JUSTIFICATION BY BELIEF

The following is a post from Ron DiGiacomo, expressing some reflections on the recent discussion here on the nature of faith. Is it assent alone, or assent + trust?


It has recently been argued by some that we are justified by belief alone and that receiving and resting in Christ unpacks what it is to believe. In other words, receiving and resting in Christ is considered a figure of speech by which belief in Christ can be defined. Trusting in Christ does not complete justifying belief because trusting is synonymous with believing. Accordingly, to add receiving and resting in Christ to belief is either (i) redundant, (ii) strips belief of part of its meaning, needlessly placing it somewhere else, or (iii) to add something additional to the instrumental cause of justification. The first deviation would be a matter of muddled thinking, but the gospel would remain intact although jumbled. The second would be purely a matter of semantics. Whereas the third construct would undermine the grace by which we are saved, appropriated by belief alone.

Those who promote the belief alone view are sometimes met with tedious rejoinders such as the false dichotomy “we’re saved by Christ not propositional belief.” Notwithstanding, more serious objections have been raised by Teaching and Ruling Elders against the belief alone position because of the group’s insistence upon equating belief with assent. This is where things get a bit dicey. Most of the things we assent to, whether a priori or a posteriori, are not volitional. One does not will to believe that God exists any more than a child chooses to believe he is being fed by his mother. These are mental assents that are not discursive; they are immediate and without reflection. The will is bypassed. However, the gospel always engages the will as the unbeliever counts the cost and by grace abandons all hope in himself while looking to Christ alone, finding rest in Him. Accordingly, it is inadequate to reduce justifying faith to belief alone when belief is reduced to assent without remainder.

It is at this point someone will assert that assent is synonymous with resting in or relying upon Christ. In this context is it is opined that to assent to Christ dying on the cross for my sins is to trust the proposition is true. Albeit the premise is true, this observation turns on a subtle equivocation over the word trust. Indeed, to trust a proposition is true is no different than to assent to its truth. So, in that sense trust and assent are synonyms. However, to trust that something is true is not the same thing as to trust in that something. The latter idea of trust carries the meaning of reliance upon, whereas the former use of trust merely conveys an intellectual assent that might or might not be accompanied by the reliance sort of trust. Accordingly, to argue that trust and assent are synonyms in this way is to implicitly deny the need to willfully trust upon Christ alone for salvation!

As a last ditch effort some have argued that it is impossible to assent to the truth of the gospel without justification following. They draw a distinction between (i) assent in non-spiritual matters (allowing for assent to obtain without trust) and (ii) assent with respect to the gospel (suggesting that assent is inseparable to trust, even its equivalent). They reason that true assent to the gospel is only granted at conversion. Therefore, assent is trust because the two are inseparable where the gospel is concerned. Rather than debate the premise, it’s much easier to concede it for argument’s sake in order to save time in refuting the conclusion that assent is trust. Even if assent were a sufficient condition for pardon in Christ that would not mean that assent equates to trust any more than assent is regeneration. It would merely mean that when assent is present pardon obtains, just like when pardon obtains regeneration is present. Since when may a sufficient condition be equated with the relevant components that comprise the state of affairs within which the condition operates?!

In sum, assent pertains to accepting something as true, even possibly with no reflection, whereas trust (or non-trust) pertains to the degree of relevance a person might assign to the “assented to” proposition. Assent is a mental act that need not be accompanied by volition; whereas trust in Christ is always volitional in nature. Assent always pertains to accepting the truth of a proposition, whereas how one might respond in light of assent (e.g. trust, rest, exuberance, etc.) is commonly classified under the philosophical heading of disposition (which is not propositional assent). Whereas trust and other dispositions can evidence assent, dispositions need not accompany any given assent since assents can be mundane, occur without reflection and, also, be subjectively perceived as inconsequential. (This is why philosophers consider disposition to be a poor indicator of the presence of assent.)

If assent and trust were synonyms under the gospel, then either they both would mean cognitive conviction or else volitional reliance. Conviction of truth (assent) could never give way to reliance upon truth (trust).  If assent and trust mean the same thing, then either we cannot rely upon our convictions or else we can only rely upon things that don’t convince us. Conviction without reliance leaves no room for trusting in Christ; whereas reliance without conviction paves the way to trusting in Christ while not assenting to the gospel.

Dr. Ligon Duncan’s Seminar on the Marrow Controversy

In today’s theological climate, antinomianism and the Sonship theology are rife within Reformed circles. The Marrow Controversy therefore has much to teach us about the relationship of grace and law.

Dr. Duncan started by sketching a short history of the Marrow Controversy, emphasizing Boston’s role in recommending the Marrow of Modern Divinity. The book, of course, caused waves in the Scottish Presbyterian church. There had been a professor at Glasgow who had showed affinity for Socinianism and Arminianism. This man was tried by the church and basically given a slap on the wrist. So those heterodox doctrines would find a refuge in the Scottish Presbyterian Church, but the evangelical Calvinism was not found congenial. The Auchterarter Presbytery had a question that they asked candidates about the relationship of coming to Christ and forsaking sin. Understood properly, the question was designed to make clear that a person does not forsake sin in order to come to Christ, but rather comes to Christ in order for sin’s hold on the person to be broken. The General Assembly rebuked the Auchterarter Presbytery for asking the question this way. What would later be called “moderatism” had its beginnings in the General Assembly. Enlightenment thinking took over, to the point where, as one writer puts it, a typical “moderatism” sermon was like a winter day: cold, clear, and brief. The Marrow, on the other hand, was condemned by the General Assembly. The defenders of the Marrow, such as Thomas Boston, and the Erskine brothers appealed the decision, which was rejected. This almost guaranteed that everyone in Scotland would purchase a copy of the book! There’s Scottish contrariness for you.

There are three interpretations of the Marrow controversy. Some argue that it was an internecine dispute of two sides that both held to the Westminster Standards. Those who condemned the Marrow quoted the Westminster standards against the Marrow men, which creates a certain plausibility for this view. This view is wrong in Duncan’s mind, though.

The second view says that the Marrow men represented a revolt against classical Calvinism (this is held by J.B. Torrance). In other words, the Marrow men were trying to liberate the Scottish church from the Westminster Standards. The Marrow men, however, vowed ex animo in strict subscription to the Westminster Standards.

The third view is that the Marrow men were the Westminster theology men. This is the proper view.

Dr. Duncan then shared many of the most important quotations from both Boston and Fisher.

Job and Bunyan Versus The Shack

I am reblogging this book review of The Shack (originally posted January 7,2009), as it was a post most people found to be helpful.

The book entitled The Shack has been a marketing phenomenon among “evangelicals.” Blurbs compare the Shack to Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. I am here to tell you that the hype is a bit forced. Let’s do a bit of comparison, first with the book of Job, then with Bunyan, interjecting a bit of C.S. Lewis in for fun.

The Shack is the story of a man whose beautiful daughter is brutally murdered. The man leaves the faith, only to receive a message from God to meet him at the shack, the very place where his daughter was murdered. He then meets God. The Father is a big jolly black woman, the Son is a Jewish carpenter, and the Holy Spirit is a wispy, mysterious Asian woman (we’ll get to that blasphemy in a moment). The upshot of the plot is that God explains to the main character the why’s and the wherefore’s, and the man is healed. The theological upshot is that God is good, but not all-powerful. Young takes Rabbi Kushner’s prong of the dilemma. What is important to notice here is a combination of rationalism and experientalism. On the one hand, Young tears at the heart strings, making the reader bleed for the main character. On the other hand, in order for the man’s faith to be “restored,” God has to explain himself.

Contrast Job. Job lost much more than the man in the story (ten children!), and it was due to the prince of demons being opposed to him, not a mere man, even if Job didn’t know that. He lost all his possessions, and then finally his health. He had much more to complain about than the man in The Shack. He too wanted God to explain. He wanted to vindicate himself as well. But when God finally has His say, He tells Job that He does not have to come to the bar of human reason. Humans have to come to the bar of God. This is where C.S. Lewis comes in. In his brilliant essay entitled “God in the Dock,” he makes the point that the really important thing for autonomous man is that he is the judge, and that God is in the dock. The man may very well be a kindly judge and acquit God of wrong-doing, if God shows Himself up to the task of defending himself. But the really important thing is that man is the judge, and God is in the dock (on trial). Job shows us that the reverse is true. God is the judge, and man is in the dock.

Rationalism always results in God losing one of His attributes. If God is all-powerful and all-good, then how come evil exists? The Bible does not allow us to lessen the difficulty of this question by jettisoning one of these attributes. The reason the problem is so acute for the believer is that God is both all-benevolent and all-powerful.

Just to begin an answer (and not leave the readers hanging), God allows evil to exist for various reasons, but evil will not continue to last. God has dealt with the problem of evil on the cross and the empty tomb, and will finally eradicate the very presence of evil in this world in the future. No other religion, by the way, or atheism, has an answer to this question. Pantheism believes that evil is naturally part of the world. No hope of eradication there. Atheism cannot define right and wrong, so his faith in his own reason becomes shockingly apparent when he confidently talks about the problem of evil. Deists don’t believe that God has anything to do with the world. These all lack hope and eschatology.

Bunyan and Young go in fundamentally different directions. Christian’s journey is to the bar of judgment as a defendant whom God will acquit based on the spotless righteousness of Christ imputed to him. The man’s journey in The Shack is to the bench, where he magnanimously acquits God of wrong-doing, once it becomes evident that God is really powerless to stop it. Of course, if God is powerless to stop evil, then He is also powerless to eradicate evil, and so that road is also a dead end eschatologically speaking.

In talking with one of my friends, he made the very interesting point also about faith. What moves Christian? It is the scroll, the evangelist, the Interpreter, the fellow believers he meets on the way, the key of faith in Doubting Castle. It is the means of grace which compels Christian to a life of faith. In The Shack, it is a one-time rationalistic showdown where God pleads and begs with the man (in effect) not only to give Him a hearing, but to acquit Him of wrong-doing. Ultimately, the man’s faith is in himself.

My friend also noted the contrast between the way in which God is portrayed in the Bible as opposed to how God is portrayed in The Shack. The God of The Shack is hardly a God with the least little hint of awe and majesty. He is not the God of the whirlwind, which is how God treated Job. He is not the God before whom all bow their faces to the ground. Instead, He is a God whose booty sways to the music. Anyone who cannot see the blasphemy and rank heresy of this portrayal of God is seriously lacking in discernment. God is Spirit, and only the Second Person of the Trinity has a human body which exists only in hypostatic union with the divine nature, and is currently a glorified body. I choose to believe the God of the Bible, who will eradicate evil because He is completely omnipotent and completely free of sin.

Hints of Cessationism in NT?

(Posted by Paige)

A perennial puzzle that arises as we rub shoulders with our neighbors in the wider church is how we are to understand the claims of “continualists,” who attest that signs and wonders and special manifestations of the Spirit are (and ought to be) normative parts of Christian experience today. As this is a live question in my neck of the woods right now, I recently started thinking through the NT’s teaching, both implied and direct, on the temporary nature of these “special effects.” I’ve come to some interesting, tentative conclusions based mainly on a close study of Hebrews; but before I set these out for scrutiny, I thought I’d offer a question for your consideration and see what good thoughts I get back. Here is my basic query:

Can you identify in the NT any evidence of a shift, whether anticipated or inaugurated, from faith supported by words, sacraments, and miraculous signs to faith supported by words and sacraments alone? (Assume inspired words and the illumination of the Holy Spirit in both cases!)

Note please that I am only interested in NT support for this shift, not what the ECFs had to say about it. I’m also already familiar with the basic cessationist arguments, so no need to repeat Warfield or Calvin on this. What do you see in the NT that suggests a transition from an era that included wonders/sight to an era characterized by words/hearing?

Thanks in advance!

Update:My own contribution can be found in this comment.

Two Verses, Twelve Questions

(Posted by Paige)

Here’s a whimsical Bible puzzle for you to bat around. These two verses have recently caught my attention and raised a handful of questions in my mind:

The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!”
And the Lord said, “If you had faith like a grain of mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.” (Luke 17:5-6)

Here are twelve of my many questions. Tackle any that interest you, too!

1. What did the disciples assume about faith?

2. Were they correct in their assumption?

3. What did they assume about Jesus?

4. What did they expect Jesus to accomplish for them?

5. Is Jesus’ response intended as an affirmation or a correction of their request?

6. What does Jesus imply about faith?

7. Why a mulberry tree? Is there any symbolism here?

8. Is Jesus describing something that might literally happen, or is he using poetic hyperbole?

9. If hyperbole, what’s his point?

10. Is this the same message that Jesus intends in Matt. 17:20 (“…if you have faith like a grain of mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move, and nothing will be impossible for you.”)

11. Why is this exchange recorded here in Luke (i.e., in this particular location in the Gospel)? Are the apostles reacting to something, or has Luke collected similar material together?

12. How is this exchange related to what has come before and what will follow?

Bonus question: What would you emphasize if preaching from this passage?

Some Thoughts on William Evans’s Ref21 Piece

Sean Lucas has some good thoughts on his current situation in relationship to what Evans said. I thought it might be worthwhile to chime in as well. It has all the earmarks of a great conversation, irenic, yet to the point. I hope to continue in that manner.

The things I agree with Evans: 1. I agree that one of the main problems facing the church today is what Bonhoeffer calls “cheap grace.” I think there definitely is still legalism present in the church. However, the pressure of culture is far more radically licentious than legalistic. 2. This is one key reason why the law needs to be preached. If people can’t see their need of Jesus by being convicted by the law, then there is no reason to preach the Gospel. 3. I agree with his read of Romans 6, that sanctification flows from union with Christ. I would not, however, want to dismiss justification as constituting any ground of sanctification whatsoever. While our response to justification does not make up all of our motivation for sanctification, it does constitute part of it. The key here is to emphasize the inseparability of justification and sanctification. That justification constitutes part of the ground of sanctification is more due to the inseparability of the two than any kind of temporal priority (although there, too, it must still be acknowledged that justification comes before almost all of our sanctification, the only part of sanctification excepted here is definitive sanctification, which occurs simultaneously with justification). I still think there is a way to reconcile the concerns of WTS and WSC. WTS emphasizes union as being all-embracing (although some things from Horton also emphasize this), whereas WSC emphasizes the priority of justification. Can’t justification have a priority within union?

Questions I would have for Evans: 1. Maybe Tchividjian’s context is different from Evans’s. Could it be that in his congregation, legalism might be more of a threat? This might help explain why Tchividjian speaks the way he does. Different contexts make for very different problems. I would agree with Lucas here in saying that different regions might have different concerns. In the Midwest, the problem I have noticed is the “Midwestern nice.” They will say all kinds of nice things about Christians and Christianity, and they will typically be rather polite even if you go door to door. However, whether they actually need salvation is entirely another matter. They believe they are good enough. They are not very licentious as a general rule (though they are becoming more so). But neither do they believe they are perfect. They believe they are “good enough.” I wonder where that fits on the scale here between antinomianism and legalism? It is a form of antinomianism in this respect: Midwestern nice reduces the demands of the law to a keepable level (antinomianism does this on a theoretical level; legalism also reduces the demands of the law, but does so not in theory but in practice). However, they don’t believe that they can just do whatever they want. So they aren’t antinomian in that respect. 2. Is the Law-Gospel distinction only Lutheran? I believe not. See some of the original sources quoted here, here, and here. Of course, the Law-Gospel distinction only refers to the pedagogical use of the law. The Law is no enemy to the Gospel after the person becomes a believer, but rather becomes the Christian’s guide and friend. The pedagogical use of the law still operates after the believer becomes a Christian, too. However, this is not bringing condemnation, but rather God’s fatherly displeasure.c

Update: Rick Phillips has some very important thoughts here, and so does Jim Cassidy.

Relativism and the Church

Relativism is the third tooth in the mouth of the wolf that attacks the church. This one is particularly nasty, in my opinion, because it is so prevalent, and so hard to fight. You can’t always even use logic to fight this one, because they usually reject logic outright (at least, they say they do). The consequences are severe for the church. Everything becomes “relational,” while commitment to truth simultaneously erodes (see Sittema, With a Shepherd’s Heart, p. 61). The only thing that is absolutely wrong is to hold absolute values (pp. 62-63). Church discipline becomes extremely difficult, since how dare those elders tell me that I am sinning! People lose conviction that the Bible is really God’s Word.

Sittema gives us five suggestions on how to fight this horrific error. 1. Proclaim loudly and often the infallible and absolute authority of the Bible; 2. Call sin by its rightful name: sin! 3. Teach the Bible (I would include with this Bible memorization); 4. Rebuke sinners with the Bible; and 5. Lead by example. I might add a few other suggestions here that will help, especially geared towards young people, who are the most affected by relativism. 6. Teach young people the catechisms, so that it’s in their blood. 7. Preach against the television (who can fight the indoctrination of relativism if the television has such a complete grasp of the time of our young people? Plus, there is usually little of value on the TV) 8. Teach apologetics to the youth groups and to college age folks, so that they are not only aware of relativism, but also how to understand it and avoid it, and even maybe help others avoid it.

Trust and Belief

Sean Gerety has posted a thoughtful short essay on saving faith and trust. I thought I would respond to it here and see what people thought about this.

First of all, I think two problems are evident. On the one hand, when looking at the Clarkian position, the tendency has been to say that Clark believes in salvation by intellectual assent alone. This is not what Clark is saying. Clark most definitely includes a personal appropriation of the truth of the Gospel when he talks about saving faith.

On the other side, when people look at the three-fold definition of knowledge, assent, and trust, that last word is ambiguous. What is trust? Is it a once-for-all entrustment of the soul to God? Or is it a lifelong loyalty to the covenant? Here is where the rubber hits the road. It becomes a little bit more complicated once we introduce the distinction between justification and sanctification into the picture.

I would say that if we use the word “trust” in relation to justifying faith (faith as related to justification specifically), we absolutely have to eliminate any thought of life-long loyalty from the discussion, because then we would be justified by loyalty, which obviously includes works of loyalty. So, if we use the word “trust,” then we have to limit it to the once-for-all entrustment of the soul to God.

Now, let us relate this once-for-all entrustment of the soul to God, on the one hand, to belief in a personal appropriation of the Gospel, on the other hand. Are they not really the same thing? The former is what most Reformed theologians have said. Clark has said it in the latter way. Might they not actually be the same thing? At this moment in time, I am more inclined to favor the personal appropriation language of belief to describe the third element of faith, precisely since, as Sean has pointed out, the word “trust” is so ambiguous.

To conclude, when Clark/Gerety et al say “justification by belief alone” they are not talking about just knowledge, or even just assent. They are also including in that a personal appropriation of that truth to the sinner. I do not see a whopping difference between that and what others have said concerning trust. Are you not placing your trust in God when you come to the belief that God’s Gospel applies to you personally? Maybe the two orthodox sides are not so different after all.

The New Perspective on Paul Schools the FV

I was quite pleasantly surprised to find this in none other than James Dunn’s commentary on Romans. Given the recent discussions on faith versus faithfulness, I thought people might enjoy mulling over this quotation. Dunn is commenting on Romans 4:21 (which describes Abraham’s confidence that God fulfills His promises):


It was confidence in God, a positive acknowledgment of God’s power as creator, a calm certainty that God had made known to Abraham his purpose and could be relied on to perform it without further question or condition. Here from another aspect is the same reason why Abraham’s faith should not be though of in terms of covenant loyalty or as incomplete apart from works, for faith is confidence in God’s loyalty as alone necessary, as alone able, as alone sufficient to bring God’s promise to full effect (p. 239 of volume 1).

It should be noted here that in the context of Romans, Paul goes on immediately to apply Abraham’s faith as a template or example for us (see 4:23). I should note that this quotation does not alleviate the other problems in Dunn’s theology. However, on this point, Dunn seems to agree with the critics of the FV.

Two Baptisms Or One?

I am becoming more and more convinced that the Federal Vision believes in two baptisms. Consider this point: do they expect an infant baptism to work the same way an adult baptism would? This presupposes another question, of course: should our doctrine of baptism be able to take into account all baptisms? The answer to this latter question is yes, since we believe in one baptism, as Ephesians 4:5 tells us, and as the creeds tell us. So the problem for the FV is this: if the sign and the thing signified are tied so closely together that you can’t even insert a credit card in between the two, then how to explain adult baptisms? Does the adult get the thing signified at the time point of faith, or do we have to tell him, “Whoa there, slow down, pardner! You don’t have union with Christ and forgiveness of sins until you’re baptized.” Isn’t that telling an adult that faith alone is not sufficient for justification?

Let’s try a thought experiment that seeks to make infant baptisms and adult baptisms work the same way. Let’s suppose that an adult comes to faith before he receives the sign and seal (like Abraham in Romans 4, for instance). Could this be paralleled in an infant’s life? Sure thing. An infant can trust in its Creator even in the womb (an implication of John the Baptist, not to mention David’s strong language of infant faith in the Psalms). Okay, what about coming to faith after baptism, can that happen? This is also very possible. An adult can fool himself into thinking that he has real faith, and only realizes his mistake after baptism. We would certainly not re-baptize such a person. His faith came after the sign and seal. This also happens with infants, since it happened with me. I came to faith when I was six, though baptized as an infant. And no, no one doubted my words when I said I came to faith. I was always encouraged to hold to what I said. I was encouraged both before and after my conversion to grow up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord. My parents did not assume one way or the other whether I was saved or not. In other words, I myself do not fit the FV paradigm.

If one believes, then, that the thing signed and sealed always comes at the time-point of baptism, then one believes in two baptisms, because it never happens that way with an adult, and almost never with an infant. Would a church responsibly baptize an adult who did not have a credible profession of faith? Of course not. In baptizing an adult, the church is required to assume that the thing signified is already present. Therefore, the FV believes in two baptisms. It works one way for infants, and another way for adults. This is not tenable, and it is certainly not confessional. The Westminster standards says that the efficacy of the sacraments is not tied to the moment when they are administered. It comes in God’s own appointed time. That appointed time is when the Holy Spirit comes upon the person in power and changes that person from a citizen of Hell to a citizen of Heaven. That happens by faith alone.

This is why saying that sign and thing signified always or even mostly occur at the same time is very dangerous. Whenever God gives faith-that is when the thing signified and sealed is granted. God is not tied to the moment of baptism to give that.

One commenter long ago wrote on this blog that the FV is a baby-driven theology. I think this is true. Rather than coming at the sacrament in such a way that all forms of it fit the same template, so as to have only one baptism, they think almost exclusively in terms of how a baby experiences baptism, and it is not consistent with how the adult baptism works. They should work the same way.

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