faith alone, which, on the other hand, is the emphasis of the eleventh of the Thirty-Nine articles of the Church of England: ‘We are accounted righteous before God, only for the merit of our Lord Jesus Christ, by faith, and not for our good works or deservings . . .’31

The report attempts to minimise the differences between the two sides at the Reformation and describes ‘the disagreements as largely the result of misunderstandings, suspicions and fears’.32 In woolly language it affirms: ‘The righteousness of God our Saviour is not only declared in a judgement made by God in favour of sinners, but is also bestowed as a gift to make them righteous’ – where no attempt is made to differentiate between justification and sanctification, which are, in Scripture, two distinct doctrines. Not surprisingly, the report concludes that ‘this is not an area where any remaining differences of theological interpretation or ecclesiological emphasis, either within or between our Communions, can justify our continuing separation’.33 The tragedy is, of course, that while the Roman Catholic Church has always blatantly allowed tradition an equal place with Scripture as a source for their doctrines, the Anglican Churches have departed from their historic stance of giving to Scripture fundamental authority over their teachings. If they respected God’s authority, the Church of England representatives would never have dared to desert their Reformation heritage so readily.

The words of William Cunningham on the subject of free justification are highly relevant at this point:
This was what Luther called the article of a standing or a falling Church; and the history of the Church, both before and since his time has fully justified the propriety of the description. There has perhaps been no department of divine truth against which the assaults of Satan have been more assiduously directed ever since the origin of the Christian Church than the Scripture doctrine of justification, and there has probably been no doctrine, the profession and preaching of which have more generally indicated with correctness the state of vital religion in the Church in all ages.34
Obviously the unwillingness of the representatives of the Church of England to hold fast the doctrine of justification indicates clearly the low state of true religion in that body today.

Sadly also, present-day Lutheranism must be similarly described in the light of discussions between the Lutheran World Federation and the Roman Catholic Church. These discussions resulted in a Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification in 1999, which was published on October 31, the day on which, 482 years earlier, Luther had nailed up his theses in Wittenberg. The choice of date was no coincidence, but the Joint Declaration is a betrayal of the work of Luther and the other Reformers. While it acknowledges that real difficulties did exist at the time of the Reformation, it aims ‘to show that, on the basis of their dialogue, the subscribing Lutheran Churches and the Roman Catholic Church are now able to articulate a common understanding of our justification by God’s grace through faith in Christ’ – but not by faith alone. And it claims to show ‘that the remaining differences in its explication are no longer the occasion for doctrinal condemnations’.35

However, the ‘common understanding’ seems to rest on a willingness to allow each party in the discussions to follow their own distinctives. ‘God’s saving work’, it is claimed, ‘can be expressed in the imagery of God as judge who pronounces sinners innocent and righteous . . . and also in a transformist view which emphasises the change wrought in sinners by infused grace.’36 Now, it is wrong to use the word imagery in this context, for God does actually judge sinners. But, more fundamental to our present discussion is the fact that, while true Protestants believe that salvation includes both justification and sanctification, they are also clear that the sinner’s acceptance with God is his justification – when the sinner, who has no righteousness of his own, receives the righteousness of Christ by faith alone.

IV. Destroying Paul’s Doctrine

Let us turn finally to what has become known as the ‘New Perspective on Paul’. The story may begin with E P Sanders, who calls himself a liberal, modern, secularised Protestant and was a Professor of Religion at Duke University in America. His book, Paul and Palestinian Judaism, published in 1977, focuses on Judaism between 200 BC and 200 AD and attempts to answer the question: What type of religion was Paul reacting against? His conclusion is that in the Judaism of Paul’s time ‘election and ultimately salvation are considered to be by God’s mercy rather than human achievement’.37

The implication is that Paul could not have been arguing against a reliance on works in his Epistles; however, it would seem that Sanders and the writers who have followed him have concluded that, because the Judaism of Paul’s time did not deny grace, it was clear from every charge of resting on works. However, Sanders has actually acknowledged that the Apocryphal book, 4 Esdras, does promote ‘a religion of individual self-righteousness’38, and it is unlikely to have been the only explicit statement of legalism from that era; indeed others have pointed to writings of Josephus, the Jewish historian of the first century AD. What has become known as Second-Temple Judaism may have been cleared of the charge of Pelagianism, but it has by no means been cleared of semi-Pelagianism.39

Building on Sanders’ work are the writings of James Dunn, another liberal Protestant, who was a Professor of Divinity at Durham University. Dunn, who is credited with coining the expression ‘New Perspective on Paul’, claims that Sanders did not succeed in explaining Paul’s relation to Judaism. He argues that Paul was objecting to Jewish exclusivism, not to legalism – that the Apostle was opposing the Jews’ use of ‘the works of the law’ to exclude the Gentiles from the covenant community. Dunn claims that the Jews used certain of these ‘works of the law’ – particularly circumcision, food laws and feast days – as what he calls ‘boundary markers’, to distinguish those who belonged to God’s covenant people from those who did not.

Dunn’s thinking destroys Paul’s doctrine of justification: he redefines the righteousness of God as his covenant faithfulness, and sees justification as an acknowledgement that someone is already among God’s covenant people, while claiming that ‘Paul is ready to insist that a doing of the law is necessary for final acquittal before God’.40 If this looks very much like justification by works, we must notice an even more fundamental error: Dunn rejects the substitutionary death of Christ; he sees it merely as a ‘representative’ death in which believers share. We are left with an ongoing justification which will be finalised on the day of judgement.

In the words of Professor Cornelis P Venema’s critique, this justification concludes ‘with God’s vindication of the believer who remains steadfast by the obedience of faith to the end’.41 But it is important for us to distinguish the final judgement, at the end of the world, from justification by faith, which, as we have repeatedly noted, is a divine, legal declaration that the believing sinner is, for the sake of Christ and his righteousness, perfectly righteous; the law is perfectly satisfied as far as this sinner is concerned because of what the Saviour has done in his place. This declaration can never be changed; it does not need to be confirmed, even on the day of judgement; it most certainly can never be reversed. What will take place at the judgement is that evidence will be led to prove, beyond any possible doubt, that those who are called to enter heaven in their resurrected bodies are indeed truly godly. We must not lose sight of the finality of the sentence that is pronounced in justification, when the sinner first believes.

We turn now to a third ‘New Perspective’ writer, the present Bishop of Durham, Tom Wright,42 who has an Evangelical background. He is a prolific author and has written a number the books promoting his New Perspective views. Among his books is What Saint Paul Really Said, which is addressed to a popular audience. There is no doubt that Wright is a first-class communicator, which makes his departures from Scripture all the more dangerous. He claims that what the Apostle Paul really said was very different from what the Reformers understood by his writings. What then is the gospel according to Tom Wright? This gospel is not an answer to the question, How can I find favour with God? but an answer to a very different question, Who is Lord?

Paul was proclaiming, Wright declares, ‘that the crucified Jesus of Nazareth had been raised from the dead by Israel’s God; that He had thereby been vindicated as Israel’s Messiah; that, surprising though it might seem, He was therefore the Lord of the whole world’. Thus men and women are liberated ‘from paganism which had held them captive’ and are enabled ‘to become, for the first time, the truly human beings they were meant to be’.43 Obviously there is far more to the salvation proclaimed by the biblical gospel than this. Professor Venema complains that ‘one of the most vexing features of the New Perspective is its failure to explain the connection between the justification of believers and Christ’s atoning work’.44This applies to Wright in particular.

Clearly the New Perspective has an unscriptural view of justification. Lying behind it is an inadequate view of the atonement, and lying behind that again must be an inadequate view of sin. But let us listen to Cunningham:

All false conceptions of the system of Christian doctrine assume, or are based on, inadequate and erroneous views and impressions of the nature and effects of the Fall – of the sinfulness of the state into which man fell; producing, of course, equally inadequate and erroneous views and impressions of the difficulty of effecting their deliverance, and of the magnitude, value and efficacy of the provision made for accomplishing it. Forgiveness and regeneration, even when admitted to be in some sense necessary, are represented as comparatively trivial matters, which may be easily cured or effected – the precise grounds of which need not be very carefully or anxiously investigated, since there is no difficulty in regarding them as, in a manner, the natural result of the mercy of God, or, as is often added, though without any definite meaning being attached to it, of the work of Christ.45

But why spend time on the unscriptural ideas of the New Perspective? It is the concern which has prompted more than one author to write on the subject. One of them has said, probably reflecting particularly his own, American, scene: ‘Some within the Reformed churches have enthusiastically heralded the NPP and its supposed compatibility with Reformed and biblical teaching. Upon examination, however, the NPP, both in its particulars and as a system, will evidence marked differences with Reformed and biblical teaching.’ He goes on to assess the ‘sympathies’ of the NPP with the doctrine of salvation; he asserts: ‘To the extent that these sympathies exist, [they] are not with Protestantism but with Roman Catholicism’. And he points to ‘the potential dangers to the Church that are occasioned by enthusiastic and uncritical receptions of the NPP’.46

Wright spells out as follows his view of the ecumenical implications of his ideas:

Paul’s doctrine of justification by faith impels the churches, in their current fragmented state, into the ecumenical task . . . The doctrine of justification, in other words, is not merely a doctrine which Catholic and Protestant might just be able to agree on, as a result of hard ecumenical endeavour. It is itself the ecumenical doctrine, the doctrine that rebukes all our petty and often culture-bound church groupings, and which declares that all who believe in Jesus belong together in the one family.

Enough has been said surely to make it clear that the New Perspective teachings on justification are not those of Paul, or of Scripture generally. But sinners conscious of their guilt can rest assured that the Reformers’ teaching on justification – which is the doctrine of justification revealed in the Bible – does give a safe answer to that most vital of questions: How can I, a sinner, be accepted by God? It was because the Philippian jailor was taught the doctrine that the Lord Jesus Christ had died in the place of sinners that he believed and was justified. And it was because the Publican believingly understood something of the doctrine of substitution – which was illustrated in the sacrifices being offered as he stood at the temple – that he went down to his house justified.

The Reformers have left this generation with a precious heritage; let us not turn our backs on it. The Lord in his kindness gave the Holy Spirit, to a remarkable extent, to them and to other godly theologians in the immediately succeeding generations. John Owen, one of the greatest theologians of the century following the Reformation, gave this as the substance of what he was pleading for at a particular stage of his work on justification: ‘that men should renounce all confidence in themselves and everything that may give countenance thereunto, betaking themselves unto the grace of God by Christ alone for righteousness and salvation’.47 If the Church holds to this doctrine it will have a solid, scriptural answer for seeking souls. To the extent that the Church today has given up its Reformation heritage, it is losing the capacity to give a helpful answer to anyone who has come under conviction of sin.

Let us close with a warning and an encouragement from the Covenanter, James Fraser of Brea:

Look not to what you have done, but to what Christ has done; you neither share in whole nor in part with Christ. Good works are mentioned, not to buy or purchase glory by, but to evidence an interest in Christ and sincerity in grace; if there be as much as will evidence sincerity, there is enough.48


  1. A paper given at the 2009 Theological Conference of the Free Presbyterian Church.
  2. Buchanan, Justification (Banner of Truth Trust reprint, 1961), p 31 [Out of print].
  3. Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology (Banner of Truth, 1974), p 513.
  4. The Works of John Owen (Goold edition, 1851; Banner of Truth reprint, 1965), Vol. 5, p 135.
  5. Justification, p 79.
  6. Quoted in Buchanan, Justification, p 99 (the writer of the Epistle is unknown).
  7. Justification, pp 105-6.
  8. Justification, pp 110-11.
  9. Catechism of the Catholic Church (Geoffrey Chapman, 1994), paras 1263, 1265.
  10. Quoted in Buchanan, Justification, p 428.
  11. Quoted in J V Fesko, Justification (P & R Publishing, 2008), p 20.
  12. Historical Theology (Banner of Truth reprint, 1969), Vol. 2, p 1. [Out of print.]
  13. Quoted in Buchanan, Justification, p 471. Buchanan pays tribute to Henry Balnaves’ Treatise on Justification as ‘still one of the best in our language’. It can be found in David Laing, ed, The Works of John Knox, Vol. 3, pp 431-542. Balnaves was, along with Knox, taken prisoner at the castle of St Andrews by the French.
  14. Quoted in J H Merle d’Aubigné, History of the Reformation in the Time of Calvin, Vol. 6, p 584.
  15. Historical Theology, vol 2, p 12.
  16. Quoted in Fesko, Justification, p 363.
  17. The official Catechism of the Catholic Church (Geoffrey Chapman, 1994), para 1989 quotes approvingly from the Canons of the Council of Trent: ‘Justification is not only the remission of sins, but also the sanctification and renewal of the interior man’.
  18. Justification, p 249.
  19. Quoted from Mark A. Noll, ed, Confessions and Catechisms of the Reformation (Apollos, 1991), p 185.
  20. Historical Theology, Vol. 2, p 9.
  21. The Works of John Owen, Vol. 5, p 317.
  22. Quoted in Buchanan, Justification, p 485.
  23. Institutes of the Christian Religion (Beveridge translation), 3:18:8.
  24. Quoted in Fesko, Justification, p 360, emphasis added.
  25. The Council of Trent’s demand for assent goes so far as to declare in the last of its canons on justification: ‘If anyone says that the Catholic doctrine of justification, as set forth by the holy Council in the present decree, derogates in some respect from the glory of God or the merits of our Lord Jesus Christ, and does not rather illustrate the truth of our faith and no less the glory of God and of Christ Jesus, let him be anathema;’ (quoted from Mark A. Noll, ed, Confessions and Catechisms of the Reformation, p 188, emphasis added).
  26. The Shorter Catechism, Ans. 86.
  27. Systematic Theology (Eerdmans reprint, 1977), Vol. 3, p 142.
  28. Systematic Theology, Vol. 3, p 144.
  29. History of Christian Doctrine (Klock and Klock reprint, 1978), Vol. 2, p 341.
  30. Quoted in Hywel R Jones, Gospel and Church (Evangelical Press of Wales, 1989), pp 86, 88.
  31. Quoted from Mark A. Noll, ed, Confessions and Catechisms of the Reformation, p 217, emphasis added.
  32. Hywel R Jones, Gospel and Church, p 88.
  33. Quoted in Gospel and Church, pp 96, 88.
  34. Historical Theology, Vol. 2, p 79.
  35. Quoted in Kenneth J Collins, ‘The Doctrine of Justification’ in Justification, Mark Husbands and Daniel J Treier, eds. (Apollos/IVP USA, 2004), p 196. (It is rather sad that IVP [Apollos is an imprint of IVP England, the book-publishing division of the Universities and Colleges Christian Fellowship, an Evangelical organisation] should feel it appropriate to include a Roman Catholic scholar among the contributors to this book, on a subject which forms one of the great dividing lines between Protestantism and Romanism.)
  36. Quoted in Gospel and Church, p 101.
  37. Quoted in Cornelis P. Venema, The Gospel of Free Acceptance in Christ (Banner of Truth, 2006), p 100.
  38. Quoted in Philip H Eveson, The Great Exchange (Day One, 1996), p 129.
  39. The error of Pelagianism is that man is able to save himself by his own power; semi-Pelagianism holds that man can deliver himself with the assistance of grace, which is universally available.
  40. Quoted in Guy Prentiss, Waters, Justification and the New Perspectives on Paul (P & R Publishing, 2004), p 104. He uses the plural perspectives because of the differences between the various writers whom he discusses.
  41. The Gospel of Free Acceptance in Christ, p 115.
  42. He should be clearly distinguished from the previous Bishop of Durham, Daniel Jenkins, who was notorious for his attacks on supernatural events in the Bible, particularly the resurrection of Christ. Bishop Wright, however, has written The Resurrection of the Son of God, which affirms a literal resurrection. [On September 1, 2010, Tom Wright took up the position of Professor of New Testament and Early Christianity at St Andrews University School of Divinity.]
  43. Quoted in The Gospel of Free Acceptance in Christ, p 124.
  44. The Gospel of Free Acceptance in Christ, p 303.
  45. Historical Theology, p 43.
  46. Guy Prentiss, Waters, Justification and the New Perspectives on Paul, p xi. Another American writer has stated that ‘the concerns, vocabulary, convictions and categories of the Reformed confessions are not dominating the thinking and language of much of the Reformed world . . . Instead a significant number of pastors and theologians are teaching a doctrine of justification obviously at variance with the Reformed confessions [R Scott Clark, ‘The Roots of the Current Controversy over Justification’ in R Scott Clark, ed, Covenant, Justification, and Pastoral Ministry (P & R Publishing, 2007), p 6]. Prominent among these concerns is the teaching of Professor Norman Shepherd, formerly of Westminster Seminary, Philadelphia, who confines justification to forgiveness and taught in his class syllabus for 1974 that ‘justification presupposes good works; good works are not the ground of justification; good works are the instrument of justification’. And in 1976 he stated that ‘faith coupled with obedience to Christ is what is called for in order to salvation and therefore in order to justification’ (p 17 in the same volume). Whatever refinements Shepherd’s teaching may have, it basically reflects the old heresy of justification by works.
  47. The Works of John Owen, Vol. 5, p 33.
  48. James Fraser, Am I Christian? (Banner of Truth, 2009), p 61.

Kenneth D. Macleod is pastor of the Free Presbyterian Church in Leverburgh on the Isle of Harris. He is the editor of The Free Presbyterian Magazine, from the September – December 2010 issues of which the above has been taken with permission.

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