With the current justification controversy swirling around, I’ve had a few thoughts that keep piling up that needs to be put on paper. Now, keep in mind from the outset I’m not John Piper, R. Scott Clark, Mark Jones, Doug Wilson, N.T. Wright, or anyone else. I am nothing more than a small potato Southern Baptist church planter and pastor from the Southern part of West Virginia. But, here’s the thing about that. Small potatoes are sometimes good as a side to a larger meal, and with that in mind, I am prayerful that I can add something to the conversation that is fruitful, edifying, clear, and helpful.
With that said, I am convinced that like any other debate, there is a right side and a wrong side. I think this discussion is important for several reasons. The first reason is that the discussion centers around the topic of justification. Anyone who is familiar with Protestantism knows that we take conversations on justification seriously. The second reason that I believe it to be important is due to the influence that each of these men have. If I could use an analogy, John Piper is the classic Rocky Marciano. R. Scott Clark is Muhammad Ali who is the king of trash talk. Doug Wilson is Joe Frazier who is constantly feuding with Ali. Mark Jones is the always vicious Mike Tyson. N.T. Wright is Don King who is just making a buck off of all of these guys who fight. I’m just an amateur who occasionally can throw and land a lucky punch, even if it’s thrown badly. G.K. Chesterton once wrote that anything worth doing is worth doing badly. I concur.
Now, I do not have time to dive into the history of this debate, but it’s been going much longer than the current debates that are happening. If you’d like a history running into the 2000’s, see Brandon Adam’s excellent post documenting the history here.
Whew! So with all of that out of the way, let’s dig in. I want to begin by saying this: I believe at the core of this controversy that there is a fundamental question being overlooked. That is, what is justification? Or, asked another way – what does it mean to be justified? I see tons of talk in blogs, podcasts, and forums about what has become known as present justification and future justification. But, what I don’t see a lot of is a conversation about what justification actually is or what it means to be justified. We need to talk about the essentia or the essence of justification. I think in discussing this, we are able to drill down into what the Scriptures are saying in regards to justification.
One Scripture that I have in mind is Romans 3:21-24. There, Paul states:
“But now, apart from the law, the righteousness of God has been revealed, being testified about by the law and the prophets—22 that is, the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. For there is no distinction, 23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24 being justified as a gift by his grace, through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus.”
So according to Saint Paul, what exactly is justification? Well, let’s examine the four causes of justification. What is the formal cause of justification (that is, the idea)? According to Paul, the idea here is being justified by God. What is the material cause (that is, the stuff)? The “stuff” of justification is being declared righteous. That is the essence. It is receiving “righteousness of God through faith in Jesus to all who believe.” According to the word used by Saint Paul, which is δικαιόω, that’s what it means to be justified. It is a declaration made about the person. What is the efficient cause of justification (that is, the agent that accomplishes it)? It is none other than faith in Jesus Christ. Notice also that Paul says this faith which leads to justification is “a gift by his grace.” This means that ultimately it is God who is the Agent behind our justification. The final cause (that is, the purpose) is “redemption” for the glory of God.
Now that we’ve examined the four causes of justification, we can succinctly define what justification is. According to Saint Paul, justification is when a sinner is justified before God by being declared righteous by God through faith in Jesus. This is a free gift of grace, freely given for the purpose of redeeming sinners for the glory of God. That is justification. It is entirely Christocentric.
Now, notice a couple of things here. First, notice that there is no distinction made here by Saint Paul between present justification and future justification. According to Paul, justification is a declaration made in time of those “who believe.” Justification is tied to the moment of belief. There is no initial justification and then a final justification. I am convinced by Scripture that those who distinguish between the two are imposing an invalid distinction which distorts what is the essence of justification.
The second thing we should notice is the efficient cause of justification. What is it that justifies us? Again, it is God bestowing the free gift of faith. Since this is true, it follows that there no room in Saint Paul’s definition of justification for our works. Our works play no part in our justification. Period. If our works are brought before God for final justification, can we still say that justification is truly Christocentric? Now, I know some will say, “Of course! Because they’re given as a gift! They’re a fruit!” Of course works are the fruit of the Spirit, however, I believe this answer reveals what’s really going on here: A conflation between justification and sanctification. Remember, according to Paul, justification is the declaration that we have been made right before God. This is different than sanctification.
This is also the understanding of justification put forth by the Westminster Confession of Faith. Article one of Chapter XI on Justification states:
Those whom God effectually calls, He also freely justifies; 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; nor 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.
Justification is the pardoning of sinners by accounting and accepting the person as righteous because of their faith in Christ alone. Notice now, that it’s not because of anything wrought in them or done by them. Westminster gives no comfort to those who would distinguish between present and final justification. Westminster affirms that it is wholly be receiving and resting on Christ and His righteousness by faith that sinners are justified. It goes even further to state that this faith isn’t even something that we do. It is wholly a free gift of God. This is exactly what Saint Paul is saying in Romans 3.
Now, there are many more things that could be said. I do not have the time or space right now with my schedule. The purpose of this was to just put a few thoughts on paper, not to write a dissertation or to deal with every single problem passage. But, I would direct you to Brandon Adam’s blog for more on this controversy. I would also direct you to R. Scott Clark’s blog as well. Perhaps at another time, I’ll chime back in when I’m less busy and can commit more time.