Tag Archives: Justification

We Distinguish…(Part 4) — Law/Gospel

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In this series, we are surveying some of the most important Reformed theological distinctions. These are not irrelevant or minor points of theology. Rather, these are distinctions where, if you get them wrong or ignore them, major theological disaster threatens to ensue. We need to strive for precision in our understanding of the teachings of God’s Word.

Despite being found in the Three Forms of Unity, today’s distinction has fallen on hard times. I have lost track of the number of times that I’ve heard Reformed ministers speak disparagingly of the distinction between law and gospel. I think I understand why it happens. Imagine if someone were to say, “Oh, covenant theology makes people into legalists. It’s good that we’ve broken free from the doctrine of the covenant. That doctrine has caused nothing but trouble – it just makes people self-righteous.” It’s true that the doctrine of the covenant has been abused by some and badly taught/misunderstood by others to such an extent that it became a legalistic undermining of the gospel. So do we throw out the doctrine of the covenant? We recognize that there’s a difference between the abuse/bad teaching of a doctrine and an orthodox biblical formulation of a doctrine. We don’t throw out a doctrine simply because it has been mishandled. Similarly, the distinction between law and gospel has sometimes been mishandled or misunderstood. Does that automatically mean we toss it aside? What if there were grave consequences in doing so?

At the outset the context in which this distinction functions has to be laid out. We distinguish between law and gospel in the realm of justification. Justification, if you recall, is God’s one-time declaration that we are right with him solely on account of the merits of Jesus Christ. How law and gospel relate to this doctrine is what we’re concerned with here. When it comes to sanctification (the process of growth in holiness), there is overlap and interplay between law and gospel, but when it comes to justification, they must be distinguished.

Let me illustrate how the law/gospel distinction appears in the Heidelberg Catechism. I could mention the Belgic Confession and Canons of Dort as well, but in the interests of brevity, we’ll just stick with the Catechism. In Lord’s Day 2, we confess that the law of God reveals our sin and misery. The law evidently has the character of demand: God orders you to do this or else. Through its demands, the law drives us to Christ. From where do we learn about the Saviour? Lord’s Day 6 tells us the biblical answer: from the gospel. Everything promised us in the gospel is summarized in the Apostles’ Creed, says Lord’s Day 7. There we discover the character of the gospel: it promises us glad tidings and rich blessings. So between Lord’s Day 2 and Lord’s Days 6 and 7, we learn the different characteristics of law and gospel. The law is God’s demand and the gospel is God’s promise for our salvation. Should there be any doubt that this is the intention and meaning of the Catechism, I would refer readers to Ursinus’ Commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism (page 2), and Olevianus’ A Firm Foundation (pages 9-10).

As mentioned at the beginning, this distinction functions within the context of justification. Sinners are facing the judge. They are accused of failing to meet God’s demands – breaking his law. In the context of justification, the law points out not merely empty hands, but treasonous hands. In the words of the Catechism in Lord’s Day 23, the sinner has “grievously sinned against all of God’s commandments, has never kept any of them, and is still inclined to all evil.” That’s what the law announces in the context of justification: you are guilty and you have nothing with which to save yourself from the Judge.

The gospel throws endangered sinners a lifeline. There is a way to leave the courtroom without the Judge as your enemy – in fact, you can leave the courtroom with the Judge as your Father. That way is through what the gospel promises in Jesus Christ. The gospel holds out to you reconciliation with the Holy Judge, if only you will take hold of Jesus Christ by faith and trust that he has lived a perfect life for you and has offered the perfect sacrifice in your place. The gospel promises peace and fellowship with God. You don’t need to work for it, all you need to do is turn from your sins, look to Christ, and accept the promise. That’s what the gospel announces in the context of justification: in Christ you have everything you need to be declared right with God.

By now perhaps you can sense the danger in fudging with this distinction. The law/gospel distinction in justification insists that in ourselves we bring nothing to our salvation except the sin which makes it necessary. On the flip side, it insists that in Christ we have everything we need for our salvation. How could any Bible-believing Christian deny this? Isn’t this exactly the point Paul was making in Galatians 3:11, “Now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law, for ‘The righteous shall live by faith.’” Faith in the gospel promises is God’s instrument for justification. The law, on the other hand, says, “Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law and do them” (Gal. 3:10). If you rely on the law and your obedience to it for your justification, then you are self-deceived and damned. Paul works with a distinction between law and gospel – so our Catechism didn’t invent this distinction, it was drawn from Scripture.

Allow me to add two important clarifications.

First, no one should understand the law/gospel distinction as pitting the Old Testament against the New Testament. The law is found in both in Old and New Testament, and so is the gospel. Law demands and gospel promises are together found throughout the 66 books of the Bible.

Second, the law/gospel distinction, properly understood, does not lead Reformed believers to antinomianism – having a negative attitude towards the law of God. Remember, the law has three uses. The first use pertains to justification – pointing out our sin and misery. The second use is for civil society. The third use of the law is as our rule of thankfulness. Maintaining a law/gospel distinction in justification does not mean that we throw out the law for our sanctification. No! Quite the opposite. As thankful believers united to Christ, we embrace the law as our friend and we sing with the Psalmist in Psalm 119 of how we love God’s law and strive to follow it.

The law/gospel distinction is crucially important because it appears at the roots of our salvation. If the roots are not healthy, then the tree is not going to be healthy either, and any possibility of real fruit may also come into question. We have to strive for precision, especially in foundational doctrines like justification. No, we are not saved by doctrinal precision. Someone could be confused on this, unable to express it properly, and still be saved. Nevertheless, the danger of trusting in yourself and what you do instead of Christ is far greater if you do not understand this distinction. We must always have it clear in minds the very last words Martin Luther supposedly uttered: “We are beggars. This is true.” The law/gospel distinction reinforces this biblical truth.


We Distinguish…(Part 3) — Justification/Sanctification

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In this series, we are surveying some of the most important Reformed theological distinctions. These are not irrelevant or minor points of theology. Rather, these are distinctions where, if you get them wrong or ignore them, major theological disaster threatens to ensue. We need to strive for precision in our understanding of the teachings of God’s Word.

Reformed theology distinguishes between justification and sanctification. We hold this distinction in common with Lutheranism. Both Lutheran and Reformed theologians in the 1500s recovered the essential biblical teaching on this point. Both Lutheran and Reformed churches had seen the grave damage caused by some of the medieval confusion of these doctrines.

To be clear, when we say that justification and sanctification are to be distinguished from one another, we don’t mean that they are opposed to one another. They are different, but certainly not opposites. Moreover, there is an intimate relationship between these two doctrines. While they must be distinguished, they can never be separated.

Defining the Terms

We need to be absolutely clear on what justification and sanctification mean. Whenever I use these words in a sermon, I always explain them. We cannot expect that everyone hears these terms and right away understands what they mean.

In its most basic form, justification is God as Judge declaring that we are right with him because of what Jesus Christ has done for us in his life and death. We find this doctrine described in the early chapters of Romans, especially chapters 3 and 4. It’s revealed that justification involves a judicial declaration – the picture is of a Judge issuing a verdict. We are the accused. In the words of the Heidelberg Catechism (Lord’s Day 23), we are charged with breaking all of God’s commandments, never having kept any of them, and still being inclined to all evil. However, if we take hold of Jesus Christ by faith, we have a powerful defense lawyer or Mediator for our case. He steps in and pleads on our behalf. He offers up his perfect life and his sacrifice on the cross in our place – these are imputed to us, credited to our accounts. These are more than sufficient to bring the Judge to his verdict: righteous! Note: not merely innocent, but something far better, positively righteous. Because of Christ, the Divine Judge regards us as those who have not only never sinned, but also as those who have been and are actively holy, and even as those who never will sin ever again. All the demands of the law have been met in Christ. As a consequence, the Judge comes down from the bench, takes off his robes, puts his arm on your shoulder and says, “Welcome to my family!” We go from the courtroom to the family room. Justification leads to adoption. God is no longer our Judge, but our Father and we have the privilege of relating to him in that special way.

One of the most important points to understand about this doctrine is that justification is not a process, but an event. Justification is not something that has to take place every day, but it is something that happens when a person first takes hold of Christ by faith (whenever that is). If the Judge has once declared that you are right with him because of Christ, then that verdict stands into eternity. It is not a verdict which needs to be issued every day again. If you have gone from the courtroom to the family room, your place in the family is always secure. The Triune God will no more be your Judge, instead he will always be your Father and you should relate to him as your Father. It was one of the fundamental errors of the Roman Catholic Church to describe justification as a process. They made it into a lifelong development. But the Reformation recovered the biblical teaching of passages like Romans 8:1, “There is therefore no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” If you have been justified by faith in Christ, you are justified once and for all. To suggest otherwise is to overturn the Judge’s verdict. The Judge doesn’t appreciate that, and neither should the justified.

When it comes to sanctification, the Bible speaks of it in two ways. There is definitive sanctification – this means that God has definitely set us apart as holy. He has done this in our election, effectual calling, adoption, and so on. This is sanctification as an event that takes place at a certain point. We can see that usage in passages like Acts 20:32 and 1 Corinthians 6:11. However, our focus here is on the more common usage of the word “sanctification” and that’s in reference to progressive sanctification. This is sanctification as the process of Christian growth. That’s how sanctification appears in passages like 1 Thess. 5:23. Sanctification is the process by which believers are being transformed into the image of Christ. This happens as the Holy Spirit works with believers through the Word of God, through the sacraments, and through prayer. This process is one which takes place each and every day that a believer spends on this earth. It only ends when the believer dies or when Christ returns.

One of the key things to understand about sanctification, as distinct from justification, is our role as believers. In sanctification, Christ is the primary subject or actor (see HC Lord’s Day 32). He works through his Spirit to renovate us. However, believers are also active in this process. Because we are regenerated our wills are alive and we are thus capable of cooperating with the Holy Spirit in our sanctification (see Canons of Dort 3/4, article 16).   In justification, we merely believe. In justification, faith is receptive of Christ and his benefits. In sanctification, however, faith is active in bearing the fruit of an increasingly holy life. Scripture calls those who have been born again to strive for holiness (e.g. 1 Peter 1:14-16) and we do that, knowing that as we do so, we are dependent on the power of the Holy Spirit.

The Relationship Between Justification and Sanctification

These two doctrines are closely connected. Those who have been justified freely by God’s grace will never be untouched as regards their sanctification. If someone has the true faith in Jesus Christ which is instrumental in justification, then sanctification will invariably follow as a fruit of that faith. Justification is about the roots of our salvation, sanctification is about the fruits of that salvation. They are part of the same package, but we do need to keep them separate because they do represent separate components in the package.

Why It Matters

When these two doctrines are not kept clear and distinct in our minds, the very heart of the gospel is threatened. It was a Reformed theologian (J.H. Alsted) who first said that justification is the doctrine by which the church stands or falls. He was echoing what others, including Luther, had essentially said, but he was the first to use those exact words. Alsted was precisely right. The reason why he was right has to do with the place of good works in justification. Our good works have no place in justification! They have a central and necessary place in sanctification, but not in justification. It’s the righteousness of Christ alone that has brought about the once-for-all verdict of the Judge. If we confuse sanctification and justification, we are attempting to bring our good works into the court room. That would result in a devaluing of the work of our Mediator, a loss of the gospel of what he has done for us and in our place. Losing the gospel means losing Christ, and if you have lost Christ, you have lost union with Christ, and then not only is there no hope for justification, there is also no hope for sanctification. We therefore must get this right!

Above I mentioned another manner of confusion: arguing that, like sanctification, justification is a process. Some say that it is something that must happen every day. That gets perilously close to confusing justification and sanctification. Calling justification a daily process is dangerous because it threatens a healthy biblical sense of who God is and how we relate to him as Christians. As justified believers, we are still sinners – Scripture is clear on this (Gal. 5:17, Rom. 7:24). But as sinners, we now go to God as our Father for forgiveness, not to God as our Judge. The forgiveness that Christians seek daily for their sins is the forgiveness of the Father they’ve displeased with their evil. We need to remember that through Christ and his merits, we have been permanently adopted into God’s family. We are his children, he is our Father, and there is absolutely nothing that can change that. A Christian can confidently say, “I am his child today and, only because of Jesus, I will be his child tomorrow morning too.” So as we pray and as we worship, we can always call on the Triune God as our Father. This is a great privilege afforded to us by the justification we have received once and for all as a gift from our Mediator.

Justification and sanctification are two of the most important biblical doctrines. If we are confused or mistaken on these doctrines, there are enormous doctrinal and practical consequences. However, if we rightly understand them, we are led to more praise for the God of our salvation, both with our words and our works.


All or Nothing!

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For better or for worse, we often have a tendency to think in terms of all or nothing, black or white.  This is true in church life and it is also often true in our individual spiritual lives.  Now there is a good and healthy “all or nothing,” but there is also a bad and dysfunctional “all or nothing.”  Trying to keep this straight is an immense challenge.  I want to reflect for a moment on how to hold on the healthy “all or nothing,” while discarding the dysfunctional “all or nothing” in our walk with God.

The bad and dysfunctional mentality sometimes appears when Christians think that the “all” must be there with their sanctification, or there is nothing in their justification.  In other words, our being declared right by God depends on us being 100% on track with our progressive holiness.  If the progress in our holiness is minimal, then our position as God’s children is in doubt.  We cannot be accepted by God, because we do not measure up for God.  For there to be “all” in our justification, there must be “all” in our sanctification.  Our justification then depends on our sanctification.  This is bad and dysfunctional because it is a functional denial of the gospel.  This “all or nothing” mentality ends up adding sanctification to the basis of our justification.   In reality, it seeks to add something to the finished work of Christ on our behalf.  With that thinking, we’ve lost the gospel of grace recovered by the Reformation in the sixteenth century.

But there is also a healthy “all or nothing” mentality that Christians can and should have.  That has to do with the finished work of Christ for us.  It is really quite simple:  either Jesus has lived an entirely perfect life in my place, perfectly keeping all the commandments for me, or he has not.  All or nothing.  Either Jesus has made satisfaction for every single one of my sins or he has not.  All or nothing.  The reality is that he is a complete Saviour.  He is the Saviour who gives all that we need for our salvation — we have everything we need in him and him alone.  In him, I have the perfect obedience God requires in his law.  In him, I have the full forgiveness of every sin I have committed in the past.  In him, I have the full forgiveness of every sin I might commit at this moment.  Wonderfully, in him, I have the assurance that every sin I will ever commit in the future is already forgiven and paid for in full.  I have nothing in myself, but all in Jesus Christ.

I love the way this is expressed in Lord’s Day 11 of the Heidelberg Catechism:  “…For one of two things must be true, either Jesus is not a complete Saviour, or those who by true faith accept this Saviour must find in him all that is necessary for their salvation.”  If we are trusting in Christ alone for our present and eternal well-being, we have all, we have everything — and nothing can take that away from us.  As Paul says in Romans 8:1, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.”  “No condemnation” means precisely what it says.  If we are in Christ Jesus by faith, there is absolutely nothing standing against us and there never will be.


Luther and Justification by Faith Alone

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I’m currently in Brazil lecturing on church history at the John Calvin Institute, the seminary of the Reformed Churches of Brazil.  The course is on the Reformation.  In view of Reformation Day tomorrow, let me share part of this morning’s lecture notes on Martin Luther and his doctrine of justification by faith alone.  We can be thankful and praise God for Luther’s recovery of this key gospel teaching!

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We have already touched on justification a little bit.  I remind you that most medieval Catholic theology saw justification as a process.  It was a process in which it was necessary for man to cooperate with God’s grace.  The typical medieval view of justification was therefore synergistic; it was at best semi-Pelagian.  We saw that Staupitz started departing from this view.  He viewed justification as an event and he did put a more biblical emphasis on the grace of God.  However, it was Luther who really brought things all the way back to the Bible.

Luther’s doctrine of justification is quite similar to the Reformed doctrine of justification as we have it in the Three Forms of Unity.  This was a point largely held in common by both the Lutheran and Reformed wings of the Reformation.  Therefore, I don’t think there should be any surprises for us here.  It should be a good review of the biblical doctrine of justification.

Luther read Scripture and concluded that justification is a forensic term, it refers to a legal declaration that God makes about a sinner.  It is “God’s sure and certain declaration that we are righteous in his eyes…only because of our Saviour Jesus Christ.”  In his law, God demands that mankind be perfectly obedient.  Jesus Christ has done that for us in his perfect life and his righteousness is imputed to us.  In his justice, God demands that the sinner be punished for having transgressed the law.  Jesus Christ has done that for us on the cross and our sins have been placed upon him.  In its basis, Luther’s doctrine of justification includes what we call both the active and passive obedience of Christ.  Active refers to his life of obedience to God’s law in our place.  Passive refers to his suffering obedience to pay for our sins.  Both are included in Luther’s doctrine of justification as part of the basis.  The basis of justification is in God’s grace in Jesus Christ alone.

The means by which this justification is received is only through faith.  Faith is the instrument of justification.  Good works contribute nothing to justification in Luther’s theology.  In the Smalcald Articles, Luther wrote, “This [justification] cannot be otherwise acquired or grasped by any work, law, or merit.  Therefore, it is clear and certain that this faith alone justifies us.”  It is also important to note that Luther’s definition of faith excludes good works.  Faith is simply resting and trusting in Christ.  It does not include anything else.  Luther wrote “Faith is a living, bold trust in God’s grace, so certain of God’s favor that it would risk death a thousand times trusting in it.”  Faith is simply “unconditional trust of God in his Word.”  It’s important to note this because many of Luther’s opponents had a different view.  Many Catholic theologians had taught that in its essence faith must include good works.  Therefore, we can say that we are justified by faith, but then works get smuggled in along with faith.  The result is what could be described as justification by faithfulness, rather than by faith.  Luther rejected that view.

So then, what about good works?  In the Smalcald Articles, Luther wrote, “Such faith, renewal, and forgiveness of sins are followed by good works.”  Good works are the inevitable fruit of justification.  Luther again:  “We say, besides, that if good works do not follow, the faith is false and not true.”  A justified Christian will always bear fruit in good works.

Let me briefly mention two other points in connection with this doctrine.  First of all, what did Luther do with James and his teaching on justification?  You may remember that James appears to contradict Paul.  Paul says that justification is by faith apart from works.  James says that justification is “justified by works and not by faith alone” (James 2:24).  How did Luther deal with this apparent difference?  He struggled with it.  He could not explain it.  Because of his difficulty with it, you may hear of Luther’s describing the book of James as an epistle of straw.  However, this needs to be understood in context.  For one thing, Luther included James as a canonical book in his German Bible translation.  If he thought it was not really part of the Bible, he would have left it out.  Nevertheless, this does leave Luther with something like a canon within the canon.  For another thing, when Luther said it he was making a comparison with Romans and other books of Paul.  For one more thing, Luther preached on James as the Word of God.  So he never threw James out of the canon or rejected this book as the Word of God.  Later on, as I’m sure you know, Protestant Bible interpreters did arrive at a solution to the apparent difficulty between Paul and James, but for Luther it remained a paradox.

Luther is credited with being among the first to clearly recognize the biblical teaching that justified Christians are both sinners and saints.  He used the Latin expression, “simul iustus et peccator.”  This is an essential part of the doctrine of justification because it relates to imputation.  In imputation, Christ’s righteousness is credited to our accounts with God.  In God’s sight, we become what we are not.  We are sinners, but through Christ, we are accounted righteous.  But even after justification, we still sin and we are still sinners.  Not as far as our status with God goes, but as we live out our daily experience on this earth.  This is important to note because later on in church history, the doctrine of justification comes under attack in Protestantism and it is revised heavily in an unbiblical direction.  As a result, simul iustus et peccator also comes under attack.  However, Luther saw that this was a crucial part of the biblical doctrine of justification.  By God’s grace he recovered it for us.

Sometimes you will read that it was Luther who said that justification is the doctrine by which the church stands or falls.  Luther certainly spoke along those lines.  However, that actual wording did not come from Luther.  Instead, it came from a Reformed theologian living some time later, J. H. Alsted.  Alsted was a German Reformed theologian from the post-Reformation period.  Regardless of its original source, it is important to note that both Lutheran and Reformed theologians have recognized the central significance of this doctrine.  If the church gets this doctrine wrong, it has consequences in so many ways.  However, when the church closely follows what the Bible teaches, as Luther did, there are many blessings to be enjoyed.

KEY POINTS:  Luther’s doctrine of justification is basically what we find in the Three Forms of Unity.  It is a legal declaration on the basis of what Christ has done for the sinner.  It is received by faith alone, and faith excludes any works.  Justification inevitably does produce good works in the life of the believer.  Luther could not explain the apparent difference between Paul and James on works in justification.  Finally, he emphasized that the Christian believer is simul iustus et peccator.