Saturday, February 16, 2013

The Evangelical doctrine of justification

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The first piece I read on the topic was JI Packer’s article “Sola Fide: The Reformed Doctrine of Justification.” I had heard that this was a classic article that many Evangelicals referred to when discussing justification. I also consulted “Sanctification and Justification: A Unity of Distinctions” by Andrew V. Snider, Wayne Grudem’s systematic theology, Theissen’s Lectures in Systematic Theology, and finally, the classic Arminian systematic theology by Miley. 

It wasn’t until I read Miley’s section on justification that I realized that Evangelicals don’t exactly have a unified perspective on justification.
Until then, I had been reading only Calvinists (partly since they seem to dominate in the circle of scholars that I know) and had figured the system they outlined was more or less the only accepted one within Evangelicalism. (However, Packer did mention that Arminians were on par with Roman Catholics in advocating a justification by works. That should have tipped me off more). My goal here will be to reproduce my understanding of the traditional Reformed doctrine of justification and then give my own two cents. Unfortunately, reflecting on the Arminian model is just too much to go after at this time, though I will be keeping their understanding in the back of my mind as I dive into how the rest of the church has viewed justification.

Traditional Reformed perspective

This doctrine is at the very heart of all theology. It is, as Luther put it, the doctrine that determines whether the Church stands or falls. Simply put, justification is “an instantaneous legal act of God in which he (1) thinks of our sins as forgiven and Christ’s righteousness as belonging to us, and (2) declares us to be righteous in his sight.”[1] Within this we see justification as a one-time instantaneous act (contra Roman Catholics) and as imputation (contra Miley and possibly Arminianism?). 

Obviously, more details are necessary to flesh things out. It is important to first realize, however, that one cannot understand justification apart from “conviction of sin, springing from God-given self-knowledge.”[2] For without this, faith itself is not possible. So, what actually is justification? Grudem’s answer has already been used, but both Packer and Snider give slightly fuller definitions. Packer states that it’s “a judicial act of God pardoning and forgiving our sins, accepting us as righteous, and instating us as his sons” and adds that it is strictly forensic (contra Miley) and decisive for eternity.[3]
Snider concurs, “Justification, then, is God's own action, a forensic-type declaration concerning a sinner's relationship to God's own standard of righteousness. It is based on the redemptive work of Christ alone and is appropriated only by faith.”[4] Snider breaks down this process into three parts, 1) the forgiveness of sins or non-imputation of sin, 2) the imputation of an alien (not our own) righteousness (I,e, Christ’s), and 3) the sinner is qualified for eternal life. 

Since it is the imputation of Christ’s righteousness that is so debated, a fuller description is necessary. This doctrine states that it is Christ’s righteousness that we are clothed with, so when God looks at us, he sees Christ and not us. Basically, when we are in Christ, Christ’s righteousness is regarded as our own. This is based mostly on 2 Corinthians 5:21 which states, “He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.” The righteousness of Christ is ours objectively and formally meaning, it is not just an ontological reality, but actually imparts the form of Christ’s righteousness.[5]

There are many threats to the doctrine of sola fide. What I want to focus on is that of works-based righteousness. “This happens the moment we look to anything in ourselves, whether of nature or of grace, whether to acts of faith or to deeds of repentance, as a basis for pardon and acceptance.”[6] The Westminster confession of faith sums things up well, 

“Those whom God effectually calleth he also freely justifieth; 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; not by imputing faith itself, the act of believing, or any other evangelical obedience, to them 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.”[7]

Another threat that is related is that of confusing the distinctions between justification and sanctification. Roman Catholics are a great example of this since they define justification as “not only the remission of sins, but also the sanctification and renewal of the interior man.”[8] Instead of relying solely on the righteousness of Christ to be justified, a Roman Catholic believes that one becomes inwardly just, which means “one's justifying righteousness can wax, wane, or be destroyed completely.”[9] However, this is simply wrong, for we cannot “participate in gaining a status of righteousness before God.”[10]

The main point to emphasize here is that sanctification is not the basis for justification (contra RCC). “Holy behavior does not bring God's favor and His declaration of righteousness.”[11] “If justification depends on human accomplishment and is yet portrayed as the gift of God, the obvious imperfection of human righteousness will be imputed to God and His goodness will be doubted.”[12] The very goodness of God is at stake, and the reason why one cannot take such a view of the relationship between justification and sanctification.

The second way many confuse the two is by understanding that justification causes sanctification. However, this is the same error that the Reformation tried to correct, the idea that justification is “an inward change that brings about practical holiness that in turn makes the sinner acceptable to God.”[13] However, though the two are very much related, if justification does cause sanctification, this would cause the believer to have his own righteousness and goes against the idea of forensic justification.[14] The correct way to think about these things is “that holy living should arise from a gratitude for these objective benefits [righteous standing, acceptance with God, etc.].”[15]
Summary of Reformed doctrine of justification

When one believes on the Lord Jesus Christ, he is instantly credited with the righteousness of Christ Himself, so that whenever God views him from that moment on, he sees not the sinner’s being, but Christ’s. At this very moment, the believer is declared to be righteous and is given eternal life. The believer is called then to holy living, but this is not caused by his justification, but it instead simply a reaction to it; for whether being justified or sanctified, a believer relies solely on the righteousness of Christ to be righteous in God’s sight. 

[1] Grudem, Wayne. Systematic Theology, pg 723
[2] Packer, JI. “Sola Fide: The Reformed Doctrine of Justification”
[3] Ibid
[4] Snider, Andrew. ““Sanctification and Justification: A Unity of Distinctions” pg 169
[5] Packer “Sola Fide”
[6] ibid
[7] Qtd. in “Sola Fide”
[8] Qtd. in Snider “Sanctification” 173
[9] Ibid
[10] ibid
[11] ibid
[12] Snider 174
[13] ibid
[14] ibid
[15] ibid

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